Inviting Intellectual Vice In

Ashley Thorne

  • Article
  • March 19, 2010

The Wall Street Journal published another excellent opinion piece this week, “Climategate Was an Academic Disaster Waiting to Happen,” (subscription required) by Peter Berkowitz. The article is not really about Climategate but about the academic climate that opened the gate for such intellectual fraud. Berkowitz actually calls it intellectual vice, as opposed to intellectual virtue.  

He says that fueling intellectual vice is the trend to water down graduation requirements, the abandonment of the core curriculum (“faculty generally reject the common sense idea that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn”), and the inherent conflicts of interest engendered by the current peer review process: 

We don’t allow judges to be parties to a controversy they are adjudicating, and don’t permit athletes to umpire games in which they are playing. In both cases the concern is that their interest in the outcome will bias their judgment and corrupt their integrity. So why should we expect scholars, especially operating under the cloak of anonymity, to fairly and honorably evaluate the work of allies and rivals? 

Berkowitz touches on an idea NAS president Peter Wood has been considering: that perhaps peer review should be inter-disciplinary. An economist may give cogent comments on work by a political theorist. A historian may be consulted for research on a particular piece of literature.  

But instead, we have a system that gives reviewers plenty of “opportunity to reward friends and punish enemies,” Berkowitz writes. That was the case in Climategate, and it’s the norm in academia. How can we expect universities with that have opened the door to this to produce graduates who value intellectual virtue? 

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