Measured Against Reality

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Doping in Academia?

Jonah Lehrer has an interesting post about using drugs to improve performance in college. Here's the important bit, from here:

It is probably surprising that the drug backfired only once, when I stayed up on Adderall for 72 hours before a philosophy final. My appearance in the testing hall the next day was so tangled and shaky that the professor removed me from the room. I was sent away with permission to return later and finish the exam in his office. Instead, I slept. In the end it didn't matter that I failed the exam, because a semester of A+ Adderall papers had left me with a decent grade in the class. If the proof is in the transcript, then Adderall is hardly a self-punishing habit. Sometimes I think about how Marion Jones has to return all the prize money she earned while taking steroids, and I wonder whether I should be stripped of all the A's I received for papers written on Adderall. This is a haunting or a comical thought, depending on my mood.

Of course, I could have studied in college without Adderall, just like I did in high school--I just couldn't have studied with such ecstasy. Theoretical texts, in particular, were transformed into exercises as conquerable as a Tuesday crossword. I could work out in the gym with a Xeroxed packet of Gayatri Spivak perched on the elliptical machine in front of me, reading and burning calories at the same time. The efficacy of the multitasking was exhilarating. On Adderall, the densest writing became penetrable. I had an illusion of mastery, at least, that lasted long enough to write the necessary papers and presentations. I could never remember what I had written the next day, but I justified this forgetfulness as an accelerated version of what would happen anyway after I graduated.


Jonah says, "I'd always get annoyed before taking an exam that was going to be graded on a steep curve. I'd look around at my competition and see all these sunken eyes and twitchy hands and I'd feel like a pitcher that didn't dabble in HGH." Personally, I've never noticed anything like that, but I wouldn't be too surprised if kids in some of my classes were on some kind of drugs while taking tests or writing papers, especially in those big, freshman classes.

What I'm actually curious about is how many people in physics do this. It's a small enough group of people that I could actually ask, but I doubt anyone would be so candid as to admit it.

At any rate, it's certainly an interesting problem. Should we have random drug testing for people at college? Most would find the idea abhorrent. But how is it different than testing professional athletes? I'm not so sure it would be. There's this idea that our work should be pure, untainted. I don't really see the line between this being true in Baseball but not Philosophy exams. Is there one?

Personally I think it's stupid to outlaw this stuff no matter where it's done. If baseball players want to take HGH or steroids, why stop them? If the philosophy student wants to take Adderall, why stop them? I guess you can argue that, if it enhances their performance, it practically mandates that everyone else competing with them do it too. But that assumes that these things help (and it seems like they hurt about as often as they help), and it assumes that the area is actually competitive. In baseball it's obviously true, but in Philosophy? Yes, I recognize that college is competitive, but I think it shouldn't be (I have a laid-back attitude about grades, preferring to, you know, learn rather than obsess about getting the A).

2 Comments:

  • As I say here, screw it, let baseball players take all the steroids they want. Is juicing any more unnatural than forgoing all productive activity to spend four hours a day in a weight room and another eight practicing a game? Isn't that "cheating" compared to the 99% of human history in which athletes were amateurs who spent their days farming, smithing, or soldiering?

    And if it's about setting examples for kids, do you really want your child's role model to be some jock who gave up any hope of an education for the one in ten thousand chance of making it to the big leagues? If you want to scare a kid straight, don’t show him some steroids-make-your-dick-fall-off public service announcement. Show him the 40-year-old shortstop on the AA team bus, screaming down his cell phone that this month's paycheck won't cover his child support either.

    By Blogger Holy Prepuce, at 11:31 AM, February 26, 2008  

  • I think the difference is actually pretty simple. Physics, and academia in general, is results-oriented. The goal of the Physics community is to produce as many true statements about the universe as possible. Period. If this can be accomplished by humans, good. If it can be accomplished by drugged humans, good. If it can be accomplished by machines, again, good. Imagine saying that you're going to replace a pitcher with a pitching machine, because it will produce more strikes, and strikes are the goal of pitching. It doesn't work. The goal of baseball isn't in the results, it's in the enjoyment of the process, and in competition between excellent human athletes. What standards we should hold those athletes to is therefore completely arbitrary, and can be determined by popular tastes.

    By OpenID dudley-doright, at 7:20 PM, March 02, 2008  

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