When scholars sound like salesmen

6 May 2012

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.