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June 05, 2003
PhDs again on confusing symptoms with causes

Yesterday I commented on this PhD overproduction thing, along the lines that once a measurement becomes a target it ceases to measure. But I did it badly, and I'm going to take another crack at it. Nothing like doing my duty for two days with one idea, is there?

The central point is the difference between measuring a mere symptom, and measuring the degree to which someone has deliberately scored highly, but only by that measurement.

Take the matter of PhDs, since that was the original subject. Time was when a PhD was a symptom of the fact that you were a budding scholar. You didn't do your research into your favourite brand of forest beetle and then write about it for your fellow scholars in order to get your PhD. You did it in order to find out more about the beetle and to tell friends and rivals about it and about the larger significance of it. The PhD was just an outward sign of your scholarly progress. Now, people say: "I want a PhD, what shall I do it in?"

Now of course I am somewhat romanticising this. Scholars have always been competitive and status conscious, and aware of the importance of titles and jobs. But at least they were concerned with scholarly jobs. The trouble erupts when a PhD, like a degree before it ("I want a degree, what shall I do it in?"), is treated as a qualification for the non-scholarly, real world out there.

What the real world used to value in PhDs was their genuine scholarly abilities, their ability to look at merely business problems from a fresh, even if rather bumbling and eccentric, angle, and to bring different sorts of knowledge and a different (more intellectual) sort of intellectual attitude to bear. Now (and I have friends exactly like this) you get smart, besuited go-getters showing up for interviews to become corporate go-getters, who do not now have and never did have any serious scholarly achievements or ambitions but who now call themselves Doctors. All very confusing. I suppose it's a symptom of the fact that, to an unprecedented degree these days, technical knowledge and intellectual facility is also money (human capital, etc.), and so therefore you have a new breed of money seeker who goes to money via knowledge and intellect, and via the honorific trappings of knowledge and intellect.

Please do not misunderstand this as any kind of attack on the principle of go-getting and money-making. I'm all for it. I'm just trying to contrive a world in which effort leads to actual results, instead of merely to pointless and even career-blighting or life-ruining educational qualifications.

A more extreme-for-illustrative-purposes example of the symptom/target muddle would be trying to cure a high fever by putting the patient in a fridge. Temperature does serve as a sign of illness, in the normal course of things. But merely bashing the temperature over the head by any means available is not the same as administering a cure.

That's a case of trying to remove something bad by hacking down the bad number which was measuring it. Now here's a real-world example of trying to stimulate something good by bashing up the good number. (Appropriately enough for here, it's another educational example, and one closely related to the problem of PhD overproduction.)

Observation: countries with lots of universities do well economically. Let's assume that that's true, approximately speaking. Ergo: we must build lots of universities and stuff into them any lazy thickos we can round up, perhaps by bending the academic entrance requirements. This may do some good things for some people, but the bit after Ergo absolutely does not automatically follow.

What if the proliferation of universities is a mere symptom of an underlying intellectual enthusiasm in the country, which is in no way stimulated by merely erecting more of the architectural consequences of such an enthusiasm? As soon as you identify "number of universities" as the good variable, and start to try to increase that number by going at it directly (instead of by somehow stimulating "intellectual enthusiasm", whatever that is and however you do that, and assuming that that is what is really causing the economic development, which may also not be true), then the number stops being useful as a measure of future economic prowess.

Because indeed, it may not be true that "intellectual enthusiasm" is the good variable here. What if what universities really signify is the mere presence of lots of rich people with time and money to burn arsing about at university, drinking and, yes, thinking but not in a way that will ever enhance the nation's economic prowess? What if, in other words, proliferation of universities is entirely the consequence of economic prowess, and in no way its cause? I don't entirely believe this, but there's certainly a lot to this surmise, I'd say. If that's true, then to seek national economic success with a university building programme is like trying to get rich by buying your wife a diamond necklace, on the grounds that rich wives tend to sport diamond necklaces more often than poor ones.

(Another example of a symptom getting misused as a measurement would be if I measured my success here only in terms of how well I stuck to my minimum-of-one-posting-per-weekday rule. But mentioning that also points up that imposing such a number rule can do good things, because I believe that this rule, crude though it may be, has served me very well. Business people often use this kind of technique. Maybe just banging up more universities might do good after all, because it would at least get the gandchildren of coal-miners into the habit of thinking, and get them to realise that they might be able to make a better living by thinking better.)

Getting back to the PhD thing, Michael, I feel for you. (Doctor Michael Jennings, now holidaying in Bilbao (try the first link to the site as a whole if the second to the actual holiday posting doesn't work), commented glumly on the previous posting.)

Michael strikes me as a PhD of the genuine, original sort, one of life's actual scholars and gentlemen, complete with crumpled corduroy jacket that he ought to change more often and strange bow tie, spiritually if not literally, and a ton of knowledge about all manner of things and bags of intellect. The title "Doctor" ought to be reserved for the likes of him, so that employers could identify his special virtues, which I know him to possess, and realise that the cord jacket and bow tie (spiritually speaking) is just part of the package.

Personally, I'd like to see a verbal distinction made between scholars and the medical profession. I enjoy asking people who are only "doctors" in the economics of marketing (who are thus in my eyes doubly undeserving of the title) to cure my increasingly blocked sinuses. But that's a different argument.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:07 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications

Like stopping a clock to save time.

Could that be the metaphor you are looking for?

Comment by: Patrick Crozier on June 5, 2003 09:19 PM

How funny...

Driving into work this morning, I had a quite similar thought:

There are two kinds of doctorates... 1) "incidental" (as in "I'm interested in this stuff and want to learn more") and 2) "intentional" ("I want a doctorate").

I suppose other dichotomous terms could be:

(the phrase "terminal degree" really should be re-examined)

(i suppose this one could be read in either direction)

(think "flashing a badge" vs. being well prepared)

Comment by: Kelvin on June 10, 2003 10:39 PM
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