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Science in Society Brown Bag Discussion 2002-04 Forum

Comments are posted in the order in which they are received, with earlier postings appearing first below on this page. To see the latest postings, click on "Go to last comment" below.

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Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2002-09-15 14:32:59
Link to this Comment: 2699

Welcome to this forum for discussion of issues arising in our brown bag lunch discussion series. Many thanks to Anne Dalke and Liz McCormack for the time and energy invested in organizing the series this year (and to Susan White for her initiative and work in getting the brown bag program started last year).

Serendip's forums work on the presumption that it is useful to share "thoughts in progress", that one's thoughts are always evolving, that what one is thinking at any given time may be useful to the evolution of other peoples' thinking and theirs in turn to the evolution of one's own. In this spirit, hopefully we can sustain here a lively and productive exchange of perspectives about matters of interest and concern to all of us.

And have some fun at the same time.

Balkanization/online courses
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2002-09-16 10:36:08
Link to this Comment: 2708

This is tangential--not so much about research or even science--but I recalled the controversy a couple of years ago around individual faculty members vs. universities marketing courses online or on CDs. In 2000, Princeton, Yale and Stanford joined to offer online courses to alumni of all three schools. These were not to be complete courses, but up to four lectures with varying degrees of interactivity. Professors would be paid "summer salaries" for developing the material supported by "a cadre of programmers and graphic designers" and a large "back-office" operation to follow through with marketing and helping alumni. Since then, Princeton has added about four humanities courses to its Tigernet site for alumni. These are free, not for credit, and some include web-based discussion groups on Blackboard moderated by the professor, but I can't tell if the Yale-Stanford partnership went anywhere.
Bryn Mawr alumnae have indicated in surveys that they crave online courses both in the humanities and sciences. I believe this is on a far back burner for the College. Even if done in partnership with another school, it would probably have to be a profit-making operation, and I wondered what faculty thought about some of the other issues involved, such as intellectual property and use of time.

Balking at Balkanization?
Name: Kim Bensto
Date: 2002-09-17 12:38:36
Link to this Comment: 2718


Thanks, first, to Anne, Liz, and Paul for the hard work of arranging and maintaining this program & site.

Thanks, too, to Ralph for his lucid and stimulating presentation. I found bracing his passion for the 'culture of science,' and heartening his support of BMC's science faculty's own cooperative customs as expressed through a supple synergy of research and teaching.

All the more interesting, if perhaps also puzzling, then was the turn taken toward the end of the presentation/discussion, in which we were prodded to think more creatively about capturing the market value of our activities in order better to support the institution's various missions. Thus, where we began with a lament for the 'balkanization' of intellectual work, most especially for its attenuation of a 'culture of sharing,' we arrived at a promotion of academic success on a model that would possibly balkanize much of what we now do in harmonious interaction. E.G., think of how we habitually, and happily, exchange 'trade secrets' about pedagogy; now think about what would happen if some of us were given incentives/injunctions to privatize that knowledge in marketable forms. Wouldn't we hold closer to the vest our syllabi, assignments, classroom strategies, anecdotes, and even pedagogical philosophies? Wouldn't this have a chilling effect on the essential mentoring process by which one generation enables (and learns from) the next?

Jan's recollections of the proposed Yale/Princeton/Stanford online consortium bring to mind a further, rawer example of what I fear. A friend of mine who teaches a large basic science course at a major Ivy research university recently began translating his course design to a web-based format. Once the senior faculty grasped that basic science teaching could be thus commodified--and no longer need be seen only as an odious distraction to be farmed out to lesser lights--they immediately began, essentially, to steal my friend's work, using their considerable clout as major research honchos in an attempt to muscle him out of the way of market share's glories. A mere aberration, easily policed by enlightened administrators such as our own? Or emblematic of the kind of unleashed rivalry that the 'market' thrives on?

Yes, academia often defines itself by a complacent contrast to the sullied, sullying 'real world.' But generally, that contrast of airy thought and material application is an outworn shibboleth which doesn't describe well the tenor of intellectual inquiry over the past half century. On the other hand, as Ralph rightly emphasized and vividly illustrated, academia offers a distinctly different 'culture' of knowledge acquisition and use to that found in industry and government--pointedly and dynamically so. Perhaps we'd do well to move quite cautiously toward the brave new world of overt economic self-definition, where value is measurable by criteria other than those subtending the admittedly messy, always contingent, essentially rhetorical estimation of 'good work' that we have held ourselves to heretofore.

See you soon.--Kim

a modest proposal
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2002-09-17 20:59:40
Link to this Comment: 2740

I can't help but thinking, when things get posed as unpalatable opposite alternatives ("academia" vs "the real world"), that there must be another way to conceive things lying around somewhere. So ...

Unpalatable alternatives
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-09-20 12:42:59
Link to this Comment: 2794

Speaking of unpalatable alternatives....

during the discussion Sam Glazier led this past Wednesday, a query was posed about how the culture of science differs from the culture of religion; one answer offered was that science begins w/ a presumption of doubt, while religion does not. I'm a Quaker, and central to my religious understanding and practice is lots of active doubting and testing of doubts. There's an excellent book by Karen Armstrong called The History of God, which describes atheism as a rejection of the current conception of the divine, a rejection that invites the production of new understandings of what God might mean/be/do. As I understand them, religion and science are not in opposition; neither are belief and doubt, which exist rather in a productive, interactive and ever-generative tension.

Date: 2002-09-21 12:31:17
Link to this Comment: 2827

I hope everyone shares my sense that Anne, Liz, and the speakers to date have gotten us well-started on what promises to be an interesting and productive conversation. Some other versions of this conversation with somewhat different foci and participants might be worth recalling. Here's a list of some web-available ones at Bryn Mawr:

Its probably also useful to recognize that the issues under discussion are not by any means unique to Bryn Mawr, nor even to liberal arts colleges. For example, Cassandra Fraser, a chemistry colleague of Sharon Burgmayer's at the University of Virginia,is active in the Science, Careers, and Society Forum there (cf.

My point is not at all that our own current conversations are either redundant or unnecessary, but rather that they can both draw on and contribute to a wider ongoing conversation.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2002-09-21 12:54:16
Link to this Comment: 2828

I hope everyone shares my sense that Anne, Liz, and the speakers to date have gotten us well-started on what promises to be an interesting and productive conversation. Some other versions of this conversation with somewhat different foci and participants might be worth recalling. Here's a list of some web-available ones at Bryn Mawr:

Its probably also useful to recognize that the issues under discussion are not by any means unique to Bryn Mawr, nor even to liberal arts colleges. For example, Cassandra Fraser, a chemistry colleague of Sharon Burgmayer's at the University of Virginia, is active in the Science, Careers, and Society Forum there (cf.

My point is not at all that our own current conversations are either redundant or unnecessary, but rather that they can both draw on and contribute to a wider ongoing conversation.

With those thoughts in mind, see On Being a "Lonely" Atheist for a quick response to Anne above. As for Sam's talk, I thought it was particularly rich and generative, both for its introduction of "class" issues into the conversation (I too am a fan of not only country music but also blues; as for physicality ...), and for the openings into considerations of objectivity/subjectivity, of generality/uniqueness, and of "progress/no progress" as described in Anne's summary.

I get to talk later in the semester but in anticipation here are a couple of things that bear on the subjectivity/objectivity issue:

For what its worth, that seems to me an issue which is independent of the other two, in the sense that one can admit subjectivity without necessarily also accepting as inevitable uniqueness and "no progress". I'm looking forward to seeing whether our further conversation plays out along these lines.

Commodifying Knowledge
Name: Wilfred Fr
Date: 2002-09-25 17:51:50
Link to this Comment: 2896

We must not give an inch to this trend of 'commodifying' knowledge. Yes, it is codified in the our intellectual patent laws, but our duty and unspoken "Hippocratic Oath" as academics, is to share knowledge with the next generation. The fact that research drives our teaching institutions rather than the other way around demonstrates how much ground we have already lost. For me, this crusade is rooted in a tenuous and speculative hypothesis about the origin of our species as well as more robust observations about symbiotic relationships in biological systems.

Couldn't there be the chance that our ancestors evolved differently from our chimp relatives for the very reason that we shared information freely. Perhaps our evolutionary heritage recognized (only stumbled upon?) the fact that we could out compete our cousins bellicose, territorial habits with the free sharing of knowledge? Put other way by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, "Masters create and then walk away, for if one grasps too tightly, you will loose your grip, but the one who lets go possess nothing and has nothing to loose." (Paraphrased horribly by one who grasps too tightly.) Biological systems are rife with examples in which cooperation benefits the individual and the whole. Bees, ants, reef systems, mycorrhizae, the Eukaryotic Cell?...all of these alliances allow much greater resource acquisition then would be possible among alternative individualistic systems due to synergistic effects, ie, reefs build topography/surface area for feeding that would not otherwise exist. On the other hand, I wouldn't necessarily want to be a bee or a worker ant. Perhaps that is exactly the case, still, I find the idea of 'commodifying' knowledge repulsive.

