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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sloppy conservative critics of universities

In an incredibly intellectually sloppy analysis, Peter Berkowitz launches another confused attack on universities, careening from Climategate, to core curricula, to inadequacies of the peer review process. His discussion suffers severely from his attempt simultaneously to treat disparate fields from the humanities to the hard sciences.

I greatly enjoy the Climategate spectacle and have no particular opinion on common reading requirements. (I have no objection to students being well guided in their bedtime reading.) Berkowitz's discussion of curricular issues is too incoherent to address. So, I will focus today on the refereeing, hiring, and promotion processes.

Unlike Berkowitz, I have only been involved in refereeing for mathematics and physics journals. I do not share his apparently all encompassing expertise in the different review standards practised in the humanities, the social sciences, engineering, and medical journals - although I do hear some gossip. I defer to the fascinating tales of Alan Sokal for insight into the publication standards in cultural studies. In mathematics, most papers submitted to journals are sent to one or two referees. The chosen referees are experts in the fields germane to the submitted paper. If they were not experts, how could they possibly assess the correctness, importance, and originality of the paper? This can be an extremely difficult job - even for the expert. Berkowitz asserts that their expertise disqualifies them from impartiality because they are necessarily competitors. Scientists are human, and there are a few bad apples, but in mathematics they are rare. Most mathematicians I know have one or two stories of referee abuse. I have my own, but a handful of negative experiences over decades of work does not suggest the enterprise is corrupt - merely human. More common than abuse is simple human error. I have had authors complain about my understanding of the importance or accuracy of some argument, and amazingly, sometimes I decide that they are correct. Despite my expertise, I have made an error. I communicate my error to the editor, and the paper gets published. More often, the author of a rejected paper simply submits it to a different, perhaps less prestigious, journal. It is worth noting that in the internet age, there is less incentive for a referee to engage in hanky panky. Mathematical scientists of many stripes post their papers first on the arxiv , where it is rapidly disseminated throughout the community. Discarding refereeing because of the occasional failures is like the left condemning all business because an occasional Enron blows up.

Berkowitz is correct in stating that
"departmental colleagues are regularly asked to evaluate scholarly work in which they have little more expertise than the man or woman on the street. Often unable to form independent professional judgments—but unwilling to recuse themselves from important personnel decisions—faculty members routinely rely on confidential letters of evaluation from scholars at other universities."
In fact, in my department this is more often the case than not, for both hiring and promotion. (Well, the statement about the man or woman on the street is clearly a gross exaggeration). Rather than hiring our intellectual clones, we try to expand the expertise of the department by hiring scholars whose expertise is different from our own. We absolutely depend on the advice of the leaders in the field. Amusingly, an important part of our expertise is now social. We need to know which leaders are consistently overgenerous in their praise, which push their own students, and who is sparing in their praise. If we recused ourselves, who would make the hiring decisions - our office staff?

Berkowitz's piece achieves a level of incoherence I expect from the left, but I expect better from my conservative colleagues. For many (read the NRO for example), their upset with the undeniable (far) left tilt of academe leads them to ill informed and poorly argued attacks on the universities. It ill serves them. Editors stop using referees when they are given reason to suspect their judgment; so too do readers stop attending to writers who weaken their credibility by spouting nonsense.

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