Category Archives: academia

Rules of engagement for academic adversaries

Academics argue. That’s what they do. They argue against each other’s theories and results; they propose alternatives they believe are superior; and those theories, in turn, become the subject of critique by their colleagues. Yada, yada, yada, we all get closer to the truth.

Read between the lines and academic argument often sounds pretty passive-aggressive. As if we’re often not sure which kind of argument we are trying to have. The distinction between the two sense of the English word “argument” is, of course, most perfectly explained by those Cambridge philosophers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus:

 

So how ought we to argue in academia? Politely. Why? Because it works.

I recently came across some advice from the great American philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to write a scholarly critique. (I haven’t yet tracked down the citation, or the larger context in which it was written, but the advice given here is perfect all on its own.)

dennett

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If I may, I would add a fifth point:

5. Once you have presented a rebuttal or criticism, search the text in question to see if the author has already considered and responded to your criticism; and if he or she hasn’t then it is up to you to formulate the best possible responses to this criticism, given the author’s other commitments. Either way, voice this actual or potential replies to your critique explicitly, and respond to them. Repeat….

So what kind of friendly advice is this? Is it academic etiquette? Academic ethics? Or the key to academic effectiveness?

If the academic community you are in has a sufficient degree of intellectual integrity, then its widely recognized leaders will have convinced a good many of their colleagues that they have discovered flaws with previous theories and findings in the field, and they will have demonstrated this critique, its implications, and possibly a new-improved theory in its place, with a reasoned argument involving clear concepts, evidence, and inferences. (In an academic community without a sufficient degree of integrity, institutional and political power will be the main tools for achieving local, if fleeting, fame.)

In any case, if your chosen field has integrity, then Dennett’s advice unites those three E’s: etiquette, ethics, and effectiveness. If you want to have an impact on the debates in your field (and if not, why are you doing this?), you need to get your critique published. Editors will invite the authors you are engaging with, or others known to be sympathetic with their views, to “referee” your critique. If they think you have simply not understood the ideas you are criticizing; or worse, if they think you have deliberately misrepresented them, then they are highly unlikely to be persuaded by your arguments — assuming they even read all the way to the end of your MS.

On the other hand, if you play nice and follow Dennett’s rules, the Journal editor may well read in the referee’s report not only “I wish I’d put it that way myself,” but also “OMG, I never noticed that gap in my argument/ that ambiguous concept/ that invalid inference/ that inconsistency….! I hope I can fix that, but this critic may be onto something original and important!” As a former editor, I can assure you, we do get those kinds of referees’ reports on papers that are criticizing their own theories. And when when we do, those submissions are usually fast-tracked for publication.

I should underscore that Dennett’s advice runs deeper than mere professional decorum or publishing tactics. If you are not successfully mastering Dennett’s first step, then you are probably not grasping why the theory you are criticizing has been taken seriously. Why it might be smarter than you realize. Similarly, if you don’t consider how an intelligent interlocutor would reply to your critique, then are likely to be ignoring the most obvious objections to your critique — the one’s the referees will not fail to point out.

But if you really are onto something, then bending over backwards to demonstrate the inescapability of your critique in a spirit of intellectual fairplay will only make the critique itself that much harder for your academic community to ignore. You “win” in the nicest possible way.

Confessions of Olympian saboteurs

03-nancy-kerrigaan-tonya-harding-museum.w529.h352

I have blogged elsewhere about why I think a contest that does not involve defensive tactics barely qualifies as a sport. Or at any rate, in the aesthetics or connoisseurship of sport, the highest ranking sports are those for which good defensive play and strategy is as satisfying for the spectator as good offense. That’s why most events in the Winter Olympics — ice hockey and curling aside — will never rank highly in my pantheon of great sports. But I digress before I have even started.

When using sports in the service of understanding the ethics of competition in other adversarial realms (law, business, politics, war, etc) it is worth paying attention to the extent to which “defense” is a permissible, or even admirable, feature of the competition. Is it acceptable to try to win by thwarting an opponent’s offensive tactics (the way one does in hockey, American football, or chess)? Or is the competition the kind in which the only permissible winning strategies involve making yourself perform as well as possible (as a sprinter runs as fast as she can, or a pianist competing for a prize plays his heart out, or a law-school applicant presents a dossier with her highest possible grades and test scores, etc)?

Competitions that do not involve “defense” tend to present fewer challenges for adversarial ethics. Competitors can still cheat — by puffing or fabricating their alleged achievements, plagiarizing, bribing judges, using banned performance-enhancing substances (say, cocaine for LSATs). And if such cheating is widespread, or believed by the competitors to be widespread, it is especially problematic in an adversarial realm, because it strongly incentivizes all competitors to cheat. But when there are no opportunities for defensive tactics (a law school applicant has no way to make her rivals look worse — the way a politician, lawyer, or salesperson can), there is less directly adversarial behavior to have to regulate or monitor.

