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  • Jose Arrieta

On the Flawed/Functional Pursuit of Exceptionalism

Academia is a strange place. Exceptionalism is a common metric for career progress. Exceptionalism allows you to enter better universities and make your education affordable. Exceptionalism helps you gain the attention of faculty and jump-start your research earlier on. Exceptionalism thus leads to a virtuous spiral. Which eventually, leads you to look at younger scholars and measure them by how exceptional they are. The cycle continues.


Yet, exceptionalism is obviously a dumb policy. By definition, most people are not exceptional and what is exceptional to me is not necessarily exceptional to you. True. metrics for exceptionalism can converge. But as they converge so does the chance of people gaming the metrics and "when a measure, [any measure] becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure". Therefore, the only hope for exceptionalism is to enforce policies that --paradoxically-- increase the number of attributes deemed and measured as exceptional. That might work, and the eternal pressures for specialization and subspecialization in academia can be seen as proof of the arms race intrinsic in its pursuit of exceptionalism.


James G. March, once highlighted a simple truth: "Smart people like to be in domains where they can be demonstrably smart." Following this line of thought, one could imagine that exceptionalism is not necessary within academia for smart people to flock to it. What is needed is the recognition (i.e., the badge) of the people in it being smart. If that is the case, then exceptionalism is not a goal of academia but a simplification that allows us to cap the complexity of our thoughts and of our modeling of the world. If we see academia as a place where exceptional people work, then the creation of measures to find the exceptional and nurture it will seem natural. We will see specialization as a good tool to avoid conflict and enable smart people to find each other and agree on what needs to be done. It can act as the pond where Narcissus watched his reflection and enamored his vision.


As a management teacher, it is obvious to me that most of my students won't become billionaires. It is obvious to me that most of my students will not become CEOs, or at least will not spend most of their careers as CEOs. Yet, a lot of the material available for me to teach them builds on the decisions that billionaires and CEOs of SP500 firms performed. It is easy to get enamored by the exceptional careers of people like Elon Musk, Marissa Meyer, and other workaholics. But is it moral to use these people as examples in class? Exceptionalism comes at a huge cost to the system that promotes it. For every Elon Musk we have hundreds of people that support and provide services for them to operate. We need cleaners, cookers, accountants, spouses who act "as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”


It is hard for me to imagine how our focus on exceptionalism can be good. True, exceptionalism tends to follow the money as "we have a deeply embedded ideology that price is all that matters, that individuals work only for money". Thus, a good way of modeling society becomes "as if" everyone aims only at maximizing their money. But if I am honest, "I have never met a serious business person that actually believes all this but I have met firms that are run this way. Indeed, the pursuit of exceptionalism is founded on the idea that by finding the exceptional the system is guaranteed success.


But is it? The image below shows the funding the scholars accrued after they were (not) selected to receive an initial grant. Green plots the ones who got the grant and accrue the Matthew Effect. Red, the ones who did not. Importantly, the review scores of the people in both groups were identical at the time the grant was awarded. There was no real reason to choose green or red, it was just chance who led the way. Random choice in other words leads to the lucky being granted twice as many funds as the unlucky later on. Whenever the green and the red scholars face their tenure committees, the green will look much better. But should they? They were just lucky. Sure, the total accumulated funds by the green are way higher than the red. But, if anything the inequality was due to chance. I'd argue that if the funding systems provided grants that were 1/2 as large to twice as many scholars, the scientific output might be better off. This is not a new opinion. Richard Nelson used it to explain how in our society, the optimal corporate investment in basic research should be zero. As any higher investment would lead innovation to stifle. The same is true for scholars, "Top performers are not the most impressive when extreme performance indicates unreliability"

Source: Bol, T., de Vaan, M., & van de Rijt, A. (2018). The Matthew effect in science funding. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(19), 4887-4890.


Exceptionalism has functioned so far but in a world where silos govern our daily lives as academics, it is hard to imagine this flawed system will continue to work well in the future. Yet, alternatives are hard to come by. Even my little idea above is faulty in many ways. In a way, exceptionalism is similar to democracy in the sense exposed by Churchill "is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried”. It can be frustrating to think about social systems and reach no end nor get closer to any moral action. We are not alone in this frustration, March ended his 1994 tour de force in decision making saying: "Any reasonable contemplation of that record of failure erodes confidence in the idea that decision making and the expectations of meaningful action that it implies are plausible routes to a moral life... In the long run, the decision-makers are all dead and the species extinct... That may be. But let us perish resisting and if nothingness is what awaits us, let us not act in such a way that it is a just fate"." (March, 1994, p. 270).

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