Knowledge, and the Life of Knowledge, Are Not The Same

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I started re-reading an old book from grad school: Order and Skepticism: Human Geography and the Dialectic of Science, by Richard Szymanski and John Agnew. It’s essentially a complaint that human geography at the time (1981) was too easily swayed by interesting models that don’t actually have fully explanatory power. Their notion is that order and skepticism are the paired tools of intellectual life, that we build and then we attempt to break and build anew.

As they note, this is a romanticized view of knowledge creation, science as it would be done by robots. Humans do things differently. This isn’t new information to anyone who’s read Thomas Kuhn, but along with Kuhn, they extensively cite the psychologist Donald Campbell, from his 1979 article “A tribal model of the social system vehicle carrying scientific knowledge.” I’ll do the same.

A scientific community must recruit new members and reward old members well enough so that young recruits will be attracted to a lifelong commitment to the field and will justify the drudgery and painful initiation rites. Journals must be published, purchased, and read. Members must remain loyal to the group and not “defect” to other tribes. Jobs must be found for loyal followers. Social facilitators are needed to keep the group together and must be rewarded for this role, even if this means giving them scientific honors not earned by their cognitive contributions. The requirements  of leadership for coordination and continuity may produce leaders whose decision-making power is used to protect their own social positions and their own scientific beliefs against internal challenge from young rivals. the deeply ingrained social custom of building ingroup loyalty by mobilizing hostility and disgust toward outgroups may be employed as a convenience (and perhaps even occasionally as a necessity) in maintaining group cohesion and continuity.

Given equal ability, it helps a young scientist’s appointment, promotion, grant-getting, and publication to be well connected in the extrascientific real world. It helps if one has good manners and is cultured. It helps, too, if one’s ideas support rather than oppose the dominant interest groups of the larger society. Likewise, it helps if one comes from a high-prestige university. All such contamination violates important norms of science which hold that the contribution to scientific truth should be the only determinant of status within science.

Cooperative people who defer to the majority, who get along and go along with others, and who hold the team together, get preferential treatment even if they are less competent. This is true of scientific communities, too, contrary to scientific norms that encourage vigorous internal criticism even if feelings are hurt and norms demanding that competence rather than likeableness is what should count.

Now, Campbell names this tribalism as a hindrance to science, and indeed it is. But it isn’t necessarily a hindrance to scientific life, an important distinction. We are not isolated free agents in any of the work we do. We work within communities, and the work of holding community together is real work. The work of organizing and managing the community is real work. The work of evangelizing new converts to our tribe is real work. And scholarly capability is direct training for exactly none of those things.

Managing a college is not scholarship; it’s policy and human relations and friendship and inspiration and charisma. Bringing students into fuller engagement, fuller desire for our body of ideas is not scholarship; it’s a seduction, a watchful laying out of rewards and praise and opportunities that lure the feral freshman into becoming the loyal senior.

The problem with meritocracy isn’t just that it’s impossible. It’s also that we don’t know (or at least don’t agree) on what we want people to be good at, and further that we want people to be good at lots of different things which are unlikely pairings. Imagine a baseball manager having to decide which of two rookie shortstops to keep and which to send back to the minors. Smith can catch anything within twenty yards of his position, can turn a double play like nobody’s business… but he can’t hit anything that curves, a guaranteed out, an inning-buster. Jones has hit like a demon throughout spring training, but he’s got concrete hands and no range and a wild arm. Both are good, neither are perfect. So you have to ask yourself a) which skill do I think we can teach? b) which player bolsters the particular weaknesses of the rest of my lineup, and c) which person is going to be a cheerful, upbeat presence on the team, keeping everybody else loose and happy?

Academic life is no different, but we’ve done a much more meager job of thinking though how we select colleagues, so our meritocracy is even more misshapen than that of the Houston Astros. You’d think that smart people would be better at this, but we’re not. We’re just people, after all.