Monday, March 31, 2014

Time & Persons

People are to history what things are to the world. They're what it's made of. People occupy time as things occupy space; indeed, there is a sense in which organizing your time means deciding who you are. You are what you do, the sum of all your actions. And action unfolds in time, one thing after another.

I was reminded of this on Friday, in the middle of the second part of my Writing Process Reengineering seminar, which is devoted to the time of writing. (The first part is devoted to space, which I'll write about on Wednesday.) It suddenly occurred to me that I spend as much time talking about the identity of the author—the relationship you should cultivate to yourself as an author, the part of you that writes—as I do talking about scheduling your writing time, "planning your work and working your plan", as they say.

If Bergson is right that "time is that which keeps everything from happening all at once", then it would seem that "I", "the self", my personality, arises out the decisions that distinguish between what I have done, what I am doing now, and what I will do later. The adept in meditation can dissolve this distinction, but this is tantamount, precisely, to the dissolution of the self. To have a past, a present, and a future is to be a person. Or better: to be a person is to have a past, a future, and a presence.

In writing, the relevant "personality" is, of course, the author. It is the author's presence we are supposed to feel when reading. We call this style. I believe that a strong style emerges from the act of deliberately sitting down to write as planned. That is, every time we write, having known the day before that we would do so, and knowing that at some planned point in time up ahead we will stop writing for the day, we strengthen our style. It is the work we do deliberately that gives us our authority; we are authors when we are writing deliberately.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Consultant, Philosopher

Talking to a group of students earlier this week, I introduced myself as both a consultant and a philosopher. That means I'm at once the guy who tells you how to get things done and the guy who makes you doubt whether you exist. When I'm through with you you're thinking both "Yes we can!" and "Who are we?"

I suppose these two roles of mine are in a kind of conflict with each other. So far, however, my clients and I have found it tolerable, and I suspect that it's an essential tension in what I do. Perhaps in other industries, the management consultant can focus exclusively on questions of efficiency and motivation, but in academia there are constitutively "existential" issues to deal with, without which the enterprise becomes meaningless. Scholars are not just producers of artifacts like books and journal articles, and they don't just deliver services like teaching and examination. Their students are not simply customers and their peers are a little more than colleagues. Their deans and department heads are not merely their bosses. While their activities are often ordinary on the ground, they do in fact pursue a higher aim. They must answer to a higher authority, namely, truth.

If I didn't feel that my own contribution served those higher aims, i.e., if I didn't feel that I helped scholars meet their distinctly academic obligations, the satisfaction I derive from my work would quickly disappear. While I certainly believe academia could be organized more efficiently, and that the "business" of scholarship could be more "profitable", I do not believe that efficiency is the most important thing, nor that scholarship really is a business (without quotation marks).

This tension is, I hope, summarized in my paragraph-oriented definition of knowledge. You know something if you (a) hold a justified, true belief about it, (b) can hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people about it, and (c) are able to compose a coherent prose paragraph about it, consisting of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that make a single, clearly defined claim and offers support for it, in 27 minutes. No one of those three components is enough. Scholars not only learn truths, they produce knowledge. If the journal article is often the "unit of work done", we must remember that the paragraph is the unit of composition. People who "know things" for a living should compose themselves in this spirit.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


About a week ago I spoke to a class of undergraduate business students as part two of a two-part module on the craft of research. In part one, six weeks earlier, I had explained the basic discipline of writing a paragraph about something you know on a regular basis, always deciding the day before what you will write the next morning, always writing for exactly twenty-seven minutes, producing at least six sentences and at most 200 words. On this second occasion I asked them whether they had tried it, say, fifteen times since we last met. (There are thirty weekdays in a six-week period. So I was in effect asking them whether they had written a paragraph every other day.) No one had. Ten times? No one. Five? A few hands. Three, two? A few more. Once? Well, it did seem like about half of them would at least claim that, in the days immediately after my first meeting with them, they were curious enough to try it. Like I say, once.

I then asked how many of them had engaged in formally structured physical exercise for at least 27 minutes on fifteen or more occasions during the past six weeks. Jogging, aerobics, going to the gym, practice for a sports team—things like that. Well over half the class had of course done so. And when I counted down—ten, five, three, two, one—I naturally got pretty much all the hands up in the class. After all, we're talking about young people, most of them are probably eighteen to twenty years old. They take their health seriously. At the very least, they have a certain amount of physical vanity.

