Category Archives: Books

Why don’t more academics engage in public debate?

Last week, Matthew Sears, a professor of classic at the University of New Brunswick, wrote a great article in MacLean’s about how academics should participate more often in public scholarship and debate.  For example, if you’re a historian and you think Steven Pinker gets the Enlightenment wrong, speak up and challenge. If you’re a developmental psychologist and you think Jean Twenge gets things wrong about kids and digital devices, speak up. And if you’re a humanities scholar or biological psychologist and you think Jordan Peterson gets archetypes, myth, or lobsters wrong, speak up and challenge! In particular, if some public scholar is writing “out of their lane” and is getting things wrong in your lane, you owe it to your field to set the record straight. (Sears didn’t say it that way, that’s my interpretation).

Sears’s article was a hit. I agreed with his thesis. And there was some great, lively discussion on Twitter, of course. Some academics pointed out that the we do engage in public debate and discourse….on Twitter. But the question remains, why don’t more academics seek out opportunities to engage in public debate? In my opinion, we do, up to a point. And there are a few reasons why we don’t. Many of these were mentioned in response to Sears’s article.

Personal Risks

One clear hurdle is that scholars who speak out, especially against very popular public figures with large online followers, may risk on-line harassment. This could be time consuming at best and life threatening at worst.

In some cases, it may be worth the risk, but in many other cases, it may not be worth risking on-line harassment to challenge a public figure. In order for the risk to be worthwhile, the public figure would need to be making very dangerous or damaging claims, and thankfully that rarely happens among public intellectuals.

Lack of Professional Support

Another hurdle that many scholars face when seeking out public debate and outreach is a lack of professional support. For example, some commenters on Sears’s article pointed out that junior scholars and people from racial minority groups, indigenous groups, and LGBTQ communities face greater public outcry than people in safer circumstances.

Another academic pointed out that universities do encourage some public engagement but there is little institutional incentive and our job performance is usually tied to teaching and research, not public debate. Unlike public speakers and public figures, whose primary job is to be public speakers, academics are teaching and doing research.

These are important challenges, but clearly these don’t apply to everyone. Tenured professors can (and should) speak out and participating in public debate when appropriate. So why don’t more academics look to be publicly engaged?

A Tradeoff

I mentioned that it’s not easy, even if we wanted to. It has to do with the tradeoff between public work and university responsibility. A full time academic might not have much time left for public debate (and vice versa, a public scholar does not have as much time left for academic work).

Some of the most outspoken public intellectuals are not or are no longer traditional “40/40/20” academics. This formula refers to the nominal workload for professors at many large research universities. We’re expected to devote 40% of our job to teaching, another 40% to our research and scholarship, and 20% to service like committee work and editorial duties. If I were to jump into a public debate with a well-known public intellectual, it might take time away from my regular work. Now maybe that’s worth it from time to time but for many of us, this is extra time or a personal project.

The decision to become (or debate with) a well-known public intellectual means a tradeoff with one’s academic work. For that reason, most of us engage with the public in ways that hew closely to our own discipline.

Steven Pinker as an Example

Steven Pinker is a full professor at Harvard, with an incredibly long bibliography of books, chapters, articles, and journal papers. He has a full CV posted so you can see what he’s up to. Mostly, he writes books. Many of them have been best sellers. I thought his “How the Mind Works” was a fantastic book, an inspirational account of the importance of cognitive science. He appears at lectures and on talk shows.

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology

Steven Pinker,  Rose Lincoln / Harvard University

 

But he does not seem to teach very much and it’s impossible to know if he does any departmental service work. It’s Harvard. I imagine that there’s less tedious admin work for full professors at Harvard than full professors at Western (my institution). And Pinker occupies an endowed, named position (the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology) He would not be expected to teach or do administrative work. It would not be a rational use of his time. My point is that he’s not rank and file. Pinker, agree or disagree with his work, is an elite, public intellectual by any definition. And he’s been great in this role as a public academic cognitive scientist.

But as he strayed from cognitive science and linguistics, however, people in other fields began to complain about his work. He’s too optimistic in “Angels of our Better Nature”, some have said. He misunderstands the enlightenment in “Enlightenment Now”, others have complained. These are still important books, but they are outside his primary field. Scholars, even ones who stray into the public forum, like to stay in their lanes and don’t like it when scholars from another field encroach.

