About researchers and politicians

These days I’ve been thinking a lot about politics… I realized this is a problem around the world, and politicians are usually seen by non-politicians as bad people. Non-politicians usually think that politicians are greedy, selfish, lazy and that, in the end, they are not interested in helping society whatsoever. Of course most non-politicians have their exceptions, that one or two politicians that they really believe in, and if they are not doing enough, it’s because the system does not let him. I started thinking if it was possible that so many people in politics really did not care about doing some good for society. I mean, this should be their main motivation for getting a job there in the first place, no? So what happens??

There is an interesting experiment in psychology called the Milgram experiment, where some people, test subjects, are told to give electric shocks on another person if they do not memorize some words correctly. Although the learning person is already screaming in pain, most participants do not stop giving the shocks, since they were told so. At a first analysis, the results of this experiment seem quite disturbing… How can people be so mean? It was just a stupid experiment, they could have stopped once they realized the other person was in pain, right? Well… not really. I mean, yes, they could have stopped, but a deeper (and less sad) analysis of the whole thing takes into account the environment in which this test subject was. And you have to keep in mind that you might just as well be one of the people that continues to give shocks.
Yes, yes… but what does this have to do with the politicians?

The point is that, it’s very easy to judge from the outside. “He should have done this, he shouldn’t have voted for that, he shouldn’t have accepted that money, how can he be so unethical??” But we don’t really know the point of view of somebody who is on the inside. It is actually easier to follow the rules as they are posed then to try to fight them… Even if you think that they are wrong.

As I thought about this, I realized that it happens to me, and most researchers and PhD students I know. We are all very aware of the way universities decide which people to hire: they check our publication list. Of course they don’t read all of them, and I doubt if they actually read the titles carefully… They check how many there are and in which conferences/journals they were published. There is a huge discussion on whether this is the right thing to do, and most researchers I know, young or old, agree that this is not a very good system, and the relevance of the publications should be taken into account, no matter where they are published. But as we go into this academia field, we are pulled by the current and we believe the only way to survive is publishing… So we become one of those people that try to publish no matter what. We behave as if we accept the system, even though we disagree with it. And we think: “but what can *I* do? I am just a PhD student…” Everyone knows that it’s up to us to end this journal industry and to change how we are evaluated, but who’s brave enough to start this? If this person is alone (or only a few), she’ll certainly perish… It’s a high risk to take. So no one takes it, and we are swallowed by the system, just like the politicians we so much condemn.