Monday, November 22, 2010


When I was an undergraduate I was a very poor scholar. I would reproduce ideas from classes and public lectures without consulting the books that were being talked about, which led me, for example, to misspell Gödel when talking about the incompleteness proof (it wasn't quite as bad as "Göbbels", but it tended in that direction). I once answered an exam question about the three major developments in military technology in the eighteenth century by carefully describing the three major developments in military technology in the nineteenth century (or vice versa; I don't recall). One that will always make me cringe was my attempt to compare mental processes to bodily functions, choosing the sufficiently shocking business of going to the toilet to illustrate it, but spelling "bowel movement" less shockingly as "bowl movement". My professor did not pass this mistake over in silence.

I once rushed to see a professor about a paper idea that had just come to me—the philosophical aspects of Macbeth's "is this a dagger I see before me?" He listened patiently to the idea for a few minutes and then interrupted me to ask what recent work in philosophy I was going to draw on to position my analysis in the literature. (That was the assignment.) "What have you read?" he asked plainly. I hadn't gotten to that part of the research yet and I was no doubt vaguely imagining I could skip the library on the strength of my "idea". I will never forget the pained look on his face as he buried it in his big hand and groaned. "This is so irritating," he said, and sent me on my way.

Formative experiences. They are easier to talk about at this remove, but remain with me as small pangs in my memory. They basically reveal my impulse to fraud and sham, to passing myself off as more knowledgeable than I really am. Cynical observers of academic life would of course have predicted a great career in scholarship for me. The ability to speak with confidence on a given subject, after all, i.e., the ability to overcome one's cognitive and epistemic insecurities and say something, is crucial to scholarly success. One must try to get things right, of course, but one must not be paralyzed by the possibility of being wrong.

Cyril Connolly talked about being "too vain to do something badly"; he said that "vanity inhibits us from facing any fact which might teach us something". I agree with him about this, although there is a sense in which my youthful arrogance had to be checked, later in life, by a middle-aged vanity. So now I cringe about other things I do badly, or at least not well enough.

In a recently published paper, for example, I reference a book published in 1999 as one that was published in 1993. A few years ago, in a working paper, I attributed an E.M. Forster quote to Lewis Carroll and then accused Karl Weick (who had not cited Forster or Carroll) of being unaware of the source. Last week, I told a seminar that David Braybrooke and Weick were colleagues at Cornell in 1964, though Weick was not there at the time and Braybrooke has never been. (I was thinking of Lance Sandelands and Karl Weick who are colleagues at Michigan and had been so when Weick published a paper in 1993 in the Administrative Science Quarterly, which is based at Cornell.) Finally, not long ago I read a paper that failed to reference a story by Franz Kafka properly. Because the story shared certain themes with another Kafka story, I assumed that they were getting that story very wrong (to the point of simply making it up), and I began to talk informally about the paper as yet another piece of poor scholarship in the managerial sciences. As it turns out, the story the paper was referring to does exist, so I found myself writing a few emails to retract my slanderous remarks.

Notice the different forums in which I made these mistakes—from published papers to water-cooler talk—and notice that the errors get less and less serious the more "published" my work gets. I'm not actually defending any of these mistakes as excusable "given the circumstances"; I am only saying that we should expect errors when our work is "in progress" and make our best effort to remove them as we go along. We need our peers and colleagues to help us. We must tell them what we think before we can see that we're wrong. This process, then, will hopefully keep the worst mistakes out of the journal literature. But when they turn up there as well, we must not be so vain that they cannot be corrected.

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