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Scholar Outliers and the State of Scholarship
By
Volume 42, Number 2 - March/April 2018

I suggested, in a Circulating Ideas podcast I did with Troy Swanson (circulatingideas.com/2017/07/25/113-william-badke), that scholarship these days is in pretty good shape. Concerns about vested interests, fraud, and so on among scholars are no reason to believe that the academy is in trouble. This got a reaction from people who argue that scholarly work these days is riddled with bias and fraud. It’s the same accusation found in Brian Martin’s famous 1998 book chapter, “The Politics of Research” (uow.edu.au/~bmartin/pubs/98il/il07.html). Martin points to the undue influence of research funders, the thought-control of disciplines, academic hierarchies that stifle new and creative voices, and corrupted expertise as indicators that today’s scholarship is far from pristine.

I want to defend scholarship, but not by dismissing all the accusations that come from fraudulent research, quack science, and sustained attacks by naysayers on the very methods most scholars use. Instead, let’s look at the concept of the outlier, the scholar at the fringes where highly creative but sometimes suspect work is done. If we can determine the nature and boundaries of outliers, we may have a better sense of the state of current scholarship.

What makes an outlier?

In 2005, Benet Omalu and colleagues published a study in the journal Neuroscience detailing brain damage in a 50-year-old deceased football player (m.protectthebrain.org/documents/CTE-Part-I-Neurosurgery.pdf). This was followed the next year by a second autopsy study with similar results. Omalu coined term for this kind of trauma: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Fellow scholars quickly challenged the asserted connection between football hits and CTE (see the comments following the first paper on CTE in the URL above). Many asserted that the study had not assessed the severity of concussions the football player had received and that one (or two) autopsies do not constitute a pattern. Organizations such as the National Football League (NFL) discounted Omalu’s work entirely and asked for the first paper to be retracted. Omalu found he had to defend himself on several fronts for many years. Yet now, after all the battles, his research has been deemed credible—even by the NFL.

Other outliers can be creative almost to the point of the bizarre. Andrew Pelling (universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/andrew-pelling-challenges-conventions-science-academia) is a Canadian biophysicist who has used the matrix of an apple’s cellular structure to grow a realistic human ear and developed light-emitting human cells that attach to LEGO figures. Someone like Pelling depends on the support of scholars and institutions that are willing to indulge his passions and give him room to create.

This is the essence of a scholar outlier—someone who has the education and experience of a scholar but who finds him- or herself under scrutiny due to research and findings that are novel, unpopular, or a risk to some element of the establishment. Some outliers may position themselves on the fringe, seeking to gain reputations as innovators. Others may find that the direction of their research makes them outliers even though they expected to be more mainstream. Omalu, for example, fully believed the NFL would embrace his research, but it was only in 2016, more than a decade after his initial study was published, that this organization admitted that his findings were valid.

The Risk of Outliers

The history of scholarship is filled with outliers. In fact, many of the greatest advances in knowledge have come from researchers who broke with the existing norms and conventions of scholarship. Yet outliers face personal risks and are themselves a risk to the scholarly guild. This is where things can get dicey: Some of the most amazing advances in knowledge have come from scholars who broke with the norm. But so have frauds, unfounded ideas, and general zaniness. If we are to trust scholarship in this increasingly uncertain world, how can we prevent outliers from subverting the academy?

This is a topic that teachers of information literacy should be considering a central concern. We are in the business not just of teaching how to find relevant information, but how to evaluate it effectively. And part of the challenge involved with good evaluation is making sense of work done outside the mainstream, on the cutting edge, or, alternatively, in the realm of craziness. What’s more, scholarship is increasingly under attack from outside vested interests and ideologies that take mainstream research and castigate it. When climate science reports are suppressed by the U.S. government, or numerous studies debunking the supposed connection between the measles vaccine and autism are rejected by whole groups of parents, we have a problem.

The biggest risk to the status quo is the outlier. Challenges to existing research and research biases work best when outliers break the mold and advance into fresh territory, which is often less tainted with the entrenched problems of traditional scholarship. Conversely, when outliers make a name for themselves with radical but unfounded work, they risk toppling the foundations of scholarship illegitimately. This is especially problematic when the public embraces these outliers despite the dubiousness of their work.

The eternal balancing act

A scholarship that doesn’t suffer some sort of disruption on a regular basis is not advancing. It runs every risk of becoming a dinosaur that no longer contributes to knowledge. But you really have to watch those outliers. Some are brilliant. Others are trying to gain prominence through less-than-stellar work. Others (a very few, we hope) are prepared to fudge their data and lie to the world to make a statement.

The fact is, outliers are hard to manage. They are disrupters. The conservative wing of a discipline can see them as more trouble than they are worth. But the real balance comes from the majority of scholars who do their work without a lot of radical results but rather with a steady advance. Let’s explore this.

The grand mythology out there is that most real advances are done by outside-the-box thinkers, outliers, or at least highly creative people. Sure, there are plodders in scholarship, but we may assume that they don’t contribute much. There are, however, errors in this kind of thinking. First, mainstream researchers who do their work without setting off a lot of fireworks are the foundation of scholarship’s stability. They daily affirm the methodologies of their disciplines. Second, despite the idea of scientific revolutions (as espoused by Thomas Kuhn), most scholarly advance is incremental. Third, good scholarship is characterized by testing of previous findings and replication of experiments. One researcher can find something amazing, but until that finding is tested repeatedly, it has no permanent standing.

The balance between entrenched traditionalism and creative outliers is found in scholars of the mainstream who do their work day by day, year by year, without a lot of fanfare. We need all three: The traditionalists put the brakes on moving the discipline forward too fast; the outliers provide the spark to make advances and challenge old findings; and those in the middle encourage change while at the same time testing the fringes of creativity with sound methodology. Scholarship is always in flux, always a conversation, so finding balance is essential to its future. For the most part, I believe scholarship is doing a good job of balance.


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William Badke is associate librarian at Trinity Western University and the author of Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog, 6th edition (iUniverse.com, 2017).

 

Comments? Email the editor-in-chief: marydee@xmission.com

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