Thursday, February 28, 2008

We gotta take the scientists down!

Okay, maybe we don't really.

I had a great time tonight. After Nancy's Objectivity seminar, where I got kind of angry and loud, I repaired to the pub with ECM and Marilena to continue the discussion. The question is the science-policy boundary. I was riled up about the practice that is common where scientists get together (on their own or at government's behest) and try to tell people what to think on the basis of their authority (rather than, say, because they have a good argument or know anything about what they're talking about). More charitably to everyone involved, we were interested in hashing out what the proper relationship of government and science is.

I guess I have a radical view? I think that we don't need the thin kind of interaction that we have now, with committee reports and funding streams forming the bulk of the science-policy relationship, but rather multiple levels of inquiry that bridge the gap. Just like in privately funded research, where ultimately we have a private interest to further or problem to solve (say, how to sell widgets to suckers), where we go from high-level theory to applied science to engineering to corporate research labs to development and production to corporate decision making and back again in a complex but high-bandwidth set of interactions and cross-border talk (where each part nevertheless retains some autonomy), so in the case of private interests and practical problems of a social nature, we need some more robust set of bridges analogous to the levels of engineering, research and development that we have in the technological case.

Anyhow, that's schematic, but the basic principle is, if you have a problem which current research doesn't already solve, the best long-term solution is not to rely on a committee report, but to do more research. Of course, there are all kinds of messy issues here, about whether the analogy holds, how to make decisions under uncertainty, how to implement, how to make sure there isn't too much interference with science, and that was a lot of our discussion.

It was really nice, though. We had a beer, we yelled, pounded the table, did some armchair history of science, made some distinctions, got careful, reached some tentative agreements. It was some good intense philosophy of the sort I hadn't done for a while...

Of course, the seminar ended at 8 and I didn't get home until 12:30, so there's that. But it was worth it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Professionalism, Specialization, and Bullshit

When is appropriate to rely heavily on technical vocabulary and theoretical frameworks in academic writing, especially in the humanities? I think many people take for granted that this is simply what we do: just as physicists create theories of the physical world and them apply them to experiments, humanities scholars create critical or analytical frameworks and apply them to texts, discourses, philosophical problems, and so on. But I'm not sure we should take it for granted. I'm not sure what we should be doing in the humanities, but I'm starting to think that constant traffic in theory and technical jargon isn't just so much bullshit and obfuscation.

Aspirations to activism in areas like cultural studies and gender studies not withstanding, for the most part, there has been a pretty systematic disengagement of the humanities from social life in the last half century or more, at least in the American academy. Part of the increased professionalism of this trend involves treating what we're doing as some sort of secret, specialized knowledge, too difficult or arcane for the common person to fathom. When we use the various technical apparatus of counterfactual possible-worlds-semantics, Bayesian probability theory, textual deconstruction, or performance theory, we tend to exclude potential audience, the result being our increasing irrelevance.

I'm not attempting here to argue against technical work, or to say that it has no value, but merely to say that one has to be clear about the reason for applying some technical framework, and to really have a reason. And one should be clear about the value of the gains and losses resulting from professionalization. Because, really, let's be honest here, we academics working in the humanities don't have any sort of special knowledge. We are engaged in various kinds of projects, some of them more difficult than others, but there is no reason that accessibility can't be a major consideration. We need to be careful about being too technical.

I think there is a case to be made (though I won't make it here) that the following sorts of patterns occur in both the sciences and the humanities. Someone develops a new framework or method, or extends an old one, and in applying it generates some novel and interesting results. Seeing a winner, others take this up and apply it to other things, also with some fruitful success. Still others make even less fruitful but still fairly natural applications, perhaps demonstrating the breadth of this type of analysis or this theory. But many also attempt, and by dint of cleverness or stubbornness, manage to fit other situations to the framework that not only isn't illuminating, but also requires many ad hoc assumptions, metaphorical extensions of the vocabulary, or dubious re-descriptions of the evidence. If we align these trends on a spectrum from most fruitful to most ad hoc and uninformative, then we can give some measure of the discipline, area, or research tradition according to the proportion of one or the other (for those with some phil sci background, think Lakatos on progressive vs. degenerating research programmes).

Given not only that specialization can result in public alienation and the diminishment of a serious duty towards public scholarship, but also these inherent pitfalls in the process, it is important to ask whether one's 'theory' is mere window- dressing on the details one is hoping to bring into the light, or whether it is a crucial feature of the analysis. Can I do all the work I want, do the analysis I need to do, without relying on the technical apparatus of Deweyan epistemology? Can you write that paper without introducing a bunch of pseudo-logical formulae? These kinds of questions need to be more important in academia, even though I think the answer may often be "no."

Thursday, February 14, 2008


... GO!

This post composed and sent via email from my SideKick II.

My big problem is

that, for a person who spends a heck of a lot of time online, I'm not very efficient at it. I do a lot of research using Google Books and Google Scholar. I blog, LiveJournal, twitter, facebook, and so on. I read webpages, webcomics, blogs, I keep in touch with friends via email, gTalk, AIM, facebook, blogs. It's a complicated set of things.

Complicating the matter somewhat, I don't have a main computer. At my house, I have my battery-impaired PowerBook, chained to my desk. At work, I can use the PC or the fairly nice PowerMac in my office, and there is a MacBook that I can use and check out to bring home if no faculty or other staff need it. At Sabrina's house, I have a kind of old PowerMac G4, plus I can sometimes borrow her MacBook Pro. None of these can really do the job of my "main computer." Its too inconvenient to cart my broken PowerBook about, the MacBook isn't mine, and I work and play on the computer in all of these places. As a result, I've gotten used to storing my current work on a USB flash drive, I use a lot of Google products like Gmail, Google Reader, and Google Calender instead of using Apps on my computer.

On all of these computers, I've been using mostly Safari, and sometimes Firefox, but I've become quit aware of how inefficient these things are. Firefox is often better than Safari, because it seems to work better with some Google apps and such. Plus, it is far more extensible than other browsers, even though there are plenty of plug-ins and customizations for Safari and Camino. Unlike both Safari and Camino, though, Firefox doesn't feel very Mac-like, which breaks up the experience a bit, and it seems (just from my experience using it on slower computers) to be creeping to the behemoth size of some of the more traditional Mozilla projects.

One possible answer is cross-platform Portable Firefox. But this means plugging in my stick every time I want to browse, not just when I need to get some work done. I guess I could put a package of my favorite plug-ins, bookmarks, etc. together and install it on all the computers I use, but then there is the consistency problem, i.e., what if I find a great new Greasemonkey script and get used to it on one computer, and then I don't have it on the others... Anyhow, bears some thinking about. Time to get more professional and efficient with my online work and play!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dear internet,

I want back in the game. As you may or may not know, I haven't had much of a serious blog in a while now, and even less so since the untimely demise of Sure, there's been a little livejournaling here and there, but we all know that's a disreputable pursuit. I want to get back to blogging. But it's going to take commitment, it's going to take gumption, and it's going to take some systematic changes in lifestyle. I'll need to take some time every day sitting down in front of a computer, putting down some words, making a real effort. That's kind of okay, as if fits a constant maxim for change in my life: spend more time writing. It's a challenge, given all the grading, technical work, and reading there is to do out there. Certainly, I've put a lot of focused work into my dissertation lately, and that's paid off to an extent. But I think in focusing too hard it's becoming hard to think straight, and I feel like the productivity in one place has been at too great a sacrifice. I'm not yet sure exactly how I want to forge this blog. Certainly I've got a lot of outlets already. But rest assured, things are changing...