Quantity vs. Quality in Academia

Something that has always interested me, and which is especially interesting as I prepare to embark on an academic career, is the question of what qualifies as a worthwhile, academic endeavor (in terms of published works, which is still the most widely used measure of academic value). That is, how tightly reasoned does an argument need to be to merit publication? At what point does the urgency of promoting an idea or novelty of thought outweigh concerns about quality?

There are notable examples of scholars on each end of the quantity-vs.-quality spectrum. Albert Einstein, indisputably one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, published only a handful of works in his chosen field of physics, most of them relatively short, yet he is credited with reinventing the field, upending even Newton. Jacob Neusner, a noted scholar of Judaism, on the other hand, has produced more than 800 books, contributing more to the academic study of Judaism than any other twentieth-century writer. This is not to diminish Neusner, by any means – he is one of my favorite scholars – but to point out that the amounts of time Einstein spent on each of his papers and Neusner spent on each of his books and articles were, by necessity, very different. Therefore, the numbers of possible – though not necessarily the actual – revisions each could have endured, to ensure perfect accuracy, must also have differed; this is the fact of the brevity of a human life.

I have found myself on both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, I have written relatively short papers with great labor, not because the ideas therein were especially challenging, but because providing a convincing argument for them was. On the other hand, I have often churned out pages of commentary – not to mention on-the-fly monologues – in a rush to present my ideas, whether the urgency I felt was imposed externally, i.e., by a deadline, or internally, i.e., by a rush of inspiration. Neither type of product is perfect, but there is no doubt that one type exhibits more care than the other. That said, I am a mathematician by training and a computer programmer, at present, by trade. I tend towards ever-tightening reasoning and sometimes fight the tendency to reason through even obvious points. I also, however, can be taken up by my trains of though and be carried along too quickly even to pronounce some of my thoughts, much less record, research, assemble, or publish them all.

I believe, though, that one has a duty – to oneself, to one’s colleagues, to human knowledge, and to humankind – to be quite careful in applying one’s authority to an argument (i.e., by publishing an idea or finding, rather than merely contemplating it or lecturing on it), most especially in one’s chosen field, without reasoning through it as fully as time will allow. This entry was prompted by some very abbreviated arguments made recently by certain scholars of American law, who shall here remain nameless, in which even those who agreed with the major logic found flaws in the reasoning. At times, this is unavoidable, because only the author can comprehend his or her own ideas enough to properly critique the reasoning at the time of publication; consider the first years after Einstein’s writings on general relativity. This problem is usually only true at paradigm shifts, or perhaps when the logic of an argument is so lofty, incorporating such a vast scope of knowledge, that there are few, if any, contemporaries of the writer with the sufficient expertise to tease out any flaws presented.

These kinds of arguments, however, are especially deserving of extra care. Imagine what would have happened if Einstein’s general relativity paper had contained some major logical flaw, and Einstein himself had died immediately after its publication. Certainly, the scientific world would have been far slower to take up Einstein’s ideas; it was hard enough for the majority of physicists to understand them, even with a clear, written presentation of them and the author around to explain the difficulties. An Einstein, a Nietszche, a Newton, a Kant, a Michelangelo, a Bach, a Moses, a Jesus: the truly colossal minds of any field have a special duty to produce unblemished that with which they have been entrusted. The gifts these geniuses leave behind are too enduring to be flawed from the start.

Note that I am not saying, of course, that any of these gifts is perfect; I do not agree simultaneously with Nietszche, Kant, and Christ, yet neither do I deny the brilliance of each.

Certain geniuses of history have failed utterly to bring their finest ideas to daylight. Consider Pierre de Fermat, the incredible seventeenth century mathematician, flippantly penning, next to his “last” (and arguably greatest) theorem, the words: “I have discovered a truly remarkable proof which this margin is too small to contain.” Either this was the epitome of intellectual bravado or one of the greatest disservices ever done to mathematics, as it took more than 300 years to prove his claim. If Fermat truly had discovered a proof, beginning with only the knowledge of his day, then the amount of knowledge he failed to make public was surely vast. Yet, as Einstein himself said, “The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.”

What does all of this mean? It means that those who are competent to publish academic works, or produce a work of art, have an obligation to present the best possible rendition of their ideas, whether on paper, on canvas, in marble, in music, or through any other medium. Should a scholar spend his or her whole existence on a single, inconsequential paper? No; after all, in the academic world, the rule is “publish or perish.” It does mean that any idea of consequence, or any great work of art (say, the David or the Brandenburg Concertos) deserves the fullest effort of the artist – and all great minds, at some level, are those of artists. It is a question of impacting the world, the common good, through effort; Einstein, had his papers been sloppy, would still be Einstein, and Bach, had he failed to preserve so much of his work, would still be the only human to improvise a six part fugue, but the world would have been impoverished by their carelessness.

If I may invoke Einstein once more, perhaps modern scholars – of all fields – would do well to heed his words: “I think and think for months, for years. 99 times the conclusion is false. The 100th time I am right.” Perhaps a bit more quality and a bit less quantity in academic journals – not to mention books written for the general public – would not be such a bad thing.

Thought of the Evening

It is easier to analyze the thoughts of scholars who wrote in Hebrew and passed away nearly two thousand years ago than to remember the meaning of notes made in 1999, by still-living professors, presumably in English, in the margins of a paper about these same scholars.

Not very profound, perhaps, but true…

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