This month two young astrophysicists with faculty appointments told me that they are seriously considering leaving academia because of peer pressure to conform with the majority view or suffer reputational risk. They know that the tenure system was supposed to promote risky investments in independent thought by providing job security. But in practice, it established authority which is hostile to pluralism of opinions.
When driving in unfamiliar territory, many possibilities are available and we often get lost without course correction after taking the wrong path. Under these stressful circumstances, it is most comforting to hear the calm voice of our GPS navigation system stating: “recalculating.”
Is now the time for academia to recalculate its path forward?
Part of the problem is that avoiding public feedback became the hallmark of scholarly work, with jargon and professional arrogance covering up for admission of ignorance. A close-knit culture which follows its own evaluation system has benefits. In the absence of public scrutiny about relevance to society, a scholar may study “how many angels can dance on the tip of a pin?”, just for the sake of intellectual gymnastics. Sometimes this approach is accepted as mainstream even if it violates the traditional professional code of the discipline. For example, theoretical physicists who avoid the guillotine of empirical tests for half a century by dedicating their career to abstract conjectures, avoid the risk of being proven wrong while demonstrating mathematical virtuosity. Nature might be simpler than they think but they will never know that in the absence of a feedback loop from nature. As long as the paradigm is uniformly adopted by a sufficiently large community of scholars without being challenged, it generates a self-sustaining echo chamber which indoctrinates fledgling researchers as new members of the clergy.
Let me illustrate the above social dynamics through an example. We do not know the nature of four fifths of the matter in our Universe, but the prevailing dogma is that this so-called “dark matter” was cold when galaxies started to form, about a hundred million years after the Big Bang. When I ask graduating students at their thesis exam whether the cold dark matter paradigm will be proven wrong if their computer simulations will be in conflict with future data, they almost always say that any disagreement will indicate that they should add a missing ingredient to their theoretical model in order to “fix” the discrepancy. In other words, they prefer to avoid friction within their discipline by challenging the prevailing paradigm. With this mindset, the question is whether such theoretical calculations could ever falsify the paradigm if they are tailored to always support it? How can we recalculate our path if we insist that we never get lost?
Being open minded to alternatives is the prerequisite for course corrections. This principle extends beyond the composition of the universe to broader societal issues including major questions on which society is split but academia is united under a peer-pressured pretense. Without a healthy debate, how can academia recalculate its course to reach the desired destination of truth?
Selection committees for federal grants often raise the concern that taxpayers’ money should not be wasted. At the same time, they fail to reflect taxpayers’ interests in their fund allocation. For example, the scientific study of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) receives no federal funding even though the public and the US Congress are extremely interested in it. This led me to establish the Galileo Project based on private donations to my research funds at Harvard University.
Detachment from public interests fuels the public notion that academia is part of the elite. This self-inflicted wound would heal if members of academia showed more respect to the diversity of opinions that characterizes the broader discourse within society. Promoting diversity of scholars in terms of ethnicity, gender or socio-economic background, is of utmost importance. But so is the promotion of diversity of opinions on matters that the rest of society debates.
Finally, an inward-looking competitive culture is often inflicted by the poison of academic jealousy. Those rare members of academia who acquire widespread popularity within the public are often punished severely by their peers. Carl Sagan was not admitted to the National Academy of Sciences because of his popular public image and his non-conventional advocacy of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Erich Segal, who acquired world fame with “Love Story”, stated that his success unleashed “egotism bordering on megalomania” as he was denied tenure at Yale. Moreover, “Love Story” was ignominiously bounced from the nomination slate of the National Book Awards after the fiction jury threatened to resign. Segal later said that the book “shot me out of the box … totally ruined me.” Jealousy poisons rare flowers that dare to blossom above the uniform grass level.
How can academia correct its course? First, it must reward creative individuals who deviate from the beaten path. Second, it should respect feedback from outside its ranks. This includes feedback from nature — through testing of ideas by experiments, and feedback from society — by echoing the passion of the general public in scholarly pursuits.
We can reach our destination of finding the truth only by debating the alternatives. External feedback would keep professors on their toes and improve our chance of converging on the correct path, since the outside world is often more imaginative than the notions advocated within the halls of academia. The truth is under no obligation to flatter our ego or to be as beautiful as we wish it to be in the absence of feedback from reality.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.