I'm not above moralizing about writing to students (and faculty, for that matter). So I pointed out that we had just gotten a clear indication of their priorities. They are obviously more concerned about the shape of their bodies than the shape of their minds. They set aside a great deal of time to train their muscles but not their prose. They do a lot to maintain a good relationship with the part of them that is physically ambitious, let's say, but not the part of them that is intellectually ambitious. Here, again, we can make this point even in terms of their lack of intellectual vanity.

As a coach, my goal in life is to get people to understand that they will become more productive, more effective, and happier writers only if they take the time to train, to practice. They have to see the connected acts of deciding on a truth they know at the end of one day and writing that truth down at the beginning of the next as a form of exercise that improves their prose style. Shaping your knowledge into paragraph-sized units of different kinds—historical, theoretical, methodological, empirical, polemical—is what you do as a scholar, an academic. It is not an ability you were born with or learned just by showing up for class or reading books in college. You have to learn it by training, and then you have to maintain that ability. You have to keep your prose in shape.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Social Epistemology

(This post also appears on the website of the
Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.)

When I call myself a social epistemologist I mean that I am a particular kind of philosopher. It's not the name of a doctrine, mind you, like constructivism or realism, but an activity, like phenomenology. It's a way of doing philosophy. Some social epistemologists might prefer to call themselves "sociologists" or "anthropologists" or just "intellectuals". But for me it's a specifically philosophical business.

As I practice it, social epistemology was invented by Steve Fuller. (He didn't coin the phrase, but he made something very distinctive of it.) These past two weeks I've been talking about two of his most important precursors, Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault, and I've said that they indicate two further precursors, namely, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger. This morning I want suggest three still older precursors.

It all begins with Kant. Here we find the classical formulation of the problem: what are "the conditions of the possibility of the experience of objects", i.e., what makes human knowledge possible? In the mid-nineteenth century, two very different theologians took these questions up in very different ways: Bernard Bolzano and Søren Kierkegaard. Both were reacting to the overwhelming amount of knowledge that their age was producing. Bolzano proposed a system of rules by which all possible treatises could be written. Kierkegaard took a different approach: "what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates."

Now, Socrates' philosophy famously reduces to the Delphic maxim "know thyself". The founders of the so-called "strong program" in the sociology of scientific knowledge, Barry Barnes and David Bloor, used to talk about "existential" conditions of knowledge, meaning basically "social" conditions. I normally interpret this sense of "existential" to suggest that there is a profound connection between what we know and who we are. We have to become certain kinds of people in order to know certain kinds of things; and our knowledge of things necessarily transforms who we are. When Kant defined "enlightenment" with the slogan "dare to know", he was saying we must have the courage to become whatever it is we have to be to know all the things science is telling us.

Foucault, in a sense, was telling us to consider the matter more carefully. Perhaps it is not simply cowardly to insist on not knowing things that would turn us into people we don't want to be. This, to my mind, is the core of the project of social epistemology. Already in his first book, Social Epistemology, from 1988, Steve explained the project as the two-fold task of helping to design institutions that made certain forms of knowledge possible, i.e., institutions that shaped certain kinds of scientists, on the one hand, and helping policy-makers understand what kinds of knowledge we should expect to emerge from real or proposed institutional interventions, on the other.

For my part, I have been focusing on the identity of the scientific author, helping people take control of what Foucault called their "author function", if you will. This is where the project, having proceeded from Kant to Kierkegaard (and then Heidegger, Foucault and Fuller) loops back around (through Kuhn and Wittgenstein) to Bolzano. What are the rules by which, if not whole treatises, then at least journal articles, may be written, so as to support the growth of knowledge? And this, then, takes us back to Kant: how does writing offer us a moment of apperception? And finally back to Socrates: how does writing an article help us to know ourselves? How does it shape us? The important thing, however, is to keep in mind that "the self" is always a social entity. The question is not so much who I am as who we are. What is science asking us to become?

