Quote: Why you don’t fucking love science

So you think you love science, do you?

What does that mean to you, exactly?

For most people, I’m guessing it means something like this:


Or perhaps something like this:


That’s not what science is, though.  That’s data, and like countless “Principal Investigators” of the science world (the professors who are named on research grants), you’re confusing data with science.  This is what science is:

Science is people.  It’s a collective human endeavor, where people make theories, test them based on observation, and then refine the theory when the tests disagree with it.  Data, seen in the beautiful pictures before, is just a side object that confirms the process is working.  Science is the process and the people.  Data is the residue.

I’m not making it sound very nice, am I, to love a “residue?”  Good.  There’s a reason for that.

Read the rest of this excellent post (with graphs!) by John Skylar over at The Anachronist.

The ethics of research evaluation: the individual

One must endeavour at all times when reading evaluation proposals, policy documents, legislation, white papers, and journal articles without number, to see research in its proper context. Most of these documents suggest that we must see research in the “fullest” context, or the “broader” context. And interestingly, this full broadness has a tendency to favour the economic perspective. This is not necessarily the product of malevolent neoliberal intent. It is often a by-product of the hope that a quantitative approach lends itself to impartiality and objectivity. To an extent, I understand this. But I would say that objectivity and neutrality are not the same thing. To stand to one side and not critique a process which we consider damaging is not impartial, but it is rather decidedly compromised. To regard individuals and processes and structures equally impartially is compromised. To suggest that ‘research’ is a disembodied Thing, to be poked and prodded without consequences is compromised. Research is the product of an individual’s labour. Research is embodied. This is the proper context in which it should be viewed.

Research is the result of an individual’s effort, experience, time, and toil. Even group research isn’t done by a group, but rather by the coordinated activities of individuals in concert. It is not impersonal, and all discussion that disembodies research is to be resisted. The reason it is to be resisted is that all work has a politics. So just as my work implies an ontology, a view of the world which it is necessary to make explicit as per standard research proposal/project structure, it too implies a model of interpersonal and social interaction. That a It is necessary to draw out this politics, this standpoint which can be objectively sketched, certainly, but which by no means implies a ham-strung neutrality. My point about neutrality here is that all forms of impartiality and objectivity should favour the individual, for they are the actors in research. We should not favour an evaluation protocol, or a quantitative methodology, or another disembodied process by putting it in the same category as the individual researcher.

My point, then, is that not to have a politics for ones research and work leaves one at the mercy of those who do. In this, I am assuming the implication of research in a nexus of various vested interests, both within the hierarchy of research, higher education, and broader social and economic networks and institutions. These vested interests are biased in that they have their own responsibilities (to shareholders, voters, boards of directors, etc.), and they can coordinate their activities accordingly. Research, as a whole, does not speak with one voice, but the researchers as individuals should speak for themselves, and be biased in terms of their own interests. This is one of the points that is glossed over in stakeholder theory, that these different stakeholders can be in conflict. Consensus and agreement are not the greatest good here. Indeed, the assumption that some compromises must be found, that there should be some give and take, hides a deeper conflict that needs to be brought out into the open.

A step towards this taking place on a productive footing is that researchers as individuals need to become more explicit about what it is they are doing, and why they are doing it. What makes them, as researchers in Higher Education, different to researchers in private industry, as well as different to business interests, to politicians, to bureaucrats and administrators – even administrators within their own Higher Education Institutions. With this a more open discussion and debate can take place regarding research evaluation and the direction which research should take. Researchers and scholars are citizens, and pay their taxes, and so their views and expertise should not be silenced in favour of the politician’s mythically intolerant and hard-nosed taxpayer, nor the minor deities of Innovation and Growth. Researchers do not necessarily need to speak with one voice (no “X of the world unite!”), but they do need to speak with their own voices, in their own language, and from their own expertise.

Applying methods of data science to philosophy

[Firstly, I will admit that this post is part of the problem it diagnoses.] Recently watching Hans Rosling‘s rather fun “The Joy of Stats”, I encountered Microsoft Research‘s Head of Computational Science, Stephen Emmott, discussing how advances in statistics and computation are leading the way towards a new model of science. Where previously, he says, science worked according to experiment and hypothesis, our new ability to process vast amounts of data as never before is in fact opoening up new realms of study, allowing us to make new proposals and even to ask entirely new kinds of questions. We have changed the words, and now we are playing around with the syntax and grammar. (Link to Dr. Nico Sommerdijk of Eindhoven University of Technology discussing the same matter here) Continue reading

Social awkwardness of the singularity, and are hipsters post-scarcity?

