Letter/Observer Forum

A Simple Restriction on Crankiness

Crankiness is a widespread phenomenon among academics. Some might even see it as distinctive of the trade, similar to absent-mindedness, obliviousness, and other clichéd mental traits. However, it usually is the crankiness of professors that potentially drives deans, chancellors, fellow professors, and students crazy. It costs time, nerves, money, and sometimes, in severe cases, even leads some to drop-out or resign.

I present to you Vitouch’s law (Vitouch’sches Verschrobenheitsgesetz), which sets a simple and straightforward restriction on crankiness. Imagine a 2 x 2 table of the variables “scientific excellence” and “crankiness,” assuming, for the sake of simplicity, the values “high” or “low” for both. Now, for the four cells, the law holds that there are three benign behavioral quadrants and one forbidden quadrant. In the common interest of everybody working at a university, the “low excellence, high crankiness” quadrant should be taboo.

The rationale of this law is that while accepting crankiness may be a price well worth paying down to a certain lower bound of scientific or scholastic excellence, the right to crankiness in the absence of excellence is unearned and therefore unacceptable. Please note that the law is purely prescriptive, with the frequency of its violation being an empirical question. As measures of scientific excellence (such as the h-index) thrive and develop, valid and reliable behavioral measures of crankiness will develop alongside. This will make the rigorous application of Vitouch’s law possible (with the respective individuals having the threefold choice of developing into either uncranky or excellent or both) and shall make the world, and especially universities, a better place.

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