“A useless pile of half-truths and sensationalistic linkbait”

Dear Mr. Salustri,

I am the author of the piece “how academia resembles a drug gang” that you describe on your blog with the words above. You also write that it is “mortally flawed”, “laughable” and “a complete mischaracterization”. You call my argument “stupid” in a reply to a comment on your piece which defends mine.

My piece, originally published on my blog in November last year, has now been viewed 267’000 times (not counting the version on the website of the London School of Economics), shared more than 10’000 times on Facebook and more than 2000 times on Twitter. I was the first to be astonished by this success, but I assume that it wouldn’t have been shared so widely if it was only “sensationalistic clickbait” and didn’t contain some real insights about the functioning of academia. The comments about the blog have been overwhelmingly positive (on twitterhere or here). Outlets such as Science, the Times Higher education have reported about it. The title is of course overtly provocative, but the piece tries to make a very serious point by using comparative data. You essentially dismiss all of it with the qualifiers above. I thought I should reply to some of your claims, at least those that I can make sense of.

Firstly, you are right to say this piece is “not what one should expect from the London School of Economics” because I work at King’s College London, as is made clear at the bottom of the article. This just shows how carefully you have read the piece.

Secondly, you criticize my perspective, arguing that academics are “not in it for the money”. Now, this is not the point that I make in the piece. My point is to outline the dynamics of dualisation in academia between a shrinking core of insiders and an expanding core of outsiders in precarious positions. I use drug gangs as the most extreme example of such a situation, by trying to explain why “outsiders” accept to stay in academia in spite of very precarious job situations. I am happy to read that your combined income “allows my wife and I to not be particularly worried about our finances”, because many academics are: precisely because of the dynamics I talk about. The incentives are surely not only money, but also precisely the things that you cite (although if you want to “escape pedantry”, academia is probably not the right place to go). My point is that the difference between what is promised to prospective PhD students and the actual reality of academic prospects is huge, just like in a drug gang. I am not saying that academia is like a drug gang, I argue that its logic is similar. I accept that it is an inconvenient characterization, especially for respectable tenured professors, and others have also dismissed it as stupid *without even reading the piece*, but I still think it is accurate.

Thirdly, you criticize how I use the data and evidence in different countries. It is of course true that Slovakia produces much less PhDs than the United States, but the proportion of PhDs as as share of the population is surely the relevant measure, and not the absolute number because that’s what gives an idea of the capacity of different countries to “absorb” their production of PhDs. Of course Slovakia produces fewer PhDs, but Slovakia also has much fewer potential jobs. I accept the idea that the academic job market is not limited by national boundaries, and is largely transnational. Now even if we would consider the world as a whole, the relation between the “global production” of PhDs and the number of permanent jobs available changed dramatically: the number of jobs available has been massively outpaced by the production of PhDs. Now this precisely supports my point. After that, you write that I do not take into account the Bologna Process, “ the anti-science and anti-education lobbies” in the US, “the effect on academia of the billions of dollars that America spends on defence – more than any other country in the world”, I ignore Germany’s “tumultuous recent history, including reunification and becoming probably the most important country in the EU”, and my analysis of the UK “ignores the impact of the development and growth of the EU on UK, which has been staggering”. Well, I also completely ignore the fact that the weather in the UK is usually bad, that Germany won the World Cup in 1990 and that the United States put a man on the moon in 1969. I simply do not understand how the factors you mention challenge my analysis, and you make no effort to explain how either. Being Portuguese, I am well aware of the context of austerity in Greece and Portugal, but again, this reinforces my point: the discrepancy between the increase in the number of PhDs before the crisis and severe cuts afterwards has created a large mass of “outsiders” left with dire job prospects.

Coming back to the general discussion about PhDs, I happen to have had a look at another piece published on your blog which discusses a similar argument than the one I make. I was particularly struck by one segment of it:

Getting a doctorate isn’t (or, rather, shouldn’t be) just for specializing in a particular area; it gives one a chance to refine one’s thinking skills, to become a better reasoning agent, to make better decisions generally.  And this gets us back to the success of a society.  The better people can think, the better the decisions they make, and everyone will benefit. Some find this laughable because of the cost, time, and effort required to get a PhD.  What’s the point, they might argue, in getting a doctorate if you’re just going to be a tradesperson, or a shopkeeper, or an office worker What’s the point indeed.  Most people who would ask such questions haven’t got advanced education anyways. Which rather proves my point.

