(Why) Do Disciplinary Bubbles Exist?

Aaron Swartz, a sharp mind (and technically my ex-boss), doesn’t really like the institution of college. A very successful soon-to-be 23 year old activist, hacker, and thinker, Aaron co-invented RSS at age 14, and now he’s the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and on the Board of Change Congress. He’s also created a bunch of other cool stuff that I won’t get into now.

So this is a very impressive guy who knows his shit, if you pardon my french.

He’s recently written about a phenomenon called “Disciplinary Bubbles”. Brandeis Professors, do you have any insight to this phenomenon?

His point:

The academy is often thought of as the ideal for developing knowledge: select the brightest minds in the country, guarantee them jobs, allow them all the resources they need to research anything, don’t interfere with any of their conclusions. On some issues, these independent-minded academics form a consensus and we tend to give their consensus very heavy weight. They can’t all be wrong, can they?

And yet, in my empirical research, I find they very often are. A short blog post is no place to do a careful study, but I can mention some examples. The classic works in industrial relations turn out to be complete hoaxes, yet they’ve dominated the teach of the field for over half a century. (See Alex Carey’s book for details.) In political science, the most respected practioner’s most famous work shades and distorts his own findings to support a theory wildly at odds with the facts. (See Who Really Rules?) The whole field of fMRI studies are so flat-out ridiculous that journal articles are even making jokes about them. And, maybe most blatantly today, economics was dominated by a paradigm that believed substantive unemployment was impossible, despite that notion having been famously and thoroughly debunked by Keynes and, of course, reality.

To become a professor of X, one must first spend several years receiving an undergraduate major in X, then several more years going to graduate school in X, then perhaps work as a postdoc or adjunct for a bit, before getting a tenure-track position and working like mad to make enough of a dent in the field of X to be seen as deserving of a prominent permanent position. When your time is called, a panel of existing professors of X passes judgment on your work to decide if it passes muster. Can you imagine a better procedure for forcing impressionable young minds to believe crazy things?

This makes perfect sense to me, but I didn’t spend most of my life in the academy. I’m really interested in hearing what our professors have to say. Students – maybe you should ask them about it during/after/before class tomorrow.


2 thoughts on “(Why) Do Disciplinary Bubbles Exist?”

  1. I think he misunderstand the way academics work. Of course ideas and foundational concepts change with time. The fact that today’s economics is different than the economics of 50 years ago should be seen as legitimate development of a field, not some kind of groupthink gone awry.

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