How Academia Works After the Quantitative Revolution

In 2008, I noted the “quantitative revolution,” which replaced the romantic academia many dream about with a discovery factory:

Both the old Academy and the Leftists, however, are under even more heartless attack from the Quantitative Revolution, the measurement-and-control movement that subjects everything to test-and-reject, measure-and-fund, quantitative certainties.

The romantic academia that lives in our heart is dying or dead. Given a future between the Tyranny of Leftists and the Tyranny of the Quantitative Revolutions, my sympathies go to the quantitativists. They save what can be saved, submitting the universities to Research, Application, and funded Goals.

Last year, I formalized that description of how academia works:

Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money.

The institution of tenure reduces uncertainty regarding money, and focuses the incentives on power and influence.

Power in academia comes from the number of bodies a professor has under him. These bodies might be apprentices (graduate students he advises), journeymen (post-docs who have a PhD and work at the lab, or staff researchers), or simple workers (lab technicians, etc).

Influence in academia comes from the extent to which one is successful in influencing one’s peers. This is typically measured in terms of influence scores, which are a product of how often the academic is cited, weighted by how important of a publication he is cited in.

The best route to both power and influence is to earn grant money.

Daniel Allington must read my blog, as he writes the same thing:

Even among successful players of the funding game – and certain digital humanists have been very successful players, of late – one may find disquiet at the game itself, at the disproportionate importance now attached to it, and at the negative impact it is having on the careers of new researchers and (in the long term) on access to the profession as a whole by accelerating the casualization of both teaching and research. The underlying problem – regretted by practically everyone with a genuine love of scholarship – is the ongoing reconstruction of all disciplines on the social model of the natural sciences and the creeping abandonment of ‘autonomy’ (in the sense used by Bourdieu, 1993 [1987]) in the academic field through tacit acceptance of the principle – shared by university administrators, government ministers, and hiring committees alike – that knowledge can and should be valued primarily for its moneymaking potential. In

Allington is particular worried about the “digital humanities” which provides a road out of the ghetto for humanities students. Allington criticizes this as revealing “the corrupting agenda of our paymasters” — apparently he sees nothing wrong with the old boys network that progress-based research replaces.

Should you go to graduate school?

Everyone else (Daniel Drezner, Joshua Rothman, Rebecca Schuman, Katie Roiphe, Annemarie, tressiemc, etc) is making pretty obvious points about graduate schools and becoming famous for it.

Here are some actually useful questions to determine if you should go.

1. Do you want to go?
-> If No, DO NOT GO.
-> If Yes, read on.

2. Are you thinking about being a lawyer, medical doctor, or nurse?
-> If Yes, that’s not what I’m talking about. Read this blog instead.
-> If No, read on.

3. Is the degree you’re thinking of a STEM (Science, TEchnology Engineering, or Math) degree?
-> If Yes, GO. Start filling out applications. You’re done.
-> If No, read on.

4. Can you get a job even if your graduate degree is worthless?
-> If Yes, GO. Start filling out applications. You’re done.
-> If No, DON’T GO.

There, that saved you a lot of time.

The reason this quesitonaire is so short is that this is a good approximation of success.

1) Do something you enjoy, AND
2) Do something you can get paid for doing, AND
3) Do something you are great at


(3) will come with practice, which you will have plenty of it’s (1) and (2).

Right, Dangerous, and Chaotic


The lessons we should learn from all
the fighting in the Days of Old
when Providence bestowed Divine,
the Sanctuary purified:

“Let the let encircle all you hold
and don’t uproot the olive grove.”

So now Jerusalem, you know it’s not right
After all you’ve been through, you should know better than
To become the wicked ones
Almighty God once saved you from.”

- Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, “Jersualem“

It is wrong to use violence against people who are living peacefully. Sometimes we have to, because we don’t know ways to solve our problems that don’t involve being violent to peaceful people, but that assault remains wrong.

Likewise, it is dangerous to take actions that have unknowable costs. Sometimes we do so anyway, because the alternative is so wrong or is itself dangerous, but those excuses do not erase the danger that we introduce.

Finally, it is chaotic to introduce changes against the wishes of a democratic majority. This is does not mean doing so is necessarily wrong or dangerous, but it randomizes the purpose of elections (which are to allow the people to fire officials who they find unbearable), generates annoying social movements, and distracts the broader society from the more important goals of economic growth.

In Washington State, where I live, the people directly voted on, and approved, laws to legalize both marijuana and gay marriages. These are certainly dangerous (and gay marriage more so, as for most of American history marijuana was legal). But banning the right to contract in both cases is certainly wrong. Fortunately, Washington State’s legalization of both forms of contract was orderly, without judicial fiat or even legislatorial arrogant bullying the process.

In California, on the other hand, unelected judges took the dangerous and chaotic path of legalizing gay marriage (but not marijuana) by fiat. One wrong was undone — the one that was the most dangerous — but in a chaotic way.

This case is now before the Supreme Court. The nearest analogy I can think of is Roe v. Wade, which likewise was a dangerous and chaotic method of abolishing a wrong (violent persecution of post-conception birth control). Of course, Roe v. Wade also legalized another wrong, infanticide, so it is unlikely that the dangerous chaos ensuing from even a reckless ruling on the California gay marriage case will be as bad as what was caused by the Roe v. Wade decision.