Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Absurdity of Current Academic Thinking?

Longtime FSP readers know that I am interested in how academia is depicted in literature and other artistic venues, and that I have a particular interest in academic satire in novels. Although I generally disapprove of attempts to make academia and academics seem like bizarre, megalomaniacal control freaks who are entirely disconnected from the "real" world, I am not incapable of enjoying a good academic satire (hence my fondness of the novel Straight Man, by Richard Russo).

I even like the Indigo Girls' song, "Closer to Fine", despite this horrific set of anti-academic lyrics:

I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee.

He never did marry, or see a B-grade movie

He graded my performance

He said he could see through me.

I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper And I was free.

Give me a break.

Anyway, I was curious to read the recent novel "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" (Rebecca Goldstein), described in some reviews as a brilliant new example in the academic satire genre.

Washington Post (Ron Charles): The field of academic satire is crowded with such classics as "Lucky Jim" and "Straight Man," but "36 Arguments" sports so many spot-on episodes of cerebral pomposity that you've got to place this novel among the very funniest ever written.

New York Times (Janet Maslin): When Cass witnesses a PowerPoint presentation featuring “brain scans of sophomores, neuroimaged in the throes of moral deliberation over whether they should, in theory, toss a hapless fat man onto the tracks in order to use his bulk to save five other men from an oncoming trolley,” this book occupies its ideal vantage point: close to the absurdity of current academic thinking yet just far enough away to laugh.

Cerebral pomposity? The absurdity of current academic thinking? Did these reviewers also spend their college years prostrate to bearded, Rasputin-loving higher minds?

Certainly there are pompous intellectuals in academia, and some research topics and methods seem quite absurd, but these are not the kinds of things I enjoy seeing parodied in novels and pilloried in reviews.

For me, the most clever and entertaining academic novels are the ones that show the absurdity of the weird-but-mundane rituals of academic life (professor-student interactions, faculty meetings, budgets, tenure) and that are a bit more subtle in their portrayal of classic personalities in academe.

Therefore, I am not particularly impressed by bizarre and disturbing characters such as the "Extreme Distinguished Professor" in 36 Arguments, and am much more entertained by a depiction of strangely recognizable people embroiled in the bizarre and disturbing rituals of a faculty search (as in Straight Man).


Anonymous said...

FSP, The latest book by Ian McEwan features a nobel prize winning scientist as the main protagonist (at least according to the review in the Economist that panned the book).

Anonymous said...

The research described in the NYT review is completely genuine - not even satire. Brain scans of undergrads engaged in moral reasoning, including a class of problems called trolley problems which involve deciding how to save people from a runaway trolley, are a hot topic in social neuroscience at the moment. These studies have told us some interesting things about human morality (e.g. we make moral decisions based on emotional factors, and morality is not dependent on religion). There are plenty of other aspects of academic life worth laughing about, but this would not be top of my list.

qaz said...

I know that study! That's a serious study done with real controls, asking what neural systems are involved in moral judgments, taking moral dilemmas worked out by philosophy departments and testing for neural signals (as measured by fMRI). These structures turn out to be critical when we start looking at problematic patients like autistic patients (who often have trouble with social interactions) or psychopaths (who differ in their moral judgments from normals).

female Science Professor said...

I didn't think the study sounded so strange either -- it was not the most convincing example to pick to demonstrate academic absurdity. The reference to "sophomores" made it sound contemptuous more than anything else.

Anonymous said...

As a psychologist, I also take issue with their "satire" of the neuroimaging study of morality. These moral problems are very interesting for what they tell us about moral reasoning (people will not push a fat man onto a train track to save 5 people from an oncoming train, but they will flip a points switch so that a fat man is killed rather than 5 people).

Neuroimaging these morality dilemmas gives us some indication of how we make these decisions (emotionally rather than cognitively).

Anonymous said...

How about this book? (I think self published, but I heard about it from a friend)

Anonymous said...

