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Monthly Archives: January 2011

Links for January 2011

How Science Really Works

I want to make a radio documentary about how science really works. The popular imagination has been captured by a model of science which is incomplete and unhelpful. Science doesn’t produce neutral facts, it is process whose very nature is contested within the institution of science as well as from outside. Science is a complex social process, and may not even be a single unified thing.

This documentary I’m imagining would start in a University bar on a friday night, were we could hear some scientists talk about work in the lab in the way scientists all over the world do, not in the language of journal papers, grant applications and popular TV features, but as the work which they know intimately, with its set-backs, rivalries and esoteric rewards. We’d then visit a few important thinkers to get some vital alternative perspectives on how science works:

Steve Fuller from Warwick could tell us about the social construction of knowledge, about how science rewrites the history of discoveries to present an ideal of its process as logical and inevitable when in fact is it accidental and contingent. Someone could outline Feyerabend’s “Against Method” and we could see some scientists get irate at his deconstruction of the sacred cows of the naive, traditional model of how science works (which, in my experience, is what tends to happen when you throw Feyerabend at them).

Terence Kealey, VC of Buckingham University and author of “Sex, science and profits” will explode the myth that publicly funded research is good for the economy and outline his idea that “there’s no such thing as science, just scientists”.

Ben Goldacre will take us into the murky world of pharmaceutical research and show us the ways industry funding can distort “pure science”.

Finally, we tackle science and politics, talking to the climate researchers at the centre of the “Climate Gate” email scandal and show how the mistaken ideal of “science as objective” gets in the way of a proper understanding of the role of science in political debate. (Basically, my argument is that an overly idealised model of science leaves open the rhetorical space for an unhelpful cultural relativism, whereby the critical theorists can claim that science is just a social construction and the political fringes feel they can contest scientific consensus with a GCSE biology and the will to believe). We’ll talk to Jim Manzi who will outline his idea of causal density, showing why applying the scientific method to problems of society will not be as straightforward as the cheerleaders of scientific rationalism assume.

Now, who would like to make this documentary with me?

(NB I have not sought the involvement/permission of the people named in this post!)

See also
Emotional Cartography book launch talk
The Reality of Culture
The Choice of Facts

Quotes #264 & #265

Defined by their lesser knowledge, students can do nothing which does not confirm the most pessimistic image that the professor, in his most professional character is willing to confess to: they understand nothing, and they reduce the most brilliant theories to logical monstrosities or picturesque oddities as if their only role in life was to illustrate the vanity of the efforts which the professor squanders on them and which he will continue to squander despite everything out of professionals conscience with a disabused lucidity which only redoubles his merit. By definition the professor teaches as he ought to teach, and the meagre results with which he is rewarded can only reinforce his certainty that the great majority of his students are unworthy of the efforts he bestows upon them. Indeed the professor is as resigned to his students and their ‘natural’ incapacities as the ‘good colonist’ is to the ‘natives’, for he has no higher expectations than they just be the way they are.


In secondary and higher education, it is taken for granted that the language of ideas elaborated by the academic and scientific tradition and also the second-order language of allusions and cultural complicities are second nature to intelligent and gifted individuals; or better, that the ability to understand and to manipulate these learned languages – artificial languages, par excellence – where we see the natural language of human intelligence at work immediately distinguishes intelligent students from the rest. It is thanks to this ideology of a profession that academics can vouch for professional judgements as strictly equitable. But in reality they consecrate cultural privilege. Language is the most active and elusive part of cultural heritage which each individual owes to his background. This is because language does not reduce, as we often think, to a more or less extensive collection of words. As syntax, it provides us with a system of transposable mental dispositions. These go hand in hand with values which dominate the whole of our experience and, in particular, with a vision of society and of culture. They also involve an original relationship to words, reverential or free, borrowed or familiar, sparing or intemperate

Bourdieu, P., (1994), Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power. Polity Press, Cambridge, trans. Richard Teese, p6-7 & p8.

Tweets for 2011-01-20

  • reading Kealey's "Sex, science & profits", which is really a history of research funding + an argument that science doesn't -> ec. growth #
  • Dropping cats in zero-gravity, back when science was just innocent fun, via @intrcnnctd #
  • I'd really like to archive my tweets to a wordpress category that isn't published on my blog front-page. Is this possible? #
  • Adventure, international travel, camaraderie, sex & passion. Mark Kennedy had to be paid £250,000, but you can be an activist for FREE. #
  • Can this be real? eye-lid controlling electrodes to produce 3D "shutter glasses" effect #
  • Trying not to get addicted to reading #
  • Richard Stallman in #Sheffield 5th of March #
  • Test tweet. Soon to be deleted #
  • seeking dancer/visual artist for art-science installation about how the brain learns movements. Any volunteers or suggestions? #
  • Actually, maybe I should do an art-science piece about consciousness, in dramatic form. I could call it The Cartesian Theatre #

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Tweets for 2011-01-19

  • Test tweet. Soon to be deleted #
  • seeking dancer/visual artist for art-science installation about how the brain learns movements. Any volunteers or suggestions? #
  • Actually, maybe I should do an art-science piece about consciousness, in dramatic form. I could call it The Cartesian Theatre #

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Links for December 2010