Of course, when competitors find a way to undermine their rivals in a competition that does not permit defensive tactics, that can lead to grave, and often super sleazy, ethical violations. In his seminal paper on this topic, Joe Heath reminds us of the time one figure skater, Tonya Harding, tried to improve her chances for an Olympic medal by having her ex-husband and a hired goon kneecap her main American rival, Nancy Kerrigan, at the US Figure Skating Championships in 1994. There is no playing defense in figure skating. And certainly not that kind. (Harding plead guilty to a felony. The USFSA — figure it out — booted her out for life, citing her “clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship and ethical behavior.”)

Teachers who grade on a curve hear similar blood-curdling tales of classmates who hide books in the library, mess up their classmates’ lab experiments, and refuse to cooperate in study groups, so that they can climb over their fellow students and claw their way higher in the curve.

Anyway, all of this is a rather pretentious set-up for a totally low-brow, and misleadingly advertised bit of clickbait from the Onion’s Clickhole entitled

8 Olympic Athletes Tell Us About Their Most Successful Time Sabotaging A Competitor

Put it this way: nobody’s going to jail for any of these revelations. Nobody is going to have to make a living in their post-athletic careers through professional wrestling, celebrity boxing, or selling sex tapes (Harding’s fate). But the concept of “sabotaging a competitor” — especially in adversarial realms that don’t allow any defensive tactics — remains a critical and controversial one in adversarial ethics.

Tonya Harding Defeated By Samantha Browning

MEMPHIS, TN – FEBRUARY 22: Tonya Harding is hit by a right jab from Samantha Browning during their women’s bantamweight bout at The Pyramid on February 22, 2003 in Memphis, Tennessee. Browning won the fight by way of decision after 4 rounds. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Are student athletes more successful in life?

gallup coverAccording to a huge recent survey conducted by Gallup, student athletes beat their non-athletic former classmates at the game of life-after-college.

Former student-athletes who received a bachelor’s degree between 1970 and 2014 are leading other college graduates in four out of five elements of well-being that Gallup studied. These former student athletes are more likely than non-student-athletes to be thriving in purpose, social, community and physical well-being. In the element of financial well-being, former student-athletes are just as likely to be thriving as their non-student-athlete peers

For those interested in methodology — and who isn’t? — the survey and the correlations it finds, are pretty credible, as far as these things go:

Results for the Gallup-Purdue Index, which the study used for comparison purposes, are based on Web surveys conducted Feb. 4-March 7, 2014, with a random sample of 29,560 respondents with a bachelor’s degree, aged 18 and older, with Internet access, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. These respondents included 1,670 former NCAA student-athletes. The Gallup-Purdue Index sample was compiled from two sources: the Gallup Panel and the Gallup Daily tracking survey.

Of course, these results are merely correlations. We cannot infer from correlations alone the direction of causation: did participation in athletics improve students’ life skills and well-being, or do the kinds of students who go in for athletics already have those skills to a greater degree than other students? Or is it, as NCAA researcher Tom Paskus argues, a little bit of both?

This kind of data may be relevant nonetheless for deeper philosophical debates about the nature of the good life. Some find competitiveness, and the need or desire to express oneself in zero-sum competitions where your winning means someone else loses, as an inherently less desirable character trait, disposition, or way of living. At the very least, this survey suggests that a very intense period of competition in sports during a person’s formative years (a college athlete will have had sports as their major non-scholastic activity from their pre-teen years until their early 20s) does not make them a worse, less happy, or less successful person afterward.

Check out the more detailed results by asking for the report in pdf form from Gallup at the link above. Or check out the summary in this article Money magazine.

 

 

Bubbling up in the Ethics-for-Adversaries lab…

In this blog we have spent a lot of our time with case studies drawn from the “Big 4” large-scale deliberately adversarial institutions: markets, electoral politics, sports, and the justice system. But some of the most illuminating analyses are sparked by adversarial activities in other realms, or in peculiar corners of the Big 4.

