Monday, June 1, 2009

Not All Academics Are Irrational

Here are four reasons to doubt the claim that academics are wasting their lives on nerdy pursuits.

First, do you really have to work on what you think is the most important issue to be reasonable? While it’s na├»ve to think that all topics are equally important, it’s nevertheless plausible that there is a range of important issues that is rationally acceptable to choose from. It’s not obvious that rationality is so uniquely demanding on us that there is only one issue that’s appropriate to focus on at any given time.

The Communal IntellectSecond, perhaps what’s rational for the community is rational for the individual. It benefits the community at large to have people working on a variety of topics. While a single researcher might know she’s not working on the most important topic, she also might know that many others are. Her efforts, thus, are best spent on other issues. Whatever arrangement gets the community more knowledge is the one individuals should adopt. If that means some of us work on less important stuff, so be it.

Third, what’s reasonable for a given individual might be based on her unique abilities. For some, statistical analysis comes naturally. For others, it’s language acquisition. Tailoring your research to exploit your specific talents seems appropriate.

Fourth, it’s often not clear what issue is, in fact, important to do research on until after that research is completed. I find this to be the strongest case for the reasonableness of letting a thousand flowers bloom. I’m willing to grant that most research is, in fact, unimportant. But it’s tough to figure out which research will be useless going in. It’s better to have people spread out and search everywhere on the off chance that something vital is hidden in an unlikely spot.

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