Monday, October 12, 2015

On Colin Blakemore and ABSW

On Saturday, Sir Colin Blakemore resigned as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers over its handling of the controversy around Connie St Louis' reporting of Tim Hunt's remarks about women in the lab in June. Since he mentions my name in his statement, which I take as no small honour, I'd like to offer some thoughts about it here.

Specifically, Blakemore is unsatisfied with the way that ABSW dealt with a number of written complaints about St Louis' journalism. One of those complaints was mine. Like Blakemore, I was puzzled by ABSW's decision to give her its "full support" as she faced criticism that the ABSW described as an "attack" on her person for "the everyday act of reporting a news story".

More importantly, I wanted to know whether it was in keeping with "the highest standards of science writing" for Connie St Louis not to disclose to her readers the fact that she is a member of the executive board of the World Federation of Science Journalists, whose conference Tim Hunt was a guest of when he made his remarks. This, I have argued, gave her a range of options for mitigating the harms that his remarks may have done to women in science, rather than recklessly amplifying those harms by tweeting her outrage. That outrage, of course, was based, at best, on a misunderstanding and, at worst, on a distortion of his actual meaning, which soon became clear to anyone who cared to give the matter a moment's thought.

In accepting Blakemore's resignation, the board of the ABSW, on which St Louis of course sits, has, to my mind, only made the need for that resignation clearer. Once again defending St Louis' journalism, they claim that:

Sir Tim has not disputed the accuracy of St Louis’s reporting and has apologised to the Federation for his comments. Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, is on record as saying that Sir Tim’s comments were unacceptable.

This is, to my mind, a highly misleading statement, clearly intended to make it seem as though St Louis' story has stood the test of time, and that her interpretation of Hunt's remarks is not really in doubt. But already a month ago, in my response to ABSW's response to my complaint, I pointed out that Tim Hunt has, in fact, disputed the accuracy of St Louis reporting from the very beginning. She said he seriously suggested sex-segregated labs; he said he was joking. That is, he disputed the meaning that was attributed to his words after they had been taken out of context. The only thing he did not dispute was the literal transcription of 37 words that he spoke, which he granted were "accurately reported".

As I've said before, to characterize this as "not disputing" Connie St Louis' report, is so ignorant that it would be kinder to call it dishonest. What Tim Hunt apologized for, more graciously than it now seems he should have, was the offense that was caused, not by his comments in the room that day, but by a wildly misleading report of those comments. Indeed, while one would have to ask Paul Nurse himself, I'm quite certain, especially given his subsequent remarks on the matter, that what he found "unacceptable" were the remarks as originally reported, and not the act of saying words that, when sufficiently distorted in the fun-house mirror of a journalist's agenda, could be construed as a sign of "ingrained sexism". (As it seems we must always point this out, I will do it again: everything we now know about Tim Hunt suggests that there is not a grain of sexism in the man. No one who knows him has anything bad to say about him on this point.)

One last thing. Citing the Observer article on the resignation, ABSW has found it necessary to clarify that "It has not received the notification needed to start a case under [their complaint] process, which involves a formal complaint in writing." Actually, the process involves a little more than just making a complaint in writing. It requires filing it on paper, signed by the complainant. (All the complaints I'm aware of were, in fact, made in writing, though I guess by email.) When I was corresponding with Martin Ince, I did at one point offer to make such a formal complaint if he thought it would be easier to address my concerns by that means. Ince did not invite me to do so. Blakemore is therefore quite right when he says that ABSW "decided not to invoke its ... complaints procedure". I formed my opinion of the Association and the profession accordingly when I received the board's answer to my questions.

As if to issue a challenge, the ABSW now says that it "will of course act upon any such complaint it may receive". Maybe one or some of us will have to rise to that challenge and see how that procedure, when actually used, does work. But let it not be said that we didn't give the ABSW the opportunity to do the right thing by less formal means.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Is Science Writing Making the World Less Safe for Scientists?

After the debacle in Seoul this summer at the World Conference of Science Journalists, many of us are paying extra attention to news coming out of ScienceWriters2015 in Cambridge this year. We're worried that some other innocent victim is going to get into hot water for something he, or she, might find coming out of their mouth and then being, more or less faithfully, reported on Twitter. Thankfully, there hasn't been any drama yet. But, as if in anticipation, Mark Strauss decided to create a "rogues gallery" of "Nobel Prize winners we'd like to forget"* for National Geographic. Whatever you may think of the exercise in general, the Tim Hunt entry was sure to get my attention, and I imagine that getting people like me worked up was part of Strauss's intent. I'd like to take a moment to explain my reaction.

