Archive for November 30, 2010

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.

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