Jordan Peterson is a Special Case

Looming over this, of course, is Jordan Peterson. Peterson is not in my field, but we’re in similar cohorts: middle-aged white male, tenured, full professors of Psychology, at large, Canadian research universities (Peterson is at University of Toronto; I’m at the University of Western Ontario). Prior to becoming “The Jordan Peterson” his research impact at U of T was very good but not incredible.  (Note: you can save yourself the trouble of pointing out that my h-index is lower than Peterson’s. Like every academic, I know my score. It’s moderate. I’m cool with that).  He was known to be an excellent lecturer. By all accounts he’s always been hard working.

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Jordan Peterson sitting at the exact same angle as Steven Pinker (cred. G. Skidmore)

By that’s not why he’s famous.

He’s mostly famous now for being opposed to Canadian bill C-16, for his YouTube videos, for being on Joe Rogan, touring with Sam Harris, for his “12 rules” book, and for being the subject of hundreds of think pieces. While he may have been a good teacher, scholar, and departmental citizen at U of T, that’s just not what he does. Not any more. There’s been a tradeoff.  Unlike Pinker, whose fame is primarily within his field as a cognitive psychologist, much of Peterson’s fame is broader and touches on other disciplines. He’s really popular.

His work as a public intellectual is no longer closely connected to his work at U of T as a personality psychologist, or his work as a clinical psychologist, or his work as a teacher. He’s no longer a 40/40/20 academic. What’s more, although he’s still affiliated with the University of Toronto, he’s been on leave. He may not return. And really, why would he? Agree or disagree with his ideas and the cult of personality that has developed around him, he can reach more people as a public speaker than as a tenured professors. And that’s what many of us, as academics, desire: we want to reach people, to teach, to inspire. Far from being “de-platformed” he’s been re-platformed. He’s exchanged the lecture hall for the O2 Arena.

It would be difficult for most academics to compete with those resources and to challenge someone like Jordan Peterson. Some academics have done so in print, though the linked article was written by Ira Wells, who teaches literature and cultural criticism at the University of Toronto. The humanities and cultural criticism are his field.  But most of us don’t regard him as an academic or a researcher but someone in a different category all together. I offer this not as a criticism but as an observation.

I wouldn’t really care too much about Petersons’s work normally, because (unlike Pinker) it’s not in my field. I did not follow his work before he became famous. I do care that some of his videos and writings have been used (by others) to marginalize trans people, including people I know and respect. I can and will stand up for those people, but unless Peterson is going to mischaracterize prototype theory, any criticism by me would be personal and not scholarly. In which case, I’m not speaking as an expert. I might as well be criticizing Dr. Oz or Alan Alda. It’s possible, it’s my prerogative, but I’m not really doing it as an academic. I’m just doing it. And so I don’t.

I’d be out of my element and would end up costing me time. A protracted debate with a public intellectual who is a full time speaker and public figure would eventually affect my teaching, my scholarship, my research. Unless it’s in my own field, it’s difficult to justify.

Most of us do public work within our field

There are lots of successful public intellectuals who are working in their fields. Sara Goldrick-Rab for example is a world leader on the cost of education. Susan Dynarski is well known for her economics work and also for the use of laptops in the classroom. My colleague Adrian Owen was recently awarded the OBE for his work on consciousness and vegetative state has written a terrific popular book on the topic. Daniel Levitin writes on cognition and music. The list is long.

The criticism seems start when academics fail to “stay in their lane”. The public did not object to Jordan Peterson’s work on personality and creativity, or Noam Chomsky’s work on linguistics, or even Steven Hawking’s work on black holes. When these people wrote and worked on other topics, their limitations began to show.

In the end, I think most of us as academics are happy and enthusiastic to engage in public debate, we just tend to do it in our own fields. We tend to self-promote and educate and not debate on topics we’re not experts in. As for me? I think I do my best work in the classroom. I like the outreach I can do in the formal setting. I’m working on bringing that to my next book but don’t expect me to be to far outside my element.

Not yet…we’ll see.

