Darwin, Sure…

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Guus de Krom sticks up for poor Charles’ legacy.

You can count on it. Whenever problems arise in the way we humans interact with each other, someone will sooner or later blame it on Darwin. Poor Charles… the epitome of academic integrity, hardworking and so utterly modest that his colleague Wallace almost had to stand on his head to persuade him to publish their ideas on evolution. And a devout man too – even though he realised better than anyone else that their work would blast the image of God as the great creator of every living creature as we know it to bits and pieces. Doubt, more doubts, a few more calculations, another round of thought. Not exactly the image of a frivolous thrill-seeking man.

A few months ago, a striking example of the misuse of Darwin’s name could be found on the website of NRC Handelsblad, where someone suggested that the origins of fraudulent behaviour in academia could fundamentally be traced back to what he described as “amoral Darwinism”. Academic survival can be summarised as “publish or perish”, so we needn’t be surprised that an interview or two is faked and graphs are spiced up with a few well-chosen data points. It is all because of Darwin. Call it survival of the curve fittest. If only we had never heard of natural selection: people would still care for each other and not even dare to dream of data manipulation for the sake of a higher ranking on a citation index. Right?

I don’t think so. Vanity, idleness and abuse of authority with a whiff of bluff are more than enough to fool the folks in research land – there really is no need to invoke Darwin and his ideas for that. Nevertheless: damage has been done. This messing around with data does no good to our image as academics. Now what to do about it?

I believe the hardest type of modesty is the sole remedy. Let all of us employed at universities and research institutes hand in a few square meters of office space, let us voluntarily halve our wages and let us from now on entitle ourselves amateurs if we want to do research on something, just to emphasise we do this for the love of science, not for status and cash. Self-regulation, quite modern. Watch this: the curve-fitting, sensation-seeking, would-be scientists are the first to abandon ship. And on top of that I suspect that the whining about the tax payer’s money spent on higher education and funny research that nobody understands will diminish by at least 40%. Seems a jolly good topic for a study in social psychology. There is work to do!

 

Guus de Krom got his PhD in experimental phonetics at the University of Utrecht. He is a cheerful and an educational fellow at UCU, a member of its exam board, and teaches Linguistics and everyone’s favourite subject Methods & Statistics.