“The most powerful… tend to be the least intellectually distinguished”

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March 12, 2015 by AK

The Russian media are excited that the Moscow State University (MGU, Lomonossov U.) hit the top 25 of The Times Higher Education‘s “reputation ranking,” while the St. Petersburg Uni (SPbGU, Mendeleyev U.) made the top 80. Reputation is important, of course, but ratings based on harder metrics are less flattering. The THE‘s standard ranking puts MGU in the 196th place globally. The THE‘s former co-operator, now competitor, QS Rankings assigns rank 114 to MGU. The Shanghai Ranking is more generous at 84, a rather far cry from 25. In all the three ratings, SbBGU is way below MGU, someplace in the top 300 at best.

I’m not in a position to suggest ways to improve the academic stature of Russian universities, other than to turn to Russian-born scientists and scholars with substantial experience doing research and teaching at leading global institutions. They are a sizable crowd.

Hopefully Russia will not turn to copying blindly from one of its European semi-allies, such as Greece, Hungary or Italy, or from China, which has had some success in attracting US-educted scientists but has little appreciation for academic freedom. Speaking of Italy, I have learned some lessons about its academe when looking into the Knox-Sollecito case.

There was the disquieting fact that key experts for the defense and the critically-minded court-appointed experts had impressive CVs as well as relevant experience, and could cite US colleagues in support of their conclusions, while the prosecution’s either were underqualified or specialized in the wrong field. Somehow the lady who monumentally botched the DNA tests was styled “Dottoressa” despite having un-doctoral credentials and being essentially a creative lab technician. It turns out that Mussolini decreed in the 1930s that graduates of five-year laurea programs could refer to themselves as “Doctors.” It’s hard to draw parallels with Anglo-Saxon titles, but that was pretty close to awarding PhDs to half-baked MAs or BScs with some additional coursework.

By their standards, I’d be a doctor too. Worst of all perhaps, Patrizia Stefanoni’s degree came from a school that few outside of Italy have heard of, Suor Orsola Benincasa in Naples. By Italian standards, it is something of a third-rate school, ranking outside the top 50. Stefanoni’s critics came from more distinguished institutions such as La Sapienza in Rome and University of Turin and were published researchers, not police lab gofers.

Still, when I checked the global rankings linked above, I saw that even the best Italian universities rate modestly compared not just with Anglosphere peers but also with Japanese, German, Swiss and Scandinavian unis. I looked mostly into hard science; the excellent Bocconi is 20th in economics per QS but that’s a small private school hardly representative of Italy’s state-controlled behemoths. La Sapienza and Bologna rank in the QS top 150 for biology, in line with good US schools like UNC Chapel Hill and University of Boulder (Colorado) as well as Warwick and St. Andrew’s in the UK, but not that stellar in the big picture.

There are undoubtedly pockets of excellence in modestly rated and unrated schools, which may have a handful of first-rate researchers recognized by their peers but too few to raise the institution’s score much above zero. Still one expects the higher education system as a whole to perform a little better in the land that contributed so much to the birth of science as we know it.*

In 2010, the economist Tyler Cowen linked to a paper by Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi discussing one possible reason, which Henry at Crooked Timber called “Incompetence as a signalling device.” From Scott McLemee’s elucidating write-up, I understand that the decision-makers in Italian academia, the so-called baroni, are not the most distinguished scientists: on the contrary, they are some of the least, which is why Gambetta calls the system “an academic kakistocracy, or government by the worst”:

“An unexpected result of my research on the mafia,” he [Gambetta] writes, “was to find out that mafiosi are quite incompetent at doing anything” other than shaking down legitimate businesses and enforcing trade agreements among smaller-scale hoodlums.

…[T]hey joke about their cluelessness in such matters and simply collect payment for “protection.” But this professed incompetence… makes them strangely “trustworthy” to those using their services: “If [mobsters] showed any competence at it, their clients would fear that they might just take over.”

Gambetta argues that something similar takes place among the *baroni* (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions…

The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. They do little research, publish rarely, and at best are derivative of “some foreign author on whose fame they hope to ride…. Also, and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness…”

…Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the *baroni* is akin to the mafioso’s way of signaling that he can be “trusted” within his narrowly predatory limits.

Sounds familiar: Russia is kakistocratic aplenty.

There was further discussion of the state of Italian academia at Crooked Timber in 2010. The Grumpy Economist suggested in 2012 that crony capitalism was the underlying disease, providing two links to articles by Italian researchers. One of them, Dario Maestripieri, disgusted as he is with the nepotism of Italian baroni, notes:

When it comes to nepotism, the *baroni* of academia are amateurs compared to politicians, judges, businesspeople, and anyone else who has real power and influence in society.

Politicians, judges, businesspeople.


*But pay heed to Professor Dugin‘s wisdom, comrade: “Paul Feyerabend proved convincingly that Enlightenment figures – and particularly Galileo Galilei – faked all their experiments. Science is based on PR, indoctrination and fakes.” No shit, professor.


1 comment »

  1. […] of sociology at Oxford and the author of Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, explains his […]

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