Commodification of Knowledge (II)
Name: Wilfred Fr
Date: 2002-09-26 09:29:36
Link to this Comment: 2907

On my commute home last night, I heard the following news story on All Things Considered: Inventing Airplanes. It speaks directly to my point about patent law and how secrecy can stiffle progress and new innovation.

Educating for industry
Name: Samantha G
Date: 2002-09-26 14:04:31
Link to this Comment: 2911

I came across and article titled, "Industry's wish list for academia: Hamiline University reshapes science curriculum to better meet the needs of industrial employers" in the Sept. 16, 2002 issue of Chemical and Engineering news.
The areas the college focused on, based on the crecommendations of 3M and $534,000 from the NSF, were communication skills, techinical course skills, industrial organization, team problem solving and cultural competency. I don't think that the list is outside the interests of education but the source and motivation are questionable for the reasons discussed two weeks ago. The potential homogenatity of the students coming from a specifically defined and regimented program reminds me of the shades of beige availble at clothing stores that have different names but are mostly owned by the same parent company. A course taught with an industrial slant, co-taught with someone from industry could be iteresting or useful.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-09-26 15:39:25
Link to this Comment: 2912

Alternatively (as a friend and colleague observed to me),
"I think 'intellectual property' is an oxymoron."

The Logic of Jokes
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-09-27 17:08:47
Link to this Comment: 2955

Wednesday's session, on metaphor and metynomy, delighted me. Ted's distinction between metaphor and metonymy, as figures for two different kinds of thinking, was very useful, although I found myself unconvinced of his claim that they are not/CAN not be reciprocally generative. Paul Grobstein and I have offered three workshops for CSem faculty claiming that it is precisely the "loop" from (using Ted's language) the metaphoric to the metonymic and back again (that is, from the description of the multiplicity of things in themselves to the more pared-down account of things in relation to one another) that is actually what constitutes intellectual work, and what we should be "modeling" for and inviting our students into.

As our session was ending, Jane Hedley offered us a "simple test" for identifying what sort of thinkers we are. If, when she says "dog," you say "cat," you are a metaphor-maker; if, when she says "dog," you say "claw," you think metonymically (does anyone actually DO this?) If, however, she says "dog" and you say...."hog"--THEN what kind of thinker are you?

Ted and I have been talking since about the ways in which different categories of jokes depend on similarity or contiguity. What is the logic of the aural similarity on which so many jokes turn?

Two examples: Our conversation had begun with a description of the picture in Ted's office (of a cow, looking at a picture of a cow, being looked at by a group of scientists): it functioned as a nice figure for nature and its representation, which was the topic of his talk.

The session then ended, appropriately enough, by circling back to that image:
"What is a metaphor?
A place to put a cow."
(Get it? What is a meadow for?)

After the Stanley Kunitz reading later in the week, I introduced my son Sam, who is a cross-country runner, to Mark Lord, and asked Mark if he ever ran. "Only when I was chased," he replied.
"When you were chaste....?"
What were we DOING in that conversation? How were we THINKING?

humor and the metonymic landscape
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-10-11 13:55:27
Link to this Comment: 3261

i think I've found the answer to my own question. Humor, particularly the sort of "punning" humor that Mark and I were playing with above, gives us access to the metonymic landscape, makes connections that we were not even aware of, that surprise and delight us.

In and Out of the World
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-11-22 11:55:10
Link to this Comment: 3844

This is going to go in two different directions: first out of/away from the "world," then back into it.

As I finished up writing up the minutes from this week's brown bag discussion (on the philosophy of mathematics), I found myself, during the last paragraph (an account of the last 5 minutes of our conversation, where we were trying to sketch out a continuum placing math, science and the humanities in relative proximity to one another--and had identified @ least one axis on which math was closer to the humanities because it was "solipsistic," not referencing the external world, nor needing it for verification)--anyhow: I found myself thinking/wondering/asking whether science also needs the concept of a stable, existing externality to ground its work, or whether it couldn't get by w/out that foundational idea...(see, for instance, notes from a Brown Bag talk last spring, "The Brain's Images: Reflecting and Creating Human Understanding," which suggested not only that there are multiple ways to construe the "pictures" we see "out there," but that, further, we can never know if our pictures are "right"--so science (defined as collecting and summarizing observations) doesn't NEED the concept of an external reality that it is "getting closer to," that is waiting to be "discovered." I'd very much like to hear what scientists and philosophers on (or off!) campus think about the usefulness of this notion.

On the other hand, I thought that the queries Kris Tapp posed for us had very broad applications for academics in all disciplines, and our relationship and responsibility to that world "out there." See, for instance, two accounts in September editions of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The first one, "New Series to Focus on Works by Young Scholars," by Danny Postel, is a concrete example of an intervention in the decade-long narrowing of audience for humanities scholars; the second, "The Pathbreaking, Fractionalized, Uncertain World of Knowledge," by Stanley N. Katz, is an elaborate querying of our intellectual infrastructure. Katz concludes not only that students trained in specialized techniques may not be well prepared in general critical thinking skills, but also that the theoretical complexity of the knowledge we currently generate is too inaccessible to large numbers of citizens outside the academy. He ends by asking why we are so unwillling (so unable?) to translate our work for the general public.


Name: Sanford Sc
Date: 2002-12-07 09:56:39
Link to this Comment: 3995

In response to Anne Dalke, I wanted to take the opportunity to explain my comments of yesterday (in the comment period after Prof. Houck's talk on menopause). I am thinking with Judith Butler and Michel Foucault in seeing gender as coming before sex. For Butler and Foucault, sexuation is a "technology of the self" grounded in a gendered outlook heavily steeped in commitments to heteronormativity. Such a sexing of the population instigates what Foucault calls governmentality where we intervene to produce sexed populations, peopling those populations with individuals who are clinically identified as male and female and as having the capacities and deficiencies these technologies of intervention suggest these sorts of people have. So it becomes possible to see how "the natural" is an artifact of our interventions, Stephen Pinker's new book with his old argument about the primacy of nature to the contrary. The "natural" is a by-product of modalities of treatment that imply a certain nature to things and people by virtue of how we have chosen to treat them. So if we see women as sexed in a certain way such that menopause becomes but a minipause in their sexual existence in a life of endless sex (as the good doctor Wilson saw it), then it becomes a mere by-product of estrogen replacement therapy to see it as unnatural for women to change in this regard. The natural thing is for women to take an artificial substance so they can stay their natural sexed selves. Neat trick, huh?! It's like my favorite cookie--Oreos--the real original "natural" Oreos were made with artificial ingredients. I never liked the substitute ones that were "all natural" without artificial ingredients. These substitutes were fakes for the real artificial ones!

Given this perspective, feminists are right it seems to me to see multiple
sides to medicalization. It is always at a minimum a double-edged sword. On the one hand, accessing treatment is often a project conducted in the name of equity, insisting that women not be neglected when we study how we can improve people's health. So women deserve to be medicalized as much as men and in their own right as well as is appropriate for them and their distinctive needs. On the other hand, medicalization often involves getting positioned in processes of governmentality and the resultant transmutation of women's needs into what clinically valorized treatments imply they really need but may not.

So some feminists might argue that anything that increases the chances for
women to experience life and sex better is a good thing. Other feminists
might argue that women should watch out for what they wish for--they might
get it! In this case, medicalizing women's sexual changes might be bad as
well as good in its effects. We can all now see this so much more clearly
since last summer when the studies came out showing how myopic the estrogen craze really was.

My question for Anne (and everyone else now that I am posting this) was how did it go on so long that estrogen replacement therapy would be seen as good when in fact it had evidently not really been studied very thoroughly. How could this be? What a huge slip up!! Was this itself an example of too much or not enough medicalization?? That's what I
was thinking when listening to the presentation.

Thanks for arranging Prof. Houck's talk. It was quite a good session.

Sandy Schram

Judith Houck responds
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2002-12-09 10:07:55
Link to this Comment: 4014

With Judy's permission, I'm passing along her responses to Sandy's responses to her talk:

[he said:] The natural thing is for women to take an artificial substance so they can stay their natural sexed selves.

JH: To offer a little historical perspective here. Both before and after Wilson, most physicians and other medical writers assured women that menopause did not diminish their libido or their sexual attractiveness, a position that is just as constructed though differently.

[Sandy said:] We can all now see this so much more clearly since last summer when the studies came out showing how myopic the estrogen craze really was.

JH: I have an article coming out this spring in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine developing this point for menopause. Feminists were (are) very ambivalent about whether ERT was a godsend or a curse or both.

[Sandy asked:]My question for you is how did it go on so long that estrogen replacement therapy would be seen as good when in fact it had evidently not really been studied very thoroughly. How could this be? What a huge slip up!! Was this itself an example of too much or not enough medicalization?? That's what I was thinking when listening to the presentation.