First of all, I'm of course surprised that a venerable institution like National Geographic would engage in such cheap, click-baiting, character assassination. It is a publication that depends on fostering good relationships with scientists, so you would think that when writing about Nobel laureates, even if critically (as is sometimes of course necessary), that it would do it in a less glib and tabloid-like manner. This doesn't just apply to writing about Sir Tim, and I'm sure that the gallery will divide opinion on some of the other "rogues" as well. But since I happen to know something about that case...

Let me begin by pointing out how strong Strauss's opprobrium against Tim Hunt actually is. Because of what (it is said) he said in Seoul, he argues, Tim Hunt is best forgotten about all together, his contribution to our understanding of cell division notwithstanding. His name deserves to be listed among "racists, frauds, and misogynists" (rather than mentors, friends, and discoverers). While there are many "clueless sexists" in science, says Strauss, "one name stands out for special recognition", namely, Tim Hunt's. He is described as being clueless about a "vast" problem and as harboring an "ingrained attitude" that "makes it harder for women to advance in science". That is, Hunt is characterized as a singularly good example of the problem of sexism in science.

On what evidence does Strauss make this very strong claim? The piece references four sources. Connie St Louis' blog post at Scientific American, the BBC's early reporting of the story and his first apology, a U.S.News & World report about gender disparity in science, and Deborah Blum's storify about the incident. The most recent of these sources is from June 15, i.e., one week after the infamous luncheon was held. That is, four months after the event, Strauss ignores all the subsequent coverage of both the incident and its central figure, to make his portrait of a rogue.

But he doesn't even get his sources right. He cites St Louis for a version of Hunt's remarks that doesn't appear in her article. Tellingly, it appears in a comment to that article that criticizes her distortion of his remarks and their meaning. He insists on the originally scandalous meaning, of course, and leaves out of his quote the mitigating words that have become central to the discussion about whether he was joking, i.e., the "now seriously..." He says that Hunt "issued" the "pseudo-apology" that was in fact, elicited by the BBC, and he attributes his remarks about being "honest" to something he said to a "co-panelist" (presumably Blum) when that was in fact part of his comment to the BBC.

Finally, he cites the USNews report as support for the claim that there is a "vast underrepresentation of women working in STEM fields," though that report is actually focused on evidence that there may be no "leaky pipeline" keeping women who are already in science from staying in. Worse—indeed, astoundingly—that argument is actually very similar to one that Hunt does make, namely, that, yes, there is in fact a disparity, but it is not caused by any sexism he is aware of. To say that a man who describes the inequalities as "staggering" is "clueless" about the under-representation of women in science is just plain, well, clueless about the man's views. Strauss doesn't seem to have done any research at all on this story.

Yesterday on Twitter, inspired by Faye Getz Cook, I announced that science writing is making the world unsafe for academics. It might be argued that that is as good and justified as political journalism making the world "unsafe" for politicians. But this is only true, even for political journalism, if we mean bad ones, i.e., dishonest and fraudulent politicians and scientists. Sure, yes, let's make the world unsafe for them. But being able to distinguish between a good and a bad scientist must surely be part of the competence of a science writer. Strauss, it seems, can't even read his own sources. Pilots who can't tell the difference between yaw and torque would also make the world less safe for passengers. Fortunately pilots are members of a serious profession!

As I said when I first read the piece, National Geographic should be ashamed of itself, and of Mark Strauss. They owe Tim Hunt a full and sincere apology and retraction for this shoddy piece of so-called journalism.

*It looks like the title of the piece has been changed since publication.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Authority and Critique

In the comments to my last post, Rasmus brings up a number of very good points. Doesn't my vision of a "site" of prose (rather than a book), undermine a lot of the advice about structure I normally peddle? Is my utopia not a lot more postmodern than I normally pretend to be?

In reply, I said that I'm not contradicting but radicalizing my standard advice. Killing off the author has always been a way of making our writing be about the facts (or thoughts) themselves, not about our authority, or our position and status as authors. Remember also that the allegedly post-modern thesis of "the death of the author" is actually a radicalization of the entirely modern practice of "new criticism", focusing on "what is actually there on the page", and eschewing the intentional fallacy. Perhaps it's not so much that my utopia is postmodern as that my postmodernism is utopian.

