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The Value of Academic Research

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Michael Huemer argues that "the benefits of the vast majority of academic research are tiny at best, possibly negative, and much less than the costs."  While I don't dispute his claims (in section 3) that universities are prestige-chasing institutions, I think his framing of the issue leads him to overlook the main sources of value that can nonetheless emerge from these highly imperfect institutions.(1) Extreme cases boost expected value. As I wrote in my defense of impractical philosophy a decade ago, even if the "vast majority" of research is entirely lacking in value, "the few exceptions -- the Turings of the world, whose theoretical passions lead to invaluable insights -- are arguably so momentous as to justify the whole system that enables them."  So I think it's a mistake for Huemer to focus on median rather than mean (or expected) value.Granted, to evaluate whether more or fewer resources should be expended on academic research, we must attend more specifically to the question of marginal expected value.  And one might imagine a more efficient system where just the best academic researchers are funded.  But such efficiency requires being able to identify the best researchers in advance, and it's far from clear that this is feasible. (Some academics are "late bloomers".  Some are one-hit wonders.  Much would be lost in a system that was too selective.)  So, depending on the details, it may well be worth tolerating plenty of "chaff" in order to get a bit more of the vital "wheat" we need to advance civilization.(2) Academic knowledge-building is a collective project.  Huemer writes, "my writing a new book benefits you only if my new book is good enough to displace one of the books on [your lifetime reading] list."  This individualistic focus is, I think, the wrong way to think about academic knowledge-production.  Most academic research is not directed at consumers, and as such. . .

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