a practical example

While I’m on the subject of Diego Gambetta, without formally reviewing his book, Codes of the Underworld does explain an interesting case from the blogosphere. You may remember the two Italian academics who sent a paper to Medical Hypotheses, the famous journal with no peer review at all, which argued that calling Down’s syndrome patients “mongols” was entirely sensible, because they liked handicrafts, sat crosslegged, and ate foods high in monosodium glutamate.

Gambetta expands on the politics of selection for academic careers in Italy; promotion depends on favour, that of the small group of professors who sit on selection committees, in competitions that are held rather infrequently. These people are statistically likely to have a far poorer record of publication than either the average, or the people whose claims they had to scrutinise. Crucially, the candidates who actually got tenure were actually worse than those who didn’t. The explanation is that the appointments depend on long-term reciprocity between the selectors, and that therefore any attempt to make progress yourself would destabilise these understandings, which would be the worse for everyone. So would promoting the brilliant to posts that might lead to a professorship.

Therefore, it’s always best to pick the dullards, and to be dull yourself. That way, you’re no threat, and therefore reliable in promoting your friends’ clients.

Now, we can understand what was going on with Federica Mafrica and Vincenzo Fodale of the University of Messina’s Department of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Anaesthesiology. For some reason they needed to signal their incompetence with unusual force. They needed to get their crazy on all night long. But why? Which selection committee were they on? Fodale, at least, was on the scientific committee for his department and several others.

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