In a list of reasons to live as long as possible, one given is that “your loved ones and children don’t deserve to see you perish.” Ok, yeah, so that’s one possible reason for us to live as long as possible. Presumably with some sort of ideal body age. But, if we start living like that, and if we continue to have children and relationships, and the post-scarcity society means that we are able to focus on creativity rather than drudgery… well, I can see the sort of society this would lead to. There might be mindless, soulless hedonism, but it might also give us the chance to learn from each other for longer (hopefully, assuming that small-minds and obtuseness are also made obsolete – good luck with that).
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Outsourcing the self

If social networking is creating a new ecology of communication, how is it doing so? It is effectively a way of outsourcing our connections with other people, whereby we no longer need to worry about doing anything so vulgar as actually having to remember birthdays, or ages, or where you met them, or…in certain cases, what their name is. The upside to this should be that by outsourcing our memory in this manner, then we should have more time free to do more things with these people. We don’t need to write a letter, or even an email. Perhaps we think we can just send a message, and all is well. The problem is that this theoretical free time is a black hole. Most have had that that experience of trawling Facebook for what we think is just a few minutes, then *snap* you’re back in the room and two hours have passed. How is this? Well, as with all technologies, there are benefits and there are drawbacks. This form of communication is low-grade, and labour-intensive. We may get more connected, but this means more active effort is needed maintain these connections.

Network theory in the context of neuronal activity gives us what is termed “Hebb’s rule“, which is sometimes encapsulated with the phrase “cells that fire together, wire together”. According to this, connections between different areas of the brain grow stronger the more that these connections are activated. Analogous with this is the image of all the possible routes across uneven terrain. If many people over a long period need to get from point A to point B, then over time efficiencies will present themselves. People will begin to avoid a certain rock, or a marshy area. They may note that taking an oblique approach to a hill may be longer as the crow flies, but it takes less effort. The result is an emergent solution, emergent because it is the result of multiple actors over a long period of time, and with no over-arching co-ordinating strategy. The path is, in the barest sense, an example of Hebb’s rule being applied as general principle. What does this have to do with social networks, you might well ask. The point with this example is that it is emergent, it is contingent, it is effectively passive. It creates something that we think must have been goal-directed (this appearance is the cause of much confusion in discussing emergent and self-organizing phenomena), but it was anything but. In terms of the network of friends on something like Facebook, stronger connections that we have with people in Real Life are a result of actual contact – or even contact via means of communication which we somehow regard as less ephemeral, such as the telephone.

Adam Ferguson, a philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, described emergent phenomena in society as the “result of human action, but not the execution of any human design“. The problem with social networks is that the owner of the network takes away the accidental aspect of human action which might allow us to strengthen some connections more than others, and instead the task is taken over by an algorithm, which edits our experience. I can see how a radical critique of this situation then becomes possible, whereby because an element of our autonomy has been eroded in this manner, we have not only outsourced memory – we have outsourced our will, our volition, our thought. We are zombies, in all senses. We are co-managing the shitpile. Every utterance we make is spam. But I am enjoying myself too much, and so have run away with the argument. The ideology surrounding social networking does not allow us to consider it dispassionately. It is another mode of communication. It is not evil – this argument is as old as Plato, and continues up to Morozov – , but nor is it the saviour of humanity. We must be pragmatic, but we must commit to a radical pragmatism.

Hello, can I help me?

We must attempt to analyse our behaviour down to the very root, and attempt to foresee just what the unknown results of our actions may be. Every new technology presents new possibilities, and these are amoral. They are without intentionality. They know nothing of ethics. Technology allegedly frees us from every manner of banality, with the promise of allowing us to do what we like. The practice is rather different. With each new example of cognitive outsourcing we no longer think as we once did. What once were basic skills and abilities become degraded out of a lack of use. Hebb’s rule applies in the negative just as it does in the positive. What once were well worn synaptic paths become overgrown with laziness and inactivity. This has more than personal implications. Algorithmic editing seems to make life easier for us, by giving that sickly sheen of “tailor made” to our inter-personal relations, but it can give us over to a philosophy of futility – we become ever more passive, given over to ephemera. We have no thoughts, we have a ‘like’ button. We have no awareness, we have updates. Our being is voided and wiped clean, only to be time-stamped, location-stamped, and finally branded.

