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November 16, 2022

Birds, Frogs, and … Squirrels? A Comment on Leaving Academia

by Eric Gilliam

Erik Hoel, who writes The Intrinsic Perspective, has just announced that he is leaving his position at Tufts to pursue Substack writing. If that name does not ring a bell, readers of this Substack may know him as the “guy who wrote the Why we stopped making Einsteins piece” on aristocratic tutoring.

Hoel is a great thinker who integrates fields seamlessly, and that’s part of the reason he chose to leave academia. Academia, embarrassingly, has little place for this kind of thing anymore. When Hoel was listing reasons why he was leaving in his post, Goodbye academia, hello Substack — which I encourage everyone to read — he wrote:

I work in interdisciplinary areas where there’s not much grant money—sometimes none at all. Second, being a successful professor nowadays means not just crafting your research so it will receive big governmental grants, but also being involved with the student body, doing extracurricular activities, volunteering, taking on a bunch of busywork like organizing special editions of journals, citation-maxing, paper-maxing, not to mention sitting on the right committees, advancing the right political causes, etc. And I just. . . don’t do any of that stuff. Not only that, but I have this pesky writing habit to contend with. A tenure committee will never say “Oh, you wrote a novel and a bunch of popular essays, wow, that’s a huge plus for our Biology department.” To them, this looks like the behavior of a maniac. Everything I write here is bad for my academic career. Every time a book manuscript of mine is delivered to a publisher, it’s bad for my academic career. I’ve never once had anyone in any administrative, hiring, or grant-giving capacity show anything but hesitation about these things.

Hoel feels that little of what he does, whether it’s writing his fascinating Substacks or his novel-ing career, registers in the increasingly formalized scales of academia. In fact, it makes him taken less seriously.

Do some of his Substacks more explore some new ideas and theories at a high (and entertaining) level using less rigorous methods and more cross-disciplinary thinking than is used in modern academia? Yeah. Do I think that should make people shudder in horror and go, “Oh the horror! Does this professor not know there are pipettes to be pipetted and assays to be screened? Does he not know a serious mind should be concerned with that and only that?! He must not be serious about trust research.” No.

(Yes I know Hoel probably doesn’t actually do any of that kind of lab science. But it was funnier that way.)

Regardless, even if Hoel’s colleagues and superiors are not repulsed by his daring grab at a curiosity-driven career in the academy, they likely do not support it so much that they would open their minds beyond the current bureaucratic standards that constitute the “right metrics and track record” to grant him the tenure at a top university — that most in the progress community would likely say he deserves due to his wholistic contributions to several related areas of thinking.

Before, there were birds and frogs. Now there are also squirrels.

I have supported Hoel for a while. He has been INTERESTING. And that has been in spite of the incentives. He writes:

I’ve come to believe I can do more original and meaningful intellectual work outside of academia. For, to be honest, when I look back at my career and the things I’m most proud of, I did the majority in spite of the strictures of academia, not because of them. I did it in time squirreled away from bosses and administrators. And I’m tired of being a squirrel.

I believe this quote will ring true with many readers of this Substack. So many curious researchers that I’ve met have felt the need to hide what they were doing — work that they were interested in, was novel, and relevant to their general area of research — just because it wasn’t solely in their discipline or had an uncomfortably high (for grant administrators) chance of not working.

In many of the more expensive sciences with high material costs, such as the life sciences, many go as far as to commit (on paper) borderline fraud, repurposing money from a low-risk/approved research project to a high-risk, unapproved one just to do some real science. This type of behavior, from here on on this Substack, will be referred to as “squirrel behavior.”

It’s kind of poetic when you think about it. Freeman Dyson, many years ago, spoke about mathematicians as tending to be either birds or frogs. In describing what birds and frogs were, Dyson, a renowned frog, said:

Some mathematicians are birds, others are frogs. Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time. I happen to be a frog, but many of my best friends are birds. The main theme of my talk tonight is this. Mathematics needs both birds and frogs. Mathematics is rich and beautiful because birds give it broad visions and frogs give it intricate details. Mathematics is both great art and important science, because it combines generality of concepts with depth of structures. It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper. The world of mathematics is both broad and deep, and we need birds and frogs working together to explore it.

Over the years, many have said that they believe something like this birds and frogs distinction applies to their field of scientific research also. The increasingly risk-averse and bureaucratic “strictures of academia” have seen fit to grant us a third designation of high-level, curiosity-driven researcher: the squirrel. Squirrels are expert at bending rules, norms, and grant-funding dollars to pursue novel research that is not accepted by a broken system.

I’ve heard many admiring stories of these individuals talked about in private by professors and grad students. The reverence many researchers have for great squirrels’ ability to get science done working around the rules of the system often has a tone of admiration similar to elder physicists explaining Fermi’s ability to grasp a problem in a nutshell. They don’t include it as an aside about a researcher in many cases. It can be considered something of a special superpower, the thing that makes them special above all others.

Now I know what to call them. Squirrels.

In conclusion

Hoel’s departure is just one data point. But it says a lot that someone left one of the only jobs that could, even if only tenuously, support his three-headed career of researcher, essayist, and novelist. He gave up the salary and the chance at finding a place that might give him a salary and professorial comfort for life just to take a shot at experiencing true intellectual freedom and seeing where it takes him.

So, if you’re ever wondering how stifling modern academia is to a really really curious person — which most of our great scientists were — this is a data point I encourage you to remember.

If you’d like to support Hoel’s journey and become a paid subscriber to his top-tier Substack, it’s right here.

Until next time.