Saturday, January 4, 2014

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons

I am not yet finished ragging on life in Academia. If you have been enjoying this rant, then please keep reading. If I have been irritating you, then you should probably stop until I move on to another topic.  Back in the late 1990's Kurt Vonnegut published a book entitled Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. These terms, which were coined by Vonnegut in earlier works refer to foibles in our search for meaningful patterns in our daily lives. I thought I would take them a step further and show how they apply to academics who are world class masters of finding patterns in the otherwise meaningless.

A wampeter is a central theme of a group of people who are connected in a mystical way thought this theme. The wampeter provides meaning, connection and a sense of purpose to the group. An example of a wampter is the Holy Grail or the Maltese Falcon.  For academics the wampeter is academic recognition. This comes in the form of rankngs, publications, or citation indexes. Consider the following two options. In option one you are well regarded for your entire life only to have your life's work completely refuted shortly after your death. In option two, you are not recognized during your life time but shortly after your death you become accepted and widely recognized prescience. Which one would you choose. Most academics would choose option one as having it feel good while you are doing it is much better than really making a lasting contribution. And while there are glaring exceptions, most academics are shallow and short sighted. And the pursuit of wampeters such as rankings, and citation indexes is exactly what they need.

A foma is a harmless untruth meant to comfort simple souls. A real life example of a foma is the claim that if you keep your head down, work  hard and play by the rules, life will work out OK. In academia, foma are more common than hushed up affairs. Despite the common misconception that universities are centers of critical thinking, academics as a group are far more likely to believe nonsense than any other professional group. H. L. Mencken once said something to the effect that there is no idea so stupid that you cannot find a professor who believes it.  Yeah, I know, I could have looked it up and gotten it right. But, then, you can as well. Anyway, my favorite academic foma is that all research is valuable and contributes to our body of knowledge. Academics like to cite the example of imaginary numbers which were created for no obvious purpose but found use later when Marconi invented the radio. But, there are two flaws in this example. First, overwhelmingly most academics don't come up with stuff nearly as good as imaginary numbers or radio transmission. And, if this is so common in research why is it that the example of Marconi and Imaginary numbers are the only example that is every provided. The sad truth is that if 99.9% of all academic articles were destroyed today, not much would be lost. That is, of course, as long as the right 99.9% was destroyed.

A grandfaloon is a proud but meaningless association of people. I will not give any real life examples of this as I am trying not to offend any more than I have too. But, granfalloon, like foma, in academia are as common as fudged annual reports.  There are honor societies, tenured professors,  and fellows of professional societies. There are traditional professions such as psychologist or historian and more modern sounding categories such as innovation engineer or cognitive neuro something or other. There are alumni of important schools and faculty of equally august institutions. If you ask someone how being a member of a particular granfalloon makes them any different from people who are not members of that granfalloon your question will be greeted with a tolerant and slightly condescending smile. After all, how could you understand. You are not, after all, a member.

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