Friday, June 27, 2014

Who has all the answers?

We write about a lot of things on Mermaid's Tale.  All of us who contribute to this blog try to be thought-provoking in interesting and hopefully non-standard ways.  We don't have all the answers, and indeed we tend to write about things for which nobody has the answers.

We try to see the various (often more than the proverbial two) sides or facets to important problems in genetics, epidemiology, and evolution--and its philosophical and societal aspects.  What is clear is that many aspects of these areas, not least being the search for or even the notion of causation, are elusive and that in many ways our science in these areas has only the crudest forms of theoretical understanding.  Or, perhaps, we need some theory that differs from the physical sciences, in which the same things--electrons, oxygen molecules, gravitation attractions--are either completely replicable or deterministic.

In this context, we do use our modest forum to criticize the widespread claiming of having answers, and to examine why such claims are usually, like reports of Mark Twain's death, greatly exaggerated. Our society tends to reward those who claim and proclaim their work, and we try to temper that.

We try to be polite in what we write, and hope we don't go over the Snark line too often.  Sometimes a nerve (or an ideology) will be hit, and in our experience the response can be vehement to say the least, because our society currently doesn't give much respect to decorum. The uninhibited nature of the web brings out the worst in people, sometimes.  Our society, our academics, selfish aspects of capitalism, adversarial advertising culture, competitive careerism and our built-in systems of advocacy, too often don't lend themselves to better discussions.  In our lifetime it certainly has become less self-restrained, though perhaps every generation thinks the past was better than the present.

Nonetheless, there is far more that we (people in general, and scientists in particular) do not know than we care to acknowledge, and this leads to competition for attention and resources that we think should be resisted.  Criticism if properly placed can at least hope to nudge things in a better direction. Acceptance is a form of acquiescence.

Unfortunately, often neither we nor other critics have magic answers and "tell us what to do instead" is the retort of last resort from those who agree with the problems but want, conveniently, to carry on until someone instructs them to do otherwise--provides some new fad by which grants can be sought, and so on. That's not how science should be done.  If there are problems, and they are generally acknowledged, those who agree with the issues, and who are working in the area, should pause and try themselves to figure out truly better ways.  Isn't that supposed to be the job of science?  Unfortunately, doing that involves thinking, and the demands of writing grant applications for doing more of the same doesn't always leave time for that.

In addition, we think that searching for strange or perplexing results, even amidst claims of understanding, is a way we can try to stimulate more creative work, to the extent that anyone's listening.

In particular, it is young people, who want a career in science, philosophy, or other thinking professions, who need to take the baton and run with it.  That's the only way that change will happen.  We think this starts with asking "If the standard explanations aren't really right, what might be right instead?  If what is alleged to be true is not true, could the opposite be true in some way instead?"

In an often notoriously stiflingly institutional environment of universities, every stimulus to creative thought is, we think, worth the effort.  Even if we ourselves personally never know any answers to anything.  If young people don't try to cut through the spider web of institutional inertia, they will be the spider's next meal--a 50-year, career-long meal.


Holly Dunsworth said...

If the creativity on the thinking/science end needs to come from the younger ones, then the older ones with more job security need to not just support but to make the changes to the academic system that give the younger ones the room in which to do this kind of thinking/work. If the establishment requires narrow focus and a steady stream of equally narrow grant proposals and papers a year, creativity and broadening on the thinking/science side is going to remain rarer than we'd like.

Ken Weiss said...

I think that while there may be older people who would support the change, the change has to come from pressure from below. Managers rarely offer the workers a nice new deal unless their (the managers') interests are challenged. Hierarchies are pyramidal top-down leveraging of power, and those at the top usually don't like the boat to be rocked.

Also, humans being what we are, most people aren't all that creative or thoughtful, or perhaps more charitably, we use those terms for the few who are the exceptions. That, too, is one way that institutions become rigid--rigid predictability is comfortable for many or even most people.

So real change is unusual in that sense, especially in big inertial institutions. Or, of course, maybe we always just complain about what we have, since we can see its faults?

