30 March, 2005

Correction does not require a sneer

The following is from an exchange I'm having with a much younger colleague. We had an argument today regarding a professor who had misspoken at a recruitment weekend. My colleague later emailed me to ask:

Did you have the same opinion that it was a mark of low character for academics to be impatient with mistakes when you were my age?
My reply contained two parts: a short version and a long version. What follows is an excerpt of the long version; I have altered it only for purposes of formatting. Feel free to correct, comment, or criticize.

Over the last six years, I've become increasingly aware of an incredible arrogance among academics. I don't think it's merely "increased awareness"; I also believe that I have witnessed a real increase in academic arrogance. Certainly there has been a "vulgarization" of the level of public discourse (if "vulgarization" is the right word).

For example:
  • the notion that people who disagree with us are somehow morally inferior, which is frequently expressed by body language and word choice;
  • the careless throwing around of pejoratives such as "liars" and "morons" (if not worse);
  • a haste to mock those who hold different points of view.
I will give four examples, two that demonstrate arrogance towards people within our profession, two that demonstrate arrogance towards people outside our profession.

1. I am repeatedly informed that at many conferences there are audience members who are waiting for the speaker to make a mistake, in order to pounce on the speaker and shame him (her) publicly. My advisor has told me that he has sometimes been hard on me in order to prepare me for speaking at conferences and dealing with such people. Again, at NC State the Numerical Analysis professors hold a special seminar to prepare their students for this sort of questioning. I have been told that the professors are themselves brutal in their questioning, not because they are themselves arrogant, but because they want their students to be ready.

What is the purpose of this personal sneering? Why is it so common? If we are in search of the truth, what is the point of wasting time by belittling the speaker, of shaming him, of treating him like a fool? This does nothing to serve our search for the truth; correction does not require a sneer.

2. You might have heard the recent conversation by some of our professors (I think it was at lunch two weeks ago) that when papers are refereed anonymously, the referees frequently employ "impolitic" words. I don't mean technical terms such as calling a result "trivial" or "marginal"; I mean something along the lines of questioning the intellectual qualifications of the author.

Again, why? what purpose does this serve? how does this attitude help us discover the truth?

3. I didn't vote for Bush, but my parents did. You have never met my parents, but let me be clear: they are neither racists, fascists, religious fanatics, nor morons.

In the days following the recent election, however, many people spoke of people who voted for Bush — and by extension, my parents — as though they were racists, fascists, religious fanatics, or morons. The people making these remarks were colleagues of mine in academia: professors and officemates.

Shouldn't academics be the first to recognize and avoid ad hominem attacks, especially ad hominem attacks that are not grounded in facts? My parents are not racists, fascists, religious fanatics, or morons. How should I feel about the vast majority of my colleagues who have mislabeled them as such? Should I respect them? How should I reply, when faced with such overwhelming logical errors? Should I descend to the same level, and debase myself by employing the same fallacies?

4. Two days ago, one of our officemates came in and exclaimed in a strong tone of voice that he was "disgusted" with certain people who were "lying" about a particular issue. He gave several examples, and I challenged him on one of these facts, because I had heard it differently. I asked him for a specific reference that supported his version of the facts.

He went online to search for a reference, and continued making rude remarks about these "liars". I observed at this point that people who state falsehood as fact might not be liars; they might be misinformed. You cannot be a "liar" if you are saying what you genuinely believe is true. Disagreeing on facts with someone is no reason to smear them as liars; we as academics should know better than that.

As it turns out, our officemate was doubly mistaken: (1) he wrong to label as "liars" those who might only have been incorrect; (2) they were, in fact, correct, and he had been mistaken.

The irony was a little overwhelming. I could have asked him: "Tell me, then: were you lying, or were you mistaken?" However, as an academic, I should be better than that. So, I held my tongue.

Again: what is the purpose of this academic sneer, this haste to smear others as intellectually inferior ("morons") or morally inferior ("liars"), to belittle them if they make a mistake by speaking carelessly? How does it serve the pursuit of truth?

It doesn't. Yet this arrogance, this eagerness to belittle people who make mistakes, or even people who disagree with us, is a very common attitude (I suffer from it myself); it seems to be especially prevalent among academics — the very people who ought to be the least prone to it, because of their training in reason.

So, to answer your question: I noticed very early as a university student that I had a tendency to this, and I noticed it in other people, too. I have grown more aware of it over the years, not only in myself, but in others. I believe that this is because, over the last 15 years, the world has become more vulgar, and academics have become more arrogant.

I could be wrong, and I hope I am. I hope I merely witnessing a microscopic view of academia. However, given my personal survey of the websites of professors who speak on politics, and what I hear from conferences, I don't think it is a "microscopic" phenomenon at all; I think that academia is suffering from a virulent infection.

We should be better than this.


Alessandra said...

Hi Jack,

I really liked your post. It's so rare to see someone raising this issue who is inside academia and who sincerely cares about promoting better attitudes and behaviors regarding conflict of views/values.

I think you have a nice approach (meaning not only nice, but effective).

jack perry said...

Hi Alessandra,

Thank you very much for the compliment.

I hope that I'm effective. Truth be told, I stay away from my office, because of the constant conversations that I consider inappropriate. On one occasion I had to remind a colleague that we are in a public forum and so he should not be throwing the f— word around so lightly. Then there are the people who walk up to me and carry on long conversations that distract me from the work I should be doing (and would much rather be doing). They know how I feel about this, too. So, this absence may not have a very profound effect.

ON THE OTHER HAND, the colleague to whom I had addressed this email did write a very conciliatory reply. I'll post it as the following comment.

jack perry said...

As I had said to Alessandra, my colleague wrote a very nice reply, which I excerpt below. (I should mention that he comes from abroad, so his English isn't perfect, but it is quite good, all things considered.)

Have I ever said anything about people who voted for Bush? [Ed: I replied, "I don't remember that you did, and I didn't mean you. I only used that as an example. Some of our officemates did, though; I could name two of them, and I can tell you exactly what they said -- but I won't, because I'd consider that gossip, and a mark of low character. :-)" My colleague continues:] If yes, that was my fault. I usually make very quick decisions about things. But I know two families who vote for that guy. Their explanations why they did so were that they liked some part of Bush's viewpoints on some issues which they think more important than the bad things they can mention about Bush.


As far as reviews are concerned, I agree, some people show off themselves
writing such things in their reviews. I should show one review I received to you. Very rude. You should look at it. I showed it to Scott after he had got the rejection. I had been thinking about writing reviews and decided for myself not to behaviour in such a way.

Actually, I had some conversations with [your advisor] on the same topic. About conferences. And when I heard from him I really did not believe that a conference could be a place for such sort of "showing off" by "intellectuals" pushing down the other people. I took what he told me into account but I still hope that this is a very-very exceptional case which everybody hopes is not going to happen with him/her.