Based on an initial brainstorming session with this year’s team of bloggers, here are a few of the realms of structured competition you can expect to see future posts on:

  • University Student Politics (ought we to expect an emphasis on certain unwritten democratic norms that have fallen by the wayside in big-money national politics?)
  • Debate Club (how is it like a sport? what is its function? is this a better way to develop public-speaking and logic/rhetorical skills than other pedagogical or social means? what formal and informal rules and norms surround the competitions?)
  • Academic Philosophy (similarly, what can we learn by contrasting student and professional academic philosophy communities that place greater or lesser emphasis on aggressive argumentation?)
  • Job Hiring for Non-Adversarial Institutions (there are formal and informal competitions going on all the time in even the most non-adversarial institutions. E.g., competitions for student placement or job hiring. How do otherwise non-adversarial institutions best handle and constrain these competitive moments?)
  • Ballet-Company Politics (one such non-adversarial institution — after all, its purpose is to put on a show that is evaluated on its own terms by aesthetic criteria — is the ballet company. And yet at all levels, we are told that the competition between dancers, and their parents, is like a blood sport.)
  • Animal Mate-Selection (what can we learn from the mostly genetically-encoded norms that govern mate-selection in different parts of the animal kingdom? Robert Frank has recently written that  Darwin, not Adam Smith, is really the father of modern thinking about market economics. So what can we learn from Darwin about the social benefits of a well-designed adversarial practice?)
  • International Relations, Diplomacy, Espionage, and War.  (At the limit: surely one of the oldest, and most ritualized, deliberately and inherently adversarial practices.)
  • Scientific Research (a cooperative community in a common search for the Truth, or red in tooth and claw? What kinds of tactics and strategies are justifiable in the competition for grants, patents, and publications?)

Expect this list to grow over the coming weeks. If you have suggestions for other  adversarial realms we should be working on, please let us know in the comments section, below.

If only academic disputes came with live referees…

A deservedly viral proposal for the American Philosophical Association.

Created by Landon Schurtz

My favorite is the middle signal in the second-last row. It is the signal for a “safety” in American football — when a team is unable to carry the ball out of its own endzone and concedes two points; like an own-goal in soccer.

Race-to-the bottom watch: competitive babies?

This spoof cover from the Onion advertising “How to get your premature babies into the best incubators” presents a comical account of parents anxious to give their children a leg up on the competition.  The humor of the cover, however—like the comedic value of most good jokes—comes not from its outlandishness but from the close-to-home truth it conveys.

Particularly in the fields of academics and athletics, parents are reacting to competitive pressures by pushing their kids to start earlier and work harder.  The 2008 documentary Nursery University documents how some New York City preschools are charging up to $20,000 per semester per child—higher than the average tuition of private American universities.  It should come as no surprise that this escalating preschool market is taking place in one of the most densely populated places in the world.  The high volume of children in the city results in a high demand for a limited amount of spots at “elite preschools.”

Many bloggers, including economics professor Charles Wheelen, have noted that participation in sports has also become increasingly competitive among younger players.  The goal of little league – in which I was taught “to have fun”—is slowly fading away as parents and coaches enforce the omnipresent urge to win.  Sometimes pursuing the goal of winning even comes at the cost making kids prone to certain kinds of avoidable injuries, which at times even eventuate into the need for reconstructive surgery.  Wheelen writes:

“If all of this makes kids and young families happier than they were 20 years ago, terrific.  But I don’t think that’s what is going on.  As far as I can tell, sports have three purposes: To get exercise, to have fun or to get your kid into college, earn a scholarship, turn professional and become rich and famous.

The evolution in youth sports appears to be mostly about the third one.  Here’s the problem with that:  The number of scholarships (and college athletes) is more or less fixed.  So is the number of professional athletes and the total amount of money to be won on the PGA Tour.

If everyone practices three times as much, the same folks will probably end up with the scholarships, prize money and Nike endorsements.  And if we assume that the extra practice, coaching and spending on equipment comes at the expense of other things (like riding a bike for fun, playing other sports or doing something really crazy like playing ‘kick the can’ in the backyard for a few hours), then our kids’ lives are worse for it.”

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of a race to the bottom is the difficulty or impossibility of escaping it.  If parents prevent their children from starting competitive sports until they are ten years old or even older, then those kids will have to live with a competitive disadvantage unless all the other parents make this same decision.  On the other hand, pushing kids into sports and preschools earlier and earlier degenerates into a race to the bottom in which everybody comes out worse off.

It remains to be seen what mechanisms could prevent this collective action problem.  Wheelen points out that little leaguers are operating with fewer regulations that professional athletes.  While this lack of regulation used to suffice due to a lack of necessity, it seems increasingly possible that regulations are needed to protect even the youngest of the current generation from plunging into various races to the bottom.

 

A friendly chat about adversaries

This blog got plenty of free publicity last Friday when I (Wayne Norman) did a turn on Duke University’s weekly “Office Hours” live tweet-in show. For better or for worse, the conversation should be permanently accessible here:

Some of the topics of conversation were plucked from my other blog, This Sporting Life, including one on Why the NCAA Tournament is the American Idol of Sports, and What’s Wrong with the Wonderlic Test.

Bethany’s post here about what we learn about political ethics from primary elections also got a quote and a shout-out during the interview, and it can be found here. Stay tuned for some of her follow-up thoughts on that topic.