JH: Well, the "evidence" has been there all along, but there were always flaws in the study design, so dependent on your perspective, it was easy to dismiss it as inconclusive. And there was "evidence" on the other side as
well. So what study you believe has a great deal to do with your profession and your politics. But I guess I don`t want us to dismiss ERT entirely. For osteoporosis, it does seem to be effective. (The extent to which osteoporosis is a real problem or one constructed through imaging technology, or both is another issue. Further, while ERT does help with bone density, it is less clear that it helps prevent fractures which is undeniably a problem.)
My two cents.

my personal summers
Name: Anne
Date: 2002-12-11 14:11:44
Link to this Comment: 4047

As co-ordinator of the Feminist and Gender Studies Program, I took a strong academic interest in Judith's talk last week on the social history of menopause; as a post-menopausal woman, I had a personal interest as well--as do many of my friends. I just heard this morning from one of them, Debi Peterson:

"I DID hear a new phrase for these 'night-MELT-downs" ... it is apparently the common phrase in the African American women's arena ... "My personal summers" ... sounds WAY too pleasant if you ask me! "

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-02-27 19:23:03
Link to this Comment: 4877

I've just finished writing up, and posting, a summary of Doug Blank's presentation today, which focused on the small percentage of women in computer science programs. In the subsequent discussion, it was suggested that many women eschew a "singleminded" pursuit of any given field.

As I recorded this conversation, I was reminded of a dissertation (later book) by Maggie Mulqueen, called On Our Own Terms; Redefining Competence and Femininity, State University of New York Press, 1992 (see A Guide for Integrating Multiculturalism into the Curriculum for a description of the book). Drawing on longitudinal interviews she conducted with four graduate students (two in English, two in Physics, at Penn and Harvard--one of them was me), Maggie argued that women's sense of competence comes from balancing multiple roles, rather than from singleminded application to one. Participating in her study as I was finishing my graduate work and starting part-time employment at Bryn Mawr (while I was caring for four small children) helped me learn to value the choices I was making, choices which were certainly no more valued in the profession of English literary study in 1982 than they are now in Computer Science.

Reminded of that work, and those decisions, I'm postulating now that it's not just "contextualized science" which will engage more women, but a practice of science, computer science, or any kind of intellectual work that allows us to engage the world in multiple ways and multiple venues, rather than insisting on a single definition of "success," which we will find most attractive and compatible with the various aspects we want to incorporate into our lives. In the terms of earlier discussions in this series of brown bags, we function most happily when we function "metonymically," when we can turn from one task to another of its "neighbors," refusing the enclosing, limiting, "single-minded" gesture of "metaphorization."

(See also Building Two-Way Bridges: A Conversation About Gender and Science for a record of an earlier discussion on this topic.)

trying to keep the record straight
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-03-27 13:29:43
Link to this Comment: 5192

If there is one thing I want even less to be thought of as than a nostalgist it is a moralist. BUT ... it does seem to me terribly important to be able to notice and say out loud that

Yes, there has in the past always been a tension between economic development (stability/security) and creativity (destablizing novelty), and yes that has been/is over the long run a generative tension productive of both stability and novelty. But if every institution in the culture elects to base its own activities on economic development then there will no longer be a generative tension, and we will lose not only creativity but economic stability as well. What makes that so difficult for people/institutions to see/accept/act on is that, of course, it may not happen in the next five years. So maybe we could learn to think on at least slightly longer time scales? Mr Bush notwithstanding?

Nostalgia and its uses
Name: Elliott Sh
Date: 2003-03-27 15:58:20
Link to this Comment: 5194

I think that I know now what I mean by nostalgia. Nostalgia is the sense that the happiest time of one's life -- always in the past and never precisely datable -- is not only the real way things were, but the way they should always be. It is a concept that is static, unchanging and universal. It admits of no other better reality and it need not be explained because it is assumed that things were always that way because that reality was "mine" and it is declining. That decline is always located in forces outside the self that are destroying what was best about "my" world. It almost always fails to read the structures that went into creating that reality because the moment is early enough in one's life that one's critical faculties are not turned towards introspection.

Relating it to this discussion, the refusal to think about higher education as as deeply implicated in the same (political and cash) economy as that of the pharmaceutical giant, or that the decision-making process of admitting students hasn't always been informed by the ability to pay, are acts of nostalgia: they posit that there is a better place -- the place where I was happiest -- that is declining because it is no longer the way it was when I was happiest. That decline is caused by a force outside myself -- the speeding up of time, the forces of capitalism -- and we need to turn back the clock -- to make it like it (almost certainly never) was.

the record, con.
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-03-27 21:28:38
Link to this Comment: 5197

For the sake of the record, I'm actually much happier now than I was twenty-five years ago. But the challenge does remind me of a related social critique I wrote almost fifteen years ago. For those interested, have a look at This isn't just MY problem, friend. Ain't nostalgia.

But let's bag the argument over whether the past was or was not better, because it ain't my point. Nor is it my point to divorce education (or science) from real life/the economy. In fact my point is very much to ENGAGE education (and science) with real life/the economy, by arguing that education/science require by their natures active opposition to those who believe in short term return as the only value, both within and outside academia. The struggle is over whether the values of science/education will influence real life/economic behavior, or whether instead we will continue a disastrous course of allowing short term return on investment to become the default value of education/science.

Looping back...
Date: 2003-03-27 22:56:30
Link to this Comment: 5198

Six months later...

we seem to have looped back again to the initial discussion in this series, when Ralph Kuncl challenged us to think about "the ways in which the potential marketablity of ideas can interrupt the traditional culture of sharing, " when we were asking ourselves if we wanted to think of "teaching as an outcome of research that is commodifiable," when we first began to imagine "an alternative economics for conceptualizing the kind of work we do," even "different conceptions of knowledge than those of ownership," in which (for instance) we "might we think of ourselves as service providers...."

when Kim Bentstoninsisted that academia pointedly and dynamically "offers a distinctly different 'culture' of knowledge acquisition and use to that found in industry and government,"

when Paul Grobstein first spoke against the "commodification of knowledge" and for the "free flow of information."

What have we figured out in the interim? What do we understand, now, that we didn't understand then? Or are we just re-tracing the same old, same old?

Where do we go from here?
Name: Xenia Mori
Date: 2003-03-28 07:23:20
Link to this Comment: 5201

I wonder how far back we would need to go to find this nostagic period? The gentleman-scholar who is financially independent comes to mind? Does this perceived happy period depend on funding, the attitude of colleagues, the sense of hope that comes from growth?

As for unfettered research, I think financial independence is the only way. I think winning the lottery is my only chance unless some long lost relative leaves me with some $$? ;)

IF we agree that the culture of science has changed, and, many will say, not for the better,
What has happened?

I think one clue might be found in the marketing of science to Congress and the nation, and the degree of competition for scientific research funds. Is this our own "wild west?" In an attempt to bring science to our culture in general, we have learned to market our work, to compete with others for taxpayers resources, and to be drawn into the culture as a whole. "We", that is the scientific leaders, have make big promises about the impact of our work and we try to justify this in short-term and, yes, long-term goals. Take for example the human genome project. We have learned there are limits to the federal purse strings (witness failure to fund the expensive Super collider project in physics, which wiped out my generation of budding physicists). We are accountable and not independent from the taxpayer and have become increasingly so as our specialties have required more expensive equipment in order to proceed. Given that the Federal Government is our primary funding source, how could we have responded any differently? Some could argue this marketing approach has worked well. The NIH budget has grown incredibly during the last decade, especially compared to other programs. This has spurred on considerable research, and yet practicing scientists, at least at the graduate student/post-doc/assistant professor level don't appear to me to be happier (to return to Dan's question). Those that join the ranks of graduate school rarely leave unless given a good reason despite conditions that are less than optimal. Perhaps they have few options to go to? The measures of our national success in science are not job happiness and sense of accomplishment, economic stability, appreciation of the international communities we have built to share the scientific exploration, but things that you can count: publications, new drugs to market, patents, and jobs created and economies supported. We are a part of this national economy and we must acknowledge this. The question is, if the federal government (through peer review) is the major player, where must change occur given all the expections that are now present for our success?

Where do we go from here? For me personally, I am giving some of my attention and energy to the National Postdoctoral Association ( to look at changes that have occurred at the postdoctoral level. I am also happy to say that I am presenting the Keck Fellowship as an alternative model. I am about to enter a round table discussion on postdoc issueswith Richard Freeman (author of the paper I gave you), Rita Colwell, and others at NSF & NIH . But within this discussion will be the culture of science as it exists today. So I thank you all for you insights, comments, and discussions and ask that you keep going...

