University reforms and historical myths

isaacIn the previous post, Yann showed how our scientific myths are invoked or sentenced in the present crisis context. Another interesting setting where history of science canons, not to say mythical figures, are put forward is the debate surrounding the current reform of French universities. In some intellectuals’ attempts to ward off the govermental threats to scientific integrity, independance, or survival, the thinest pieces of scientific history emerge, often just a name, a theory and date, sometimes an anecdote.

Against the proposal of increasing the teaching load of researcher who do not publish enough (with the alleged implicit notion that older researchers get less productive),writer and university teacher Pierre Jourde bluntly reminds that Pasteur discovered the rabies virus at 63, Plank the quantas at 41, that Foucault published La Volonté de Savoir at 50 and the fashionable Darwin An Origin of Species at 50. When the profitability of fundamental research is questioned, you find a blogger defending researchers’ independance by pointing that  for the “discovery of DNA double-helix, Crick and Watson were not part of a full-time subsidized lab, they had chosen this subject out of passion (as told in Crick’s autobiography)” (comment to a post by French writer and journalist Pierre Assouline ) or C.H. Llewellyn Smith, former Director-General of CERN, arguing that it is difficult to predict the spin-offs of foundamental research in those terms:

“If Rutherford, who discovered the nucleus, could not foresee nuclear power, could a government committee do better? Who could have foreseen warm superconductors, fullerenes, or the World Wide Web? Earlier I suggested that Faraday might have foreseen the applications of electricity but in 1867, nine years after Faraday’s death, a meeting of British scientists pronounced that “Although we cannot say what remains to be invented, we can say that there seems to be no reason to believe that electricity will be used as a practical mode of power“. In a similar vein, it is well known that Thomas Watson, the creator of IBM, said in 1947 that a single computer “could solve all the important scientific problems of the world involving scientific calculations” but that he did not foresee other uses for computers. »

These thin (or rather popular, or what?) historical reminders being often published on intellectual’s blogs hosted by  newpapers websites, they have no pretense to scientific truth (except for Llewellyn’s). Their briefs appeals to the collective memory of their community is nevertheless significant, if only because those articles seem circulated and referenced.

I found little discussion of the University reform on popular economic blogs, and no mention of glorious ancestors to defend such and such organisation of research.

NB: Whether the persons I quote are active researchers, teachers, public intellectual, academics-journalists , phd students, or else, the interpretation of what I read change radically. But there I face two problems:

(1) Identities are often blurred, bloggers and surfers often hold several status. How do you face this?

(2)Trying to assess the origin, context, status and popularity of this kind of web content is terribly time consuming, and ghoogle rank/delicious/wikio and other tools do not always give good results. What tools do you use?

3 thoughts on “University reforms and historical myths

  1. I missed the point of why identities are important. It seems to me that the web is a field of hybridization of identities, and identities get forged, instituted only in very specific circumstances/debates and even then to little effect. In a blog comment box someone introducing himself as an “expert” will produce little effect. Yet, economists ranked as members of Martin Wolf’s panel of experts, enjoy some kind of status.

  2. My problem is precisely that web identities are hybrid and frail (although I’m not sure that introducing yourself as an “expert” without further precision such as “M.I.T.” or “Brooking Institution” would have gain you respect fifty years ago). What I need to assess the content and form of a discourse is what is at stake for the author, what his power and institutional position is, what his location on an mainstream/politically correct/heterodox axis is, what the subject strikes in his own history, what he is lobbying for, whether his discourse and its associated media is sponsored or simply influenced by such and such institution. When I study postwar economists, looking at their identity of the media they disseminate their ideas with give me an acceptable picture of these various elements. I could make Friedman-Chicago-Neoliberalism-Mont Pelerin or Marschak-Cowles-Rand connections on first approximation, then disprove some of these links and establish new ones when digging into their life and work. And although Friedman had several “identities”, scientist, political thinker, columnist, it is pretty clear under which authority he speaks (or means to do so) in every occasion (plus there often seem to be one dominant identity).

    On the contrary, it’s not clear to me what expertise or authority a researcher-writer-citizen writing on a newspaper blog is claiming. There is no “first approximation” answer at all. The status of Krugman’s NYT blog is clearer to me than those of Mankiw and DeLong. There is also the problem of blog comments. Most of them are anonymous, and still I cannot interpret the repeated use of Crick and Watson’s myth if I don’t know whether it comes from academics, young or old, teachers or citizens interested in scientific history, whether it is a result of undergraduate history courses or popularization TV broadcasts or a film.

  3. What is funny with these historical examples is that they provide no history at all ! History is all about context (actually, history IS context) but in these examples, we have absolutely no information about the context surrounding the discovery of the rabies virus or the writing of Darwin’s Origin of Species. I guess that Pasteur was certainly not funded by a system resembling to today’s French status of “enseignant-chercheur”.
    As for the absence of discussions on University reforms on economics blogs, I see only one explanation. Everybody knows that giving more research time to those who publish and more teaching time to those who do not publish is a GOOD thing – I can’t see anyone but lunatics to believe the contrary should be true. The question, then, resides only in the “how”. How can we do it ? As I see it from France, researchers and teachers alike are worried by the fact that the head of the university is going to take those decisions. They are afraid of unfairness. That is fine but to what extent is the current system (more) fair ? Today, in most French universities, the best courses are given by the older professors without any counterpart, while the younger have to give anything that is left over, even thoughit has no relation whatsoever with their fields of specialization. The consequence, in our field, is that in France, no young historian actually teaches HET. HET courses (when they still exist) are actually given by people whose interest in the latest developments of the field is limited, if not non-existent. Resource allocation ?

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