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Too many universities

I remain in two minds about how to write about science. I am appalled at the decline in standards at universities. And I am appalled at the unscientific nonsense written by ordinary science graduates such as Ben Goldacre, who has become famous for his blog and book [Bad Science, ISBN 0007240198] railing against alternative medicine. On the other hand, I have to admit that the greater evil is the rise of post-modernism and counter-knowledge, whereby reputable universities have vast numbers of liberal arts professors with completely ridiculous views, which appear to reject all the fruits of the Enlightenment. People like Ben Goldacre and Damian Thompson [ blog and Counter-Knowledge ISBN 1843546760] write worthy stuff trying to combat such views. Is it right to pick them up for their own misunderstandings?

Well, the answer is fairly easy, one should point out nonsense and error whatever the source and however worthy the intentions.

But this blog comment caught my eye a month ago:

OK, I’m a scientist at a low ranking Uni. but I still have pride in the scientific standards and rigor that I (try) and instill in my students I’m only writing this out as I’ve not seen anyone say it outright, but I’m sure we all know it..

The problem is this, the introduction of market economics to the University sector. I know that might seem like a different issue to some, but here’s the rub, and this is a perfect example.

The introduction of market economics has meant that the managers of low ranking Uni’s (like mine) that don’t attract 1% of the research funding of high ranking Universities (I’m not bemoaning this just stating it as fact…bear with me here!) are looking at their bottom line much more than before. Add to that, that managers have taken over from academics in running Universities and what do you have?
You have a bunch of people in charge who are only interested in student recruitment, and this means running courses that are POPULAR. That is the key, and if popular and scientific rigor collide then rigor looses.
“Sure we could run a demanding degree in mathematical modeling but homeopathy would recruit 10 times the students” That is the mindset we are fighting. It is these people that devised the checklist method of program validation, asking if there are sufficient resources for the students without ever asking if the content is any good. Validation committees may even check that the intended lecturers are proficient in their field… simply doesn’t matter if their field is complete make believe. In skeptical terminology most validation events produce a straw man. They say “we have checked these (seemingly) important things and they are all fine”

That rang true to me. Even high quality universities (such as University College, London) seem to have substantial problems with the ever-increasing number of bureaucrats on university payrolls. The increase in the number of universities is not the only problem.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. David Colquhoun | 25 November 2008 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    You say you are
    “appalled at the unscientific nonsense written by ordinary science graduates such as Ben Goldacre”.

    I really don’t think you should say things like that without giving an example or too. Actually Goldacre is medical, but I am a scientist and I can’t say I’d noticed any howlers. On the contrary, I think that Goldacre has done more than anyone else to raise the standards of scientific journalism.

  2. Tom Welsh | 25 November 2008 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    As Kingsley Amis said (and was reviled for saying) forty years ago, “More means worse”. How true; how obviously true.

  3. John Scholes | 26 November 2008 at 9:30 pm | Permalink


    Well, I have written about Ben Goldacre several times before, eg at

    The problem is that he is not an advocate for science, he is an advocate for mainstream Western medicine, which is not quite the same thing. He also seems – like many “scientists” – to be fairly unscientific in his approach, and Kuhn seems to have passed him by completely.

    Popper did science a grave disservice. The oversimplified “make a hypothesis, test it” stuff is not how science actually works. Any competent theorist can always adjust any theory to fit any evidence. In practice, deciding when to change theories is a difficult judgment.

    Take, for example, the Medawar and Matzinger paradigms for the immune system.

  4. John Scholes | 26 November 2008 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    @ dc

    Incidentally, I rather like your blog. 🙂

    I am sorry your comment got held up – if I don’t hold up new email addresses the first time they are used, the blog gets flooded with spam. Future comments should go through immediately.

    Before too long I will finish Ben’s book and give a rather more detailed analysis of what he says. So far I have only dipped into his blog periodically over the last year or so and found it fairly irritating.

    Of course, I agree with much of what he says, homeopathy has to be pure placebo, and many other parts of alternative medicine are worse. But I still think he is fundamentally unscientific!

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