Xenia Morin

A chemistry example
Name: Samantha G
Date: 2003-03-28 17:21:00
Link to this Comment: 5204

The idea of rejecting observations about the past as an attempt to recapture a reality that never existed seems to put too much faith in change and the present as neccesarily desirable and/or more truthful. I will confess to having idealistic tendancies. However, I think it is possible to find evidence or at least examples that the culture of science has become more comercial and lost depth and freedom in the process for example, choosing experiments that answer questions that have applications in the forseeable future - around 5 years. The following is an example that I encountered during my graduate work. The first is a paper published in 1968 and the second in 2000, both in peer reviewed journals and on the same topic. The second paper just looks at the system on much shorter timescales using modern laser equipment. Here are the concluding remarks by each author:

"Although we interpret the luminescence to be of charge-transfer type, there is still a question concerning the multiplicity of the emitting state.. Our measurements to date do not distinguish between these two possibilities."

"It is unclear to what extent these results can be extended to other, more complex chemical and biological systems. However, given the desirability for vectorial charge transport in various contexts, we believe that medium-induced localiztion dynamics may be important in a wide range of settings."

The first conclusion restates what they learned and specifies what is still unanswered. The second conclusion states that while there is more to learn they believe their results are applicable to a wide range of settings. I have noticed a pattern of unwillingness/fear/unpopularity of disscussing problems and unanswered questions in my field of chemistry in comparison to articles from earlier decades. I would love to search chemistry journals for the phrase "of great importance" over the last 50-100 years and see if there is a noticeable difference in frequency???

Thanks for making this forum available and keeping it updated. I am a bit uncomfortable responding generally to the interesting ideas already posted without specifically addressing them but I guess that is the nature of this type of communication - so just know that I read what you wrote and thought about it.

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-03-30 20:16:38
Link to this Comment: 5212

And your reading and thinking, Sam, keeps the rest of us reading and thinking too. I just came across an essay by Jessie Gruman in The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 28, 2003), entitled "Basic vs. Applied Research: Finding a Balance," which begins by explaining that

the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases promised that he would strive to produce results from his agency to justify its receipt of an anticipated appropriations increase of $1.5-billion --the largest in the history of the National Institutes of Health. "In three or four years when the question is asked, 'What did you learn?' the wrong answer is, 'We learned a lot,'" he said. "The right answer is, 'We learned a lot and now we have the following deliverables for you.... ' We will maintain the basic science base, but we will have deliverables."

[The article continues:] It is a notable occasion when the director of an NIH institute publicly holds himself, and the scientists whom his institute supports, accountable for finding solutions to specific public-health threats within a given time frame. [This] statement contrasts with the NIH's long tradition of emphasizing the support of investigator-initiated research in the basic sciences, which is far less often guided by the pursuit of "deliverables."

I'm not a professional scientist, but I am a student of language, and this does NOT sound like nostalgia (="homesickness") to me. It sounds like change, and I hear in its history the same sort of difficult challenge given us last week by Dan Sarewitz, who also acknowledged that "science is both application-driven and market-focused," that it "maps very well onto wherever the current 'economic action' is." One response to this description might, of course, be to insist on a different sort of "mapping": that science be guided less by "current economic action" than by a more unfettered pursuit of curiosity. Maybe--as Paul will suggest in a talk in Chicago later this week--we might actually "deny the use of the term 'science' to research that is carried out further commercial objectives." (To make such a distinction would actually be a return to the etymological roots of both words, since "science" derives from a Latin word meaning "to know," while the word "research" comes from a more goal-driven term: an Old French word meaning "to seek out.") Seeking out "deliverables" in the short-term could well mean that we deny ourselves the long-term benefits of "the primary business of science, [which] is to question and challenge."

More nostalgia
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-02 12:58:12
Link to this Comment: 5252

The topic we were discussing w/ such energy during Xenia Morin's presentation last week also just appeared in The Chronicle Review (April 4, 2003): In "Academic Values and The Lure of Profit," Harvard's president emeritus, Derek Bok, takes a "nostalgic" tone as he evokes the "happier conditions of earlier times," as he asks how far industrial sponsors have "gone in seeking to use higher-education institutions and professors for their own commercial ends," and how willing universities have "been to accept money at the cost of compromsing values central to the academic enterprise." Bok laments the increased pressure on university administrators to "become more entrepreneurial," to search ever "more aggressively for novel ways of making profits." Using the "long, sorry history of intercollegiate sports" as paradigmatic in showing "how far the erosion of values can proceed," he offers five safeguards against the push to sacrifice "essential values" in "exchange for ephemeral gains in the constant struggle for prestige." The most important one, in the context of this conversation, is the call for increased faculty involvement in developing and enforcing rules that protect academic values.

A challenge for us all, and one that I think these brown bags are helping us meet--

Science's margins
Name: Ted
Date: 2003-04-03 13:27:58
Link to this Comment: 5260

I suggested during today's discussion that science is mostly concerned with teaching its canonical ideas and less concerned with its margins than is, say, dance. Do the other scientists think that's true? If it's true, then (and here's a question for everybody) is it a problem? For example, in evolutionary biology we want students to learn Darwin, Mendel, Fisher, Wright, etc., all the way through Lewontin, Gould, Hamilton -- all white men, by the way. We're not really very interested in teaching Gregory (or William) Bateson or D'Arcy Thompson, even though their ideas are interesting and potentially enriching. If science is uninterested in its margins, then why? Possibilities (none of which I claim to be valid!):

interest in the margins
Date: 2003-04-06 21:31:02
Link to this Comment: 5286

,a href="/forum/newforum/brownbag-read.html#5260"> Ted's questions about science valorizing canonicity (as opposed to the humanities, which are more concerned with "the margins" puts me in mind of one of our earliest discussions last fall: the one Samantha Glazier led on "Sustaining the Culture of Science," in which we speculated that science differs from other cultures

Humanists, in contrast,

Counterfactual exercise
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2003-04-07 15:05:37
Link to this Comment: 5296

But the humanities haven't always been interested in the margins, right? Literary critics were once pretty exclusively concerned with helping readers understand the texts and ideas of the Great Writers. (This I glean from David Lodge novels.) Wisdom and truth were embedded in the canonical texts; the job of the critics was to expose and articulate them.

How is it that the notions of truth and even authoriality were vulnerable in literary criticism, but not in the natural sciences? Are they vulnerable in the sciences? I'm now trying to picture a world in which Derrida is a molecular biologist, and I'm having a hard time. The real Derrida writes texts about reading texts. Texts interact with texts, including the texts he writes to make his points. Would molbio Derrida make his points (about genes) using texts or genes? And would he write (whether in words or in codons) clearly and with lots of citations, or would he use the style of his own texts/genes as difficult, illustrative experiments? That is, would molbio Derrida use his writing style to contain, or merely convey, meaning? Would there even be any reason to engage in stylistic experiments if he was using texts to understand genes? Would molbio Derrida ever have reason to start thinking about his own activities as a biologist?

In my inexpert understanding (again, blame David Lodge), literary criticism became importantly self-referential when it started being interested in language. Because their work was about language while being language, literary critics had to confront how their readings are themselves texts. Natural scientists also use language, but to talk about photons and mushrooms. No opportunity for self-referentiality: unless one were to discuss, say, genes by (1) making genes, (2) releasing those genes into nature, and (3) using those released genes to say something about how making and naturalizing genes says something about making and naturalizing genes.

So why isn't science interested in its margins? Because they never came up. Why are scientists not interested in the scientist's body? Because even though the body may be relevant to how science is done, how science is done is not what science does.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-04-10 15:02:24
Link to this Comment: 5347

Many many thanks to Catherine et al for (another) wonderful presentation/discussion. And, while I'm on the subject, many thanks to Liz/Anne for organizing/running the series, and to Anne for creating the summaries/keeping this site up to date/alive.

Sorry to have missed last week. Was in Chicago for a panel on science education sponsored by the Illinois Math and Science Academy which touched on many of the issues we're been talking about here. The paper of mine which Catherine referred to (and which Anne quoted from earlier, thanks to both) very much reflected our conversations here. Its on line in two forms, as web notes for the talk I gave, and as text.

Would that we'd had today's discussion before the talk. The "view from nowhere"/"view from everywhere" notion is a very beautiful way of describing/summarizing a very important idea, much better than what I managed either in the paper or in the philosophy of science course I'm coteaching with Michael Krausz (see here for a set of notes and links to previous ones). The idea, as we talked about it, is that one may aspire to Truth independent of/indifferent to "particularities" (the "view from nowhere"), or one may enjoy constructing out of particularities transcendences (commonalities which by so being becomes less individually or culturally specific) without any presumption that any given transcendence is even remotely the last word (each is no more, but also no less, than the "view from everywhere").

Katherine also very nicely raised the issue of a divorce between knowledge and morality ("science" and "conscience"). I'm very curious about the historical reality/basis for this (like Linda's idea that it had to do with relation of experimentation and the church, with a resulting need to preserve something of "certainty"), and hope we'll have more chance to pursue it (1600's, with englightenment as an effort to repair it?).