Earlier this year, I tried to make an argument for a utopia in which most academic communication happened through blogs and wikis, entirely free of charge, and with no publishers, peer review or other editorial oversight. But it's important to point out, as I did already there, that there's still room in this vision for what Jerry Davis calls a "curator", which would be made of up traditional journals, with editors and publishers. Since they would mainly present results that are already known (through the free network), however, these journals would need to guarantee a very high standard of writing and reliability. Also, they would need to take post-publication criticism very seriously. That is, it would really say something about a paper that it was published in, say, the Administrative Science Quarterly, and has not been retracted for ten or twenty years. But if this is to mean anything, then we really have to treat the stuff that is published in the high-end, "premium" journals, not as work to be merely "believed", but as work to be criticized and replicated. That is, getting published there should also come at a higher risk of having to retract it, or at least of having to acknowledge your mistakes publicly.

That is why, in my utopia, "merely" critical papers would be at least as important as the original empirical studies. Something like this is implicitly acknowledged every time a journal corrects or retracts a paper that has been found faulty in some minor or major way. This recently happened at ASQ, in fact, when a "concerned reader" found something amiss with a paper on CEO narcissism. It was worth the time that a reader, an editor and an original author had to spend to find and correct the error to make sure that a falsehood wasn't circulating in the literature. In my opinion, the same sort of reasoning should be applied by in evaluating a "critical essay" that merely corrects errors in an "original" study that has already made a co-called "theoretical contribution". If the paper is flawed enough, its contribution will presumably have been to mislead us. Correcting it is therefore as much of a contribution as the original paper had been believed to make.

In short, I imagine an academy where there are a lot of researchers, but fewer scholars. ("The scholar disappears," said Martin Heidegger.) These scholars would be the proper "authors", i.e, they'd have the authority of knowledge behind them. When they said something, they'd therefore have their "names on the line", just as the journals who published them would have their reputations at stake.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Sites and Books

"Here it can be seen that solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, T5.64)

This is not a book. But it is a collection of pages filled with prose. I'm working on a secret project these days (all will soon be revealed) that is teaching me something about the changing nature of writing and, perhaps, what phrases like "the end of the book" and "the death of the author" really mean.

Do you remember I said I spent a few days in the Alps with Oliver Reichenstein and his staff at Information Architects? It was a transformative experience for me. Or at least, I suspect, the beginning of one; the process continues. I was especially grateful (hi Chris!) for an opportunity to revisit my views on Zen and the nature of the ego. For a brief moment, sitting there in the most literal of alpine meadows, I had a glimpse of my literary utopia. I imagined building a website out of my ideas, consisting mainly of prose paragraphs, not in a sequence, but hyperlinked through individual words. A site not a book.

Writing stops being "between covers". Every page takes up a position equidistant to the reality it is a part of. A book is a thing. A site, by contrast, is a place. We construct that place and invite our "readers" (now, in fact, visitors) to come. They can make themselves at home. Enjoy the grounds.

And what then of "the writer"? Well, the Buddhists have that useful notion of "ego death", a liberation from the illusion that we are something other than a body implicated practically in the living world, that our existence amounts to more than the space we occupy in the universe. That is my literary utopia, then: each of us working on a site that is the articulation of our selves. Once the basic structure has been built, and the machinery of the hypertext is up and running, nothing remains but maintenance and upkeep. There is no need for a "second edition", nor even a "next book". The self of the author, we might say, shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the prose coordinated with it.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Craft and Dogma

"Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding." (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading)

On Wednesday, I found myself suggesting that we remove the teaching of evolution from the elementary school curriculum. As Jonathan rightly pointed out, that absurd consequence is a reason to re-evaluate the thinking that led me there. To that end, it's important to keep in mind that I'm not against teaching children all the science they can handle. My worry is that when we teach evolution, we aren't actually teaching them science. I'd say the same thing about showing them pictures of atoms and, indeed, diagrams of the solar system. They give a false impression about the sense in which the motion of particles or planets can be seen. And without a realistic sense of how these facts are observed, we're not really teaching them scientic method. We're teaching them scientific doctrine. We're indoctrinating them.

