Neither monks nor beatniks

Order and chaos

A great University is on the one hand as rigid and hierarchical as a seminary, on the other hand as open and anarchic as a commune.

Our values include the explicit openness to all ideas – except for one: that all ideas are equally good. We believe the quality of ideas can be measured like stones on a scale.  Measuring, we identify – and at a great University, we recognize, respect, and reinforce – excellence and achievement.  We are hierarchical to provide a rigorous structure to do that appraisal; we are anarchic so that the ideas to be appraised can be proposed.

By this process, Universities invent and validate knowledge.  Moreover, unlike monks illuminating manuscripts in the basement of a seminary, or beatniks meditating in an open field to find inner personal wisdom, we are not interested in private or secret knowledge, we recognize and accept a duty to spread knowledge to the world.  Further, we recognize and accept a duty to disseminate our approach: our anarchic openness to ideas, and our rigid hierarchical methods, particularly the scientific method, for appraising the value of ideas.

This commitment to open but rigorous inquiry can lead us down strange paths, sometimes providing confirmation of conventional wisdom, sometimes however leading to the flat denial of conventional wisdom.  The laws of quantum mechanics – those wherein action at a distance occurs, wherein the concepts of causality are redefined – those laws provide an example of the flat denial of conventional wisdom. In quantum mechanics, what are thought to be two distinct concepts, such as anarchism and hierarchy, can become one.  Not complementary, as in my analysis of how a University works, but truly one.

As such, we create fundamentally new things, which change the world. Oddly, our methods, which have been wildly successful, are little appreciated or understood outside of Universities. Instead, private or secret preconceptions, personal insights, opinions, conventional wisdom, and other untested ideas play a major role in daily life and in public policy.  Hence, as I have noted, our duty does not end with the introduction of new knowledge.

In particular, the application of science to public policy is one of the ways scientific knowledge is disseminated, and an area in which, in my view, our approach to the creation and in particular the validation of knowledge must play a larger role.  Being a great University, or aspiring to be one, confers upon one not only the praise and respect of colleagues at other institutions – and perhaps some degree of concomitant self-satisfaction – but it further confers upon one responsibility: the responsibility to disseminate our approach.  In particular, promoting the application of rigorously tested ideas and methods to the anarchy which can sometimes drive public policy in science.

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