Thanks again to all for a rich conversation.

enlightenment continues...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-10 22:32:40
Link to this Comment: 5353

Paul's questions above about the historical basis for the divorce between "science and conscience" were broached earlier in Joe Disponzio's presentation in this series, in which he suggested that a series of late eighteeenth-century developments contributed to the change in paradigm, including the replacement of "a vision of an a-historical God" with "an understanding of change through time," and "a disconnect between man, nature and God, so that what impacted one domain was no longer seen as affecting the other"--which also "allowed the sciences to be concretized as new professional practices; terms like geo-logy and bio-logy emerged at this time."

hard to say....
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-04-11 12:25:55
Link to this Comment: 5354

A little something to make the hairs stand on end of a Friday. This was forwarded to the College from the alumnae listserv (contact person is not BMC).
Jan T

My name is Leah Wolchok and I work for a nonfiction TV
production company called Michael Hoff Productions. We're in the
process of casting an exciting new television pilot for the Discovery
Science Channel. The show is a high-energy debate that pits two
rival scientists in a head to head battle of ideas. This is hard science
with an edge, and shooting begins in late April.
We're looking for contestants who have at least a masters degree in
a hard science, and enjoy rapid-fire debate. We want people who
can defend extreme positions from opposite poles and love to argue
about science. We've gotten a lot of response from male scientists,
but we're looking for some women to balance out the show.
I would love your help in finding female scientists for the program.
Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Leah Wolchok, Associate Producer
Michael Hoff Productions
5900 Hollis Street Suite O
Emeryville, CA 94608
Direct Line: 510-597-2061<

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-04-17 13:24:23
Link to this Comment: 5435

Stimulating discussion, as by now anticipated/normal (interesting thing to get used to, no?). Thanks Melissa, et al. Some quick thoughts:

Wonder if ALL "disciplines" (science and "non-science") start with the descriptive (metonymic) and then move onto an effort to organize/make sense of (metaphoric) phase? Is certainly true of biology and anthropology, and probably earlier of physics. True of course of art history too. And the issue in that case is what the available metaphors are (temporal progression? maturation?) and whether the enterprise acquires normative character. Clearly in both anthropology and biology the "maturation" metaphor was used as an organzational principle, and had normative character.

The point of all this is that the flipping back and forth between metonymic (descriptive) and metaphorical (generalizing approaches) is healthy/desirable, as long as the loop persists and one doesn't invest the organizational metaphors with normative significance.

Along which lines, the "maturation" metaphor was never, is not now appropriate for thinking about biological evolution. Much of what came before still is, and so novelty is not "improvement" but rather ongoing exploration of possibilities, further creation of particularities out of which new metaphors can be continuously created.

Letting Go/Not
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-04-29 23:20:41
Link to this Comment: 5576

I've just finished writing up a summary of our last brown bag discussion of the semester: the session Michael Krausz led on "Interpretation and Its Objects." As I was trying to get into manageable form the rich array of puzzles Michael posed --and our group's struggling towards the solutions he requested--three thoughts came to mind, each one having been generated earlier by a different faculty working group.

Can Bryn Mawr choose to be a place of public purpo
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-05-31 14:13:14
Link to this Comment: 5740

In this week's (May 30, 2003) Chronicle of Higher Education there's an essay by Robert Zemsky asking "Have We Lost the 'Public' in Higher Education?" It reminded me of the brown bag discussions led by Ralph Kuncl on "The Balkanization of Science" and by Xenia Morin on "Academic vs. Industrial Life Sciences." Observing that "colleges and universities are seen principally as providing tickets to financial security and economic status," that the "purpose of a college degree is to confer advantages to individual students," Zemsky asks what is lost "when higher-education institutions are shaped almost exclusively by the wants of students seeking educational credentials, and businesses and government agencies seeking research outcomes. When the market interests totally dominate college and universities, their role as public agencies significantly diminishes--as does their capacity to provide venues for the testing of new ideas and agendas for public action. What is lost is the understanding that knowledge has other than instrumental purposes, that ideas are important whether or not they confer personal advantage." Quoting from Vannever Bush's 1945 report, "Science, The Endless Frontier" ("Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined stadnards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity") Zemsky observes that this description is "increasingly apropos of the modern academy as well--a place that has learned well to be market-smart, yet often at the expense of being mission-centered." My experiences on Admissions Committee this year, which have made me acutely aware of market forces, have also (re-) convinced me of the need for us to choose to continue to be a place of public purpose.

Collaborative Computer Work
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-07-26 12:01:09
Link to this Comment: 6186

Teaching in the Summer Institute on Exploration and Emergence, I was reminded of our earlier conversations about gender-specific (or not?) preferences for working individually or collaboratively. See collaborative computer work.

first meeting
Name: Ann
Date: 2003-09-08 11:23:12
Link to this Comment: 6372

Monday, September 8
Ted Wong (Biology): "Why Quantify; or, Why the World Is Not Enough"

first meeting
Name: Ann
Date: 2003-09-08 11:23:29
Link to this Comment: 6373

Monday, September 8
Ted Wong (Biology): "Why Quantify; or, Why the World Is Not Enough"

first meeting
Name: Ann
Date: 2003-09-08 11:24:30
Link to this Comment: 6374

Monday, September 8
Ted Wong (Biology): "Why Quantify; or, Why the World Is Not Enough"

logarithmic scales
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-09-11 15:39:32
Link to this Comment: 6441

Not to trivialize but thought we could use a laugh:

very quite likely not a log scale

first meeting thoughts
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-09-14 12:38:35
Link to this Comment: 6472

Many thanks to Ted, and other participants, for laying out some questions/issues that ought indeed to be the foundation for an intriguing and productive year's discussion.

I do think its going to be important, both conceptually and practically, to not treat measurement/quantification, mathematics, and science (among other things) as equivalent. They're not ... either in their historical origins or in their present significance.

A few important dissociations, for further discussion (see An initial exchange on the relation between science and mathematics for elaboration).

what should be and what is
Date: 2003-09-14 21:03:14
Link to this Comment: 6474

Here are several comments prompted by live and on-line discussion on quantification, in no particular order:

1) Re. Anne's summary:
a) discontinuous variables are measured by integers
b) different scales are just different scales... it is absurd to say they are more (less) real, or precise. Ted said that the log scale "felt" more real to him, but he couldn't explain what he meant (or I didn't get it)
c) as already pointed out, math is not the same as quantification. Einstein may not have used numbers when formulating his relativity theories, but he certainly used math. As to Darwin, I am not so sure... (afterall, his method as laid out in the Origin was stronlgy inductive; as Ted pointed out, there were all those measurements of finches beaks, not to speak of the equally famous barnacles, etc.) I suppose one can argue that he had the theory way before any measurements, and that they were only used to "prove" his theory, almost as a rhetorical device, but that is almost always the case with any theory.

2) Re. Paul's comments, I would like to see examples to illustrate his strong (and politically correct) "qualitative agenda". Besides quantification, what other tools does science use? What other "lots" of qualitative science is there? How do you define science? Yes, there are many other ways to understand, test and think about things other than using numbers, but I have trouble fiding a current science that dispenses with numbers or math. Quantification and mathematization have been intrinsic components of Western science since the 17th century, like it or not. It was how modern science and the modern scientific method came to be invented. And because a series of social, political, intellectual (and pragmatic!) factors have consistently fostered it, it is still with us, alive and well. It is far from perfect, of course, but it has proved rather efficient. Okay, all of this is arguable, and we can continue tomorrow, live.

3) Now, more confusion into the mix: it seems possible to do scientific experiments without numbers or math. Afterall, one can design an experiment to simply detect the presence or absence of somethig, such as the famous disproval of spontaneous generation by the 17th c. physician Francesco Redi:

I don't think Redi was thinking in numbers, but he was certainly following the precepts of the scientific method, with controls and so on. However, WE can certainly rationalize his experiments in quantitative terms (presence being "1", absence, "0", something totally natural for computer people). It is hard to find such a simple scientifc experiment today.


empirical analysis of literary works
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2003-09-15 19:35:36
Link to this Comment: 6483

Empirical Studies of the Arts: Journal of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. Abstracts are online (There is also a special issue on the Golden Section.)

D. K. Simonton, issues 1989b and 1990c, ran computer studies of all of Shakespeare's sonnets, analyzing primary process (love, sex, etc.) vs. secondary process (abstraction, reason) imagery; linguistic complexity ("type-token ratio," the number of different words divided by the total number of words, and unique words); and the unfolding of word usage during the course of the poem. He looked at the results against a ranking of the sonnets most frequently discussed, quoted or anthologized; these not only address central themes of human existence but do so with a rich lexicon that is constricted as associations are wrapped up in the last two lines (of course we already "know" that subjectively). Similar work has been done with drama and short stories. While Simonton admits that efforts like this are minute and preliminary, he argues that the results suggest computers can in fact detect some of the intrinsic attributions that govern aesthetic judgments.

