The Irrelevant, the Revolutionary, and the Well-Cited

Concurring Opinions co-proprietor Frank Pasquale has an interesting reflection on a recent critique of the explosion of law review articles and the possibly autopoietic self-referentiality of citations (it seems to me it is a fair interpretation of the largely irrefutable evidence Paul Caron has gathered on the “long-tail” of legal scholarship.) I think Frank is onto something, particularly in this Age of Rankings: we are once again seeming to look for the silver bullet indicator of something that is probably irreducibly complex. What is important or an advancement is not going to be determined conclusively by the number of times the article gets cited (the popular equivalent of which leads to something like the conclusion that Ann Coulter is the most important mind at work today, and Britney Spears the most significant cultural icon) nor is it necessarily going to determined by the high priests of whatever “law and…” sub-discipline is at issue, but both have some bearing.

That complexity is reflected in the observation that there’s a fine line between the irrelevant and the revolutionary. I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein (with a grain of salt now because Isaacson so badly messed up Kant’s view of analytic and synthetic knowledge and the relationship of either to the a priori), but he observes that Einstein probably benefited from the fact that he did his work in the patent office, where he wouldn’t have been co-opted by the received views of the time. Although, again, there’s a chicken and egg issue – Einstein’s basic iconoclasm and impudence no doubt contributed to the fact that he couldn’t get a job as a professor!

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1 Response

  1. Frank says:

    Thanks for the shout-out! I think the reductio ad absurdum of the approach was Richard Posner’s book “Public Intellectuals”. . . .which also exhibited the genius behind starting a ranking system based on how much you’re talked about–you get talked about by many of the people you rank (and many of those you don’t)!

    Here’s a nice list of reactions to Posner’s book:

    PErhaps the only way to fight a ranking system one disagrees with is to ignore it.