Monday, March 19, 2007

 

Academic Inertia

In various ways, I sort of keep tabs on what is going on in academia, or at least in certain fields. One thing that always impresses me, mostly negatively, is the inertia that keeps academics going in the same direction even though they should be changing course. But like everyone else, when you invest a lot of time, energy, and money in a certain thing, you naturally don’t want to start throwing that away. There are some dumb academics, of course, but in my experience, by and large they are an intelligent, perceptive lot who work hard to keep up on developments in their fields of specialty, and other trends in general.

When new information suggests that what we’ve believed until now will no longer obtain in the not-too-distant future, it’s time to at least consider changing course because our assumptions no longer hold. Yet, inertia just keeps people going in the same direction.

A case in point is peak oil. I know academics who are doing fine work, but it’s based on the assumption that oil production and consumption are going to keep on rising for decades to come. So, they have all these solutions, based on this assumption, for what ails the petroleum civilization. Under this assumption about oil, their proposed solutions are imaginative and at least worth serious consideration.

Naturally, I talk to them about peak oil, and show them the evidence. They express surprise, profess to understand the gravity of the situation, and talk about incorporating this into their research. But when I next look to see what kind of research they are putting out, I can see that their assumption hasn’t changed at all. Everybody is human, and when people are confronted with an item of significant information which negates everything they’ve done to date, the natural reaction is to ignore that information, or rationalize it away.

Naturally, this does no one any good, and in fact exacerbates the problem. Stick-in-the-mud researchers are in effect advocating solutions to improve a system that is about to have the rug pulled out from under it. Academics need to tailor their research — or perhaps even drastically revamp it — to accommodate the brave new world of energy scarcity and all that it entails.



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