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January 2, 2004

dangers of fame

Here are three risks created by the pursuit of fame:

1. Fame tends to accumulate in unjustifiable and unhelpful ways. Just as the rich get richer, so the famous get "famouser." For example, media outlets want to interview the famous; colleges want to hire them or invite them to visit; organizers want them to speak at their meetings. Each time someone agrees to one of these gigs, he or she gets more famous--pretty much regardless of merit. I know of famous academics who are hired simply because they will bring attention to colleges; and colleges that provide professional p.r. services to promote these same scholars even more. (A disclosure: I personally benefit from money spent to promote CIRCLE--which worries me.) In a society with efficient communications media, everyone can get access to the famous, and that's what they demand. It then becomes increasingly difficult for others to get attention. Fame is actually worse than money in this respect. There is a limited supply of public attention, so the struggle for fame can be zero-sum, rather than win-win (as economic markets often are).

2. Those who want to be famous think too much about their potential audience. I am all for being sensitive to one's readers or listeners--patiently giving them the information they need, trying not to bore them, trying to be relevant to their problems, etc. Also, if you have something important to say, I think you should try to find ways to communicate it to the people who need to know it. But desire for fame causes some people to put the cart before the horse. Instead of thinking, "I have something important to say; how can I find an audience?" they think, "I want an audience; what will a large group of people want to hear?" Note that this logic doesn't always cause people to say (or write) popular things. Instead, it may encourage them to promote controversial views, so that they can be the only ones holding particular opinions. But unfortunately, the truth is often unoriginal and complicated, rather than simple and new.

3. People who are famous are asked to comment on all manner of topics. If they agree, they thus lose the intellectual discipline that comes from having to get published (or interviewed) on the merits of one's research. A few extremely famous academics continue to work hard at developing evidence and arguments; they also concentrate on expressing views that they can defend on the basis of their own work. But more frequently, scholars are corrupted by fame; they spend most of their time opining on subjects far afield from their own competence, and thereby set bad examples for students and younger faculty.

I recognize that this blog is full of my own unprofessional, unsubstantiated opinions, which I nevertheless want people to read. I suppose in my defense I would say that this form is more like a conversation with a smallish group of voluntary visitors than a public address. Still, I do sometimes desire fame, and that is precisely why I worry about it.

Posted by peterlevine at 3:05 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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