Friday, March 21, 2014


"In Arendt's thinking, it is the beginner who is the guarantor of political freedom, the beginner, born into speech, speaking to the world, to other beginners. The human social beginnings—of birth, of speech—define the shared condition—natality, in Arendt’s coinage—and ensure that action reveals the improbable yet always renewing freedom inherent in collective life. Without speech, she argues, action would lose its subjects and become violence." (Lisa Roberston)

The title of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions notwithstanding, Kuhn's view of science was a highly conservative one. He did not believe that revolutions were what was characteristic of science at all; rather, they were to be understood as exceptions to the "normal" functioning of a "mature" science. Moreover, since successor paradigms are "incommensurable" with their predecessors, it is not possible to say that a revolution brings us closer to the truth about nature. Different paradigms are always about different things. In a revolution, we don't learn more about apples but something more precise about oranges than we previously knew about those apples. The "adult" members of mature scientific discipline, like adults everywhere else, see revolutions as first and foremost annoying, and usually also scandalous. After all, a proposed revolution always proposes to undo the gains of the previous one, and will in any case turn accepted values on their head. This is not just effrontery, either: it will have very real effects on the hard-won privileges of the current elite members of a field.

But one of the marks of true adulthood, real maturity, of course, is the ability and willingness see beyond one's own self-interest and to think on behalf of the community's needs as a whole. The "great learning", or what Ezra Pound translated as Confucius's program of "adult study" was "rooted in watching with affection the way people grow". Mature adults may not desire revolutionary changes in their communities, but they are able to appreciate and even feel affection for growth. If a community really does begin to resemble the bleak nightmare of Orwell's 1984, it is because its leaders become resistant to any change or growth at all. When only ends justify means there can be no tolerance for beginnings. And yet, the ability to begin something is, as in Lisa Robertson's reading of Hannah Arendt, the essence of freedom, including the freedom of inquiry. Remove that ability and all action becomes violence.

You know you're in trouble, I once said, when the only adult in the room is the enfant terrible. Sometimes, that is, maturity is just a pretense, sometimes we are only pretending to be adults in order to avoid the emergence of a shocking or painful truth. Sometimes what is called for is not another "exemplar" of normal science, but the exposure of a fundamental error in our whole way of thinking. And communities rarely have a dignified place for the individual who feels compelled to make this case, and this person is, indeed, as Andrew Shields has pointed out in the comments to Wednesday's post, often actually a crank or quack, obsessed with his or her own personal truth and inconsolably "oppressed" by the community consensus, no matter how well-founded. And it is therefore sadly the case that even a true revolutionary, even a wholly necessary "beginner", who has made a real discovery, will have to proceed under the suspicion that he or she is a crank, and will almost certainly suffer the derision of the soi-disant "adults" that make up the field. To really begin, then, perhaps always requires the insolence of a child.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


"We may … have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth." (Thomas Kuhn, Structure, p. 232)

Just as most politicians, hopefully, go into politics driven by passion for social justice, most scientists enter their field in pursuit of the truth. But we all know what happens to politicians after they get elected the first time. They quickly realize that the working realities of holding public office requires them to "compromise", often setting their high ideals aside. To stick to principle is to be without influence. Kuhn tells us something similar about scientist: once they enter their chosen field they are faced with the task of "solving the problems or puzzles that its paradigms define" (228); they are not tasked, let's say, with simply "discovering the truth". While they can to a certain extent pursue their own interests and satisfy their curiosity, they are beholden to a powerful set of community commitments that determine what it is possible to discover at any given time. No matter how true a scientist's hunch may be, it may be impossible to demonstrate that truth to the community because to acknowledge it will be, well, revolutionary. It will undermine the authority of those with power and therefore tear the community apart. In that sense, what Kuhn calls "normal science" is a bit like realpolitik.

On Monday, I said that there is something disturbing about this insight, even though it seems entirely unavoidable to the "mature" mind who knows anything about social life. Perhaps it is precisely the prospect of maturity, adulthood, that disturbs the sensitivities of the young researcher who thought science was the stubborn pursuit of truth above all else. Kuhn's call for us to grow up, then, is rather stark: "Inevitably [these] remarks will suggest that the member of a mature scientific community is, like the typical character of Orwell's 1984, the victim of a history rewritten by the powers that be."

