Thursday, February 10, 2005

Academia Without a Net

AJM unleashed himself on Dr. Chernus, a religious-studies professor, the other day. And it seems Dr. Chernus deserves it, as anyone willing to post his opinions on the Internet opens himself to criticism. On his official University of Colorado website, he published his opinions on the Iraq war, on relative truth, and other hot-button topics. It is questionable whether these have anything to do with his scholarly credentials.

As AJM wrote, "How a Ph.D. in comparative religions qualifies him to write authoritatively on the question whether Bush lied about Iraq is beyond me. How he can assume the question and go straight to diagnosing the pathology behind the purported lies escapes me entirely." Fair. However, my credentials don’t have a lot to do with whether or how I write my blog entries. And AJM’s credentials as a trial lawyer–while they may inform his essays–don’t provide a basis for them.

Nonetheless, Chernus’ publications are fair game, especially because he espouses his opinions on his professional, University of Colorado website. And I know from experience that the University allows professors to post whatever they please–as long as it’s legal–on their University-sponsored site.

AJM’s chief complaint is that the academic establishment doesn’t police itself, and allows anyone to say anything, whether credible or not, supported or not. But Chernus–or at least the blog on his site–is an easy target. I want to see AJM use his formidable mental acuity, logical brilliance, and deft penwork to rip apart someone more meaty, more influential, more powerful. Someone whose stuff matters. Or at least take Chernus to task on Chernus’ terms by looking at Chernus’ scholarly work and critiquing it.

However, it will not be easy for AJM to find Dr. Chernus’ scholarly work. (To answer AJM's question), very few people read what academics write, one way or the other. On-line or otherwise.

Any Ph.D. (and I know many, including my spouse) will tell you that few, if any, of his own committee members read his whole dissertation. In fact, it's said that a number of extremely self-confident Ph.D. candidates have inserted nonsense words or phrases--or even better, stylized characterizations of their committee members!--into their dissertations just to see if they're found. Inevitably, they go unnoticed.

Once the newly-minted professor publishes, she typically does so to the readership of her peers in a very small professional circle concentrated on her sub-discipline. Dr. Chernus’ academic publications are probably found in small journals or compiled in symposium notes.

One thing AJM doesn't make clear, however: Publishing in the liberal arts is a totally different creature than publishing in the social sciences, or–especially–sciences or mathematics or engineering. The liberal-arts peer-review process is mostly subjective, based on comparative theories and analysis of one’s work in the light of others. It’s qualitative. Social sciences–sociology, anthropology, economics–are combinations of qualitative and quantitative techniques and review. Science is rigorous and based in quantifiable testing of hypotheses, methodologies, and conclusions.

Perhaps AJM would prefer the science peer-review process be applied to the liberal-arts non-scientists? If there were such a way to do so by replacing the quantifiable with the qualitative (as is done in much of anthropology), then perhaps he’s on to something. But reviewing a paper on the tenets of Christianity as viewed through Islamic culture in 2004 (I would love to read that paper, if it exists) doesn’t lend itself to scientific or quasi-scientific peer-review.

That said, let's get back to Dr. Chernus, whose opinions on his blog site don’t lend themselves to any peer review:

1) Who takes this guy seriously? Who knows. Very few people, I'm sure. Certainly some of his colleagues, and perhaps some of his students. But that’s a small group. As AJM points out, he doesn’t seem qualified by his credentials to comment on the political issues he finds so compelling.

2) In light of the fact that he has few readers and few who take him seriously, does AJM suggest that higher-ups in academia–who are not part of Chernus’ little niche of "religion scholars"– cross-check him and vet his rhetoric–especially his opinions on his website–as if it were worth their time and effort?

All across the country--and around the world--professors and academics in the social sciences or liberal arts spout off about this or that, on web pages, in talks, sometimes in class. Much of it is speculation, guess-work, or raw opinion masquerading as something more. Some of it makes it into peer-reviewed publications. Much of it doesn’t.

Out of all this, little pearls of truth and revelation drop out once in awhile. And while I will suggest some qualitatively useful information comes out of it–here and there–the academic machine grinds along and, through a very natural process, most of the ideas become waste product. But the best ones survive and take life outside the halls of the academy.

That "natural process" is as follows. While some ideas--and their implications and applications-- get the attention of the world (Watson and Crick’s DNA helix; the domino theory of the Cold War), or of the local or national population (Churchill at the University of Colorado), few ideas submitted by academics into the academic intellectual chasm ever make it outside the doors of the academy.

The ones that do–like light pushing past the grasping gravity-edge of a black hole–are usually incredibly important (whether "right," "true," or neither), novel, and worthwhile. There's a lot of carbon at the bottom of the mine shaft but only a few diamonds.

So let the peer review process do its thing. If an idea from a religious (sans Christianity)-studies department makes it into the World (capital W), then it’s worth grappling with. But there’s so much inside the establishment that never sees the light of day and is really not worth commentary, except by other academics.

Through the process--the necessary give-and-take of any, and every idea--the most important stuff becomes part of the World (capital W). Influential. Interesting. Expanding and enlightening the human experience. Brainstorming or "thinking out of the box" is where it's at on campus. And, in and of itself, this is not a bad thing. In fact, I suggest that it’s a great thing. Even when the risk is that someone might simply make something up.

Because ideas have some inherent worth. That worth may be closer to 0 than 100 on a 0-100 value scale, but--again I posit--if an idea/hypothesis/theory/opinion sheds any light on the true condition of our World (capital W), or, in its own inability to shed light inspires someone else to postulate in a worthy way, then it's worth is more than 0. And I'm not even talking about the liberal-arts people who specialize in poetry or Eastern mythology or any number of less-tangible, less-"applied" or less-"useful" disciplines. There is worth there, too. And, as with anything else, also a lot that should be jettisoned.

Now, AJM is right on when he accuses academia of paying little attention to itself in this way: Many academics should take the World (capital W) more seriously. They don’t live in it like others who are not in academia do. They often live in tight, insular, idealistic, intellectual worlds (lower-case w), and should pause and consider their perspectives before they comment as if they do live in the World.

One last point. Anyone who thinks the truth is elusive is smart. Anyone who thinks the truth is complicated and often hard on the palate is at peace with the World. Anyone who believes truth is always better than non-truth is either brilliant or at peace with himself or both. But anyone who thinks the truth doesn’t exist doesn’t live in the World (capital W), shouldn’t pretend he does, and should relish his tiny, confused sphere of influence. Because that’s all he’s got.

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