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What does it take to be omniscient?

Palko points us to this comment from Josh Marshall:

To put it baldly, if it’s a topic and area of study you know nothing about and after a few weeks of cramming you decide that basically everyone who’s studied the question is wrong, there’s a very small chance you’ve rapidly come upon a great insight and a very great likelihood you’re an ignorant and self-regarding asshole. Needless to say, those are odds Dershowitz is happy to take. Dershowitz has now ‘read all the relevant historical material’ and has it covered.

I responded: “Drinking that Harvard kool-aid.”

To which Palko replied: “I suppose if you had a Harvard professor who was an economist and a doctor, he’d be omniscient.” In the meantime, we’ll have to go with the Harvard professors we have available. Good news is their replication rate “is quite high—indeed, it is statistically indistinguishable from 100%.”

16 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    There’s not really much to discuss here

  2. Dale Lehman says:

    I had a colleague – much more published than me – who suggested the secret to publishing was to “not read too much.” This was prompted by my reading of one of his manuscripts which reinvented some wheels (that he was unaware of, since he did “not read too much”). In fact, I think he was right. If you are too well read, you realize (i) that the world is quite complicated, and (ii) to really make progress, there is a lot of prior work that should be read. Both of these stand in the way of padding your resume – in fact, they can make you like a deer in the headlights. So, Dershowitz is merely a media star for the usual path towards academic success.

    To cite another case – from today’s Tyler Cowen post (on Marginal Revolution): he writes about the likely failure of entrepreneurial attempts to reinvent higher education. But he does not mention the numerous attempts to do just that (including, notably, Minerva). That would require too much research and would make idle speculations harder to justify. It is much easier to just speculate, and it invites others to similarly react without research into what has gone before.

    • Darf says:

      It would be hard to say that Tyler Cowen has “not read too much” on almost any subject. In particular, he has mentioned Minerva on his blog in the past, and he is patched into silicon valley disruptive culture, so he is aware of attempts to challenge higher education, and the limited success those attempts have had. He is involved himself in Marginal Revolution University, so he has first hand experience.

      • David Sholl says:

        I don’t know anything at all about Tyler Cowen, but if I hear that someone is “patched into silicon valley disruptive culture” it doesn’t raise my hopes that they know anything useful about the real world. Unless that phrase was referring to the TC series Silicon Valley :>

  3. I disagree with Tyler Cowen’s view. You are right Dale. Tyler Cowen does not mention the many attempts to reinvent some aspects of higher education. As John Rawls noted to his colleagues at Harvard, universities would stagnate without the eclectic non-conformist associations that have spawned some projects. It’s that sometimes their ideas/insights are not well utilized.

  4. Jonathan (another one) says:

    I knew a fairly famous econometrics professor who literally never reads anything in the literature, preferring instead to derive the solution to every problem from first principles. (Or his principles, in his textbook.) And when I worked with him, years ago, he would constantly mutter that people kept coming to him with ideas that were wrong because they “read them somewhere in some journal.” And when you would explain the underlying theory, he would get a look on his face, go away for a few weeks, and then come back to either say “Nope” or “Fine,” having filled notebooks full of equations based on the only way he understood anything — from first principles. I could never decide whether to admire this or not. It was certainly infuriating to have to collaborate with him.

  5. Judd says:

    Kind of weird to say a Harvard prof would be omniscient when the same problems probably apply to a Columbia prof. Let’s not act like Columbia is no-name state university.

    • Andrew says:

      Judd:

      I don’t think we have anyone at Columbia who’s as ridiculous as Dershowitz. And nobody at Columbia has said, “the replication rate in psychology is quite high—indeed, it is statistically indistinguishable from 100%.” So I don’t think we’re as far gone as Harvard in the overconfidence department. But we do have Dr. Oz, so it’s not like we’re perfect.

      • Judd says:

        Dr. Oz was the person I had in mind…I’m sure there are more…

      • Anon says:

        There are also lots of examples at other idea league universities. Susan Fiske at Princeton. Daryl Bem and Wansink at Cornell.

        Maybe this is just a problem where people at fancy colleges get taken too seriously? While someone at a no-name school can clearly make a groundbreaking discovery, the press probably don’t latch onto findings quite as seriously if it comes out of a place like Southern Mississippi University.

      • jim says:

        But Oz is 10x because he doesn’t care about replication or the original analysis or the data or really any science at all.

  6. David Sholl says:

    A joke from my PhD advisor (himself a Harvard alum):

    How many Harvard PhDs does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    Just one. They hold the bulb and the whole world rotates around them.

  7. John Williams says:

    You don’t even have to be a professor to have this disease. All you need is the president as your father-in-law.

  8. jason farnon says:

    the complaint that dershowitz shouldnt make his arguments because he isn’t an expert is as silly as according someone respect because they’re a harvard professor. he presents his arguments plainly, you can just address them directly if you have a problem with them. anyway, what area he supposedly not sufficiently expert in to take a position? he’s as well established an expert in constitutional law as anyone. if one were inclined to honor that type of thing.

    • Andrew says:

      Jason:

      No, he’s not “as well established an expert in constitutional law as anyone.” But, in any case, indeed, his position can be argued against directly, and Marshall does so. Marshall’s point is not that the views of non-experts should be summarily dismissed, but rather about the situation where “if it’s a topic and area of study you know nothing about and after a few weeks of cramming you decide that basically everyone who’s studied the question is wrong.” That is, Marshall is arguing directly that Dershowitz’s argument is a mess, and Marshall is also making a meta-statement about Dershowitz’s approach of swooping in out of ignorance to challenge the consensus.

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