I found this piece problematic and condescending. I find it perfectly legitimate for people “who do not hold advanced degrees” to question how the money is spent in higher education, especially if they are subsidizing rich people to get these “advanced degrees” while themselves or their children are often excluded from them: rich kids are highly overrepresented in college, so that higher education spending if often a transfer from the low-educated poor to the higher-educated rich. Of course I agree with you that education is good for everyone, but dismissing criticism as simply “stupid” – which seems to be your method of analysis in general – simply delegitimizes the critical approach and openness that should characterize academia. Second, it is all good and well to write that getting a doctorate is not about finding a job but becoming a better citizen, but it is is fairly naive to think that PhD students do not build expectations as to a career in academia, and the point I was making is that the structure of the academic job market is bound to disappoint these expectations.

Please note that i have refrained from using the kind of vocabulary that you use in your own post, even if it was fairly tempting.

Yours faithfully,

Alexandre Afonso

6 responses to ““A useless pile of half-truths and sensationalistic linkbait””

  1. I’m in the middle of grading exams, so you’ll have to get in line and wait of a proper reply.
    I will say this, though. You should know enough to refer to me as Dr. Salustri, or Prof. Salustri – not Mr. Salustri – as a sign of respect for the institution of academia.

    • While I agree with your representation, here and on G+, get off your pompous high horse with the ‘title’ remarks. I’ve educated as many people as you through out my military career, and we can discuss how those subjects apply to academia on G+ (you’re in my circles), so GFY for a title. You’re a man, just like me, and the misdirected goofball who compared ‘gangs to academics’.

  2. I didn’t say your essay was an inconvenient characterization; I said it was an inaccurate one. Like a lot of the “Freakonomics” sort of claims, I think it’s an argument full of basic mistakes in logic and analogies. I don’t have time to go through this now, but no, I don’t think academia is a pyramid scheme.

    And of course, the title and your pride in the number of hits you’ve received suggest that the claim of it being “link bait” is probably pretty accurate. You could have titled your essay “How Academia Resembles Selling Amway or Selling Mary Kay Cosmetics” or some other related business. That wouldn’t have drawn hits though.

  3. I have just noticed the image he used in his post, which had the caption “Do these gentlemen look like your colleagues?” I guess looking Mexican and having some tattoos make you look un-academic.

