January 16, 2004

Learning From Mistakes

A recent StrategyPage item inadvertently reminded me of a major failing in current US academia, especially in the humanities. The article was about logistics problems in Iraq and among the problems identified were that the combat generals had adopted new ways of war and the logistics generals missed it. What logistics thought was a constant turned out to be a variable and this cost us in our effort to keep the troops supplied in the recent conflict. But caught once, the logisticians don't want a repeat:

The army supply experts are now revising their systems to deal with what happened in Iraq. Some of the logistical experts are also paying closer attention to what new tactics the combat generals are cooking up. Just in case.

This brought up one of the most telling problems that Steven Den Beste brought up in his recent opus on p-idealism. He quotes Chip Morningstar:

Looking at the field of contemporary literary criticism as a whole also yields some valuable insights. It is a cautionary lesson about the consequences of allowing a branch of academia that has been entrusted with the study of important problems to become isolated and inbred. The Pseudo Politically Correct term that I would use to describe the mind set of postmodernism is "epistemologically challenged": a constitutional inability to adopt a reasonable way to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff. The language and idea space of the field have become so convoluted that they have confused even themselves. But the tangle offers a safe refuge for the academics. It erects a wall between them and the rest of the world. It immunizes them against having to confront their own failings, since any genuine criticism can simply be absorbed into the morass and made indistinguishable from all the other verbiage. Intellectual tools that might help prune the thicket are systematically ignored or discredited. This is why, for example, science, psychology and economics are represented in the literary world by theories that were abandoned by practicing scientists, psychologists and economists fifty or a hundred years ago. The field is absorbed in triviality.

It's a telling difference. If you rely on another field to do your job, you have to stay current, at least enough so that when the theories in the other field that you depend on for your own work are discredited, you don't just ignore the event. You take part in the reevaluation process and fix your own stuff so that it can survive without relying on faulty premises or, if you can't do that, you scrap and start over. The fact that so much of the humanities refuses to do that this necessary intellectual hygiene that caused me to throw my arms up in disgust and ask why do we keep funding this?

Now the intellectual problem of following up on other fields' progress is much more complicated for the academics than the military logisticians. But the logisticians at least recognize that it is a problem and are addressing it. Creating information systems that would support academics by toting up all the cross-disciplinary theories that their work depends on and send out warnings when said theories were discredited would not be a difficult task and could be handled on an academy wide basis. Periodic sweeps of the database by students and research assistants would be sufficient to keep the database current enough to avoid the intellectual inbreeding problem.

So why don't the do it, and why are we paying for their academic sloppiness? You'd think that full professors could manage the level of diligence of a supply clerk.

Posted by TMLutas at January 16, 2004 11:42 AM