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Monday, June 1, 2009

Research as a Cult

I remember reading a book by Boris Bazhanov, Stalin's long-time secretary, where he explains what lead to his disillusionment with the Bolsheviks and his eventual decision to defect to the West. Bazhanov comes across as a man with limited intellectual horizons yet very strong common sense. He explains that the turning point in his life was his disillusionment with Marxism. He writes that he found much of Marx theories to be erroneous on logical grounds. But the major evidence supporting fallacy of Marxism was found in his empirical observations. He saw that Marxism wasn't practiced by the communists in their daily lives. It wasn't practiced because it didn't have any practical value, according to Bazhanov. All communist leaders preferred to use the old and true approaches of capitalists and dictators to get things done. The only value of Marxism, he concludes, was to serve as some sort of cult used to justify their power and exert power on others. One had to be knowledgeable in Marxism not to become a better leader, but to become a member of the "club". And, of course, communist leaders would twist and contradict Marx's theory if their personal agenda required to do so.

Sometimes I think that the same can be said about the role of research in academia. Oftentimes, it is obvious that even research published in top journals is pretty useless. It doesn't have any practical value. Yet research is something that has to be practiced to be a member of the professorial club.

Research can be used to built a somewhat artificial position of power, just like being knowledgeable in the Bible puts someone in a position of power. But just like a preacher may not necessarily be a better person compared to an average atheist, a professor with a dozen articles of management may not be worth squat as a manager.

Research can also be used to exert power on others. Review process can be twisted to keep someone out of the club and deprive those people of living in academia. Reviewing standards are often inconsistent and ambiguous - they are often a function of the personality, mood, and personal agenda of editors and reviewers.

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