Narrative and number
Name: Radcliffe
Date: 2003-09-17 09:23:50
Link to this Comment: 6506

I was sorry to have to leave Monday's discussion just as it was starting to warm up, but I have to lecture in Thomas at 1. I sent some of the questions I had wanted to ask and ideas I had wanted to pursue to Anne, who informed me of this discussion board and suggested we take up the questions there. So here are some musings, somewhat long and rambling, I fear...
I was particularly intrigued by your topic Monday, Anne, since the questions of why one would choose to tell a story and how one tells a better story are things I have been thinking about in relation to an old favorite topic of mine, the myths of Plato. Plato, who believes in number as the ultimate reality and cosmic order, chooses to tell a variety of narratives in his dialogues, and this has bothered people ever since his pupil Aristotle. At any rate, I am interested in the choice to avoid dry, yeastless factuality in favor of narrative.
I was interested in the games you were playing back and forth between number and narrative, not just Pi's choice to call himself by a numerical relation instead of a gerund (is that all that is required to make up narrative?), but also the whole problem of probability and uniqueness. A narrative is necessarily unique, in that it describes the actions of a certain actor in a certain situation at a certain time. A numerical description of probability, on the other hand, has no particularity - it applies only in general. However, something that is entirely unique, entirely outside of any predictable, generalizable pattern is meaningless, a random factoid. In the same way, a pattern that doesn't account for a particular fact is also useless, meaningless. So a narrative must have general applicability, serve as a model, have those 'parable-like correspondences', just as a statistical model must have predictive capability, be able to be applied to a new specific set of circumstances. Both may be in some sense synecdochal, but one moves from particularity to generality, the other from generality to particularity. But, then again, number is not limited to probability statistics and generalizing equations. Measurement indeed seems to be the application of number to the unique, to the particular case. So we are back to last week's discussion of the gap between theory and measurement, between the general pattern and the particular instance.
I was also somewhat perplexed by the question of how surprisingness and better stories are related. Is the story "better" from the perspective of the teller or the audience? I can see how a story with some room for play, for re-interpretation, for your gift of the odd remainder, might appeal more to a listener who wants to tell her own story, to reshape the story and the meaning on her own. However, insofar as the teller of the tale has a pattern, a model, an idea to communicate, the better tale is that which communicates most completely that pattern. So, when the scientists talk of the ways they look for patterns, they are making sense of the available data in the most complete and efficient way and trying to communicate that sense, that pattern to others. The best account is that which is best at 'domesticating disorder', at making sense of the phenomena. But we seemed to slide back and forth in the discussion between the appreciation of a story for its pattern or model and the appreciation of its open-endedness, its disruption of other patterns. When they say that something outside the expected leads them to formulate new patterns, new explanations, new stories, in what sense are they really like the reader of the novel who finds the novelties stimulating? This is not the case of something unusual within the best kind of story which generates new ideas and new stories; rather, it is in some sense the failure of the account that generates a new and better story. Or are these two things really the same after all? Is the failure of the account, the inaccuracy of its predictive model, what makes a story "better"?
This muddle brings me back to narrative and number and the choice between them. Is a numerical description better, in its precision, at communicating patterns and models, while a narrative account is better in that, in its complexity, it permits more loose ends, more play with conflicting patterns, more stimulus to generate new accounts? When and why should one choose one kind of better account over the other? Are there other features of narrative that can make it a better choice for an account over a numerical accounting?
So, such are the questions that have been bubbling about in my brain ever since I ducked out of the discussion. I fear they are somewhat muddled without the benefit of other people to question and critique, but I would be interested in your reactions. I'll talk with you anon.


against a firm foundation...??
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-09-17 18:39:27
Link to this Comment: 6517

SUCH a pleasure, for me, to find here this range of responses to our initial conversations about "what counts." Many thanks to Paula for her fine-tuning(along with the public acknowledgement that the archivist of this series is someone whose math education stopped with Algebra II, and is therefore stumbling her way towards learning the language of various forms of measurement: so ALL corrections--a.k.a. movements towards a "better story"--are gratefully welcomed). Most welcome, too, are the contributions of humanists to this account: Jan's calling our attention to the empirical analysis of literary works, and Rad's warm engagement w/ the wide range of questions we have begun to play w/ this semester.

Most striking to me is Rad's nudging the possibility that the "better" story is the one that MOST FAILS to account for whatever's being described--and thereby most prods us to fill in the gaps. I think I'd formulate that a little differently, by saying that ALL stories fail, that none can ever be complete. The best story, by my lights, is the one that prods us most to think beyond what we already know--which will happen sometimes by gesturing towards something we hadn't yet unrecognized, sometimes by sketching a known pattern that invites us to fill in more of it.

Fundamental here--and I didn't emphasize this in my talk, so want to now--is a refusal of foundationalism. Ken Richman just passed my way an excellent article by Goodwin Liu on the epistemology of service learning. Liu proposes replacing the quest for certainty, the search for a "firm foundation" (generated by Plato's notion of "cosmic order"?) with a more pragmatic acknowledgment that understanding will never be complete. We can create knowledge--arrive at points where, at least temporarily, there's no disagreement--but that point is always going to be open to reconsideration. For that communal process of knowing to work, we need community (the ability to trust one another), diversity (a willingness to always be incorporaing new, different perspectives), and engagement (a willingness to keep on talking....)

SO glad we can/are--

Numbers vs Narrative II
Name: Wilfred Fr
Date: 2003-09-19 11:12:45
Link to this Comment: 6537

I too regret having to leave Anne's narrative early and want to add to some of Rad's musings. The question of when to use numbers vs narrative has been eating at me since Ted's first discussion and left me thinking, 'why are numbers so inadequate for describing emotions, or for use in transporting us to destinations more typically arrived at through artistic forms/narratives?' I originally felt that certain phenomena were just too complex for the precision of numbers, but Rad makes a more precise point by making the distinction between general and particular and coupling it to the goals and points of view of the storyteller vs audience. From the audience's point of view the story numbers could tell of emotions would be simple, flat, narrow and incomplete although maybe of predictive use if we were to tell our colleagues every morning upon entering the workplace " I am a 666 today so watch out." I guess what I want to suggest is the use of number over narrative has to do with the goals, the point of view AND the complexity. Too much complexity and narrative allows for "juicy/yeasty" gaps to more completely account for a phenomenon, but has little predictive value. To little complexity and narrative is not precise enough and too sloppy to be of value for teller or audience. Thanks to all for helping me get this story a little "less wrong."

the relevancy spectrum
Name: Ann Dixon
Date: 2003-09-20 08:42:54
Link to this Comment: 6543

A comment about:

"but w/in bounds: still limits to how much irrelevancy we can tolerate"

A way to get to this is consider a text as written, and then consider alternative possibilities for the conclusion of the text! With novels and films, we critics often comment about the ending --
-- it was too neat and tidy, not like real life, or
-- it came from nowhere, it wasn't plausible, not like real life.

On the spectrum between "testing the validity of an assertion" (the first case) and randomness (the second case), you can place the conclusions of texts. Very interesting hypothesis that the historical norm for placement on the spectrum has moved closer to case 2 (Odysseus to Ulysses).

Implicit assumption for spectrum is that has to be credible, "like real life," is being compared to non-fictional (well, non-textual) experiences.


exploring the full range of the spectrum
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-09-20 10:58:07
Link to this Comment: 6546

I'm laughing w/ delight, overhearing Wil (among other things, a biologist) and Ann (among other things, a computer scientist), talking above about the various ways we all negotiate the spectrum of what is expressible: Wil's playing with the degree to which we can express emotions in numbers, while Ann's thinking about how the conclusions of narratives--while moving further from validly-testable, closer to random--still need to remain w/in the category of what is "life-like," what is "credible."

Others intrigued by this range of possibilities might find themselves enjoying as much as I did the current video installation in the basement gallery of Canaday Library (for which thanks to Mark Lord). Peter Rose's "The Geosophist's Tears" is an 8-minute video "loop" that (according to Inside Bryn Mawr 8/28/03 explores "the concept of geosophy, or deep knowledge of place," by using a "variety of visual algorithms to propose and discover surprising structural features of the uninhabited American landscape. The soundtrack employs a remarkable antique slide rule, dating from 1895, that produces a mournful and rhapsodic sound."

The video begins and ends with the image of the slide rule; inbetween there's a marvelously "fractured and phantasmagoric reworking of the horizon" that really does play with the full range of the spectrum which Wil and Ann trace out above.