I know a couple of authors on that study, and if I'm not mistaken, I seem to recall that the newswires (and NYT) ran articles on that study. So why is this absurd now? Altruism and moral judgments underpin (perhaps implicitly) most cooperative interactions in human societies, not to mention forming the basis of economic theories. So why is it absurd to study what neural mechanisms may contribute to the development of this behavior? Also, I haven't seen any of my colleagues acquire a Rasputin beard lately. All I see are blue-shirt/khaki clad people around me.

John V said...

In my field, earthquake hazards, we often have ivory-tower vs real-world discussions that parallel this example with very different examples.

This discussion would be easy to parody. The academics claim to be gaining a deep understanding of a common phenomenon - action under duress with dire choices. The emergency managers would say "so what?", and "when was the last time we might have pushed someone under a train to save other people?".

Next, the academics would say "but this is similar in some ways to some other situation", or "maybe it is the missing piece in treating a disease du jour".

Just saying useful to an academic and useful to a legislator or citizen is often different, even when both understand perfectly the context.

Personally, I see enough realistic academic comedy and drama at work, and prefer the surreal in literature, like White Noise or Moo.

Cloud said...

All those of you objecting to the NY Times' example of an "absurd" study (which I agree, is not that absurd), spare a minute to feel sorry for the people who study the structure in nematodes that develops into their waste disposal system- these studies have taught us a lot about developmental biology, and it is a great model system because it is so simple. But imagine the jokes they have to endure about how they study worm poop. I think Dave Barry did an entire column lampooning these studies at one point.

A lot of scientifically valid and useful studies can be made to sound absurd.

Anonymous said...

I think there's a big difference between making fun of academic personalities and making fun of the topics academics study. To do the latter, it helps if a person understands the topic and why somebody might actually think it's important. A lot of the stuff we study in philosophy can seem pretty useless when you first hear about it, but can actually have important applications. The same happens in the sciences. Given the way education is being under-funded right now, and the general anti-intellectual environment in America, I think it's a bad idea to be satirizing research topics right now, unless a person actually wants less funding for higher ed. I'm especially sensitive to attacks on philosophy right now because several philo departments here and in the UK are under fire. Making fun of academic personality types, though, can be great fun, and I'm all for it.

Anonymous said...

I do not find that Indigo Girls song to be in the least bit offensive to academia (I'm a professor myself). In fact that song is one of my favorites. I don't see it in any way as an attack on academia, instead it's about the benefits of thinking for oneself and finding your own path in life and not blindly accepting things just because they came from an authority figure (being represented by the 'doctor of philosophy'). I actually like the verse you quoted (and which you take offense to) precisely because of the spirit of rejecting authority and institutionalized rubbish which, frankly, is rampant in academia - maybe not at the level that would be visible to the students but certainly once you are part of the system you see it everywhere.

John V said...

By the way, this is the point of the song, according to its author

"And that song is about not beating yourself up too hard to get your answer from one place. There's no panacea, that in order to be balanced or feel closer to fine it's okay to draw from this or to draw from that, to draw from a bunch of different sources. So it's about being confused but looking for the answers, and in the end knowing that you're going to be fine. Not seeking just one definitive answer."


Hard to take it personally as an academic. It dings the Bible, workouts, drinking, and doctors, as well as teachers.

Count Douchekevitch said...

In art, the left is often very anti-academic and especially anti-science. (Even when they embrace it, they undermine it -- as with the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know".) However, I do favor the short, emotionally based critiques, embodied by a selection of punk songs: Dead Kennedies "Well Paid Scientist", Ramones "Teenage Lobotomy" with it's lyric "ain't gonna get my PhD", and Screeching Weasel "A New Tomorrow" with its lyric "we don't need college to validate our lives anymore." The Indigo Girls' lyrics dwell too much and reveal their prejudice, obscuring any possible truth.

Anonymous said...

John V - the songwriters' own explanation of the song makes it sound even LESS of an attack on academia. I think those here who take offense to it are being overly sensitive, sheesh.

Yet there is actually lots to find fault with in organized religion, workout fads, doctors, and teachers because the systems in which they operate are imperfect and often are driven by hidden political or capitalistic agendas or constraints. Therefore, it's healthy to be skeptical of them.