And my point, of course, is that doctrine is the opposite of science. Once we've told students that scientific knowledge is what comes from scientific authorities supported by scientific institutions, we've prepared them to be credulous rather than critical. My favourite example of how this enters the classroom (certainly how I was taught it back in the 1980s) is through the hero/martyr narrative of Galileo. The story we are told is that he discovered that the Earth moves and was silenced by the Church. This is, in many ways rightly, presented as "the birth of modern science", but the emphasis is too often on "science" not "modern", as if there was no science before modernity. The key element of the narrative is that the Church is not cast as a "scientific" institution, but a religious one.

The truth, however, is much more complicated. Though time has vindicated his hypothesis, Galileo's evidence at the time was not at all unambiguous. Much more importantly, the model of the solar system that he was challenging had been carefully constructed to account for the observable data. For the most part, the Church did not deny the empirical facts of planetary motion (i.e., how the objects in the visible sky behave); it just rejected Galileo's revolutionary explanation for these facts. What we call "science" is not just the matter of coming up with the right theory of the universe. It's about the careful of observation of nature. That's not something Galileo invented.

But it is certainly something he was very good at. Indeed, he was an innovator of our observational techniques, and his inclined plane experiments, which I've been harping on about, is an excellent example. Ezra Pound—my Virgil this week, my guide through this hell—put it this way (with a tip of the hat to "some Huxley or Haldane"): "in inventing the telescope [Galileo] had to commit a definite technical victory over materials" (GK, p. 50). Galileo, we might say, was not just a great genius but also a master craftsman. In making this point, however, Pound does not reject what came before. "Before the scientific method," he points out, "when men had hardly more than words as a means for transmission of thought, they took a great deal more care in defining them." He ends up proposing that "Every man who wants to set his ideas in order ought to be soused for a week at least in one part of mediaeval scholasticism."

Failing such care in defining our terms, we find ourselves believing in facts without understanding our words and, ultimately, without mastering the methods that give us access to them. My worry is that we're teaching science, too often, as dogma not as craft. Even our "methods", especially in the social sciences, are often merely ritualistic ways of invoking facts where only meanings are available. We pretend to observe what we can only interpret. I've been concerned about this for a long time, it seems. Truth be told, I think I'm through the Inferno. I'm going to have to find a way out of this purgatory now.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Machines or Magic

"In the study of physics we begin with simple mechanisms, wedge, lever and fulcrum, pulley and inclined plane, all of them still as useful as when they were first invented. We proceed by a study of discoveries.” (Ezra Pound, “How to Read”)

As I recall, I was shown a picture of Niels Bohr's atom in a science textbook in grade five or six. It wasn't until high-school physics that I was taught Galileo's inclined plane experiment—complete with the historical detail that, lacking a mechanical clock, he timed the rolling ball against a musical phrase that he would hum. Not yet a teenager, I was being taught that apparently solid matter consisted mostly of empty space, that the function of science is to make fools of my senses. (They call this "wonder" sometimes.) Only much later did I learn that science was a way of making sense of my experiences.

I don't want this to be a complaint about K-12 educational ideologies, but the difference between these two images is interesting to me. Bohr's atom is a wildly inaccurate representation of an object that I will never experience with my senses, and which only very few people ever really learn how to observe empirically. Galileo's inclined plane is a sensible object and a physical machine that, as it happens, shows us very precisely how one of the indisputably most important forces in the universe operates. At best, Bohr's atom helps us to remember that there are (whatever they are) electrons, neutrons and protons. Galileo's plane teaches us how to decompose the motion of an object into its vectors, and thereby determine its acceleration due to gravity.

On one of my other blogs, I recently argued that we could safely leave the teaching of evolution out of the elementary school curriculum.* For one thing, it would avoid making our children's minds an ideological battleground that pits parents against teachers, religion against science. Instead, we could simply teach our students how to actually observe the life around them. Our current approach is to insist they come to believe in a theory of our origins that is, when you think about it, very difficulty to understand, very difficult really to get your mind around. Even those who rightly think evolution is true, often don't really know how it works. It's a bit like teaching children that matter is really mostly space. They might get that answer right on an exam, but it's unlikely to be based on an understanding of the fluctuations of the quantum ether.

By a similar token, I believe that the "crisis of representation", the "metaphysics of presence" and the "archaeology of knowledge", however rightly they may get at the complicated situation of contemporary writing, have distracted us from the heart of the matter, which is not "language" or "experience" but words and letters arranged to be about something.

