When John Milton (Al Pacino) chuckled in the Devil’s Advocate “vanity, definitely my favorite sin,” he may have been referring to academics, not attorneys.
In academia skins are thin, hairs are split, emails are long, humor is self-congratulatory, and everyone cites themselves thinking that they’re Shakespeare. In the land of geniuses pettiness lies next to godliness. Wallace Sayre, a political scientist, once said that academic politics is vicious because the stakes are so low.
The iconoclast, Nassim Taleb, reserves special derision for academics. He took Steven Pinker to task for claiming that violence has progressively declined because of a decline in religion. According to Taleb, Pinker was ignoring fat tails – or the long lull before the storm. Pinker responded by saying that Taleb was being fooled by belligerence.
Not even the hard sciences are spared from hair splitters. Bruce Hillman, in The Man Who Stalked Einstein, tells the story of Philipp Lenard, a German physicist who hated Einstein, viscerally. Lenard, a devout Nazi, was no mug – he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on cathode rays. Lenard’s hatred of Einstein had roots deeper than anti-Semitism. Lenard was trying to prove the existence of ether, a mysterious substance once believed to fill the universe and produce gravity. While Lenard was experimenting, Einstein, in a flash of inspiration, intuited space-time, which enraged Lenard because ether was not needed to explain gravity, and this implied that Lenard had been seeking something imaginary.
Lenard felt that experimenters, not thinkers, deserved the highest honors. He despised theoretical physicists, who, he felt, merely procrastinated. Lenard’s exaltation of experimental sciences is not out of place with academia today where experimenters get more credence (and access to the public purse) than theorists. Arthur Eddington, who proved the curvature of space-time by showing that gravity bends light in a solar eclipse, would have shared the honors with Einstein today. But Eddington is a historical footnote compared to Einstein.
Why was the accomplished Lenard so envious of Einstein? The currencies in academia are fame and recognition, not money. Fame cannot exist by itself – more fame for some comes with less fame for others. Fame is a zero sum game. Einstein’s stardom irked Lenard who felt that Einstein was not worthy of any recognition.
Not every academic is petulant. The economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek fought like gladiators but their duel had the aestheticism of a Socratic dialog. Their clash advanced knowledge. Keynes called Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, a “frightful muddle”, and an example of how “starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can up in Bedlam.” Privately, Keynes praised Hayek on his tome. The more baroque Hayek said “Keynes is not a highly trained or a very sophisticated economic theorist.” Keynes held the upper hand but both were friends and even hung out during the German air strikes in the Second World War.
A mini-Lenard is embedded in nearly every academic. Scholarly duels have become passive-aggressive – many academics discredit their opponents by ignoring them. A case in point is the clash between the economist, Paul Krugman, and the historian, Niall Ferguson. Ferguson fires the salvo. Krugman returns fire by pretending to ignore the salvo. This is a shame, because as petulant as academia can be, we lose when academics don’t argue.
In a couple of weeks I will be attending the Radiological Society of North America – one of the largest medical meetings in the world. During scientific presentations there is guaranteed to be one person, often me, who will clear his (yes, always a male) throat, walk to the mike and, assuming immeasurable pomposity, with the tone that can only arise by perfected self-love, draw attention to a patently obvious limitation in the study methodology, usually that the study is not randomized, before reminding everyone “in my experience…blah, blah, blah,” compelling the presenter to say “thank you for the thoughtful comments sir, yes, more research is needed.”
Self-love is the opium of academics.
About the author: Saurabh Jha is an academic tosser desperately seeking an alter ego. Interested candidates can reach him on Twitter @RogueRad