It’s boring, and who cares?

Friday, May 25th, 2018

“What are the biggest mistakes other scholars are making,” Robin Hanson asks Bryan Caplan, “from the point of view of making the kind of scholarship you wish they would make?”

Type III error, getting the right answer to the wrong question — that is my main view. Most work that I read that I don’t like, I don’t so much think it’s wrong. It’s that it’s boring, and who cares?

That’s honestly my reaction when I flip through a journal is, suppose you’re completely right. Who cares? Suppose you’re completely right. Who cares? That’s what I say for 80, 90 percent of pieces that I read.

This does not mean that I think that you can’t write a good piece on a narrow topic. But it’s got to be because you convincingly argue that it really reflects something bigger than just the topic itself.

I can really enjoy reading a book about the French Wars of Religion because it’s not just about the French Wars of Religion. It’s about the nature of human religiosity, and about the way that dogmatics try to tear society apart, and about, is religion primarily social, or doctrinal, or what’s the interrelation between them? That kind of thing.

To me, that’s the main thing, is just that it’s boring and who cares?

The second biggest thing is the focus on disciplinary boundaries, where people usually, if they’re going to read, they only read within their field. Economists read economics. Even that is optimistic. You usually read within your subfield of economics or your sub-subfield.

What I always say is, “Look, if you really want to understand something, don’t read what other people in your niche are doing or have read. Read what anyone who has thought about the issue has read, and it’s quite likely you’ll learn something.”

Now, ultimately, I will say this: I think it does come down to academic incentives because those people in the fields that people aren’t reading don’t help you. They don’t do stuff for you. Honestly, I think most scholars are primarily about career advancement. I don’t think there is that much curiosity.

I remember, this is actually one of the things that disturbed me most when I became an assistant professor. When Tyler started telling me all about these backstories about professors. Finally I get to get behind the curtain — not anybody in our department, but other departments, others.

Finding out… the thought of someone who started off really curious and, in the end, they’re just consumed with this pettiness over someone not citing them. Why do they care? Every citation translates into a statistical $100 a year.

This kind of mentality, it did horrify me at the time. I’ve gotten over it, but still this is the kind of thing when I step back… I think you become a scholar to go and advance human knowledge on important questions. I just don’t see many people doing it or even using the methods that you would want to use, which is, step one, go and read what anyone who has really thought hard about the question already knows.


  1. Graham says:


    His point about academics increasingly obsessed with reputation and academic politics is well taken and certainly reflects many other similar views I have read or heard. Whether or not it is worse now than 50 years ago, can’t say.

    On narrowness of topic, not so sure. For me that overlaps with parallel issues like how esoteric the topic is, or indeed also how invalid it might be because reliant on some set of tropes that at least strike me as invalid. To hit the trifecta, something like a lengthy book on the implications of ‘possibly transgender’ religious ceremonial costume in 16th century Transylvania on recruitment of Szeklers to the Ottoman army marching on Vienna, and its implications for transgressing the nonbinary gender lines of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.

    Actually, I’d read a precis of that.

    But I don’t know that I follow Caplan to the point that a book on a major historical event like the French wars of religion has no value for its own sake. I get the larger implications he draws, but the history of France during a formative period is interesting too.

  2. Jim says:

    Of course being “boring” to someone is a totally subjective and egocentric way of evaluating scholarship.

  3. Scott says:

    “Boring” seems to be code for “so narrow of a view that it is irrelevant to big picture knowledge” in this context. People can find minutiae interesting, but that doesn’t make it important.

    I was in a PhD program at a top university 20 years ago. It took me a couple of years to decide that the entire thing was about political pissing contests and begging for grant money. I quit and spent the last 20 years in industry searching for the same sort of intellectual challenge that I found in grad school. Neither has really met my desires, but at least in industry I get paid well.

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