16.333 messy science

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Wed Nov 20 2002 - 02:04:44 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 333.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

       [1] From: "Al Magary" <al@magary.com> (59)
             Subject: Re: 16.329 messy science

       [2] From: "Prof. R. Sussex" <sussex@uq.edu.au> (25)
             Subject: Re: 16.329 messy science

       [3] From: Norman Hinton <hinton@springnet1.com> (13)
             Subject: Re: 16.329 messy science

             Date: Wed, 20 Nov 2002 06:39:19 +0000
             From: "Al Magary" <al@magary.com>
             Subject: Re: 16.329 messy science

    > Having just finished the book I can recommend with fresh enthusiasm
    > James D Watson's The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the
    > Discovery of the Structure of DNA (New York, 1968). It of course
    > makes a very important bit of science accessible to the likes of us
    > (delete yourself if you're a biochemist or similar). But what particularly
    > fascinated me was the close, daily account of the "context of
    > discovery", as it is called, and the role of physical modelling in
    > discovery. The messiness of it all is instructive, and a useful defense
    > against arguments that would have algorithmic thought (in the form,
    > say, of an expert system) as an adequate representation of
    > what actually happens when new knowledge is discovered -- or
    > perhaps more accurately, made.

    Watson's is a most human book, and quite scandalous when it was
    first published (1968) because it was refreshingly candid,
    gossipy, and, by the way, full of intrigue. It does convey a
    lot about how science *can* proceed--true, anyway, for Watson
    and Crick in the early 50s.

    That's for readers. For society the book is as problematical as
    its controversial contemporary, Thomas Kuhn's _The Structure of
    Scientific Revolutions_ (2nd ed. enl., UChicago, 1970; pbk,
    1996). Yes, that's the book that introduced the now popular
    notion of "paradigm shift" as indicative of how science
    progresses. This is vastly upsetting to those who believe in
    science as a steady day-by-day accretion of knowledge and
    continual improvement of comprehensive theories.

    I find Kuhn persuasive, but the Kuhnian heritage may be
    generally regrettable. It cannot help but give hope to fringe
    theorists and cranks and those for whom "they laughed at
    Columbus too"--generally, the X-Files crowd--is plausible
    scientific argument. It gives the media reason to play up
    stories of cold fusion and cloning of complete humans. It
    gives aid and comfort, basically, to those who wish for
    political reasons to challenge scientific consensus, as for
    example the Bush White House cavalierly dismisses global
    warming. Worse, I think, is that Kuhn gave birth to the idea
    that science is a social construct that may be critiqued in the
    same way as any other human institution, and thus undermines the
    fundamental effectiveness of the scientific method.

    In this context, Watson's _The Double Helix_ is the case
    example: "Science seldom proceeds in the straightforward
    logical manner imagined by outsiders," Watson wrote. Theirs was
    not your billion-dollar NIH program run by the science
    establishment. No, it was a daring, hardly authorized effort in
    one corner of a Cambridge lab--hardly a program at all--run by a
    couple of cowboys. These young, even ignorant scientists did a
    lot of talking and imagining and dreaming up half-cocked ideas,
    and not all that much research and experimentation. But through
    luck and some dealing that was not entirely above board, hit on
    the structure of DNA, and carried off the Nobel Prize a few
    years later.

    Needless to say, the Watson-Crick-Kuhn picture of science is
    pretty entertaining. Watson's book was made in 1987 as a
    British TV movie, variously called Life Story, The Double Helix,
    and The Race for the Double Helix (it's title on A&E in the US),
    with gloriously intellectual cast: Jeff Goldblum as Watson,
    Tim Pigott-Smith as Crick, Alan Howard as Maurice Wilkins, and
    Juliet Stevenson as Rosalind Franklin. If you can find it, this
    is terrific viewing in high school or college--and not just in
    science classes.

    Al Magary

             Date: Wed, 20 Nov 2002 06:39:50 +0000
             From: "Prof. R. Sussex" <sussex@uq.edu.au>
             Subject: Re: 16.329 messy science

    With reference to Willard on Watson and Pauling: bricolage and its relation
    to scientific discovery is something that one doesn't find in Popper or
    Kuhn, but I suspect it has become a large part of much work (bottom-up
    tinkering, inductive hit and miss...) in much science since: I also think
    it is part of the blurring of the artificial boundary between pure and
    applied research.


    Roly Sussex Professor of Applied Language Studies Department of French, German, Russian, Spanish and Applied Linguistics School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies The University of Queensland Brisbane Queensland 4072 AUSTRALIA

    Office: Forgan-Smith Tower 403 Phone: +61 7 3365 6896 Fax: +61 7 3365 2798 Email: sussex@uq.edu.au Web: http://www.arts.uq.edu.au/slccs/profiles/sussex.html School's website: http://www.arts.uq.edu.au/slccs/

    Language Talkback ABC radio: Web: http://www.cltr.uq.edu.au/languagetalkback/ Audio: from http://www.abc.net.au/darwin/


    --[3]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Wed, 20 Nov 2002 06:40:10 +0000 From: Norman Hinton <hinton@springnet1.com> Subject: Re: 16.329 messy science

    Willard, I agree --Double Helix is a great book.

    I also have thought for years that "organized thinking" is a fraud. I wouldn't say that Joyce had it right in Ulysses, but he was closer than most people who try to analyze it.

    I recall a story about Alfred North Whitehead, who, while at Harvard, agreed once to join a dissertation committee if he could interview the candidate alone at his (Whitehead's) home. The young man sent his dissertation -- a long, complex, highly structured analysis of the Process of Knowing.

    Whitehead invited him for tea. While they were sipping, he referred the candidate to a fly on the ceilng and asked what that fly might make of the two them sitting there. He and the student talked rather a long time, after which Whitehead said "Yes..so complex, so messy, so beyond analysis. So unlike your dissertation....."

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