Monday, July 30, 2018

The BSification of everyday academic life

One of the most useful philosophy tracts written in the last 25 years is Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (OB, here). OB makes an important distinction between lying and bullshitting, the latter being the more insidious as, in contrast to the former that shows a regard for the truth (by deliberately contradicting it), the latter could care less. BS’s insidiousness arise from two features: (i) its actual disregard for the truth and (ii) its great regard to appearto be true. Thus, BS prizes truthiness (h/t to Colbert), but could care less about truth.

This is a powerful insight, and it has been weaponized. Tobacco companies and the large fossil fuel energy companies have understood that the best way to stop rational action is to obfuscate the intellectual terrain (here). The aim is not to persuade so much as to make it impossible to conclude. Ignorance really is bliss for some and BS is a very good way of spreading it. 

The institutional BS business is now widespread enough that there are academics that study it. The problem of how doubt is spread is now an academic discipline with a Greek rooted name, ‘agnotology’ (here), to demarcate it from other kinds of rhetorical studies (BS, MS, PhD indeed).[1]

In this post, I point you to a second useful theoretical treatise on the topic, one that expands the BS descriptor from ideas to occupations. David Graeber (DG) has a new book out on the topic and an interview where he discusses its main thesis (here). It notes that BS decisively shapes the ecology of the workplace so that some jobs are best understood as BS positions. What makes one such? A job is BS (BSJ) when it is “so pointless that even the person doing the job secretly believes that it shouldn’t exist” (1). Anyone in an academic environment can probably point to several such (the hierarchy of assistant deans/provosts (and their assistants) is a good place to look for of BSJs). DG has a nice taxonomy that I commend to your attention. There are at least six categories: flunkies, goons, duct-tapers, box-tickers, task-makers, and bean-counters. I am sure you can figure out their respective skill sets from the evocative titles, but what makes DG’s discussion illuminating is his anthro-socio take on these positions and what forces lead to their proliferation even in enterprises whose aim is to make money. Universities, where lucre is not the obvious organizing principle, act like hothouses and the most exotic versions of these six BSJs are spotted regularly, especially when manured with just a dollop of the latest philosophy from our leading schools of business and management.[2]

So, BS abounds. But, sadly, it is not just confined to specific jobs. It is everywhere. We need another category: BS activities (BSA). BSAs are now part of even the necessary parts of life. Here are some observations concerning how BSAs are now standard features of even the good parts of academic life.

I have ranted before about how the “wider consequences” sections of NSF and NIH funding grants have grown in importance. This is the last section of the grant where you have to say how developing a superior theory of case and agreement will lead to a cure for world hunger, cancer and aphasia. What makes this BS is not merely that it is clearly untrue and unfounded, but that everyone knows that it is, knows that everyone knows that it is, knows that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows that it is…In short, it is BS that everyone recognizes as BS and nonetheless the process demands that everyone take it seriously enough to act as if it is not. In fact, this is critical: what makes BS insidious is not merely that it could care less about the truth of the matter, but when institutionalized it requires that those who deal with it to take it seriously. BS recognized as such can be funny, and even subversive (Colbert has made a career on this). But BS requirements in an NSF/NIH grant cannot be laughed away. They must be taken seriously and all involved are forced to pretend that what is obvious BS is not. 

And this is what makes it so insidious in academic life. Optimists hope that it can be circumscribed to its own little section of the grant (near the end) and limit its affects. But this is a BS hope. Like the camel’s nose under the tent, once in it spreads everywhere and quickly. How quickly? Here’s a conjecture: the prevalence of institutionalized BS is a contributing factor to the replication crisis. As noted, BS prizes truthiness (the appearance of truth) stats magic provides packaged (as in stats packages) ways to manufacture truthiness (recall Twain’s “lies, damn lies and statistics”), so with the rise of BS and the strong incentive to avoid being recognized asBS, we get it everywhere camouflaged in stats. Som,first, the end sections of the grant, then everywhere. There really is a cost to playing along.

Here is a second recent personal example. I was asked to write a “minimalist” chapter for a volume comparing theoretical approaches in linguistics. I agreed.And this was a mistake. First, others would have done a more mainstream job of it. I am quite certain my take on things is quite idiosyncratic. But, moreover, I did not really think that what I had to say really fit in with the spirit of the other contributions (and the reviews made just this point). However, I agreed. And I am lucky I did for it allowed me to experience another small place where BS thrives in academe. Let me relate.

