Academic Incentives

One thing I’ve noted through the years is that there is a rough divide in academia between theory and observation.  Actually, this is a pretty commonplace observation.  What is less discussed, though, is the sort of hierarchy of prestige that tends to place theory above observation.  Of course, there are exceptions, and unconventional theories often have to do both theory and observation in order to gain any recognition.

One sad byproduct of all this is that academics tend to cluster in tribes, and often recreate pre-existing theory under new names.  Why?  Well, because theory is more prestigious than observation!  Take an example.  “Einstein” is a household name.  Why?  Because Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity in physics.  But could you name someone (and there are many names here) whose observations confirmed Einstein’s theory?  Probably not.  If there was more parity between theory and observation, academics would probably be more willing to conduct observation according to existing theory, rather than constantly trying to posit an influential “new” theory that may disregard existing theory in a completely self-aggrandizing way.

There also is relatively little ground for synthesis of different theories.  Academics tend to have “departments” in universities and other institutions, and inter-disciplinary efforts are difficult in such an environment, on top of the difficulties trying to integrate theories within a given discipline.

Add to this the problem of ideology, in that, practically speaking, most social science theorists pick out a desired solution — what they want society to look like — and then conjure up a theory that points toward that desired solution, without spending much if any time making explicit their desired solution.  Put another way, many social science academics actually spend most of their time making sales pitches for their pet solutions, rather than constructing theories, testing them, and only then devising suitable solutions to theoretically verified root causes of problems.  That isn’t to say such an approach is inherently wrong, but those who deny doing that should be viewed skeptically — as ideologues not “scientists” or “academics”.

I think a radical solution to much of this would be to disallow name attribution on scientific and academic work. After all, is it really about the work itself, in its “objective” advancements, or about accumulating social and cultural capital?