The Search for Academic Utility

Over the past few weeks I talked a lot about “paradigms.” Paradigms are “research programs” that focus on a few exemplars of high quality work. This allows science to make progress, and breaks up “old boy” networks by privileging results over connections. The need for progress also allows students to have better lives after they graduate. Professors, like all people, crave money, power and respect.

Thus, normal science, paradigms, research programs, and exemplars align our the need for progress, student’s need for good lives, and professor’s need for professional accomplishment. This is how academia works. Science is not a cartoon. It is a great human achievement that gets human beings to predict, control, and improve variation of the objects scientists study.

Normal Science is good because it is useful, not because it is True.

Consider three areas of work: race-based explanations for school performance, my UFO theory, and the ancient astronaut theory of Great Pyramid construction. If I had to bet, I would bet a great deal of money there’s a very strong impact of race in academic performance not explainable by income, I would bet a small amount of money the aliens at Roswell were from Japan, and I would bet against someone claiming that the logistics of Great Pyramid construction was designed by creatures from beyond the Moon.

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But attempting to found an academic career on either of these theories would lead to a failure to gain tenure. The reason is all are currently outside of the normal science in educational psychology, digital humanities, and Egyptology. None of these theories are currently useful in the field, so none are pursued.

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Normal Science is just part of Science, which along with Inquiry are two of the ways of knowing about the world. There’s more to this world than captured in data sets. My friend Mark Safranski recent captured readers after linking to a data set, stating “ there are hidden qualitative decisions in who did the counting, how and by what yardstick.” Indeed, Normal Science has even more limitations than that.

A lot of grief is caused by considering Science the search for Truth. It may that, but Normal Science is the search for utility in an academic context.

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