As many of you know, when you contribute something to a non open source publisher you sign away the rights to this work as part of the process of publication. In this case, I got the standard 5 page contract, but this time I read it. It was completely incomprehensible, though from what I could make out it it basically delivered allthe rights to the paper (ideas in it, phrasing of these ideas, everything) to the publisher. It also forbade me from using the paper or a version thereof in the future. As the publisher was European, there were references to various EU laws that underlay the codicils in the contract. I was assured that the contract was pretty standard and that I should sign on the dotted line.

But, I did not like the idea that the paper’s contents no longer belonged to me. And because I am old and am no longer all that focused on padding my CV and can afford to loose the $0.00 royalty check that this chapter was going to generate and am not worried about further academic advancement and…I decided to try to understand what it was that the contract was actually saying and what rights I was actually signing away in return for what services. That was where the complete BSishness of the whole thing became evident.

First the remuneration: The obligation of the publisher was to publish the paper and give me a copy of the tomb in which it would appear. In this day and age, receiving such a door stopper is more like receiving the proverbial white elephant than real remuneration. But, that was it. In return I had to do a whole bunch of things to get the MS in shape, within a certain time frame etc. All in all, the demands were not unreasonable. 

What did I give up? Well, all rights to the paper, or this is what I thought the contract stipulated. I replied that I did not like this idea as I intended to use the material again in a larger project. I also asked about the standard EU laws the contract bandied about and that the publisher insisted needed to be adhered to. And here is when things got fun.

It turns out that nobody I talked to knew what these laws were. Nobody could tell me. Moreover, everyone assured me that regardless of what the contract said, it really didn’t matter because it would not be enforced. Should I decide to use the material again in another project (after a year’s time) the publisher would do nothing about it. Or, more accurately, the publisher rep told me that they knew of no case where anyone who used their own work in future work was called to the mat for doing so. In other words, the contract was a purely formal object whose content was BS and yet we were all obliged to take that content seriously as if it were not BS so that we could get on with ignoring it and get the book published.

Things proceeded from there to the point where we agreed to a two line contract that basically said that they could use the paper, I would not use it for a year and that I could use it after this time as I saw fit. Nobody ever explained the EU laws to me (or to themselves), nobody batted an eye when these EU laws were dropped from the final contract, nobody was concerned to do anything but make this thing go away and have a signed document of little relevance to what was actually happening (or so I was repeatedly assured). It just needed to get signed. And so I did. At least the two codicil version. Pure BS.

The contract that is opaque to all that sign it and all that ask that it be signed is another example of the ritualization of BS in academic life. And like the NSF/NIH version it coarsens intellectual life. Let me say this more strongly, it is especiallycorrosive of academic life. Academics are people whose professional obligations involve taking ideas seriously. In fact, this is the main thing we are trained to do, at least within some small domain. This is the core value: be serious about thoughts! BS is the vice that most challenges this virtue. It insists that you take none if it seriously, because seriousness about ideas is what BS is meant to undermine. BS, BS jobs, BS activities, BS forms, BS sections of forms…, all serve to undermine this seriousness. It grubbies the mind and it keeps on coming. The optimistic view is that it does not really matter. The pessimistic view is that it is too late to change it. The moderately hopeful view is that eternal vigilance is the only possible defense. I swing between the second and the third. 

[1]Bull sh*t, more sh*t, piled high and deep!
[2]See herefor an amusing take. But beware: the piece will play to many of your prejudices and so should be read critically. For someone like me, it is all too easy to believe most every judgment passed. Still, a sample quote might whet your appetite (1):

As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates, and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.”

I am sure that it has not escaped your notice that this is high class BS and so now we are in the delightful situation where part of the university manufactures what the other part studies. We may have discovered an intellectual perpetual motion machine.


  1. I think there's a lot of good stuff here, Norbert, but as someone very invested in outreach, I do want to quibble with the idea of NSF Broader Impacts being *just* BS. There is no question in my mind that a lot of it is. It is annoying to have to make vague feints towards "language pedagogy" and "technology" when I'm writing every grant when I have no idea how those connections would be made (and grant mechanisms do not provide any mechanism for doing so). That is a part of Broader Impacts that, as you point out, is silly.

    But Broader Impacts done well also have specific community impacts that the researcher is hoping to accomplish. This isn't the sort of "I dunno, I promise this will be important someday" BS - this is, say, "I will go to X, Y, Z high schools to talk about my research" or "I will partner with Z organization to meet these specific outreach objectives". As a part of the grant that took me up here to Connecticut, I promised I'd shore up a collaboration with the local science museum in Hartford. Now, with assistance from the UConn IBACS, I secured funding and a bunch of supplies, and am actively working to get people to come out and collect data in the Science Center. This is an example of Broader Impacts that I think is not BS - I'm educating the public about research (which checks that box), but I"m also facilitating a cool way to gather data. At the same time, without the Broader Impact requirement, grant reviewers would be forced to see this useful work as a waste of time, as it takes me away from the work that will directly give me research products.

