Uncertainty, staged competitions and (the future of) the university

I have finished to read a book that I warmly recommend: Keynes. The Return of the Master by Robert Skiedelsky. In the book there is a section on Uncertainty, which turned out particularly insightful for me.  What Keynes realized – unlike other classical economists – is that uncertainty is always an issue because our livelihood or prosperity depends “on our taking a view of the future”, as Skiedelsky put it. A page later Skiedelsky quoted the master himself from his General Theory:

We simply don’t know. Nevertheless, The necessity for action and decision compels us practical men to do our best to overlook this awkward fact and to behave exactly as we should if we had behind us a good Benthamite calculation of a series of prospective advantages and disadvantages […].

As Keynes understood, the category “uncertainty” is a tremendously relevant one in order to make certain phenomena belonging to the social realm a bit more intelligible. That is to say, we may see certain phenomena in direct connection to uncertainty. Or, if you will, an attempt to handle the very fact of uncertainty. Here I would like to talk about the status game and the current situation in the so-called academia.

Keir Martin and Thomas Hylland Eriksen from the University of Oslo have recently published an article (which you find here in English translation) dealing with the situation at their university. There is a passage summarizing the present situation, which seems to be afflicting many of us around the world:

a tendency to view the world as a problem to be fixed with spreadsheets leads to the prioritization of hitting the numbers over the nurturance and development of the human environments that those numbers were intended to measure. It is a tendency that if left unchecked can cause immense problems.

Now, several explanations have been advanced, several labels have been pulled out to understand the emergence of such a tendency. I think that what Keynes wrote is extremely relevant. Essentially the spreadsheet-driven strategies and all the rest of that are an institutional response to uncertainty, which is actually the main issue here.

The first point that I would like to raise is that I am afraid that we are not quite sure of what the university (and higher education) is for. First big uncertainty. Let me focus on research here. What is research? In some disciplines people have been quite successful to get the message across that research embodies the ideal of the scientific method and therefore they see themselves as those who can reach the truth or, at least, get nearer to it. Decisions to be made should be supported by evidence and evidence is provided by science. All the rest relies on anecdotes or, even worse, biases that are resistant, yet unreliable. In other cases, research is successfully presented as fundamental for innovation, which contributes to productivity, which means competitive advantage, which means profit for the individual and growth for the state.

Now, while there is a grain of truth in what I have just described, research is way more than that. Research is not just about evidencing. Yes, research is a device that produces evidence. But the question would be then: evidence for what? That is a question of meaning that goes right to the core of the scientific enterprise, which is not just about coming up with evidence supporting certain ideas. We want those ideas to be good. And the evaluation of ideas cannot be reduced to evidencing: it is fundamentally as fallible as the knowledge we produce. If we don’t deal with that kind of uncertainty, we will start playing conservatively. We will just try to prove that something is the case without imagining other cases. An interesting piece of evidence here – pun not intended – is that negative results have virtually disappeared from the scientific publications. Which is a clue pointing to the fact that there is a strong bias in favor of “positive” results, because knowing what is false is not enough. Again, uncertainty coming back from the backdoor.

The second element concerns the people, who gravitate around the university. The uncertainty in this case regards their career. I have heard over the course of the years many people express their concern regarding their future: Will I be able to get a position at the uni? Will I be able to keep my job? Will I ever get the tenure? Will I ever be able to do research with my own team? I am also concerned about my own future, because I love my job.

The proliferation of staged competitions is the response. The word “staged” is keyword here, because what I am talking about here are essentially games like this one:

 

As a university employee I want to know what I have to do in order to keep my job or to progress in my career. Staged competitions reduce uncertainty, because I can now see my career as a game. Just like in any game, there are rules, score, etc. (The game also becomes a way for those on the top of the hierarchy to mobilize people’s energy and channel it into certain desired targets, but let’s leave this aside for the time being). It all becomes predictable.

What is the problem with that? To put it simply, we academics start playing the game and in doing so we forget that we are supposed to do science, not piling up pieces of papers called “A-journal articles” (which is an outcome, by the way). The less we care about doing good research, the less relevant research becomes for those who are not playing the game. Besides, when everybody starts “playing the game”, things do not necessarily become easier. On the contrary, they become harder and harder. So, uncertainty comes back again from the backdoor. That’s called performativity.

What is the problem here then? The problem concerns the sort of methods we are collectively deploying to face what Keynes called “irreducible uncertainty”. That is, it concerns the design of our institutions, which are in the end supposed to handle such irreducible uncertainty. The two examples that I have just described rely, on the one hand, on the so-called scientific method, on the other, on gamifying the process of distributing costs and benefits. Those are the “methods”. As I noted above, when we apply them, uncertainty comes back from the backdoor.

What would be the solution then? First of all, this is exactly what I am talking about: there are no certain solutions. Or, to put it another way, repressing uncertainty is not a solution. That is clear in the two examples that I presented here. Science itself  is uncertain: it’s the beautiful risk of discovery. Discoveries cannot be predicted, can they? New ways of looking at the world (natural as well as social) will be found along the way, not planned out in project proposals.

Then, careers are uncertain. We don’t know who is going to be the next Einstein. But perhaps we should just try to provide a good work environment to help the expression of people’s creativity and imagination. That would be a good starting point, instead of coming up with all sorts of pseudo games.

 

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1 Response to Uncertainty, staged competitions and (the future of) the university

  1. Marwa says:

    Impressive analysis to the current situation!

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