 

August Reading List

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Will I get though all of these in a month?

August is one of two times during the year (the other being the stretch of time between Christmas and the new year) that I try to back away from email, social media, and work reading and try to catch up on reading for pleasure.

Reading for pleasure!  Is there any greater luxury than being able to read a few books on various topics, just because you have the time? I don’t think there is.

August is ideal for this. It begins with a long weekend in Canada (civic day) and often we spend a week at a vacation rental in the Bruce Peninsula at some point in the month, and the reality of Fall term has yet to hit. Our kids’ sports are over. There’s time to relax a bit.

Past August Reads

Over the years, I’ve tackled many things, and found some books and authors that I have greatly enjoyed. So here’s some recommendations from past year. One year, about a decade ago, I grabbed a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens that was at a rental cottage and was immediately taken with how entertaining it was and the strength of the characters. I couldn’t finish it in a week, though, and I did not want to take the book from the cottage, so I bought the book from Amazon when I got back. So glad I finished and that led to me quickly reading Great Expectations, Hard Times, and Bleak House. At some point, I hope to finish the rest of Dickens’s books.

I also got caught up in the excellent police procedurals by Peter Robinson (Inspector Banks series), again because I came across one at a rental home and was hooked. I’ve since worked my way though about 7 of these since then. Very well written crime books.

Other recommendations from summer reads: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, probably the best fictional depiction of a collapse in leadership I’ve ever read. Bonus: there’s the fanatic movie adaptation, and it turns out that my grandfather was a US Navy seaman on the same kind of ship (destroyer) in the same South Pacific typhoon in WW II that the played a heavy role in the book’s later half, which is a cool personal connection.

I read The Orenda by Joesph Boyden on the shores of Georgian Bay not far from where the action in the novel would have been set (this was before controversy over Boyden’s identity had reached mainstream). Last year I read Winter World by the incredible Bernd Heinrich. He is one of the very best science writers working today and I’ve read a few of his books, this was my favourite of the bunch.

There have been some forgettable books as well, nothing bad, but things that felt like just passing the time (some sea faring adventure books by Clive Cussler, a biography of John Adams, Pinker’s How the Mind Works).

On the Shelf This Month

So what I am reading now?

  1. I’m 1/2 way through the epic fantasy The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and it’s just fantastic. I expect to finish this soon and have lined up the following books next.
  2. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m not in a hurry, but my daughter got this for me last year and I looked at the first chapter, quite amazed at what an incredibly good writer Tyson is. It’s a quick read, but one that I think I’ll really enjoy.
  3. Other Minds by Peter Godfrey Smith, is a book about the nature of consciousness and an emphasis on cognition and intelligence in cephalopods. Nonhuman intelligence (primates, social insects, birds, cephalopods, machines) is a topic that I expect to occupy more of my time and thinking in the next few years. There have been mixed reviews of this, though, so I’m approaching it with caution. I have no problem quitting a book that starts to fall apart.
  4. Strange Affair by Peter Robinson. This will be the 8th novel I’ve read by Robinson. I’m reading this series in no particular order, I just found this in a used book store last week for 99¢ so could not pass it up.

I’m not sure I’ll get through these this month, but we’ll see. As I said, this is my month for reading for pleasure, not out of compulsion. There’s no better way to read, and I’m looking forward to enjoying the ideas, the words, the characters, and the concepts. If you’re also planning on some reading for the summer or have done some summer reading already, here’s hoping you found a new favourite book or author.

Gladwell versus the academy (a modern David and Goliath)

I’ll start with an admission: I have never read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books.

It’s nothing personal or principled, but I just never got around to it;  I tend to prefer reading fiction in my spare time anyway. I have enjoyed some of his essays in the New Yorker, but that’s about it. So I am not writing about the content of his books.  I’m writing about the reception that his book receive, the criticisms, and the apparent belief by many that he’s a scientist. This, it seems, really bothers some actual scientists.

Malcom Gladwell is an enormously successful and gifted writer. No one can argue with this. His books Blink, and The Tipping Point, and Outliers have have made accessible to many people outside the academic and scientific world an understanding of some of the most interesting and exciting ideas in cognition, social psychology, and neuroscience. He has a long career as a journalist, is well read, and he’s no Jonah Leher….

