The academic bullshit engine

Sir Humphrey: If local authorities don’t send us statistics, Government figures will be a nonsense.
Hacker: Why?
Sir Humphrey: They’ll be incomplete.
Hacker: Government figures are a nonsense, anyway.
Bernard: I think Sir Humphrey wants to ensure they’re a complete nonsense.

— Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes Minister, season 3 episode 3.

The bullshitter… does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

— Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.

I found myself recently studying the Google Scholar profile of a mathematician — let’s call him/her Professor X — about whom all that need be said is that s/he is substantially more powerful than I am. I had thought I knew X’s field of study reasonably well, but as I scrolled down the profile I discovered work in a startlingly different area. Impressed, I clicked on a title; then blinked; then double-checked; then went through the rigmarole again with another title; and finally I made a fresh cup of coffee and worked down the entire list. Around twenty publications, accounting for more than a quarter of X’s citation count, turned out not to have been written by X at all.

The majority of the anomalous publications were by a different X, who shares the Professor’s initials (X, since you ask) but not his/her first name, so I presume they were added to the list by Google’s ever-zealous robo-bibliographers. A couple were slightly more puzzling, since they are in X’s field but nobody with a name resembling X appears among the authors; I can only guess that these were added manually by selecting papers that sounded to X like the sort of thing s/he might have written. It would be perfectly explicable as carelessness if I didn’t know that X was perfectly aware of the flaws of Scholar’s automatic updates — so the anomalies, presumably, are there with X’s knowledge and consent.

Does this matter? Isn’t it, in the breach of trust between scholar and reader, a social crime akin to plagiarism? I’ve put the question, in suitably disguised form, to a few colleagues, and what has come closest to shocking me is their lack of shock. The general attitude seems to be that yes, one’s Scholar profile matters; yes, people do look at it and it does influence decisions on hiring and promotion and such baubles; but of course nobody takes it seriously as a statement of fact. In other words, everybody knows it’s bullshit in the Frankfurt sense, but bullshit to which one must defer — putting it in the same category as impact statements, learning enhancement strategies, and umpteen other altars on which one must sprinkle incense. This worries me.

I can imagine an academic mathematician, perhaps quite similar to Professor X, who can see precisely where to draw the line between the part of the job that demands scrupulous accuracy and honesty, and the part that demands aggrandisement, inflation, and crap. This imaginary academic, having distinguished these magisteria, has no difficulty preventing the mental habits of one from leaking into the other: he can spend the morning dishing up the purest tripe for an EPSRC panel, and the afternoon crafting the sentences that will communicate precisely how much trust should be placed in an asymptotic estimate; and the morning’s work won’t compromise the afternoon’s. (Perhaps he uses a different pen.) Fair enough, but I can’t imagine myself ever learning this profitable art, and I have my doubts about most of the rest of us. The minotaur, after all, was a monster.

The discipline of mathematics, as I’ve ranted previously, is supposed to provide a bulwark against bullshit. If it doesn’t, then what is it worth? What can I teach my students, if it’s not to try to tell the truth — and, as a duty to their own intelligence, to tell the truth even when they suspect that no one cares what’s true? I hang on in my job because I still hope that they might learn this, and that it might help them to develop as human beings. If it helps them instead to develop as the skilled operators of a bullshit engine, then have I done more harm than good?

Or is this all, as my colleagues would probably tell me, all too prim and pedantic, and am I fighting yet another battle for imaginary outposts in a forgotten and discredited war? Quite possibly. But if I have to be shovelled into my career’s grave as a nonsense, then in deference to those who taught me I would rather be a complete nonsense, with scrupulously accurate citations.

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