SrSm: Blog Post 1

Last updated 2015-08-17 18:26:48 SGT

USP assumes that this (i.e. C2E) is the life you wish to lead. Does this sort of life seem appealing to you? Why or why not? Be concrete as to your reasons.

What does it mean for scientists in particular to be critical, curious, engaged in general? Despite the temptation to claim that scientists have been living and breathing these things before they ever became USP buzzwords, I must concede that Dr. Arnold is right: it's difficult to remain interested in the world beyond the scope of where my research brings me, and, at the same time, avoid overspecialisation in a particular topic of interest1.

Leaving aside the question of whether this is actually possible2, though, I personally feel that it's separately impossible for anyone to be universally critical, or curious, or engaged. For illustration: prototypically, it might make sense to castigate, say, a grumpy ivory tower mathematician for not really caring about, say, migrant worker living conditions. Shouldn't social justice and inequity and that sort of thing be pressing issues whose misapplication and/or absence and/or existence warrant immediate concern, if not actually action? But whence did this “should” emerge? Our mathematician could likewise take offense at the unwillingness of the tax-paying public to fund blue-sky theoretical research 3, or at general disinterest in, say, algebraic topology 4. “Aha!” cries our manifestly not very critical straw man social justice warrior, “but that doesn't have anything to do with the welfare of actual human beings, which is what really matters! Because if it doesn't to you, then what does that make you, if not an inhuman hypocrite?”

Accidental misalignment with the previous title of this course notwithstanding5, I'm actually trying to make a serious point here: the question, as asked, sets an unreasonably high bar. People — (soi-disant) intellectual or not — are always going to be curious at least about things they're actually interested in, engaged at least with respect to whatever they happen to be passionate about, and critical about at least whatever they happen to dislike. In this sense, being so is trivial.

What distinguishes, then, is continuing to maintain this posture even outside of our idiosyncratic sets of interests. But what makes a given issue worth being critical, curious, and engaged about? Absent well-defined universal criteria, and shying away from admitting personal preference as an acceptable justification, we cannot but grant all of them at least some validity.

So, reader (and self): when was the last time you picked up a book on functional programming? On the history of Babylonian culinary practices? On the relationship between social networks and statistical phase transitions? On game theory in gender politics? On the role of the state in organised crime? On differential geometry? Biofilms? Quantum chemistry? Black hole physics?

As scientists we lament the (quite frankly abysmal) coverage of science in the mainstream media, but one immediate corollary of this is that we are confronted, in the most abject possible terms, with evidence of the fundamental limits of our powers of bullshit detection. Which microbiologist hasn't cringed at articles claiming that “X cures cancer”? Which particle physicist hasn't squirmed at every reference to the Higgs boson as the “God particle” 6?

And yet, when we find ourselves in truth no better informed about, for example, racially motivated shooting incidents halfway across the world, compared to the average (sufficiently motivated) armchair social commentator with an Internet connection, we realise we cannot bring anything new to the table. So we end up being far more amenable to representations of topics outside our extremely narrow areas of specialisation that we suspect, but cannot prove, are bullshit — for how could we justify being otherwise?

It's easy to dismiss this as lazy uncriticality, but I think this belies some deeper admission of diffidence — recognition that the ability to be properly critical without insane expenditure of directed effort, as we are of representations to us of our own chosen disciplines, emerges only with sufficient familiarity.

But how can anyone claim to be thus familiar with everything that matters (and who is to say what matters and what does not)? That would be hideously arrogant, even for a scientist. Better by far to concede ignorance. This bar is too high. I dare not claim it. I shall merely concern myself with what I can.

  1. This tension seems to surround our secondary focus on interdisciplinarism, rather than choice of intellectual stance per se. We've made it such that we want to materially avoid compartmentalisation via separating the mental habits of the magical unicorn-esque ideal thinking scientist, qua intellectual creature by avocation, and qua scientist by (hopefully) vocation. We wish, instead, to maintain the integrity of a whole-greater-than-sum-of parts intellectual chimaera. 

  2. I submit that such compartmentalisation is inevitable. 

  3. May or may not be one of my pet peeves 

  4. Likewise, believe it or not 

  5. “On Being Human” 


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