  4. I could have posted my response on my own blog, and gotten a whole bunch of views. But that would have been self-serving. (Ahem.) So I’m just posting my comments here.
    Rather than quote your post, I’ll just refer to the paragraph number for the sake of brevity.
    Paragraph 1: Rather selective because you don’t mention any of the reasons I gave for my remarks. Leading in with that sort of writing can only bias the reader against me, which is rather discharitable of you, especially since you seem to be claiming the higher ground.
    Paragraph 2: This is a great example of the fallacy of “appeal to popularity.” Considering the obsession of Facebook and Twitter with Miley Cyrus’s buttocks and pictures of “kittehs,” it is ill-advised to use social media popularity in this way. Blattman’s blog post suffers the same narrow-mindedness yours does – of considering only the market/business/economic nature of academia. Arun’s blog post adds a touch of politics to the mix, but that doesn’t broaden the discussion nearly enough. The Science and the Times posts just regurgitate your post without any offering of apposite alternatives, the Times doing a far more biased job of it, as they are wont to do, by depending on the assumption that doctoral studies are undertaken for the exclusive sake of getting specific jobs. So basically, you’ve found a bunch of like-minded people who agree with you and claim to be right as a result. Arguably, this is a case of “appeal to authority” too.
    Paragraph 3: I linked to the version of your post on the London School of Economics website. Where you are currently working, or what you post on your personal blog, is irrelevant to my point. Perhaps I could have been clearer: I’m surprised and disappointed that the LSE blog would post such ill-considered articles as yours. Does that help clarify?
    Paragraph 4: You claim to have tried to make a point. But that point is not what you present in the post. Perhaps you should have actually stated your goals at the outset and actually bothered to communicate your intention rather than just cherry-picking data that suits an outrageous proposition. Face it, when one posts to the Web, one is offering one’s writing to the world, not to just a select few with specific background knowledge who are more likely to interpret your post correctly. Academia and the expertise of academics in their fields is being eroded by political and economic forces who know that sowing the seeds of distrust will benefit them. Then there are those who are simply in no position, for whatever reason, to assess the merits of your arguments objectively and will see this as simple vindication of their disdain for experts and expertise. You (and I and every other blogger out there) have a responsibility to truth. Given your background and education, you should know this. And yet you apparently are just fine with presenting incomplete and narrow perspectives for public consumption.
    Paragraph 5: You claim that absolute numbers of doctorates produced by individual countries are not good measures. True. You claim that I made that argument. False. My argument is that your percentage figures give the impression that PhDs are being produced too quickly. (Consider: what is, say, a citizen of France to think that Slovakia has quadrupled the number of doctorates it is producing without also knowing how the raw numbers compare to the number of doctorates produced in France? Would it not be reasonable for them to become seriously concerned that Slovakian doctorates could take away jobs – and not just in academia – from equally qualified French doctorates? Of course they would.)
    One must look at both “vertical” rates (by country as a fraction of population, as you have done) and “horizontal” rates (globally as a fraction of total PhDs) to completely understand the phenomenon. That you apparently fail to understand this is more evidence of your cherry-picking of pertinent information. Furthermore, that you claim you don’t understand the relevance of all the non-economic forces at work just underscores how blinkered your worldview is. As I wrote, it’s a case of the blind men and the elephant; the narrow economics-only perspective will lead to utterly wrong conclusions about the actual phenomena.
    Paragraph 6/7 (including your quote of another blog post of mine): You find my writing “problematic and condescending.” This is precisely the problem of lack of provisional trust in experts and the expertise they hold. One trusts one’s physician on medical matters (due to his training and expertise). One trusts one’s lawyer on legal matters. Similarly, one trusts one’s plumber on matters of plumbing. I would no sooner go to a plumber to address my fever as I would go to a doctor regarding leaky pipes in my house. And yet, this is exactly what people without advanced degrees do with respect to academia. Every type of expertise, be it in medicine or plumbing, has its place in society. However, to claim that expertise in area A qualifies one to pass judgement on some other area B is ridiculous.
    How is this condescending?
    It is true that I dismiss criticism as “stupid,” but only criticism that is not grounded in evidence. You claim that “rich kids” (talk about condescending!) are overrepresented in college. Is that true globally? Where is the evidence? I can tell you that is not the case in schools I know of. It is probably true that children of the poor are underrepresented in university, but that doesn’t mean that children of the wealthy are overrepresented. There’s this thing – it’s called the middle class – constituted of those neither rich nor poor. Lots of them go to university. I don’t know what tuition is like in other countries, but here in Canada, tuition is about 20% of the actual cost of providing a university education. If you really want to see “rich kids” being overrepresented in university, then have them pay the full cost of their education.
    I’d love to see completely free higher education, but until that happens, we must be realistic. If free education is ever to become a global norm, it will happen, in part, as a result of holding up academia as a fundamentally essential feature of a successful society, and not by absurdly comparing it to drug gangs.
    You claim that my argument “delegitimizes the critical approach and openness that should characterize academia.” That’s like saying that when scientists call creationism stupid, they too are delegitimizing “the critical approach and openness that should characterize academia.” If there’s evidence, present it; if there’s analysis, then be systematic and holistic. If there is neither, then it’s all tripe.
    You also wrote, “…it is is fairly naive to think that PhD students do not build expectations as to a career in academia.” Is it naive to think that people who stand a reasonable chance of entering a doctoral program are so sloppy in their thinking that they do not bother to think through their plans in the long-term? Is it not reasonable to expect someone who intends to undertake the intellectual challenge of a doctoral degree to apply their intellect to such planning? It seems to me that anyone unable or unwilling to undertake that kind of reflection before investing so many years in advanced study really shouldn’t be in the game anyways.
    Might some students be misled by poor advice given them by others? Of course. Does this make academia a con game? Not at all. It just means that there are unscrupulous people in academia in roughly the same proportion as in the rest of the population. It’s called the human condition. On that specific metric, academia is no better and no worse than any other organizational structure. Get used to it.
    Paragraph 8: On the business of “correct” language. You seem a bit sanctimonious there; as if the only valid arguments are those couched in politically correct weasel words and semantic fads of the day. Good luck with that.
    This is my last contribution on this matter. You’ve done nothing to undermine any of the substance of my arguments. Please feel free collect all the views and clicks that you possibly can. I hope they help you sleep at night.

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