Doctor X, “pure shit” and the Royal Society’s motto
June 30, 2013Edward FullbrookLeave a commentGo to comments
from Edward Fullbrook
Recently at a large party I found myself sitting next to a very likable young middle-aged academic tenured at an elite British university, whom henceforth I will refer to as Doctor X and whose field is closely associated with this blog.
Doctor X was unfamiliar with both the Real-World Economics Review and the World Economics Association. But when I described the purposes of the latter, in particular the fostering of a professional ethos that prioritized the advancement of knowledge rather than the preservation of orthodoxies and the promotion of vested interests, there was an instantaneous recognition of a central relevance to his/her intellectual and career situation.
“Every year I publish papers in the top journals and they’re pure shit.” Doctor X, who by now had had a glass or two, felt bad about this, not least because “students these days are so idealistic and eager to learn; they’re really wonderful.” Furthermore Doctor X could and would like “to write serious papers but what would be the point?”
I then listened to an explanation of Doctor X’s predicament that went roughly like this.
One naturally feels loyalty to one’s immediate colleagues. The amount of funding Doctor X’s department receives depends not on how many papers or their quality its members publish, but instead on in which journals they are published. The journals in Doctor X’s field in which publication results in substantial funding will not publish “serious papers” but instead only “pure shit” papers, meaning ones that merely elaborate old theories that nearly everyone knows are false. Moreover, even to publish a “serious paper” in addition to the “pure shit” ones could taint the department’s reputation, resulting in a reduction of its funding. In any case, no one at a top university would read a “serious paper” because they only read “top journals.”
Memory of this little encounter came rushing back to me a few minutes ago when reading in today’s The Observer an opinion piece by Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society. In a few words he nicely spells out how real science operates and how Doctor X, perhaps no less than me, wishes economics would operate.
Good science is a reliable way of generating knowledge because of the way it is done. It is based on reproducible observation and experiment, taking account of all evidence and not cherry-picking data. Scientific issues are settled by the overall strength of that evidence combined with rational, consistent and objective argument. Central to science is the ability to prove that something is not true, an attribute which distinguishes science from beliefs based on religions and ideologies, which place more emphasis on faith, tradition and opinion.
A good scientist is inherently sceptical – the Royal Society’s motto, in Latin of course, roughly translates as “take nobody’s word for it”.
Doctor X, although clearly desirous of a regime like the one described by Nurse, seems resigned to the unhappy and morally troubling situation in which career ambition and intellectual ambition are mutually exclusive. But there was also a hopeful side to this conversation. When I asked if perhaps there were other privileged practitioners in the field who also found the situation lamentable and who if the institutional setup, meaning funding and promotion procedures, were changed, might have a go at writing “serious papers”, “Oh yes, loads!” replied Doctor X.
Unfortunately at the top of the economics profession — and other academic disciplines I am sure as I once taught biochemistry at the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and saw there — make Papal decisions as to the right and wrong in “scientific ” discussions.
In economics, for example, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a lot about the industrial structure of the US economy and its implications for both micro and macroeconomics. Although his writings attracted some attention, his later writings were often characterized as “popularized” pulp fiction by many of the establishment in economics including especially those who were the “experts” in the industrial organization field teaching at some great educational institutions.
Ken was lucky enough to be an excellent writer who could communicate to the general public and had a literary agent who could advance his books to many important publishing houses!
The public loved his writings and many of his books became nonfiction best sellers.
In my early writings I was lucky enough to get articles published in the Economic Journal, the Review of Economics and Statistics — and even twice in a matter of 9 months in the American Economic Review. But as I started to write more explicitly about the more obvious holes in mainstream neoclassical Keynesian economics.– I suddenly found the doors at these journals closed to me.[but I even once had an article published in the JPE.]
An interesting story is that when I applied to the NSF for a research grant to make more elaborate my Keynesian analysis for a globalized economy. I had been encourage to submit a grant application by the head of the economics section of NSF at the time –he knew of my closed economy macrowritngs. One of the peer evaluators for NSF gave my project request the lowest possible rating and he wrote “Davidson has had an amazing success for his analysis over the last few years, but he marches to a different drummer and therefore should get his own research money an not ask for ours!’ [ This report from NSF is deposited in my papers archived at the Duke University library !
Needless to say my grant request was denied– and I had to write my book INTERNATIONAL MONEY AND THE REAL WORLD by getting my own money to finance my work!.
My mentor, Sidney Weintraub, also had an early success with his writings in some mainstream journals such as the AER and EJ, but as his research turned more to suggesting the errors of the neoclassical synthesis Keynesian’s theory of MIT, Harvard, and Yale he quickly found out how hard it was now to publish in mainstream journals.
Accordingly when in the 1970s Sidney and I decided to start a new journal –the JOURNAL OF POST KEYNESIAN ECONOMICS — as a publication outlet for those young professionals who had some new innovative analysis — we found that Ken Galbraith was very supportive –not only morally but also financially in providing seed money.
Another supporter was Albert Hirschman who strongly encouraged us to create a , professional journal that would provide an outlet for nonmainstream ideas and analysis!
But the mainstream continues to pump out what Doctor X calls —– and the subscription roles among libraries for the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics — continues to be reduced as, apparently, librarians face difficult financial times and therefore are cutting back on their journal subscripts. [Have you checked whether your library still subscribes to the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics?]
June 30, 2013 at 9:31 pm | #2 Reply | Quote
One cannot buy what is not for sale and that includes paid, superannuated apologists and spin meisters of neoclassical/neoliberal economics that are to serious political economy what painting-by-numbers is to art. Mainstream economics and the academia that pushes it are pure fraud; even a lot of the “heterodox” or “progressive” stuff (for the math phobic and envious) is also pure sophistry and publish-or-perish in a lot of worthless journals that caused a lot of dead trees.
As long as the topics of research are the pet theories and projects of elite academics detached from the real-word issues and conditions that should guide and prioritize research, as long as academics practice their own varieties of anti-intellectualism and scholar depotism, as long as academics are first and foremost petit-bourgeois and careerist in their orientation, the “research” and “teaching” in “mainstream economics” will be as irrelevant and worthless as many of its practitioners.