Wednesday, April 16, 2014

When academics go nuclear. Wait, they don't!

A long, long time ago, when I was imagining graduate schooling in these United States, it was nothing but the ideal--lively debates and discussions, vigorous exchange of ideas, and camaraderie.

It didn't take long to understand that the reality was anything but that. Faculty, and students too, carved out their own small little corners where they mingled with like-minded people and it was almost always a case of affirming each other's convictions.  No debates--after all, when there is no disagreement, how can there be debates?  The disagreements were over the significance of the regression coefficient!

Thus, in Timur Kuran's economics class, he didn't bother to even bring up the issues that Thomas Biersteker talked about in the international relations class.  And Biersteker made sure to dismiss the ideas that were addressed by Kuran.  I wondered what might happen if Kuran and Biersteker were to sit down and discuss their competing narratives.  The two heads would spontaneously explode?

Over the years, it has become painfully clear that academe is not some Socratic gathering of inquiring minds.  It is a workplace, as much as a Chinese factory is a place where people punch in and punch out.  It is a profit-oriented nonprofit enterprise.  There is, it turns out, no business like show higher education business.

Despite such an understanding, and as if I want to prove that stupid is as stupid does, I go to academic conferences hoping there would be awesome debates and arguments.  Even though I come back without having experienced any, I continue attending conferences hoping there would be something.

This time, I almost had one such experience.  Imagine that!  I am excited because a debate almost happened.  Yes, even the "almost" is that rare!

It was a highly reputed academic who was scheduled to talk about one of the hottest (ha, pun intended) issues of the day--climate change.  A special session that would undoubtedly include his contributions via the IPCC.  The spacious room looked full.  A few were even standing, leaning against the walls.

After his talk, it was time for Q/A.  A couple of softball questions.  Nothing exciting.  And then came a guy with a British accent.  He referred to a NY Times op-ed that had been published the previous day.  As he started talking, I remembered having read and even tweeted about that very op-ed:
The Brit wanted to know why the speaker not only dismissed views like the ones expressed in the op-ed, but also why the speaker was concluding that the op-ed authors were also anti-science just because the policy prescriptions differed from the ones the speaker endorsed.

Now, it is not as if the Brit was able to get all this across in one piece.  The speaker frequently tried to cut him off.  The Brit persisted.  The speaker had the floor anyway, and had the last word on the issue.

So, here was the golden opportunity for a meaningful debate on the substance of the issues and the speaker could not be bothered with taking that up.

I decided against sticking around for the rest of the Q/A, if that's how the speaker was going to deal with dissenting opinions.  A few minutes of wandering around, and I spotted the Brit chatting with a couple of others.  I butted in, and talked with him and others about the exchange in the hall.  I told him about how the op-ed referred to, for instance, the need to think about nuclear energy in the context of non-carbon sources, and that such a thought would typically not be welcomed--even for discussion--by most people like the speaker.

"But even his idol, Hansen, came out in support of nuclear" said the Brit.  I nodded, recalling that.

Today, yet again, the Scientific American reports on nuclear being a part of the non-carbon mix.  And this time, even citing the IPCC itself:
"A mix of low-carbon energy from renewables, nuclear, or fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage [CCS] are going to need to grow to 80 percent of the electricity supply by 2050," said Ryan Wiser, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a lead author of the energy supply chapter of the IPCC's recent Working Group III report.
As a share of global energy supply, nuclear power has actually contracted since 1993, and not just because of high-profile setbacks like the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan.
"The major roadblocks to expanding nuclear power have been more or less the same for a long time—the cost of large, capital-intensive plants, the question of waste management and worries about proliferation," said Neil Strachan, a professor of energy and economic modeling at University College London and a co-author of the Working Group III report.
Of course, nuclear energy is not the answer, but summarily excluding it from discussions when the renewables are not sophisticated enough to meet the energy needs does not seem like a good idea, especially when billions of people in the emerging India and China and and sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere are yet to even get connected to the grid, so to speak.

Some day, maybe academics will engage in honest discussions about all these.  If we live past all the climate change, that is!


Ramesh said...

We've argued in the past that nuclear has to be on the table and is one of the tradeoffs we have to make. So won't belabour that point.

The point I want to raise is the incredible egos successful academics have. I am yet to meet a "famous" academic without a king size ago - admittedly my experience has all been in the management domain. The concept of humility is completely alien to them. If you do not have humility, how do you listen to somebody else, be willing to consider a point of view opposite your own, etc etc. I dare say ego is the biggest danger of an academic.

Sriram Khé said...

The super-sized egos are not unique to the academic world though ... we see the ego-driven people in all walks of life, even among the illiterate.

But, I suppose in the truth-seeking enterprise that academe is, we would expect the pursuit of the truth to vastly outweigh the ego. Engaging in discussions in order to construct the truth ... and we are more than disappointed when this does not happen.

BTW, the egos of the non-secular truth seekers--people of faith--should worry the believers even more--after all, in any faith, there is no place for egos and it is all about humility in the service of humans and gods--whatever gods appeal to the faith-- isn't it?

Ramesh said...

Oh yes - if there is anybody with a complete absence of ego, it must be people of faith. And yet, thereto, as you observe, king size egos exist. Alas, man is so so imperfect.