Academic shackles

Twenty-seven year-old Peter Lynds of New Zealand published a paper this week that could revolutionize physics, mechanics, philosophy and potentially many other fields. In his paper, Lynds argues that there are no particular instants in time, only moments of transition, a concept which might fundamentally change how we observe and measure things in the universe.

Writing a seminal publication would be a significant milestone in most careers, but crowning Lynds’ achievement was the fact that he did it largely without the benefit of established academics in the field.

Or, more accurately, he did it without the encumbrance of those academics.

Lynds discovered that while objects cannot be fixed in time, academics could. He, like many other non-experts before him, overcame great barriers in those already expert in the field, some of whom ridiculed his ideas and tried to sabotage the publication, citing his lack of credentials and unconventional ideas.

Indeed, academic isolationism transcends the boundaries of space and time.

Having seen (and written) term papers where the only evidence of "grading" are editing symbols and comments about how a particular citation style is incorrect, it is painfully obvious that some academics have more interest in conformity to old ideas than to innovation. They reserve critical thought only for the established facts and classical notions–which are almost defined so as to require no additional mental processing–rather than risk exposure to something new that would upset the limited prevailing world view.

It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that finding fault with the presentation rather than the substance of new ideas is easier and safer on the intellect. "Scholarly" publications prefer jargon to more accessible prose under the guise of concision, and students are trained to similarly encapsulate the ideas within only those of the system, limiting the introduction of any new ideas. Red pen marks around an unconventional series of facts cannot substitute for reasonable effort to see unfamiliar arguments.

That it happens occasionally at the university with both graduate Teaching Assistants and professors is particularly saddening. It is as if years of academic training produced only another academic bigot rather than an individual with wisdom tempered by knowledge and experience. Teaching students to fairly embrace or challenge new ideas while failing to do the same is contrary to the idea of the academic environment. Ideas should be rationally evaluated based on their merits and not necessarily on whether they conform to whatever "classics" the field employs.

Lynds’ success in a field outside his own should reinforce the idea that academic rigidity can hinder advances as much as it helps to reinforce the status quo in the field.

[Ed note: Lynds’ paper is downloadable here]

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