With each book, Gladwell’s stature has grown, but I have noticed the reaction from academics has been less than enthusiastic. Many feel that he misunderstands (or worse, misrepresents) the scientific studies upon which many of his books are built. Dan Simons and Chris Chabris are two of the more vocal critics, and they are both well-respected and well-known scientific psychologists. They argued (in an article posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education that many people were overly enthusiastic about the premises in Blink, namely that intuition can produce better outcomes than analytic cognition. It’s not that they necessarily thought the book was wrong so much that they felt everyone was misinterpreting what it was about. In fact, Simons and Chabris are the authors of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, which argues that human intuitions can be very deceptive. The title, by the way, refers to one of Simons’s most well-know experiments.

They are not the only vocal critics. Steven Pinker is probably closer to Malcolm Gladwell in terms of being a public intellectual (and he has received his fair share of criticism as well). And he too is critical of Gladwell’s books for some of the same reasons. In a review of Outliers,  Pinker writes that “The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.”

So now Malcolm Gladwell has a new book, David and Goliath.  As I mentioned before, I have not read this book, so I make no attempts to provide my own critique. But one anecdote in particular seems to have garnered a lot of attention. Gladwell discusses several stories of people who became very successful despite having dyslexia. His thesis seems to be that having dyslexia made it just a little harder for these people to get by, and so maybe they worked a little harder and compensated for the dyslexia and thus achieved greatness. Gladwell calls this  “the theory of desirable difficulty.” He bases this (apparently) on a study from 2007 in which subjects who read a mathematical reasoning problem in a hard-to-read typeface actually outperformed subjects who read the same problems in an easier to read typeface. So there may be a connection, but there may not be.

In a recent review in the WSJ, Christopher Chabris takes Gladwell to task. He points out that the 2007 study in question has not replicated that well. He wonders why Gladwell does not point this out. He wonders why Gladwell asserts as “laws” phenomena with many possible interpretations. The review is critical, and very good, and points out what I really think people should be aware of  when they read Gladwell’s book, namely that  it contains interesting anecdotes mixed with science, and that the writing is very good and persuasive. This need not be a bad thing, and Gladwell and his supportive critics point out that this is a great narrative form, and is exactly what makes Gladwell so good. Stories matter. Narrative matters. But the expanded version on Chabris’s blog went further, and Chabris worries that Gladwell knows full well that people over interpret his books and he simply does not care. He writes “I can certainly think of one gifted writer with a huge audience who doesn’t seem to care that much. I think the effect is the propagation of a lot of wrong beliefs among a vast audience of influential people. And that’s unfortunate.”

Ouch.

Is this envy? I do not think so. Dan Simons and Chabris are successful authors in their own right. So is Steven Pinker. But the difference is that they are also successful academics and researchers. Chabris makes the point that many people simply consider Gladwell to be an authority, rather than an author. The term “Gladwellian” exists.

The review was critical enough to cause Mr Gladwell to respond on Slate.com. Gladwell suggested that “Chabris should calm down”, and  he even takes a mild swipe at Mr. Chabris’ wife. Why so personal? I will confess, that I did not find Gladwell’s Slate response to be very flattering. It came across as arrogant and dismissive. Does Gladwell imagine himself as the David and the Academy as the Goliath? Possibly, though I’m inclined to think the opposite. Gladwell’s “brand” is so big that he is very likely the Goliath in this this fight. And (in keeping with the these of his new book)  his gifts–his incredible writing talent– may very well be what could bring him down.

In the end, I’m glad that this debate is even able to happen. I’m glad that there is a journalist and writer like Malcolm Gladwell  who is interested and exited enough by human behavior and psychology to write best sellers. I’m glad that there are serious and respected scientist like Chabris and Simons to call him out when the claims go to far.

In the course of following these criticisms and counter criticisms  I’ve become much more interested in reading this work. I fully plan to read Gladwell’s book of Essays (What The Dog Saw)  and some of his books. As well, I’m planning to read Simons and Chabris book too. All concerned parties can rest assured  that I’ll be checking them out of my public library soon, and that no actual cash will flow.