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Sound bites are important

November 30, 2010 1 comment

Arguably the first linear model mentioned is not so much wrong as it is woefully inadequate.  But it makes for good soundbites for those focused on science budgets and notions of economic competitiveness.–David Bruggeman (emphasis added)

David is of course correct here.  The linear model–where basic research leads inexorably to applied research, technology and economic growth–is inadequate.  We’ve tread over this ground before, and I won’t rehash those arguments here.  What I am interested in exploring is why the linear model remains even though its flaws have been widely documented.

It’s true that scientists deploy it all the time to advance their agenda, which surely contributes to its persistence.  But I think that’s only part of the story.  Part of the reason the linear model sticks is precisely because it is a good sound bite.  It provides a clear mental picture that motivates a specific action (more basic research!) while not being either too wordy or subtle.  The phrase “basic research is the source of technology” is succinct and clear, while “basic research can lead to technology, but so can applied research” is not.   The latter really doesn’t tell us what to do.  So if we want more technology, should we fund more basic research? Or applied?

None of this is particularly groundbreaking or original.  But I wonder if the fine folks at The Bubble Chamber realize that part of their (our?) energy must be explicitly devoted to finding compelling sound bites.  Ultimately, outreach and education won’t alter the public debate without them.  My clumsy analogies between science and sports represent, I hope, some minor progress in this arena.

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Categories: Public Discourse

What is HPS 101?

November 30, 2010 1 comment

The recent discussions on the practical relevance of history and philosophy of science brought to mind this great Ezra Klein column.  Klein attended the American Political Science Association conference where one of the conference highlights was a panel titled “Is Political Science Relevant?” Sound familiar?

Klein asked several attendees what they wished politicians knew about politics.  The responses are illuminating for two reasons.  In and of itself, it’s interesting to see that presidential speeches don’t move public opinion, lobbyists don’t matter as much as we might think, citizen-legislators actually empower special interests, and (of course!) politicians should speak more to political scientists.  Now the implications of these findings are by no means straightforward, and we cannot simply apply them them to the rough-and-tumble world of practicing politicians.  But they are illuminating nonetheless.

Perhaps the more important take away here is that there were any responses at all to Klein’s question.  Practicing political scientists were prepared to discuss the key insights their field had for politics, and Klein was able to tease out some broad themes.  Would this be possible with the history and philosophy of science?  Even if we relax the assumption of policy-relevance, what are the key findings of HPS/STS?  That is, what would you include in an introductory college seminar? Are there standard texts like there are in physics? Given that scientists are prepared to answer such questions, it’s incumbent upon the historians, etc. to be likewise prepared.

Categories: Academia, Education, Philosophy

Demarcation happens anyway

November 24, 2010 8 comments

It is generally acknowledged that attempts to demarcate science from non- or pseudoscience, based on a priori standards, have failed. —Paul Newall

Newall is correct of course that a priori standards cannot demarcate science from non-science. Historians and philosophers of science have made a very persuasive case in this regard. But what’s often missing from the discussion is that despite the lack of fixed, coherent standards, scientists demarcate anyway. We fund biochemistry and particle physics while eschewing (and even castigating) ESP, intelligent design, and astrology. For all the talk about the intractability of demarcation problem, in practice it’s handled quite easily.

Now it may be true that our arguments are inconsistently applied. And that, as Larry Laudan has argued, some of the criticisms against ID also applies to other branches of science [1]. But this mild duplicity doesn’t appear to bother us as much as affording legitimacy to intelligent design. And I have to say that I kind of agree with this approach. ESP and ID should not be treated as science, however whimsically I may apply an ever-shifting standard of what constitutes science.

This dilemma is where, I feel, historians and philosophers should be expending greater effort. That is, even if we cannot really demarcate, we already do so. Are there any costs–educational, moral, intellectual–for this double standard? Can we acknowledge the subjectivity embodied in any individual instance of demarcation while maintaing credibility? Can we acknowledge that subjectivity has always necessarily been a part of science, and that does not diminish its power?And can we discuss this intelligently in the public sphere?

And so after an extended blogging break, I’ve tried to finally (and very briefly) start addressing a topic I promised to over a month ago.

[1] Laudan, Larry, Science at the Bar-Causes for Concern, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 7, No. 41 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 16-19

Also see the follow up in the Winter 1983 issue.

Blog dump

November 2, 2010 Leave a comment

1. Dot Earth on why global warming is boring, with follow up here and here.   Very loosely connects with my previous post on public indifference to science.

2. Physics envy among financial analysts (h/t The Bubble Chamber).  The math can get a bit much (I mostly glossed over it) and some of the terminology will seem strange without a background in physics.  But sections 1 – 3 and 8 are quite accessible and not too dense at all.  I especially liked their comparisons of psychology and economics (2.3), and their analysis of the financial collapse in Section 8.  

This comic gem comes right after “Level 5: Irreducible Uncertainty” in their uncertainty taxonomy:

Level \infty: Zen Uncertainty
Attempts to understand uncertainty are mere illusions; there is only suffering

Ha! There’s also a one-hour video here, which I haven’t seen yet.

3. Bill Davenhall on geomedicine (video below)



Categories: Blog Dump