In your own time

Take the point made below about timescales, but reverse it. This isthe more accurate representation of how things stand in terms ofinfluence. Our own particular, partisan approaches require that thingsbe presented in the manner I first suggested, but the more exhaustivereading indicates that the reverse is the case. It seems a minor point,but it is crucial to the presentation of the argument. Here’s why.

Inthis change of timescales throughout history, the fragmentation of timehas taken place just as the individual has risen in importance.Fragmentation here isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can simply observethat from the introduction of clocks in villages and towns, allowingfor a more precise breakdown beyond the pace of the ringing of churchbells for services, up to the industrial age and the ascent of thepocketwatch (and all the social effects of this) ever smaller divisionsof time have become possible. As a result, the grand timescales ofdynasties and institutions are now seen as an aggregate of phases, ofyears and decades and centuries. As such, the long view is no longerregarded as an organic or collective entity unto itself.

Considerthis with regard to the phenomenon of European aristocratic dynasties.The Habsburg family (with all its various cadet branches included)claims to trace itself back to the 10th century, and from herethey married their way to a continental supremacy that convulsed Europein war and ruin over the centuries. It would not be fruitful toconsider their history in terms of individuals, as our sense of time isdifferent to theirs.

Theircoat of arms is a testament to the various alliances, co-options,annexations, marriages, and outright thefts that consolidate such adynasty as a supra-individual entity. In these terms, we must considerthe context of time and timescales. By leaving out the collectiveentity of time, we miss something. In his “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View”,Kant points out in his second thesis that “those natural capacitieswhich are directed to the use of […] reason are to be fully developedonly in the race, not in the individual.” Ignoring the use of the word’race’ here with it’s chauvinistic implications, we see that there isan awareness of the different implications of different timescales. Oneis not superior to another, but has rather a different function.

The Luddites were right

Luddites were not objectively anti-technology, even if that is what their acts of sabotage and destruction might suggest, and even if that is how history has on the whole remembered them. What they were searching for was a way to integrate new technologies into their way of life, rather than allowing each new gadget dictate what form society would take. In this, they were the first to encounter the problem which endures today, namely the disparity between new processes and technologies on the one hand, and on the other, social and political models which took place long before such changes could even have been imagined. It is the divide between the human and the machine. It is an abyss of scale.

What was needed was a new social technology which could have been attendant to the machine and organizational technologies which had been developed. As it was, the machine begat the organization, with the social and human crowded out. Concepts such as “change” and “progress” were introduced which lacked the nuance and sophistication to equip us intellectually with these inventions. This conceptual dearth impoverished our intellectual world to such a degree that only recently have we begun to exit this recession of the mind. Critics of the effects of industrial organization on the lowest levels (such as Engels and Dickens) showed that all was not well, but yet we still needed to have the tools of thought to formulate not just the answer, but also the problem.

One definition of ideology is that which we don’t know we know. It is a pervasive paradigm of heuristics, prejudices (in Gadamer’s sense), assumptions, and habits. It is that ‘unthought’ which to some extent leads our thinking. The Victorian moralists who criticized the ‘excesses’ of their age were still under the dark pall that the smokestacks spread throughout all economic and intellectual life. The should, rather, have been realizing that the problem was the essence of their age. The entire model of industrial scale economics allowed for a skewed accounting, such that those advocates of factories and railroads genuinely believed that theirs was the best way. They had so structured their informational world, that the excesses for which they were critiqued were in fact the foundation for everything they did. Industrialization was predicated upon markets being opened at gunpoint. Industrialism and colonialism are mutually defining.

What works on the international scale works on the local too, however, and ‘markets for the sake of markets’ is equally reprehensible to the Luddites as it is for the subjugated inhabitant of a colonized land. What was apparent even in 1811, when the Prince Regent offered a reward for information regarding “giving information on any person or persons wickedly breaking the frames” was that it was the new technologies who set the terms against which the actions of people might be measured. Destruction of property was all this matter was, and questions of why there were people attempting to be so destructive were scattered before they could be formulated in the knee-jerk accusation of immorality: destruction of property = evil, end of. Rather than engage in a discussion, it was more convenient to allow a spontaneous order to develop, without thinking it through. It is as though it was decided that the economy to which Adam Smith’s invisible hand was attached should be blindfolded too, as long as it suited those whom it benefited.