Hostirad (hostirad) wrote,

Academic Fundamentalism

I recently attended a lecture in which every sentence of the speaker's first paragraph contained parenthetical citations to two or more studies. I don't have a printed copy of the talk, but to illustrate what I'm talking about, I've reproduced two sentences from an online article ( below:

"With present-biased preferences, individuals tend to make impulsive choices, driven by a tendency to overweight rewards and costs that are in close temporal or spatial proximity or are salient (Thayler and Shefrin (1980); Akerlof 1991; Thayler 1991; Thayler and Loewenstein 1992). Also contributing to the intergenerational transmission of poverty is out-of-wedlock childbirth (Bronars and Grogger 1994, Furstenberg et al 1987, Trussell 1988)."

Now, imagine a full paragraph of such sentences. As I listened to the beginning of this talk, it suddenly hit me: This is exactly how I feel when I am listening to a scripture-spouting religious fundamentalist who is incapable of speaking a sentence without a biblical reference, complete with the source (e.g., "He who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory" - John 7:18).

Whoa there, Sparky, you might be thinking. Academic citing is way different from scripture quoting. The former is a thoughtful acknowledgment of studies that have provided empirical data that substantiate a debatable claim. The latter is a truly mindless, mechanical, reflexive, parroting of ancient opinions that a zealot embraces with blind, emotional devotion.

Okay, so they are different. Nonetheless, I still find the similarities eerie. Academics are not really agnostic and neutral about the topics they study. The authors of the study on time orientation I quoted from surely were already committed to the idea that inability to delay gratification causes problems in life without reading or conducting a single empirical study. And I'll bet that they are emotionally committed to the school programs they are promoting (programs for teaching self-control in schools). I've said it before and I'll say it again: Behavioral researchers are more often emotionally invested positions they already assume are true than they are in neutrally investigating what is actually the case. The quality of most behavioral research is so poor that we have published studies supporting just about every conceivable position on an issue. This enables academics to gather up citations in support of any position, just as fundies can find a bible verse for any occasion.

So, are the two groups really that different?

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