Monday, March 17, 2014


'We are quite sure of it' does not mean just that every single person is certain of it, but that we belong to a community which is bound together by science and education. (Ludwig Wittgesntein, On Certainty, §298)

Here's one way of reading Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions is an armchair sociology of scientific knowledge, Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge, an armchair history. By "armchair" I mean simply that professional sociologists and historians are often not very impressed with the nature of the underlying "data". Foucault's accomplishment, I sometimes say, was to re-interpret Heidegger's "existential conception of science" in historical terms, i.e., to flesh out Heidegger's account with historical detail. (Heidegger's account can be found already in Being and Time but the comparison to Foucault is much more striking alongside Heidegger's account of "modernity" in "The Age of the World Picture".) Kuhn, meanwhile, was in effect (and perhaps less consciously) grappling with the influence of Wittgenstein on our sense of our epistemic foundations. (What Kuhn called a "paradigm" is really a scientific "form of life".) At bottom, Kuhn and Foucault were providing detailed cases to illustrate what Wittgenstein and Heidegger had discovered, namely, that even the most abstract theories are rooted in the concrete practices of those who theorize. The whole field of Science Studies emerges from this insight.

In his post-script to Structure, Kuhn emphasizes the importance of identifying the "community structure" of a scientific paradigm, apologizing a little for the circularity of his reasoning. "A paradigm is what the members of a scientific community share, and, conversely, a scientific community consists of men who share a paradigm." This leads to a methodological consideration for post-Kuhnian sociologists of science: "Scientific communities can and should be isolated without prior recourse to paradigms; the latter can then be discovered by scrutinizing the behavior of a given community's members." That is, if you want to do an empirically grounded but nonetheless "epistemological" investigation of a science, you have be able to first identify the "scientists" by their community structure, not by their ideas. You have to decide who the scientists are and how they are organized before you try to understand what they are talking about. Their intellectual foundations can then be characterized by describing the elements of their "disciplinary matrix": symbolic generalizations, metaphysical models, values and exemplars.

We can easily see why. If you want to understand, e.g., how physicists working in the field of quantum mechanics know what they know, you can't begin with people who talk about quantum mechanics, or a bunch of books about it. After all, there are a lot of popularizers out there, and not a few charlatans. You have to choose your experts wisely, and the only way to do that is to situate them in the communities that actually produce knowledge of quantum phenomena. Once you've done that, you can go on to "scrutinize" what they know and how they know it. Interestingly, this is also how we enter our own scientific disciplines. As students, we come into contact with the outer boundaries of various scientific communities through our teachers. We become "certain", as Wittgenstein puts it, of some things, and not others, because of the education we get. We come to "share", as Kuhn puts it, a paradigm. We don't, at least not usually, start with some transcendental standard of knowledge and wait to say we "know" something until we run into an idea that meets that standard. Rather, our knowledge is rooted in our social bonds.

There is something obvious about this, a sense in which it has to be this way. But there is also something disturbing about it, something that offends our sense of what science ought to be. That will be the subject of Wednesday's post.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sick Day

Sometimes you have to cancel your writing because you are ill. Your head is simply not working properly, so the plan you made the day before can't be realized. I feel that way this morning, as I expected, more or less, last night. So I'm just going to take a few minutes to explain the "rules" for canceling your writing due to illness.

First, ask yourself whether you would cancel other things, like your teaching, or a meeting with a colleague, feeling the way you do. Truth be told, I think I would cancel on a colleague the way I feel today, but perhaps not my teaching, which I would just try to drag myself through. I know this because this is actually a day off I'm supposed to be spending with my daughter at her skating competition. And I will keep that commitment, despite canceling on my writing.

The important thing is to make sure that the author you are understands your decision. This post is not really an act of writing, so much as a conversation with my author about whether it's fair that we don't write what I intended last night, albeit vaguely (already sniffling), to write this morning.

Your physical and mental health, and the physical and mental health of those you love, are always legitimate reasons to cancel your writing. But you must make sure you don't invoke those reasons disproportionately against your writing when compared to your other responsibilities. If your writer always feels like he or she has to accept that you're too ill to write, while other tasks get done in the same state (and sometimes even on the very same day), you'll harm the important relationship that must exist between you as a writer and you as a scholar, a teacher, a parent, a lover. You'll lose trust in yourself, which is an important part of your style.

Anyway, that's it. No real writing today. The decision has now been made. And with that I'm going to drag my sorry ass through this long day and hope to spend Saturday in bed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Convenience of Truth

…it is difficult to express oneself. The act of writing something (which one expects or hopes will be published) is a social act; it becomes—even at its best—all but a lie. To communicate socially (as opposed to communicating personally or humanly) means that one must accept the sluggish fictions of society for at least nine-tenths of one's expression in order to present deceptively the remaining tenth which may be new. Social communication is the doom of every truly felt thought. (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 244)

When I first learned about "discourse" I approached it sort of like ideology. It consisted, I thought, of all the things people said not because they're true but because they are somehow convenient to the powers that be. I thought of discourse as a theory of what Mailer above calls "social communication". But I've gotten more sophisticated (and more accurate) in my reading of Foucault since then.

