Fukuyama’s Back

I despise Francis Fukuyama. He’s the guy who became famous for having happened to write a “turgid” (as one reviewer described it) book called The End of History, just about the time the Soviet Union collapsed. Nearly everyone misunderstood the book, but Fukuyama rode the wave of popular attention with exquisite skill.

A few years later I was at a Politics and the Life Sciences conferences, and he was the keynote speaker. He’d suddenly gotten interested in evolutionary theory, but he was in a room full of people who had mostly studied it much more extensively than he had. He made grand sweeping pronouncements about it that left everyone shaking their heads and mocking him.

He then wrote a book on trust, a topic which happens to be a serious area of study in the social sciences. How he suddenly became expert enough in a field where everyone’s still struggling to figure it out is anyone’s guess. My own guess is that he didn’t. He then wrote a book on biotechnology. Apparently he quickly became a leading expert on that as well.

Now he’s written a magnum opus on human political development, from a cultural evolution approach, and of course it’s being praised.

Fukuyama would be an interesting guy to sit down and chat with. He has a wide ranging intellect and undoubtedly a much broader range of knowledge than I do. But I share his interest in being a wide-ranging intellect–like him, I find lots of different things very interesting. But unlike him I do not try to ride into a new field, study it for a couple of years, and write a supposedly definitive book about it. In other words, Fukuyama is all surface, no depth.

He impresses people by tying together the threads of his wide-ranging knowledge very well to make an argument that is superficially plausible. Few people know the breadth of things he does, so they’re understandably impressed. But he doesn’t know as much as the real experts in any of those fields, so the strands he weaves together don’t always hold at a deeper level. For example, he reportedly writes, ““We take institutions for granted but in fact have no idea where they come from.” For political scientists, at least, that’s pure bullshit. There’s a worldwide community of scholars revolving around Indiana University’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis whose intensive focus of study is the origin, development, and maintenance of political institutions. They sure as hell don’t take them for granted, and in many cases they can tell you exactly where they come from, why they developed, why they are maintained, and in what ways they are threatened. Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for work in this field.

Fukuyama knows this. In fact he’s feeding off their work. But he isn’t doing any original research in that field. He’s read a couple of Ostrom’s books and used them as a basis for one set of threads in his own personal magnum opus. All the threads will come from others’ work.

I can’t criticize too much. That’s the kind of stuff I write, too, just on a smaller scale. But I think the scale matters. Writing a 5,000 word policy brief that weaves together knowledge that is out there is legitimate, even for an academic. Writing a book of that scale is legitimate if you’re actually a popular writer, say a Bill Bryson. But if you’re using your academic credentials as part of your selling point, you really need to be doing some original research.

Buy at your own risk.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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One Response to Fukuyama’s Back

  1. D. C. Sessions says:

    He impresses people by tying together the threads of his wide-ranging knowledge very well to make an argument that is superficially plausible. Few people know the breadth of things he does, so they’re understandably impressed.

    That wouldn’t be a problem if he closed the loop and had real experts review his work before he published it.

    But if you’re using your academic credentials as part of your selling point, you really need to be doing some original research.

    I’m not sure I buy that. They also serve who only communicate … and I present to you the ghost of Professor Isaac Asimov to continue the discussion.

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