When scholars sound like salesmen

It’s a classic scene from daily life at an office that may already have been ridiculed by Dilbert. A salesman selling, say, software, arrives at an office; the boss explains he needs the new software to do several things and asks whether the salesman’s product can perform these tasks. He proudly answers that yes, most of these tasks will from now on be performed perfectly, and that the remaining functionalities will be added to the software’s repertoire in the near future. The boss only asks why the new software has not been designed to do these tasks already, suspecting that the developers do not really understand the real needs of the office people.

I was reminded of this when I read about a new interdisciplinary project. Its members, no doubt sincere and hard-working scholars, mention all the benefits of working together. But what they are also saying is that so far, things have not been done as they should have been done, that tax money has been wasted, and that scholars do not understand what is expected of them: to offer the best possible information.

I love scholarship, but as webmaster of Livius.org I have – over the past sixteen years – also received hundreds of e-mail messages. I know that there’s a large group of people who are very sceptical about science and scholarship (21% of the 4200+ people that have written to me). They believe that the universities are large commercial enterprises and that news about discoveries is just like an advertisement by a multinational or a statement by a political party: a misrepresentation. Worse, these sceptics are not always wrong (example).

Statements like “we will from now on use more interdisciplinary approaches” are completely counterproductive, because they prove to many people that until now, things were wrong.

3 Responses to When scholars sound like salesmen

  1. Bill Thayer says:

    While I agree with the general tenor of this one, with one detail I don’t. There is nothing bad, to my mind, in realizing then publicly admitting that a product or method — in computer terms, that a set of data or of instructions — was not complete or perfect but thanks to other people’s input can be expanded or corrected. It is human nature, and the normal way of progress of all that we do: including the best traditional scientific process, in which I publish, and my peers immediately pounce on me and point out the deficiencies; then if I care and am honest, I examine and maybe reformulate. Notice that this process is exactly the process I’m contributing to here: Jona said something, and I am commenting. None of us ever being perfect, the process refines every individual work by correcting it from the collective mind: No Person is an Island; or, to put it another way, until now, things are always wrong, and that’s fine.

    Recently I’ve been made more aware of this than usual. Over the last 6 months I’ve had the opportunity of working with a software maker whose product seemed fine (and really was: the product was excellent before I ever went near it) — until I started using it to fulfil some of its implicit potential, and quickly discovered from my specialized angle that many small improvements had to be made to do that.

    But this minor detail of a disagreement of mine with Jona — becomes full agreement as soon as the author or software developer or university says that they don’t care about the concern we raise, or (more often) continues on its merry way without even acknowledging the problem. Either they don’t care, or they have some vested interest or aprioristic agenda: then we leave the domain of scholarship, of the ever-improving company, of the political party with real principles, and enter the cynical domain of the academic hack, or of the lazy multinational, or of dishonest politics.

  2. scot mcphee says:

    I think that university administrations and funding bodies actively encourage scholars to talk like computer industry salesmen. The stuff that comes down from on high (i.e. the vice chancellors, and senior academic executive authorities) increasingly sounds like the empty rhetoric of corporate management or technocratic bureaucracy. Full of Brussels-style bureaucratese; “metrics”, “benchmarking”, “synergies”, “integrated approaches”, “whole-of-university” etc. I am sure that someone up there is pumping out memos about “interdisciplinarity” too. And so the poor put upon scholar who’s been asked repeatedly about their conformance to such ideals has a professional need to repeat this language in their research – after all they have to put it in their grant applications now too. Of course the less morally upright can see it just another game to be played in their favour – I’m sure they rapidly rise to the top echelons of university administration as well, compounding the problem.

    Just on software, as I’ve got direct experience in that (many years of commercial development), the incremental approach produces better results. One major problem is you (the developer) can never really see what the user needs; you waste an enormous effort trying to anticipate it only to find out the user wants something else entirely. There is also a parallel, however. Which is that in many cases the *user* doesn’t know what they “need” until they see it and play with it – so even if you ask them, you often get a system that’s very far from the optimum. Famously Steve Jobs said this about the first Macintosh: he could not have asked people what they wanted and got an answer like the Mac – he had to *show* people first. Sometimes you have to demonstrate working software so that people can understand what they might do with it.

  3. “Sometimes you have to demonstrate working software so that people can understand what they might do with it.”

    I now realize that my analogy with a software salesman was only partly correct. Software is indeed something new and customers are looking for something that they could not have thought of. The standard by which we measure, is more or less new. Interdisciplinary research, however, is something else. It is just trying to restore the situation in which scholars use every possible road to knowledge. Everybody knows the standard.

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