It is much more constructive to think of discourse as that which makes it possible to say things that would otherwise be impossible to say, not because they would be suppressed, but because we lacked the epistemic resources to say them. The meaning of words is not defined merely by the system of language, after all. Most sentences are comprehensible only on the background of a great deal of shared knowledge, and the the more specialized your utterances get, the more specialized becomes the relevant body of knowledge. In communicating what we know, we depend crucially on the knowledge that our peers already possess. But in order to leverage that opportunity we have to grant them also a great many things that, we think, they merely believe. Things we know in our hearts are false.

This is not "the doom of every truly felt thought", but it is a real constraint. In the case of scholarship the trick is to begin and end our thinking inside the limits of discourse, i.e., without entertaining for too long thoughts that will not fly in discourse. Many "truly felt thoughts" after all are finally simply wrong. They arise in the privacy of our own minds and, when we speak of them to our close friends, we realize we are talking nonsense. They feel true, but they don't survive scrutiny. While friendships are personal, of course, they are also in another sense "social". So already here we a get a sense of what social communication implies. Scholars, researchers, scientists devote a great deal of time to thinking about things on a socially shared basis. They do not, like novelists, nurture their own private fantasy or nightmare of the society in which they live. Rather, they use their minds to solve problems that have already been acknowledged by others, and they undertake to solve those problems in terms that will be convenient to the intellectual projects of those others.

Many scholars today do, in fact, think of their community as an intellectually oppressive arrangement. But what sort of arrangement would they prefer? If scholars had the luxury of expressing themselves before an audience that held no prior beliefs about the subject and would be happy to believe whatever you tell them, then you would have explain everything from the ground up every time. Hopefully, most of the lies of discourse are lies of polite omission. We talk about the things it is possible to say within the space of a journal article and, occasionally, a book. We don't expect to "rock the century on its heels" (as the back cover of my copy of Mailer's Advertisements brags). We try to make a useful contribution of what we know to what is known.

Monday, March 10, 2014


A "discourse" is a set of conditions that make it possible to make a particular kind of statement. For Kant, "reason" served a similar function albeit at a more abstract, even "transcendental", level. Reason constitutes the conditions of possibility of the experience of objects. The equal and opposite force of this definition is that a discourse determines the particular difficulty of making a statement. This difficulty is of course positively correlated with the possibility of saying something very precisely. Discourse makes it worth the effort. Interestingly, Heidegger tells us that what Aristotle called zoon logon can just as well mean "discursive animal" as the classic "rational animal". Building on this insight, Foucault presented the "historical a priori" of "discursive formations" as a re-interpretation of Kant's a priori of "pure reason" such that the difficulty (as I've put it here) of experiencing objects becomes the difficulty of making a statement, rooted in particular social conditions.

Some things are hard to see. Some things are hard to say. We are not born with the ability to see everything and say anything; rather, we acquire specific abilities in this regard through training, through schooling. Here, we overcome the difficulty of observation in part by learning a method and we overcome the difficulty of expression in part by learning a theory. The first gives us access to our objects through data, the second lets us discuss those objects with others through concepts. Foucault says that his studies of discourses "are very different from epistemological or 'architectonic' descriptions, which analyse the internal structure of a theory" (Archaeology, IV, 4). Nonetheless, what Foucault is describing is precisely that ordering of immediate experience that scientists themselves would likely call their theory, and thereby the logic of the practice they would call "theorizing".

Once a theory is approached through discourse, however, we come to see that "mastery" does not just depend on our ability to understand difficult concepts. The presentation of research results within a theory is a not a merely "epistemological" matter, as Foucault note. It is also a profoundly rhetorical affair. Scholars working within a particular discipline, which is in turn embedded in a broader discourse on the subject, become aware of a range of resources and constraints when discussing their ideas with others. They come to understand that viability of certain metaphors, the requirements of sourcing (including the art of tasteful namedropping), and the sometimes idiosyncratic meanings of particular terms. Even in the most "scientific" of disciplines, they may learn that their peers will respond favorably or unfavorably to the expression of certain political views. Finally, they will learn the meaning of "respectful" engagement with their peers.

I'll be writing about discourse this week, paradigms the next. In two weeks, I will begin writing about social epistemology, which is the field in which I got my start.

