Top scholars are kings of 'wishful thinking'

January 28, 2010

Academics have been accused of taking positions and expressing opinions on "the flimsiest evidence" and sometimes despite "clear evidence to the contrary".

In a lecture at City University London, "Higher education policymaking: hope, prejudice and wishful thinking", Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the fact that even academics did this was "one of the most sobering things" he had realised in his career.

He pointed to Hepi's report last summer on the growing gap between male and female participation in higher education, which he said had "touched a nerve".

He added that the report was a scholarly and rigorous assessment of the statistics by John Thompson, a former chief analyst at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, but the response from some academics had been "shocking".

"We have had accusations of castration anxieties, moral panic, spreading sex warfare, masculinity panics and emasculation," he said.

Some claimed that women were concentrated in the "bottom ten" universities, but this was "pure fiction", based on a miscalculation by one scholar that was repeated.

"What we have here is something that is all too common in the academic world - unchecked citations perpetuating errors and falsehoods."

Mr Bekhradnia claimed that even The Sun newspaper managed a more rational discussion of the report.

"The general concern I have ... is to address the question of academics in positions of authority ignoring evidence - making up their evidence, even - engaging in frankly extraordinary personal abuse and attacks ... because they see a body of evidence that is being assembled and presented undermining their zeitgeist and their beliefs," he said.

"These are people who are teaching our youngsters. Concern with truth, objectivity, weighing evidence and coming to conclusions on the basis of evidence: I fear that these are scholarly virtues that are not being transmitted to their students."

Policymakers, politicians and universities also came under attack in the lecture on 26 January for basing policies on belief, not evidence.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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