Blog Archives

The death of the polymath, or how our universities contribute to widespread ignorance.

“Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.”

Bertrand Russel

 

A friend of mine published a link to this article on her Facebook page:

Professor Who Exposed Flint Crisis Says Greed Has Killed Public Science

Among many other wise comments, the article points out  that:

Edwards explained how the pressures put on academics to secure funding are forcing scientists to abandon work done in the public interest and that similar financial motives are causing government science agencies to ignore inconvenient truths…

This prompted me to think about how the modern university is dumbing down future of societies.

A good scientist is one who attempts objectivity at all costs independently of who funds her research, but we all know that  there are few of those around, and the few that have the courage to challenge the systems, are quickly ostracised by funding bodies and quickly push out of teh academic system.

Ben Goldacre published a well researched book on how the pharmaceutical industry is driving scientific  research to biased results ( see here for a review of the book  Bad Pharma). Among other issues, he joins the voice of many other science writers that there is an incredibly lack of papers publishing negative results.

This culture starts in Universities when   students running his postgraduate projects or PhDs are expected to present something new, something that shows a correlation between cause and effect. Projects that don’t show any of this are discarded and the student is often failed.

I ask myself very often about  the quality of research of those supervisors that ignore negative results?  A negative result is always good information. Is a means to tell those in the area that there is no point in investing more resources in asking that particular question, since it did not provide the expected results.

Even the word “expected” is misleading. It embodies an unconscious tendency to search for information that that confirm what the researcher is trying to prove. David Hume and Karl Popper defended that science that seeks always confirmatory data is not a valid way to establish that a particular theory is true. The reason why we use statistics and the P<0.05 tag, is because the method attempts to identify the probability of events that may fall out of the null hypothesis. This is why we usually start formulating an hypothesis from the premise that tether is no difference between situation A and situation B. Very few science students are aware of this little philosophical fact. And this is because very few science courses have philosophy in their curricula.

Nowadays, Universities are run as corporations that produce papers. The more papers are published, the most famous their academics and that attracts students. This induces string competition for funding between academics leading to some perverse effects:

  1. Researchers become narrow-minded due to their level of specialization
  2.  Students learning experience is impoverished due to the lack of time, dedication or inspiration provided by the lecturers

A university becomes a closed system where students pay to support a system that privileges research rather than teaching, so their academics increase their publications, pushing up the university ratings, so they can attract more paying students and increase their fees.

I have long argued that universities should be places where research is present, but they are primarily educational institutions. Academic research should be done in university institutes exclusively dedicated to that objective. A good scientist is not necessarily a goof communicator nor an inspirer of aspiring youths.

The high focus of research is driving the quality of teaching to very low standards. A good lecturer is one who can engage with the students and help them to think out of the box, not to close them in the narrow field of their specialisation or pet subject.

I have been tutoring undergraduate students in animal biology, who are supposed to know how fish evolved from the water in to land tetrapods but have no notion what so ever of vertebrate taxonomy.

I recently discussed the epidemiology of a particular disease with a Professor of medicine lecturing and doing research at a well-known UK university and he did not know the difference between mitosis and meiosis.  I asked him what he thought about the ethics and science of gene editing, just after the issue had been discussed on British TV for a whole week, and he did not have a clue of what gene editing was. This is unacceptable for an academic with a title of Professor.

Very often such positions are attributed in function of the number of publications and not their quality. Academics become experts in dividing their research in to small bite-size questions so they can publish many papers about the same study in different journals, with slightly different questions that can be all answered by the same results.

More recently a colleague of mine applied for a temp position for a lectureship in animal welfare, behaviour and ethics, to the Royal Veterinary College in London. Despite her  15 years’ experience in lecturing, supervising, examining, international public speaking and developing courses in private settings and at UK universities, she was not even selected for an interview. The reason given; she has not published her own research. I ask myself how a number of random publications can be more important to inspiring students, than a long life experience in teaching and creating interesting materials. In fact, it is well known that these positions are usually given to friends and colleagues already known to the institution and the job advertising is nothing but a preform to shut up the equal opportunities department.

I know of people who have been hired by Universities even before the job add was released. But this is another issue I will discuss later. However it has some bearing to my point today for these people that are hired by the departments, are those who follow in the same approaches of the people who are already there. Those are the safe followers of an institutionalised ideology. They don’t question, they engage in group thinking, they propagate the culture of departmental narrow mindedness.

People who question and challenge the traditions of knowledge or departmental politics are dangerous because they destabilise the system.

Very few universities offer the subject in Critical Thinking which is one of the basic skills necessary to produce good objective academic research. The problem with critical thinking is that it makes people think independently. It makes them question the status quo of a “corporate” system that is bringing in money.

catA critical thinker drinks from different sources of knowledge. Diverse sources of information boost innovation and creativity.  Specialist that are too locked into their narrow field of knowledge, stop being innovators. They are simply engineers that tweak small parts of the system to make it work a bit better. They are not big thinkers, or revolutionaries of knowledge.

The tradition of the Enlightenment which brought so many advances in both the social and hard sciences is lost. In those days there was freedom to produce and release your own ideas to the world, without the corset of university policies of political correctness and lip service to the funding entities.

How many studies paid by the tobacco industry have demonstrated that smoking kills? How many studies paid by religious “corporations” have questioned and denied the existence of God?

Independent thinking is fuelled by the ability to seek and understand information from sources that have no apparent relationship with one’s field of expertise.

Universities are producing blind followers of narrow minded specialism.

Most of modern independent thinkers that have contributed to a social or technical change are outsiders. They are not mental slaves of the academic system this may tell us something about the wrong paths embraced by higher education institutions.