Friday, March 07, 2014

The Critic and the Troll, part 3

The discussion continues. Brayden has posted an explanation of his moderation over at orgtheory and there's been some interesting conversation in the comments to Andrew's post. There are at least three important things to take away from this incident.

The first is the one that Amanda Sharkey makes clear. Having a paper discussed after publication is an important formative experience for scholars. Personally, I was surprised at all the concern that was being shown for the "junior" scholars—after all, they held perfectly good academic posts and just published in a very good journal. They had even received attention from the major media. From that position, it shouldn't be hard to listen to (and, if need be, ignore) a few critics and/or trolls.

I think it's correct, as one commenter pointed out, that no one has an "obligation" to respond to all post-publication criticism. The game is a bit different: once published, anyone is in a position to comment (on a blog or whatever) and so the paper simply has to co-exist with whatever published commentary there is. In some cases, the lack of response would actually be embarrassing for the original author. A good example is when an author is accused of plagiarism and the evidence is pretty conclusive. Even if it's just a blog post that makes the accusation, you don't want to be the author who just ignores it. You need to step up. But it's always your choice. The fact that the criticism exists is just that, a fact. Certainly, no reader has an obligation not to comment just because the author shouldn't be inconvenienced by having to respond.

The second is something that a few people have mentioned, namely, the willingness to discuss things on the condition that it's done in a "respectful" way. Those of us who've been around academia for a while know that you won't always find this condition satisfied. And it's best to learn to deal with a little snark now and then.

Finally, there's a great comment by Steve Morgan on the value and importance of the 15-minute read of a paper. While you can always hope that people form their opinions of your work on the basis of hours of reading a paper you've written, please keep in mind that a good paper will also make a good first impression.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Critic and the Troll, part 2

Andrew Gelman has a great post up about the recent OrgTheory discussion I wrote about on Monday. He covers a lot of the points that I might have made, so I'll mainly recommend you read his post, with which I pretty much entirely agree. (Also, note that Brayden has reopened the comment thread.) This morning I want to follow through on my promise to deal with the reactions to the reactions to Balazs Kovacs' comment about post-publication criticism.

I'll begin with Lisa's comment, which I had mistakenly assumed was coming from someone associated with ASQ, and therefore given a bit more authority than I should have, and probably got a bit too riled up about it. I took the phrase "...just because you have a reaction to a paper that I have published," as indicating that she was the publisher, not, which is more likely, an author empathizing with Kovacs. In the end, I should probably have taken it like one would take an anonymous comment and (as I'll argue on Friday) left it on the side. But since I did actually engage with it, let's have a look. Here's what she wrote:

This is getting a little nasty now, isn’t it? I’d encourage you both to check yourselves. You actually aren’t entitled to command my attention and energy just because you have a reaction to a paper that I have published. You can use it. Or not. I would guess that Balazs and his co-author feel more than a little jacked by Steve Morgan – whose “reaction” to their work serves no point other than “whose-is-bigger?” point-scoring against Jerry Davis – and it must be very hard to resist the urge to defend. Here’s hoping they can continue to do so! (February 28, 2014 at 11:42 pm)

First of all, I simply didn't see anything "nasty" about what either I or the anonymous commenter had said. Humor (i.e., sarcasm) when pointing out other people's mistakes isn't everyone's cup of tea, but in the context of a discussion in which disagreement has already been expressed, it seems to me like something you just have to expect. Even in an academic seminar. And, as Thomas Presskorn pointed out in the comments on Monday, Jerry Davis hadn't exactly set a high standard of decorum in his denigration of online commenters who, he suggested, lacked basic reading skills and had the attention spans of twelve-year olds.

But what's more telling about Lisa's comment is the idea that I feel "entitled to command [the] attention" of Kovacs and Sharkey. The truth is that I feel "entitled", if that's the right word (actually, I'd say I feel privileged), to express my opinions to anyone who wants to listen, and while I think it does say something about an author whether or not they answer a question (where what it says depends very much on the quality of the question), I don't think the author has any obligation to me to respond immediately. If I succeed in raising doubts about something in the minds of many readers, then that's obviously something an author should take seriously. The point is that an author has a responsibility to the readership of the paper, not any one critic.

