(No) skin in the game

Wed Feb 23, 2011

Whenever people (in particular, graduate students) talk to me or correspond with me about topics I have written about at some point in my career, I notice they are confused by my general attitude. Well, part of it is that I have a memory like a sieve as far as details of my own papers are concerned, so I often have to puzzle out things with them as if I was reading someone else’s work. But the thing of it is that I do consider old work of mine to be work by someone else. That work was written by a previous time slice of myself that I do not anymore have any privileged access to or even a strong emotional bond with. So, I do not feel a strong emotional attachment to the ideas and approaches advocated in those papers. I look at them as honest attempts to figure out how things work, but if more recent investigations of the same facts or additional facts point to a different solution, that’s just fine with me. I don’t feel like I necessarily “have skin in the game”, as the sports metaphor goes. So, if students challenge my old ideas, so be it. Let’s follow the facts wherever they lead.

There are some countervailing considerations.

First, at least for a certain amount of time, I believe that authors have an obligation to be the best advocate for their ideas that they can be. This relates to a point made by Geoff Pullum in his “Five Golden Rules (well, actually six) for giving academic presentations”, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

REMEMBER THAT YOU’RE AN ADVOCATE, NOT THE DEFENDANT. It’s your idea that’s being presented, not you. The reason for not feeling nervous is that you are not what’s up for consideration (not even at a job talk; they consider you later!). This isn’t about you (that’s why you shouldn’t begin with an apology: that’s about how you feel). It’s the ideas that are going to get scrutiny. If those ideas don’t survive after today, too bad for them. You can’t work miracles. But for today, you’re there to do as fair a job as you can for them during their twenty minutes in the spotlight. You’re a vehicle, an advocate, a public defender. These ideas might have been unfairly dismissed without a trial. No matter what the ultimate verdict, you will have served the court of scholarly opinion if you defend them effectively.

And secondly, no matter how old the work is, there are two offenses against it that I do get hot under the collar about: not properly acknowledging and citing the work and misrepresenting the work. But that’s actually an attitude I have about anybody’s work. Citing properly and representing previous work accurately is an indispensable part of serious scholarship and science.

How do others feel about their old work? Do you feel like you still have skin in the game?