The teacher of prose who has grown bored with the paragraph is like the teacher of poetry who doesn't want to see another sonnet. It's time to find another subject to teach, not to declare the genre retired. (I know. That's the second potshot I've taken at Adam Banks this week. I'll try to come at him more directly next week.) It is because we lack the patience to show students the full variety of expression that is possible using at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words arranged to support a central claim that we have turned to occult notions of "inspiration" and "expression". We have to show students once again that three quatrains and a couplet are resources, not constraints, when the aim is to be precise about our emotions.

We should confine education to the teaching of things we know. There is so much out there that our students don't yet know the first thing about. And we refuse to teach those first things to them. It is a mystery to me why we waste their time trying to get them to believe things they are unlikely to be able to understand. We're leading them to believe that our machines work by magic. They certainly seem increasingly unable to distinguish between sticks and stones and words.

*[Update, October 1: In the comments, Jonathan rightly points out how weird this suggestion is. I wish I could claim I meant it as a "modest proposal" of some kind, but at the time (even yesterday) I thought it had some plausibility. Obviously, it could never be implemented in actual curriculum design, and the suggestion, taken as an analogy, probably just reflects the depth of the despair about writing instruction that I mentioned in my last post. When I'm more optimistic (which I usually am) my ideas are less ridiculous.]

Monday, September 28, 2015


"Man is an over-complicated organism. If he is doomed to extinction he will die out for want of simplicity." (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading)

In the early twentieth century, around the time of Einstein, science was driven by the dream of reducing our understanding of the world to basic, simple principles. The physical universe was to be understood as a composition of simple mechanisms (balls, levers, walls, lenses) that could ultimately explain, at least in theory, the complexity and variety of experience. But the frontier of knowledge was pushed forward, and as the equipment that was needed to observe things that are ever smaller (think: subatomic particles) or ever more remote (think: protogalactic quasars) got more specialised, we came to realise that the "simplest constituents" were not so simple after all. Today, a scientists is not someone who is possessed of an elegant "theory of everything", but rather an expert in a particular something. And the expertise is usually evident in the mastery of a rather esoteric jargon.

Even our understanding of our own selves has been subject to this trend. The social and psychological sciences advance through the study of ever bigger datasets and ever finer neuronal networks, approached with ever more sophisticated statistics and equipment. Our basis for understanding everything from political power to artistic creativity is found, not in the lived experience of statesmen and artists, but in "scientific" methods whose application is framed by a bewildering complexity of "theories" of human behaviour. Each thesis can be competently evaluated only by a handful of specialists, and no one seems qualified to bring it all together into a comprehensive account of "human nature". "Am I," any one of us might ask, "even qualified to know who I am?"

My own interest is in writing—specifically, academic or scholarly writing— and I've lately been driven almost to despair at the sophistication with which we have theorised this practice. At this point, understanding what students are doing when they are writing essays seems to depend on resolving a series of incredibly subtle disputes between, say, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes—even Lacan—about the nature of writing and authorship. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that writing teachers are increasingly calling for us to "retire" the essay as the focus of instruction. The idea seems to be that our best available theories tell us that a five paragraph essay is as far removed from the truth about Writing as a marble on an inclined plane is from the truth about Reality. What we need is a "quantum theory" of writing, it is said, or, indeed, a "mothership of funk" to take us beyond prose and into the stars.

I have warned against this kind of sophistication before. I'm not at all sure that our efforts to improve undergraduate (or even doctoral) writing skills need to be guided by theories of writing as sophisticated as those of Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes (to confine ourselves, for the moment, to thinkers that I respect a great deal.) The vast majority of writing is done by people who are "authors" in a much less problematic sense than they (otherwise rightly) suggested. Or, to take another example (with which I am, admittedly, less familiar), I suspect that the vast majority of writing does not succeed or fail in proportion to how well it leverages the play of différance. Likewise, the great majority of the buildings in which we live and work depend neither on wave functions nor chaos effects for their stability. They are ordinary Newtonian machines. Or at least I hope this is the case.

This will be my theme this week. I am once again trying to write my way of out of a particular kind of despair about modern scholarship and present-day academia. I think writers who eschew (or avoid or neglect) the paragraph as a literary form and site of instruction are like physicists who can't describe the fall of an object under the acceleration of gravity. I guess I believe that the paragraph is as close to the truth about Writing as the inclined plane is to the truth about Reality. The simple principles and the simple machines that constitute ordinary experience are where we should begin, and where most of us can safely remain. From there, we should proceed with caution. The Devil, perhaps, lurks in the details.