Avoiding Scholarship's Dead Ends

Bradford Tuckfield

In 1819, Franz Joseph Gall published a book expressing his views on the anatomy of the human brain. Gall, a practicing scientist in Germany, was respected throughout Europe. His book, however, did not advance science, but rather helped form the basis for the pseudoscience that is now called phrenology. Phrenologists like Gall believed that the shape of a man’s skull indicated his character because the skull’s shape indicated which parts of the brain were well-developed and which were deficient. They meticulously created charts, tables, and whole books about what head shapes corresponded to particular character traits: for example, a bump behind the right ear supposedly indicated greater “destructiveness” in one’s character. Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, many respected scientists in addition to Gall spent years or entire careers investigating phrenology. These years were wasted on a field that we now know to be a dead end.

By contrast, we can easily think of scientists whose years of toil were not wasted on dead ends. Consider the advances in astronomy by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, and many others throughout the centuries. Research in astronomy has borne intellectual fruit, first because it helps us understand the universe better. Because of advances in astronomy, we know what surrounds us in the night sky. We can measure with astonishing accuracy how far away the stars and heavenly bodies are, where and how they are moving, what they are made of, and even whether they are similar to Earth. The second intellectual fruit of astronomy is the technology that has accompanies it, and contributes to human life and flourishing. Satellites and GPS technology, for example, enable instantaneous communications around the world, and much easier navigation and transportation. These improvements to our lives were enabled by astronomy and physics, two fields that are certainly not dead ends. Phrenology is a “dead end” because it was intellectually fruitless: unlike astronomy, it did not lead to greater scientific understanding, technological advance, or an improvement in the lives of ordinary people. It is tragic that bright minds like Gall’s can be wasted on dead ends like phrenology, instead of contributing to more fruitful fields like astronomy.

Phrenology is not the only intellectual dead end that scholars have gone down – there are enough to fill volumes. For example, before phrenology, alchemy was a scientific dead end that absorbed many great minds for many years. Even the most respected fields contain some dead-end research. In math, the subject of my bachelor’s degree, there are many people who pursued small dead ends within an otherwise meaningful field. Farkas Bolyai comes to mind: he spent much of his life trying to prove Euclid’s parallel postulate, a task that we now know to be literally and logically impossible. There were also many researchers who spent years or lifetimes calculating more and more digits of pi. Tsu Ch'ung-chih and his son Tsu Keng-chih were Chinese mathematicians who painstakingly drew polygons of 24,576 sides to calculate a few more digits of pi. Their work was largely ignored and I do not know of any record of it being useful. Now their work is unnecessary: any laptop can get much better precision than they did in less than a second.

In hindsight, we can see that alchemy, phrenology, and in some cases calculating digits of pi were intellectually not useful. They led nowhere. Hindsight is easy, but can we ever have the foresight to know which of our current scholarly fields are dead ends? Today’s academic landscape seems to contain constantly multiplying fields of study: media studies, gender studies, criminology, postmodern literary criticism, organizational psychology, and others. Are these all worthwhile fields, or are any of them dead ends? Universities face a form of this question every day, as they allocate funding to their various departments and programs. How can well-meaning universities avoid throwing millions of dollars away in today’s equivalent of a phrenology department, and siphon the money instead to fields that will pay the dividends that astronomy has paid? There are many reasonable answers. Here, I will focus on one particular answer that has a basis in empirical statistics.

The defining feature of a dead-end field of research is simply that it ends. Fields like arithmetic and music theory have been taught for millennia and we expect them to continue to be taught indefinitely because we believe that they are not intellectual dead ends. Any truly useful field will continue to be taught indefinitely in an advanced society. Deciding which fields are dead ends is a matter of predicting each field’s longevity.

The staying power of ideas has been shown to follow a statistical distribution called a “power law distribution” or Pareto distribution. This distribution gives rise to what is sometimes called the “Lindy Effect,” a term from the 1960s for the concept that the longer a comedian’s career has survived, the farther into the future it was expected to survive. (Contrast this with a car: the longer a car has survived, the shorter its expected future survival.) The Lindy Effect is a feature of power law distributions, and it could very well be that research areas and ideas follow these types of distributions as well. If so, we should expect the oldest fields such as geometry and logic to continue for many more millennia, and we should expect many of the newest fields such as sociology or management research to disappear before long like the many new comedians who couldn’t make it. Like Chinua Achebe said, “when a tradition gathers enough strength to go on for centuries, you don't just turn it off one day.” These older fields have had centuries to prove that they are not indeed dead ends, but the jury is still out on the newer ones.

This phenomenon naturally suggests a method for avoiding short-lived dead ends: give preference to older fields. Having proven that they can stand the test of time, the oldest scholarly fields are the most likely to continue to survive into the future. The liberal arts taught by the Greeks and Romans have all proven themselves to be robust, long-lasting fields: music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. If the Lindy Effect holds true, a curriculum heavy in these fields will enable students and researchers to avoid pursuing dead ends like phrenology. Of course this prescription must come with the caveat that we discard a few of the wrong ancient ideas such as alchemy, and that we add the latest developments in fields such as biology, where the discovery of DNA’s molecular structure and evolutionary genetics have revolutionized the field.

Trusting past generations is an idea that has been given eloquent expression and justification by thinkers such as Burke and Oakeshott. They believed, as do I, in the extraordinary value of our intellectual inheritance. Consider’s Burke’s defense of common law as a field of study in his writing on the French Revolution: he said that the field contained “the collected reason of ages,” and that because of its longevity it had worked through its defects (“a heap of old exploded errors”). If we destroy this old, traditional field, we cannot easily replace it with something as good, Burke thought. He said that if the French threw it out, in its place would only come “personal self-sufficiency and arrogance (the certain attendants upon all those who have never experienced a wisdom greater than their own).”

Oakeshott echoed this sentiment in many of his own writings. His description of mankind’s progress is illuminating:

“As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”

Oakeshott’s inclusion of the word “civilized” is important: he thereby implies that our inheritance of this historic conversation is connected with or essential to our being civilized.

Burke and Oakeshott also believed in the need for abundant caution and skepticism in our attempts to revolutionize science and society. Again when writing about France, Burke described people who were “heated with their theories” about what needed to be changed, destroyed, and revolutionized. He warned these people to think that “the worst consequences might happen,” including “ruin, with all the mischiefs that must lead to it and attend it.” Rapid changes to traditional syllabi, though less obviously catastrophic than a revolution or a guillotine, may come with similar warnings against over-engineering and over-eagerness for change. My suggestion to promote and preserve the oldest fields of study is primarily intended to receive increases in knowledge and technology similar to the ones that astronomy has delivered, rather than sinking resources into fields such as phrenology. Secondarily, I suggest it so that, like Burke and Oakeshott desire, we can preserve and refine the collected reason of ages and avoid the “arrogance” and “mischief” that Burke says fills the void left by abandoned traditions.

It’s not that a thousand-year-old field must always yield to an eleven-hundred-year-old one. But age is a reasonable criterion for anticipating which fields will continue to thrive.

If we want all the best fields of research and human understanding to succeed, we must know how to avoid intellectual dead ends. That is the first step towards ensuring that our collective research efforts bear fruit for us and for our children.


Bradford Tuckfield is a data scientist in Philadelphia. His personal website is here.



Image: "Phrenology" by Wellcome Library, London CC / BY

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