Arlo's Random Walk....
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-09-22 15:26:13
Link to this Comment: 6570

The "random walk of counting anecdotes" which Arlo gave us today came much closer than he acknowledged to naming the current "pressing issues in academe" (and elsewhere). For which see a href="/forum/newforum/emergence03-read.html#6569

Counting wrong
Name: Radcliffe
Date: 2003-09-23 11:48:16
Link to this Comment: 6583

Once again I was sorry to have to leave before the fun was over. I don't know what I missed in the way of discussion, but I wanted to raise a couple of questions in response to one of the ideas that Arlo brought up yesterday. In discussing the base-10 number system, you said that counting from one to ten instead of zero to nine was "wrong". Likewise, you raised the issue of inclusive counting instead of subtractive. As I pointed out, the ancient Greeks always counted inclusively - the trieteric (third year) festival of Dionysos, for example, was held every other year. They also had no zero, which entered our scientific tradition along with Arabic numerals. I wanted to ask how these ways of counting were wrong - wrong in the sense that they create a false understanding of the evidence or introduce imprecision in any calculation? or are they wrong rather in the sense of Anne's better and worse stories, that is, they produce an account that is in some way less meaningful? Much, of course, has been made of the invention of zero in the history of science, but the Greek (and Babylonians, etc.) were able to do a fair amount of sophisticated geometry and trigonometry without it. Ptolemy's spherical trigonometry in his astronomical models is pretty intense, but he has no need of zeroes in his work. Or does he? If the wrongness of these ways of counting is indeed that they produce a false result, then the lack of a zero must be a fundamental flaw. On the other hand, if it is rather a question of better or worse stories, we have to raise the questions of better in what regard, better for what purpose, better for what audience. Can an account which is better for some ends be worse for others or an account which fails for some purposes nevertheless be meaningful and valuable in other respects? Looking from the other side of history, what do the modern scientists say?


Name: paula
Date: 2003-09-23 20:08:31
Link to this Comment: 6600

I think Rad put the finger on the right spot: better in what, what for, and for whom? These are the (interdependent) questions that are pertinent not only to evaluate narratives, but also to choose between qualitative and quantitative explanations. And this is why I am reluctant to subscribe to an exclusive qualitative agenda...

I'll save some other thoughts for my presentation.


better yet
Name: paula
Date: 2003-09-23 20:11:32
Link to this Comment: 6601

and of course I do not subscribe to an exclusive quantitative agenda either... just in case you're all trying to pigeon-hole me...


roller coasters
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-09-23 21:10:28
Link to this Comment: 6602

Great ... FINE. Paula ain't going to take THIS side, but she ain't going to take THAT one either. And li'l/old big/bad Paul is going to be left hanging out here as the rabid defender of qualitative science in opposition to quantitiative science, in clear/pathetic/stubbornly suicidal opposition to what every KNOWS is the right position (and suspects Paul would agree to himself to if he wasn't congenitally obstreperous and trying to get attention). So be it. I'm HAPPY to defend the significance, historical and ottherwise, of "qualitative" science. Its not only what I've done all my life, but also what I enjoy most intensely and am most impressed/moved by when others do it (and suspect most others also like best, whether they're comfortable admitting it in public or not). But, for the sake of the record, please note that I did NOT take the side of qualitative science in opposition to quantitative science. I asserted instead that " The modern tendency to EQUATE [emphasis added] "quantitification" with "scientific" is a misguided effort to achive a non-realizable objectivity/certainty", an effort that has all sorts of undesirable consequences. I concede the significance of and, as noted in citations earlier, even personally ENJOY "quantitative science". What I was and am resisting is the popular (and within much of the scientific community and, in consequence, broader community) dogma that quantitative science is the ONLY meaningful science. Move over, Paula. I was declining to valorize one or the other FIRST.

wine coasters
Name: Paula
Date: 2003-09-24 20:39:04
Link to this Comment: 6621

In June of 1722 the London Journal printed the following challenge :

I, Elizabeth Wilkinson, of Clarkenwell, having had some
words with Hannah Highfield and requiring satisfaction,
do invite her to meet me on the stage and box
with me for three quineas, each woman holding halfa-
crown in each hand, and the first woman that drops
her money to lose the battle.

[In William B. Boulton, The Amusements of Old London: Being a Survey of the Sports and Pastimes, Tea Gardens and arks, Playhouses and Other Diversions of the People of London from the 17th to the Beginning of the 19th Century (New York: Benjamin Blom. 1969 [first published in 1901], p. 29]

I propose an alternative to the boxing match: replace the word "science" with "explanation." As I suggested before, part of the problem may be definitional: what is science? What is qualitative science? What is quantitative science? If we label all knowledge pursuit as science, then I may agree with almost all what Paul wrote. However if, as I believe, the most common meaning of science is historically-dependent (stemming from methodologies developed in the 17th and 18th centuries), it becomes very difficult to find a current science that does not use math or quantification. That's how the sciences came to be, that's the way scientists continue to be trained.

We probably all agree that if we had to choose between a world without math or numbers, and one without stories, we would opt for the former. But again the question is not absolute value, but value what for, so we're better of keeping both meanings for Pi.


Name: Paula
Date: 2003-09-29 20:51:15
Link to this Comment: 6690

Rad's posting as well as a conversation with Paul led me to refresh my knowledge on the history of the zero, and I thought I might share the following:

1) The positional use of zero precedes both the symbol and the concept of zero as a number. The Babylonians sometimes carved wedges (1, 2 or 3) to signify a positional zero, such as 32''1 or 32'1 for the number 3201, but interestingly enough never at the end of a number. In the latter cases context allowed for the correct interpretation.

2) Even though most Greeks did not use a positional number system, it is interesting to notice that a few astronomers started to use a big circle as a placeholder. Merchants can often rely on context to distinguish between 3 and 30, and Greek math is mainly geometry, which explains why the zero was not so necessary.

3) Ptolemy (2nd c. AD) is in fact one of the few natural philosophers who uses the zero (or that big circle) as a placeholder.

4) In the 7th c., something interesting happens: the Indians do not use a symbol, but instead the word "kha" as a placeholder. "Kha" means zero, if I am not mistaken...

5) And meanwhile, unbeknownst to all, the Mayans are happy using the zero symbol both as a placeholder AND a number.

6) When the Arabs introduced the number system to the West, zero was still only a sign, not a number. It is only after 1600 that our zero gets established, and not without a fight, it seems. Afterall, the demise of Aristotelianism was only starting, and didn't Aristotle absolutely deny the vacuum? (And isn't nothingness an important concept in Hindu philosophy?)

And since my ignorance is already prompting me into wild speculations, it's time for me to go.


it's already done!
Name: paula
Date: 2003-10-09 16:09:34
Link to this Comment: 6866

Jan send me this fascinating news she found on the web, reporting on a theater play called "Rhythm Method." I must get the script. Here's a review, with fotos and all. (bummer, there goes my promising career!)

Rhythm Method


rhythm again
Name: paula
Date: 2003-10-09 16:19:59
Link to this Comment: 6867

Sorry, I must have made some mistake with the URL. Here it is again:

Rhythm Method

counting diversity
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-10-20 15:59:18
Link to this Comment: 6924

Rich conversation today. Thanks to all, organizers/regulars/visitors. More than productive on our "counting" theme but also directly relevant to another discussion, the one on Making Sense of Diversity. People might want to check in there and we'll make a link from the forum there to Anne's summary of today's conversation.

John Holt (see also Why School is Bad for Kids) may not have been the first person to point out the logical incoherence of trying to improve education so as to eliminate the bottom quartile (I'd guess that Marx recognized the same problem in some context or another), but I first ran into it in an older article of his.

The related article I referred to about the general cultural problem of valuing and hence devaluing is Culture as Disability by the educational anthropologists McDermott and Varenne.

For a sketch of the relevance of biology to social systems see Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective. See also a posting shortly after 11 September for some thoughts on the need in another context to move toward non-disabling cultures and some thoughts about how to get there. And One Man's Story of Learning Through Diversity for some concretes in the "under-represented" educational policy mode.

Its an important and serious challenge to try and conceive/create a new kind of culture. Glad to find us trending in that direction.

Marketing Science, Marketing Ourselves
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-10-24 07:41:32
Link to this Comment: 6986

This is a propos our conversations a few weeks (and a few semesters) back: an essay in Academe entitled "Marketing Science, Marketing Ourselves," which argues that today's scientists should think about pledging allegiance to traditional academic values, at a time when the quest for external funding is dominating academic science.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2003-10-27 19:21:55
Link to this Comment: 7018

I suspect everyone has their own concerns/reservations about USNWR rankings of colleges, and Elena did a nice job today of illustrating many of them in concrete terms. What I heard in her presentation though was a more focused and specific concern that I want to highlight (leaving entirely open the question of whether Elena herself would or would not want to do so, but with appreciation for her laying out things in a way that helped me to see it).

As noted many times during the semester's conversations, numbers are not infrequently used because they are available rather than because they actually represent something one cares about, and so both users and consumers may be fooled into attributing a degree of trustworthiness/reliability about something when it isn't actually there. But there are particular uses of numbers that, it seems to me, are not only misleading about how well one is measuring what one cares about but are, even worse, actually destructive of what one cares about. "Ranking", when used in educational/intellectual contexts, seems to me to fall squarely into that category.

