Monday, February 21, 2005

The Rolling Maul and the Laws of Rugby Union

Dr. Bleddyn Jones (Maesteg), the Dept.'s resident Welshman and leading expert on inter alia the history of military latrines, initiated a discussion at the departmental coffee hour this morning on the upcoming Six Nations Rugby matches--Wales play France at Paris next Saturday, England play Ireland at Dublin. Dr Bleddyn Jones (Maesteg) has been full of himself these days, because Wales have been playing well. A rarity apparently. In the course of the morning discussion, I pointed out what I believe to be a serious flaw in the laws of rugby. It concerns the "Rolling Maul." I've posted before on how a few changes in the laws of soccer (or football, as the British insist) and the laws of fox-hunting could improve those sports. Rugby seems to me to be in need of a similar fix.

For those who don't know much about rugby, the simple description is that it's like NFL football, except (i) you can't pass the ball forward, (ii) you can only tackle with arms (thus padding is neither allowed nor needed); and (iii) you can't oggle the cheerleaders, because there aren't any. The axiom of rugby--and that which makes it such an exciting spectacle--is that noone can be in front of the ball without being "offside." This leads to sweeping movements from one side of the field to the other with the ball constantly being passed backwards. It's a great game.

The rolling maul, however, contradicts the axiom of rugby, because it allows a team to bind together in front of the ball carrier. I'm not the only one to think that "the rolling maul" ought to go. The correspondent of Rugby Heaven (an Australian publication unfortunately behind a subscription wall) calls it "the last refuge of Neanderthal rugby that once dominated the game." He goes on to add:

Rolling mauls may be beautiful to tight forwards (past and present) and other ironheads, but they are ugly spectacles, especially for the uninitiated, and they are ugly for the game. In rugby, it is illegal for a player to "shepherd", or stand between the ball-carrier and the tackler. But shepherding is the essence of the rolling maul, which can rumble on and on because the defenders simply can't get their hands on the player with the ball.

If someone pulls the whole ugly edifice to the ground he is penalised. If a defender hits the deck, he becomes the rugby equivalent of road kill. Forwards built like beer barrels, with as much attacking flair, can hog the ball, leaning on each other, while slowly rutting in the general direction of the goalposts.

My worry is that in the current Six Nations tournament "the rolling maul" has been perfected by the least imaginative teams--Bernard Laporte's current embarrassingly pedestrian French team, for instance. The Irish also rely on "the rolling maul" a lot. They used it to beat a superior Welsh team last year. My worry is that the rolling maul will always work to the disadvantage of the more adventurous attacking teams like the Welsh.

Short of the legal abolition of the rolling maul, I think that the way to defend against it is for the defending front row on some prearranged signal to disengage en masse from the maul--in the rugby equivalent of the old Arsenal offside trap--and by doing so play all the people at the front of the maul offside. My colleagues in the Dept. of Peace and War studies were skeptical. Some think that under the current laws this would simply allow the team with the ball to continue binding together and march unopposed towards the tryline. Geoffrey ("Reader in Peace Studies") is popping over to Foyle's on the way home tonight to buy a copy of the latest "The Laws of Rugby Union," so that we can check the precise wording of the law. Others (including Dr. Bleddyn Jones [Maesteg]) think that my proposed offside trap wouldn't work, because the defending front row wouldn't be able to disengage from the attacking front row. Using the departmental teapot, we conducted an impromptu, if disappointingly inconclusive, experiment in the corridor. I now owe the department a new teapot.

Déformation Professionnelle

I received a lot of outraged emails after that last post. People claimed I was being unfair--to "breeders," "economists," "sacred cows" etc. Let me add a couple of qualifications. Was I right to pick on economists for their arrogance?. Yes and no. I do think that in the modern academy, economists are generally the most unpleasant, socially-unskilled, and arrogant people. (Larry Summers is, I suspect, in hot water with his Harvard colleagues more for these traits than anything he said about women in science depts.) But I don't think that these are the worst faults. The redeeming feature of economists is that they like to argue and never (or at least rarely) get offended when you disagree with them. Indeed, they encourage and expect disagreement. The worst people in academia are the insecure. People who take offense when you disagree with them. These people tend to congregate in disciplines whose intellectual foundations are rather fragile. Political Scientists are, I think, among the worst here, because their entire discipline seems to be constructed out of authoritative figureheads (what would Marx, Weber, Rawls, Putnam, Waltz say about [fill in subject]?), typologies, and jargon. I know a few people from Grad School, who got booted out of the Political Science program for disagreeing with their Professors' pet "theory." I suspect that this happens much less in economics and history.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Harvard President Larry Summers Brouhaha: A Guide For British Academics

The departmental coffee hour at London's Peace and War Studies Dept. has been dominated of late by a debate over the merits (or not) of Larry Summers' speech on the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. As the resident Yank in the department, I've been on the spot to explain how American academia functions. There are, I think, three general background factors worth keeping in mind: (i) the sacred cows of the Ivy League academy; (ii) the status of Larry Summers as an intellectual provocateur; and (iii) the intellectual standards of economics.