Holly Dunsworth said...

I don't agree. Academia has many but also loses many creative and gifted and often careful thinkers because they're not willing to or can't work within the system which exists because of the people already in it.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, I don't understand what you are saying, in regard to what can be done, or where you think the balance is. Of course no system will be perfect if it has humans in it, and academia has probably never been close to ideal. But I do think the system has become less open to intellectual creativity to the extent that funding and a partly materially driven love of technology characterize the system as much as it does now.

Anyway, I see little change being driven by elders in the system, but of course have had mainly just my own experience to go by, and am now basically out of the system except for writing blog posts!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Your encouragement (and so much more) for young and creative thinkers, here and in nearly every post, is fantastic. I'm just saying it's not the whole story if we want to see things change. Even from my non-R1 view of these things, I still resist your suggestion that it's mostly for the young ones to make these changes.

Anne Buchanan said...

The people who most vehemently disagree with the status quo may well be the ones who have chosen not to stay in the system. And, young people who see things that need to change are exactly the people with no power or leverage to make the changes.

It's possible that we're in the middle of a huge, if unplanned change, with the decline in the number of tenure-track faculty, and the increase in lecturers and so forth, who aren't expected to bring in grants and overhead. This will have consequences, and I'm not sure we yet know what they will be.

But, it's people who are just getting started now who are going to have to sort it all out. And, perhaps that's when organized change can happen.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, my sociocutural analysis, or whatever, is that humans build hierarchies and dislodging the top from power either comes as a trade among reival elites or from organized pressure from the bottom--or, perhaps, from outside material forces like economic ones.

Either universities will keep evolving a 3-tiered system (administrators, research professors, and grunt instructors) as is happening now, or the outside elite (government etc.) will impose fiscal restrictions that force the university elite to reform, or organized pressure from below will force it.

The problem is ironically that everyone can see the problem but who, except those at the bottom (the young and untenured etc.) are the victims? Administrators should be dislodged but that won't easily happen, so only if they see their lifestyles threatened will change happen.

The system as it is now is exponential in growth, by design: researchers have to train more students than there are jobs for, because they need their worker-force. Administrators need their grant income. Government agencies need to keep their portfolios which fuel the system from the top.

Students pay tuition, but the system has evolved so that they can be largely ignored (and people profit from the interest on their loans), so there is no pressure to reduce their numbers or pay more attention to them (entertaining with sports, frats, and fancy dorms pacifies them)....unless the costs start to threaten enrollment numbers.

The threat of online courses doesn't seem to be reducing the research-focus of research university faculty (and the online course market is controlled by those universities, not the teaching-dedicated colleges or universities), so the solution to hire instructors and the like seems to have little countervailing pressure. It's I guess the predictable problem that exponential growth inevitably presents.

This is I'm sure a very limited one-person's view, but to me societal change of this sort usually requires organized action from below. Or one might say that the system is already changing in all the well-known ways, whether this or that interest group likes it, and it's only from some sort of idealistic view that this is bad.

It's far too much for blog-comment exchanges to give it a nuanced discussion, I guess. But I think at least the issues are not secret and that may stimulate people to try to address them. But I think that those most oppressed by the current trend, if I can use that adjective, are the ones who have to put the pressure on.

Ken Weiss said...

There is another issue, too. Is the idea of job security generally being abandoned in our society, or is it one version of the ongoing management-labor struggle? Maybe faculty have no right to job security any more than people in business do. But then the same should apply to government workers, among others. Or perhaps a fairer society would provide more security for everyone--it has seemed to work in Scandinavia and elsewhere, and to a substantial extent even in mucho of the developed world (or at least its middle class) for the half-century after WWII.

Holly Dunsworth said...

There are some insightful perspectives on what it's like to join academia (or to try very hard to) in this article about adjuncts Academia's indentured servants. When it's so hard to join, and if you've finally got in, are you really going to do much to piss off anyone above you or who might have say in kicking you out?

Anne Buchanan said...