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Serge Lang is fighting a losing battle

By Michael Miarmi

Someone please tell Serge Lang to shut up. It would be a most blissful silence, one that might reverberate louder than his perennial whining in the face of Yale tenure offers.

Professor Lang is disillusioned over the offer of tenure that Yale has bestowed upon science historian Daniel Kevles, specifically criticizing the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) professor's 1998 book, The Baltimore Case. Lang asserts that the book, which analyzes a scientific controversy of the '80s involving data fabrication among prominent scientists, showcases Kevles' lack of objectivity and shortcomings as a scholar. His vehemence forces the same questions to keep popping up in my mind. First, what is the foundation of Serge Lang's dispute with the Kevles appointment? Second, why has Professor Lang become the self-appointed one-man army against tenure at Yale?

The answer to both of these questions comes down to a fundamental determinant of human behavior: the ego. Colleges and universities are in the business of knowledge, and, in such a business, one can only be judged based upon subjective criteria. When Yale, or any institution of higher learning, examines a candidate's record, it is making a decision based on its approval or disapproval of that individual's life's work—a necessarily personal evaluation. It represents a mix of tangible and intangible qualities that are related to new ways of thinking, fresh perspectives on established areas of research, and other human characteristics upon which the business of knowledge depends. Academia as a profession is based upon the continuing exchange of thoughts, ideas and opinions, almost all of which prove subjective and, therefore, debatable.

Given the nature of academia, there is thus enormous potential for ego to play a part. In their efforts to defend their work—and thus themselves—academics take particularly personal stances in matters of intellectual debates, and they can stake extremely adamant positions in response to a disagreement with their work. The hyper-inflated egos of the world's most prominent scholars only further fuel the fire of their vehemence.

Serge Lang has fallen into the abyss of pretension and self-servitude into which his ego has dragged him. The paltry evidence with which he challenges Kevles' objectivity amounts to little more than a vindictive diatribe against someone who merely does not agree with his position. Nowhere does Lang specifically mention instances in which Kevles has in any way shown academic dishonesty or deliberate misinformation.

Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge the necessary subjectivity of academic investigation. It would be shocking if there were universal consent one way or the other with regard to the incidents portrayed in The Baltimore Case. In fact, if there were such unanimity on either side, the book would have had no reason to be written. Lang, then, stands guilty of the very prejudice of which he accuses Daniel Kevles.

Lang also appears to believe that Kevles should research and write without any opinion on his findings whatsoever. But the object of academic writing need not amount to such a banal task as merely reporting the facts and leaving them at face value. Daniel Kevles was not writing a news story for the New York Times—he had compiled, through an extensive process of research and evaluation, his own analysis of a controversial topic in order to formulate an educated position. Lang instead chooses to view Kevles' rejection of his position as evidence of deliberate obfuscation and mishandling on the part of the CalTech professor.

Also aggravating is the nature of Lang's criticisms. After Yale praised Kevles' book as "explosive yet carefully wrought," Professor Lang went on the attack: "What do the expressions `explosive' and `carefully wrought' mean? Who or what is exploding, and for what reasons?" Huh? I think that the only thing "exploding" (or, perhaps, deflating) is the validity of his complaint! C'mon, Professor, you can't have enshrouded yourself in Group IV for so long that you have forgotten the meaning of metaphor. Yale's use of such language is quite appropriate to describe a book whose author had to wade through a mess of ambiguity and conjecture in order to construct a story that includes both an intriguing narrative and a lucid scientific explanation.

In response to your assertions, Professor Lang, I just want to say what others wouldn't or couldn't: go be a curmudgeon on your own time, and stop bothering the rest of us.

Michael Miarmi is a senior in Pierson.

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