Having been an Ivy League Professor for a few years, I've been socialized into a particular academic sub-culture--"a politically correct mainstream," if you prefer--that places certain ideas beyond the pale of rational debate. Raise these ideas only at the price of grave professional danger. Idea (i) work trumps pleasure. Idea (ii) intellectual ability does not track gender or race. Idea (iii) Israel is a worthy recipient of unqualified US support. (In my own case, for what it's worth, socialization has beeen quite effective. I endorse all three ideas, even if I have some misgivings about (i) and would prefer it if all three could be opened for debate without provoking a shitstorm.)

It's against the background of these sacred cows that Larry's remarks must be understood. Initially, the controversy centered on his attack on (ii). Clearly, Larry has been spending too much time in the company of Steve "Blank Slate" Pinker and now shares some very controversial "intuitions" about the "innate abilities" of men and women. If Larry were an ordinary academic--like Steve Pinker--these "intuitions" would be merely eccentric, but he's no ordinary academic. People are, I think, legitimately anxious about a University President with such "intuitions," especially since these "intuitions" are likely--or at least would have been likely, prior to this particular shitstorm-- to color his response to the under-representation of women in Harvard's science and engineering depts.

Now that we have the transcripts of the NBER talk, attention has shifted away from idea (ii) towards idea (i). Here I think Larry holds fairly conventional views. Everyone in an Ivy League institution is something of a workaholic. Hedonism is much the most unpopular and controversial "-ism" in such places. (Just try yelling down the departmental corridor, "LET'S ALL GO CLUBBING" and see what response you get.) The sole exception to the tyranny of work concerns, what Larry termed, "legitimate family desires." For some reason, Ivy League academies give "breeders" special treatment--extended tenure clocks for parents (male and female), hand-outs for tuition fees etc. In our dept., we have to have faculty meetings at "family-friendly" times--i.e. at ungodly hours of the morning. The family-oriented feminists who have attacked Larry have failed to notice that on this issue he's one of them. (I am yet to hear a good argument that justifies the privileging of "family desires" over other allegedly less important "hedonistic" desires. But that's a topic for another post.)


I'm all for intellectual provocation, but the idea--put forward by Larry's defenders--that he's some fearless intellectual iconoclast is quite laughable. As I've already noted, he endorses sacred cow (i) and he rejects sacred cow (ii). On sacred cow (iii), he's something of a zealot. Thus in Sept 2002, he said that he thought that critics of Israel were guilty of anti-semitism "in effect if not intent." This sacred-cow affirming comment led Theda Skocpol at the faculty meeting last Tuesday to accuse him--quite legitimately, I think--of making remarks in his NBER speech that were sexist "in effect if not intent." These modes of unpleasant ad hominem exchange are a direct consequence of "sacred cowdom." It would be better if universities had no such untouchable topics. Rational inquiry ought to roam freely--even so far as to cover the history of US support for Israel.


For any non-economist, the most striking feature of Larry's comments on the released transcript is their low intellectual calibre. Remember, he is speaking from notes on an issue he claims to have thought a lot about. I'm not surprised he didn't initially want the transcripts released. It'is thus quite puzzling to find many economists (Claudia Goldin, Larry Katz, Ed Glaeser etc.) pat Larry on the arse for his intellectual brilliance, courage, and candor. Goldin, for instance, claims that Larry's talk displayed "utter brilliance." In God's name, why? Reading over the remarks, nothing comes through more clearly than a sense that here is someone who knows little about the topic at hand and lacks the right sort of smarts either to pose the relevant questions or to distinguish valid from specious arguments. All academics have their own déformation professionnelle--we historians are terrible pedants--but none more so than economists. Many of Larry's faults are the characteristic faults of economists: overweening arrogance, a wholly misplaced sense of their own intelligence, and an unwarranted confidence in their own reductive models. An eminent physicist who knows Larry well, once told me that Larry's very good at weighing two measurable variables, but he cannot handle the complex systems that "real scientists" confront. In support of this point of view, it is revealing to take a look--as one of Brad DeLong's commentators suggested--at the writings of the Harvard Physicist Howard Georgi, who unlike Larry understands the issues and--on the evidence of these writings--possesses a finer more discriminating mind.

UPDATE: Among the most interesting blog discussions of this brouhaha, see Brad deLong's (cited above), Kieran Healey (Crooked Timber), and Mark Kleiman, and Bitch Ph.D.--and a couple more--Elizabeth Anderson and Matt Yglesias.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

A Crap Shag

Sitting in a pub in Oxford yesterday waiting for Chris Brooke--the bugger was late--I listened in to the conversation of half a dozen British students at the next table. I heard an unfamiliar use of language--the words "crap" and "rubbish" as all purpose adjectives. "Ulysses" was dismissed by one of them as "a rubbish book." The students then discussed the extraordinary misfortune of a friend who had recently lost his virginity to his longstanding girlfriend. The following day, she dumped him on the grounds that he was "a crap shag." We live in a harsh and unforgiving world.

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