A bubble in the Humanities market?

Philip Gerrans discuss bubbles in the academic market in "Bubble Trouble", published July 9, 2009 in the THES and available here.  He argues that the humanities are in the same state financial markets were in before they crashed. Of relevance here both as a critique of, and as an epidemiological approach to overvalued research. Gerrans begins:

"The cause of the meltdown in global financial markets is obvious: leveraged trading in financial instruments that bear no relationship to the things they are supposed to be secured against. … The academy, too, is a market – a large one in which the value of any piece of research is ultimately secured against the world. If the world is not as described or predicted in the article or book, the research is worthless. A paper that claims that autism is caused by vaccination or terrorism by poverty is valuable only if it turns out to be a good explanation of autism or terrorism. That is why an original and true explanation is the gold standard of academic markets: the double helix, On the Origin of Species, Henri Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne.

"The academic market is also like the financial market in another way. Stocks trade above their value, which leads to bubbles and crashes. Brain-imaging studies, for example, are a current bubble, not because they don't tell us anything about the brain, but because the claims made for them so vastly exceed the information they actually provide. As with a leveraged investment in mortgage bonds hedged by a foreign-exchange credit swap, most customers have no idea how a brain-imaging result is produced and what it is really worth. Those who do – the ones in labs using complicated statistical algorithms to map impossibly messy signals to artificial 3D models of brains – are usually very circumspect about the results. But every week we read in the science pages that brain-imaging studies prove X, where X is what the readers or columnists already believe. Women can't read maps! Men like sex! Childhood trauma affects brain development! There is an Angelina Jolie neuron! The bosses of big labs that employ hundreds of people use these studies, along with artfully placed articles about them, to get funding for future research. In a similar way, directors of mining companies raise funds on the basis of prospecting reports "leaked" to the financial press."

Read the whole article.





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