Thursday, October 01, 2009

Comments on the Belmont Club
"The man who broke the bank"


Men are not angels. If they were then the entire apparatus of government, of laws and courts and committees and procedures would be unneeded. The marble could sleep in peace. It is not shocking that Briffa either cheated or was sloppy. It is not a surprise that he attempted to cover up his error. That is especially true given that billions of dollars and thousands of careers were riding on his secret twelve tree sample. As part of the procedures we can try to teach a code of ethics and tell allegorical stories of selfless gentlemen who announce their own failures and errors. We do not expect that level of conduct from politicians, nor from lawyers, nor from clergy, nor from bankers. So why should we from scientists? The more concentrated authority is the easier it is for a falsehood to survive.

Academic training does include some socialization in accepting criticism. Once I participated in an ongoing workshop on International Relations theory. Every week a paper would be presented by a visiting scholar. The paper had been made available to the twenty or so graduate students a week in advance. Some of the visitors were young and these could be considered job talks but others were by well known and senior faculty at other universities who had offered a first look at their latest work. After the guest had been welcomed and introduced by the local professor leading the workshop and an exchange of pleasantries the work would begin. The paper would always be introduced by a graduate student who would summarize the paper's thesis and then tear it apart. This could be a brutal process to watch. It would often include phrases like, "I see what you are doing here but how does that relate to this other point you make?" or "I can see where you have shown you get these numbers from but can you show where you got these others that you also rely on?" and "This is very interesting, I am surprised that you haven't commented on the work of XYZ who published on a very similar problem last year (or 5 years ago.) Can you explain why?" Having been thoroughly and publicly eviscerated the only thing that the visitor can do is say the following, "Thank you." That was a very powerful lesson for young academics to witness and I suspect that it is part of the culture that separates truly elite institutions from the common herd.

When I was in High School I was invited to witness a dissertation defense in a biology department. I had spent a Summer murdering mice at a local college to support the candidates project. It was a horrible thing to watch as one faculty member asked the candidate "Why?" and the candidate was destroyed.

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Bob Hawkins and agoraphobic plumber ,
(who performed and admired a critical artillery salvo)

This reminds me of how The Belmont Club recaptures for me of the exhilaration of being at University. The knowledge that you are swimming with sharks and might at any moment notice or gulp participate in an Annie Hall moment, as when Woody Allen pulled Marshall McLuhan out from behind a sign to smack down a windbag. Whatever his other sins, including his incredibly tone deaf defense of Roman Polanski, Woody got that right.

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