Monday, April 4, 2011

In Praise of the Dictatorship of the Highly Published

By Ramon Guillermo, Ph.D.

We read Dr. Flor Lacanilao’s article entitled “Democratic governance impedes academic reform” published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (03/14/2011) with much interest. First of all, we would like to commend Dr. Lacanilao for his view that the “most important problems in the world have been solved largely by physical scientists.” If there are any problems at all in the world which have not yet been solved by these physical scientists, such problems would certainly be nothing but the most trivial ones unworthy of even an iota of brain matter of their superior intellects. Despite our awe at the display of erudition on philosophy and human history which such a statement entails, we nevertheless take issue with the gist of of Dr. Lacanilao's argument in the said article. We propose that his general argument can be taken as follows:

a) Working successfully requires that members are competent on a subject;

b) Joint decisions with different member competencies don't work;

c) The great majority [of academics] are poorly published in ISI journals,

d) The great majority [of academics] do not have the technical knowledge possessed by the well-published minority;

e) Any group decision will be worse than that which would be made by the [well] published members only. [Therefore the poorly published individuals should be excluded from the decision-making process.]

First of all, what "subject" is Lacanilao referring to in the first proposition above? Is he referring to his own field of "comparative endocrinology"? Is he referring to the niceties of Popperian philosophy of science, the details of art restoration, or the fine points of coral reef preservation? Or is he just saying that the members working together should be "competent" in at least "something" (as long as it is an “academic something”)? Let’s just assume that Lacanilao is saying, in his own very diplomatic way, that the members working together to arrive at decisions within the University should be "competent" in at least one “academic something.” Then the next question in terms of his argument would be: Is the “objective” measure of "competence" which he proposes, namely, number of ISI publications, a valid and acceptable measure of “competence" for all possible "subjects" or domains of specialization in the University? It should first of all be clarified to the uninitiated that the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), founded in 1960, regularly puts out a list of the “most cited” (and therefore most prestigious) scientific journals in the world. ISI’s founder Eugene Garfield, was also notorious for once having written that, “International science requires cultural as well as economic imperialism.” Since that time, the ISI listing has been used as a crucial measure to determine international university rankings and faculty ratings and promotions.

There are valid reasons to doubt that the ISI listing could serve as an uncontroversial and “objective” measure of competence across disciplines. Most of these are already quite well-known among students of journal citation-impact. Some of these are the following: a) The humanities and social sciences give greater value to publications in book form than the disciplines in the natural sciences which give a premium to journal publications; b) The humanities and social sciences domains, not just in the Philippines but internationally, are much more diverse in terms of languages of publication. The vast majority of ISI journals however are English language journals from the USA and UK with very few of these representing such important languages in the humanities and social sciences such as German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese etc.; c) There is unfortunately, but understandably, an observed "Western bias" in the humanities and social sciences journals covered by the ISI which do not give adequate coverage to topics of relevance to the Philippines and Southeast Asia in general. It therefore seems highly contentious to put forward the number of ISI publications as an “objective” measure of competence or “technical knowledge” in every possible field of study within the University. Such an assertion would merit at least a number of empirical studies which would demonstrate how “competence” across the disciplines correlates with ISI publication rates. We would also have to inquire as to what “minimum” number of ISI publications one must have in order to be adjudged by Lacanilao, “competent” in a particular field.

However, the core of his argument is that “group decisions” within the University which are made by “competent” members jointly with the “incompetent” (or badly published) majority will be worse than when the “competent” members make the decisions or call the shots by themselves. Lacanilao therefore supports what he sees as a “more effective alternative to democratic governance” which is for the well-published minority to “wield executive-decision power, as done in political and military crises.” In short, he advocates the dictatorship of the well-published over the poorly published. He cites a study which came out in the magazine Science (2010) entitled “Optimally Interacting Minds” by Bahrami et al. (Lacanilao mistakenly cites one of Bahrami’s co-authors Chris Firth as the main author of the study in question) in support of his position against “democratic governance” in the University. The aforementioned study demonstrated how a simple “perceptual decision task” (i.e., perceiving differences in visual contrast in an image) involving inputs from two observers who are free to communicate their degrees of confidence to each other and possessing “nearly equal visual sensitivity” could be combined to produce more accurate collective decisions. In this particular case, the study showed that two heads were indeed better than one. However, Bahrami et al. also found that if the two individuals have “different visual sensitivities,” then the results tend to be less accurate and the benefits of collaboration are much reduced. They therefore concluded that: “Individuals with very different sensitivities are best advised to avoid collaboration and instead should rely entirely on the more sensitive individual.”

Using a very wide latitude of interpretation, the paper by Bahrami et al. could indeed be construed as providing evidence against “democratic” forms of decision-making among “differently-competent” individuals. At the end of their paper however, the authors used the example of the “existence of weapons of mass destruction” to illustrate the “catastrophic consequences of consulting ‘evidence’ of unknown reliability.” In our view, what this particular example really demonstrates is how a naïve reliance on the opinions of competent “experts” marshalled by Bush and Blair on the existence of these weapons in Iraq ended up having“catastrophic” results. Instead of demonstrating the dangers of democracy, this example actually underlines the necessity for openness in the dissemination of information among an actively involved and politically engaged citizenry. It should furthermore be emphasized that this study is not yet about how reasoning within a scientific community can achieve optimal results. Nor is it yet about the optimal mechanisms for collective decision-making within a highly complex human polity. Any further speculations about its broader implications ought to be subjected to the necessary scientific research and critical scrutiny.

One should also point out that the study pertains to a generally “fixed” sensory capacity. If one were incurably blind, then one would naturally have to permanently rely on sighted people to determine the colours of objects. However, higher level forms of analysis, such as logical reasoning, critical thinking, aesthetic discrimination, ethical discernment etc. are not fixed capacities which remain the same through every cycle of decision-making. Such “competencies” are learned and may be continually improved and expanded throughout one’s lifetime. Furthermore, is not the domain of democratic decision-making precisely the school of the intellect and the grindstone of the critical mind? Aren’t democratic forms of organization and governance valued not merely for achieving optimal results but also for the practices of human emancipation and individual autonomy which these nurture? Doesn't the true collective benefit of science reside in the generalization and active dissemination throughout society of scientific and critical thinking rather than in the outright exclusion of those labelled “incompetent"?

If Lacanilao is interested in pursuing his line of argument then questions such as the following ought to be looked into carefully and dealt with in a scientifically rigorous way: Can the variety of competencies involved in all the different academic disciplines be reduced to a single “objective” measure, namely, number of ISI publications? Are the manifold high-level competencies involved in the various academic disciplines from art criticism, legal ethics, marine biology and so on reducible by analogy to the sensitivity of a single sensory function?

Dr. Lacanilao still has many things to prove to make his rousing call for a dictatorship of the well-published ISI elite more convincing to the poorly published and incompetent majority of the University. We hope these topics can be the subject of his future ISI publications.

(Ramon Guillermo is Associate Professor at the Dept. of Filipino and Philippine Literature, University of the Philippines - Diliman. He received his Ph.D in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of Hamburg, Germany. Email:

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