Of course, the structure of academia is insane. However, like a mad scientist, it has its moments. The genius of the system is the fabulous craftiness with which it cashes in on the raging, pathological neediness and insecurity of its poor little members -- particularly those who play with the font-size in their CVs a lot.
Our hunger for legimitacy and recognition is so voracious that we are prepared to identify almost anything as counting for it. (Or almost nothing, but that's another story). The slightest tang of acceptance, of being allowed to sit at the grown-ups' table, and we'll do anything. Anything.
They (you know, Them) know this. They know that they can get you to do things that require bizarre levels of commitment and expertise (possibly expertise that only you possess) merely by implying that your abilities have value. The spotlight of recognition is so heady that you are nailed down shut into the dark airless coffin of your commitment before you even begin to realise that they just got something for bordering on nothing.
I know this. And I still got nailed down today. My professor (We'll call him Professor Agent Smith) can't be in town to give one of his lectures this term. Prof Agent Smith is famous. And also famous for his lectures. He asked (very nicely) if I would be interested in giving the lecture he has to miss. He noted (very nicely) that he thought I would do a great job.
I'm down for the count. I'm lying on the floor, gasping like a goldfish. Trapped in the spotlight like a rabbit. I know perfectly well that the CV points and petty-cash kudos that I will get from Prof Agent Smith for doing this will not even begin to offset the ludicrous amount of work that this one lecture will be, and that any reasonable expected-value analysis, were I even to resemble a rational agent at this moment, would tell me that my time would be much better spent working on my writing sample for the application package to Big Name U, which is due 4 days after I have to give the lecture. But at that moment I was a function approaching orthogonal to rational, and of course, I'm giving the damn lecture. I wasn't even his first choice.
We tell ourselves that somehow all these things will some day come together into a huge, orbiting, planetary mass of brownie points that will transform us into tenured full professors. But we are deluded. Unless your brownie points are peer reviewed, that is.