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Eureka: A chat on academia
by Joseph Gatt
2018-08-04 06:14:34
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When I was in college and grad school, we were all taught classical economics, and by classical I mean Adam Smith, Hamilton, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Mesis, Rothbard. No I'm actually making stuff up. We did not study Hayek, Mesis or Rothbard. It was Hamilton, Ricardo, Benjamin Franklin, Marx and Keynes and a few articles by some obscure economists no one really reads.

acade01_400In 2008, an obscure politician called Ron Paul made a very complicated and intellectual presidential campaign where he discussed Hayek, Mesis and Rothbard, and that's when economics professors went ha! Maybe we should teach those. I had been to countless conferences until 2008, and had never heard an economist discuss laissez-faire by discussing anyone other than Adam Smith and Ricardo. Those who studied Hayek, Mesis, Rothbard, Hazlitt or Friedman existed, but it was the obscure libertarian professor. Everyone taught Marx and Keynes.

The Nobel Prize for economics was that obscure award where laureates would get their 15 seconds of fame and would disappear into obscurity as quickly as they made the spotlight. Now in 2000 film director Ron Howard made a movie on the 1994 Nobel Prize for economics laureate John Nash and the film revolved around Nash's struggle with paranoid schizophrenia, although in 2000 a lot of professors started teaching game theory, which is what Nash got the Nobel Prize for. Even so, game theory was perhaps taught at elite universities like the MIT or the University of Chicago, and few economists bothered teaching game theory nor understood it, as simplified clear explanations only came about in around 2012 or 2013, when someone used the ice hockey protection helmet analogy. Point is, before A beautiful mind, no one really taught game theory. 

In 2002, an obscure Israeli-American economist called Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for economics. The truth is, before 2009 and Kahneman's publication of his magnum opus Thinking Fast and Slow, no one knew who he was. That is if you were an economist in 2006 or 2008 I bet you had no idea who Kahneman was. When Thinking Fast and Slow was published, economists read the book, were enchanted, basically stopped teaching Keynes and Ricardo, and would focus their entire work on teaching materials found in Kahneman's teaching fast and slow. In his final chapter, Kahneman mentions Richard Thaler's Nudge, and people started teaching that book as well. Thaler got the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017. Before 2009; no one really had access to the Kahneman and Tversky papers, save those who attended their conferences. 

The point I'm trying to make here is after getting the Nobel Prize for Economics, several acclaimed economists have talked about getting their 15 seconds of fame that is a short article in major newspapers, and faded back to obscurity. Their articles still get rejected from major journals, they still have trouble being invited to conferences, and in some cases still have trouble finding or retaining an academic position.

Why would you need a movie about your psychiatric issues or a New York Times best-selling book to have your theories put forward? The truth is, you have more chances getting published if you write an article paraphrasing Kahneman, Thaler or Nassim Nicholas Taleb's work than you would have publishing your own theoretical work. Perhaps something to be thankful for, because if everyone was trying to come up with an original theory of economics, we would be lost in the academic world.

In 2013, shortly after losing my academic position and being banned from teaching at universities, I undertook what was to be a minor research project on the labor conditions of English teachers in South Korea. English teachers tended to be vocal, a lot complained about their jobs, so I thought why not interview them and find out what they have to say in some semi-structured fashion. The results were surprising, as I was coding their answers, I found out that their answers came in the form of wanting emotional stability at work, stability in their personal life, working for stable and organized organizations, and easily getting their tasks done. I then noticed that this model applied for workers in Korea and England, in France and Algeria, in South Africa and Brazil, in Israel and China. Not only did that not get me tenure, but the professors I would lecture about this theory were stoic, a lot of professors thought the theory was of little interest, I got banned from my Ph.D. program, and a proceedings journal refused to publish my paper because it “lacked quality” (that was the only vague explanation given). To give you a hint, proceedings journals are those journals that publish every paper presented at the conference (including shitty ones, unreadable ones, those written in broken English and those devoid of any methodology) and yet they found a way to reject my paper.

Even Kahneman himself hints that he was a celebrity in the 1970s, but if you read between the lines, he was famous at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem school of Economics, and I bet no one really knew of his work outside his department. I have searched YouTube in English and Hebrew for interviews of Tversky and Kahneman may have given to the Israeli and American media and found nothing. Same goes for Thaler, if Kahneman had not recommended his book, I bet he would not have been famous outside a couple of places in London.

What am I trying to say about academia? In this era of Academia.com, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and other platforms where scholars get to expose their work, let me reassure you from academic to academic that you are not getting exposure outside your family, department and friends circle. Few university deans would know the difference between revolutionary research and common research, and few at the academic board of trustees would know the difference either.

Why am I saying all this? I have been avoiding, to the best of my ability, talking to a lot of professors, especially those with the attitude of a Japanese imperial army general who are convinced only they have the keys to good research and bad research. And I'm being generous with comparing them to Japanese imperial army generals, I think a better analogy would be a Nazi or Fascist generals and I’m almost being kind. With an attitude like that, you are not going to teach anyone how to do research. But the main problem is, and I'll stop here, is that those professors don't know how to do research themselves, nor have they published anything that does not paraphrase some famous researcher. 

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