I've previously run into the idea that after a paper is published we "can use it. Or not," but not point out weaknesses in it. That's exactly what Karl Weick wrote in response to the discovery that he had plagiarized a poem in his own writing:

While this style of using stories as allegories may displease people who favor other forms of evidence, the stories themselves are available for comparison, refutation, extension, coupling with other illustrations to exemplify a quite different concept, or for being ignored. ("Dear Editor", my emphasis.)

I think the word "refutation" was supposed to passed over without much thought, actually. Basically, the take-home message to the critic is to leave another's work alone if you're not going to, as Lisa said, "use it". Once when I criticized another paper by a different author, that author politely reminded me (seriously) that if can't say something nice about someone I shouldn't say anything at all. And there's a deeper problem of outlook here, namely, the idea that critics are people who are just trying to "score points". Sometimes that's true (and I certainly think Jerry Davis was trying to score some quick elitist points against both the popular press and open access journals). But criticism, like scholarship itself, is not primarily an ego trip. It's a service to the scholarly community—and it's often a thankless task, I'll have you know.

I'll write one last post about this Friday, responding to Jerry Davis's comment to Andrew's post.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Critic and the Troll, part 1

I had a somewhat embarrassing experience in the blogosphere on Friday, carrying over briefly to the twitterverse. It's a good example of how what Michel Foucault called "enunciative modality"—the manner of speaking or way of discussion in an academic discipline—conditions who gets to participate in discussions.

On Wednesday, Jerry Davis had published a post called "Is 'Public Intellectual' Oxymoronic" in which he criticized the intellectual abilities of, well, the public (represented by the commenters on the Guardian's website) and the researchers and journal editors (of especially open access journals) who cater to them. In the discussion that followed, there were people who defended both open access journals and the public, some in great detail. I'll write another post on the substance of the discussion; this morning I want to focus on how it ended.

The paper that Davis had chosen as an example of good research, not published in an open-access journal and not properly appreciated by the public, had naturally been the focus of the discussion. Steve Morgan, for example, had written a long comment pointing out flaws in the paper that should, he argued, have been apparent to the careful reviewers that Davis had been, well, bragging about (he had himself been the editor of the paper he was promoting). In response, one of its authors, Balazs Kovacs said something that I found very strange. Post-publication discussion of papers, he said, can be

really taxing on the authors. That is, if someone posts a comment / doubt about your paper, you as an author need to address that otherwise the last public record will be an unanswered doubt. This obligation to reply any future comments, however, means that the process never ends. And that is not something I look forward to. I am a kind of person who gets tired of a project during the publication process (I guess I’m not alone!). The main reason that I love getting a paper published is that then I can close the process and move on to other new and exciting projects. The key is “moving on.” The fact that in such public debates of my previously published papers I’d need to go back to old stuff, essentially takes away the biggest satisfaction I derive from publishing a paper. (February 28, 2014 at 8:41 pm

Now, first of all, the paper has just been published. But you can imagine how people like me, who believe that good research is all in the criticism and replication of published results, not in their mere production and publication, would find it disappointing to find this kind of comment made by an author of an article in, literally, the top journal in the field.

I expressed my disappointment in a comment, as did an anonymous commenter, who, as I recall, suggested sarcastically that, s/he guessed, Kovacs would be happy if no one cited the paper in the future too. I have to recall that comment because, as with my own comment, it drew the ire of not only Jerry Davis but also someone identifying herself as Lisa and with some kind of connection to ASQ*, and finally caused Brayden King to delete it. For the record, I thought the sarcasm was well-placed. Kovacs' unwillingness to discuss his own recently published results was silly and deserved ridicule. Not long after, in any case, Brayden closed the comments altogether, saying that I, specifically, had "hijacked" the thread. I was a bit taken aback by this, all the more so when I saw that Brayden had explained his actions on Twitter as being necessitated by "the trolls moving in". Needless to say, I don't like being called a troll, but I'll leave it to anyone who is interested to determine whether or not they think that's what I am.

I'm out of time (in fact I've run over) this morning and will have to continue this on Wednesday. In her reprimand, Lisa asked me to "check myself"; in an email correspondence, Brayden has suggested that I be more careful on the internet in the future. These people, I will argue, have drawn way too fine a line between criticism and trolling. That line needs to be much thicker at OrgTheory and, I'll suggest, in organization studies in general. Like our skin.

*It turns out that I'm probably wrong about this. I had read her as saying she had published the Kovacs and Sharkey paper, but it is more likely that she was simply putting herself in their shoes.