    You know I'm someone who can talk your ears off about the virtues of outreach, but, long story short, learning how to be an effective science communicator is really important for the non-BS parts of science. If you can explain your work to a 7th grader, you can explain it to a hiring committee. Plus, I think we do have a duty as scientists to explain why what we're doing is important to people outside the academy. Perhaps that's just a relic of my Land Grant training.

    So, yes, insofar as you have to make up things you're never going to do as a part of Broader Impacts, it is BS. But I've found that my grants are often successful when I include things I do plan on doing that involve the objectives of Broader Impacts (communicating science, etc.) but also help me build skills or organize activities that will support my academic ambitions. And I'm not sure those efforts would be recognized as anything more than a distraction if the NSF didn't require them to be counted.

    1. I find your view more palatable than Norbert's, in particular because I also enjoy doing outreach (even if it's at a much smaller scale than what you describe). But I think you go too far in the other direction:

      we do have a duty as scientists to explain why what we're doing is important
      Only if you're somehow supported by tax money (grants, public university). If you're at a private university doing your own thing without public funding, you have no more obligation to deal with the public than any random chemist working in a big pharma lab.

      More generally, it is definitely prudent for the field as a whole to make sure its work is well-advertised to the public. But that does not mean everybody should have to do it. Some are better at it than others, some projects are more approachable and/or interesting than others.

      That's also the problem with making the Broader Impact section mandatory. It's a classic example of "if it's good in some cases, let's use it for all cases". It actually devalues the Broader Impact section because reviewers treat it as BS because they know that many worthwhile projects don't have a genuine case to make in this area.

      One could also argue that the Broader Impacts section disadvantages smaller fields. The big players (math, physics, CS, etc) have tons of outreach infrastructure already in place that can be leveraged for impressive Broader Impacts proposals, or Education Plans in CAREER proposals. Smaller fields have a much harder time pulling this off. So if somebody is looking for an argument to defund niche programs, they might compare their Broader Impacts sections to what you get in other programs. In that respect it's very similar to the push for more interdisciplinarity, which privileges the STEM sector where fields are already much more integrated. These are all things that are nice in principle, but when they become mandatory they turn into BS at best and threats to smaller fields at worst.

    2. also - I realize this is “easy for me to say” as someone with a permanent position, but: has it occurred to anyone that if hiring committees need things explained to them like 7th graders, maybe they’re just bad at their jobs?

    3. Thomas Graf: "Only if you're somehow supported by tax money (grants, public university). I If you're at a private university doing your own thing without public funding, you have no more obligation to deal with the public than any random chemist working in a big pharma lab."

      Actually, if you are at a tax-exempt, nonprofit private institution, then it--and you--are "somehow supported by tax money" in virtue of that tax-exempt status, regardless of grants and the like. See Dean Baker's columns on pay of university and other nonprofit presidents/CEOs:

      The recent changes in tax law (sogenannte "tax reform") may have changed the specific numbers involved, but I don't think that they have eliminated this subsidy entirely.


    4. Interesting, but still very different imho. Governments give all kinds of subsidies and tax benefits to various sectors, from clean energy to farming. I don't think that somehow creates a moral obligation for those working in these areas to reach out to the taxpaying public. If anybody has to justify it, it's the politicians.

      At the risk of completely derailing the discussion, I'd like to add one more point: It's a good thing when researchers do outreach, but it's one of the things we largely do out of idealism (it neither makes nor breaks a grant proposal most of the time, let alone a career). I'm not sure if idealism is a good fit for an age of increasingly corporatized universities. How many other companies have highly idealistic employees do things on the side that deserve a dedicated position of their own? Perhaps if we were less willing to take on Broader Impacts/outreach as a grant side gig --- implicitly enforced by making them mandatory --- scientists that actually take it seriously and put a lot of effort into it could build a reliable career on that.

    5. Thomas Graf: "Interesting, but still very different imho."

      While this does risk belaboring a tangent, the original comment was, as quoted already, "somehow supported by tax money". This obviously relatively wide-open requirement was met. Whether it is "very different" or not is a new claim, which I will leave untouched, only noting that the ubiquitous support which tax-exempt status provides, and which Baker high lights, is typically neither noticed nor understood.


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