As Elena effectively pointed out, "ranking" is a process of assigning numbers that can amplify meaningless differences in measurement into apparently highly meaningful ones. Conversely, ranking can disguise quite meaningful differences. Even more significantly, from my point of view, "ranking" cannot be done without the implicit assumptions that there is some single scale against which what one seeks to measure can be evaluated, and that it is the relative order along that scale that constitutes the desired evaluation.

These implicit assumptions may be appropriate/useful under some circumstances (picking invitees to the Rose Bowl perhaps?), but they are worse than inappropriate in evaluating educational/intellectual activities. Bryn Mawr is not in competition with Swarthmore or Barnard or Harvey Mudd (or at least should not be seeing itself, portraying itself, or allowing others to portray it as being in competition with these and other places). Bryn Mawr is a distinctive enterprise, with its own distinctive aspiration, strengths, and weaknesses. Its successes and failures need to be measured in terms of its distinctive characteristics, not in terms of its ranking in comparison to other institutions. What makes Bryn Mawr (and other educational/intellectual communities) worthwhile is precisely its difference from other "similar" communities, its creation of new values. This is an essential feature of educational/intellectual activity in general; when one forgets it one gets sterile homogeneity rather than the vibrant heterogeneity that is the mark (and essential grist) of healthy educational/intellectual enterprises.

This may sound platitudinous, and is unless/until one follows its implications in practice. So, let me follow it in some of those directions. My hat is off to Reed College for its refusal to provide information to USNWR (and all similar "ranking" information sources). Would such acting in opposition to cultural norms put us at risk? Of course. But is an obligation of ours as an academic/intellectual institution to act in opposition to social norms, particularly in cases where our own values are at stake. And putting ourselves at risk in that way is much more palatable (to me at least) than blowing in the wind to the point where one loses any sense of one's own values together with any ability to act effectively on them (see Is managed health care really a necessary evil for physicians? for a reminder of an instructive instance in a different realm; the history of television journalism is another case in point).

Moving in another direction, we need to be sure we have our own house in order. Several years ago, publications started to rank law schools, generating substantial protest from the law schools until it was pointed out that they of course aggressively rank their own applicants, to say nothing of indulging in a whole variety of curricular/academic practices involving ranking of students. We have a distinctive tradition of trying to be a community in which students (and faculty) are encouraged to aspire in their own right rather than in competition with each other for "rank", and hence are in a particularly appropriate position to take the lead in opposing the application of "ranking" to academic/intellectual communities. But we too have a whole variety of curricular/academic practices that fly in the face of our ideals. Do we, for example, reliably evaluate students in terms of their distinctive achievements ... or do we, however unconsciously, measure them against a single standard, reduce that to a "grade", and hence effectively "rank" them?

Perhaps its time for us to think a bit more deeply about our own values, be sure that we live up to them, and from that foundation try and help other institutions, and the broader culture of which we are all a part, to think more deliberately about the values they express in fact ... and whether those are the values they actually wish to live by.

another point of view
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-10-30 09:11:19
Link to this Comment: 7058

For another point of view, see this reflection about free exploration.

flux, long ago
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-03 21:53:50
Link to this Comment: 7098

Having just finished writing up the summary of Radcliffe's talk on "The Theology of Arithmetic," I find myself struck both by the sense of the long LONG history of our inclination to theologize/valorize numbers . . . as well as by the AS-LONG-a-history of our acknowledgement of life's change and flux. Replaying somewhat here a posting I put in the Emergence forum last March is a passage taken from

Ovid's Metamorphosis (1-8 A.C.E.):

...In all creation
Nothing endures, all is in endless flux....
Nothing retains its form; new shapes from old
Nature, the great inventor, ceaselessly
Contrives. In all creation, be assured,
There is no death--no death, but only change
And innovation....
...the earth and all therein, the sky
And all thereunder change and change again,
We too ourselves, who of this world are part,
Not only flesh and blood but pilgrim souls....

Surely prescient to/for (for instance)
Loren Eiseley, "The Star Thrower" (1978):

"We are rag dolls made out of many ages and skins, changelings who have slept in wood nests or hissed in the uncouth guise of waddling amphibians. We have played such roles for infinitely longer ages than we have been men. Our identity is a dream. We are process . . . . In modern terms, the dance of contingency, of the interdeminable, outwits us all. . . . Instability lies at the heart of the world . . . form is an illusion of the time dimension . . . the eternal struggle of the immediate species against its dissolution into something other . . . . The power to change is both creative and destructive--a sinister gift which, unrestricted, leads onward toward the formless and inchoate void of the possible. This force can only be counterbalanced by an equal impulse toward specificity. Form, once arisen, clings to its identity. Each species and each individual holds tenaciously to its present nature . . . . The evolutionists, piercing beneath the show of momentary stability, discovered, hidden in rudimentary organs, the discarded rubbish of the past. Man is himself, like the universe he inhabits, like the demoniacal stirrings of the ooze from which he sprang, a tale of desolations . . . . But out of such desolation emerges the awsome freedom to choose--to choose beyond the narrowly circumscribed circle that delimits the animal being. In that widening ring of human choice, chaos and order renew their symbolic struggle . . . .

Two years ago, Sharon Burgmayer, Andrea Friedman and I did a workshop on this topic: the delicate balance between stability and change, between safety and risk-taking, between security and novelty. Interesting to me, now, to add the centuries-long search for the perfect number(s) to that (im)balance.

the rhetorical efficacy of quantification
Name: Radcliffe
Date: 2003-11-17 15:53:05
Link to this Comment: 7292

Again, I was sorry to have to leave the discussion early, since it seemed that some fundamental issues were coming out on the table. It seemed the crucial issue that David was raising was the role that the science of economics has had in the battle over values. While modern advertising may differ in medium or saturation from such things in the past, it is nevertheless true that every society at every time and in every place has some modes/media for expressing and conveying the values of the people making those expressions. We complain about TV advertising, Plato complained about Homer and the poets, the Quakers complained about dancing art and literature have always been media for ideas, ideals, and value judgements; that's what makes them so interesting and appealing and dangerous. Every medium has its own ways of appealing narrative line, melody and movement, graphic imagery, or whatever. You can raise objections (and people have) to the legitimacy of any of these rhetorical modes of appeal. The particular issue that is relevant to the theme of the series, however, is the way quantification seems to bring an authority of its own, a rhetorical efficacy that trumps other modes of evaluation. Why is being able to make a chart of numbers so effective in convincing people of what they should be wanting or striving after? As I understood David, he was pointing up the problems in the authority granted to the economic models of market function and the like. Not only does it give priority to short term and easily observable factors rather than long term and subtle ones (as Paul pointed out), but it creates a contradiction with the fundamental assumptions of the models themselves, since the authority of the numerical analyses seems to convince people to change what they see as their desired ends. The problem with the authority granted to quantification in this case, then, is that it creates a mutually reinforcing system (otherwise known as a vicious circle) that limits the things seen as valuable to those things most easily observable and quantifiable. Such simplification of values is not necessarily an evil thing (think of how many family quarrels it might prevent), but, on the other hand, an easily quantifiable criterion like money amassed has disadvantages when used as the sole basis for making judgements about something so complex as human lives. As indeed history has shown, time and time again ...

complication, action, optimism
Name: Paula
Date: 2003-11-17 21:50:19
Link to this Comment: 7300

I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the vision of the world that seems to come out of these discussions. I don't think it is the only one possible, nor the most accurate or useful.

1) I don't see history as a declining path after some Fall. It is not the case that, as Paul suggested, science used to be a moral, disinterested endeavor, and is now by and large corrupt and dominated by scientists' financial interests. The 2 strands coexisted since the beginning of modern science (17th c.). Very early in the game, European governments were skilfull funding and rewarding research that fostered national interests. The idea of the scientist as an altruistic being isolated from social influences is in fact very much a product of German romanticism, who took as model that peculiar case of the Greek natural philosopher (whose highly privileged social status gave him lots of time, enough boredom, and slaves).
I think Paul's picture doesn't represent either what is/was, nor what ought to be. There is a priori nothing wrong with doing useful, or intellectually stimulating science for money. Hardly anybody thought less of Lavoisier, Edison, or Bell for that.

2) The idea that (and here I cite Rad) money or other quantifiable variables are the sole (or even the dominant) basis people use to make judgements doesn't strike me as correct either. If it were so, wouldn't it be much easier to predict behavior? It would make economists' lives much easier, if we could plug people's preference for financial profit above all else into a rational choice model. But people insist on behaving in less predictable, seemingly "unrational" ways. As the neurologist Antonio Damasio has convincingly shown, "irrational" factors are often what determine people's actions. Especially in the case of difficult choices, our brains often "follow" emotion, rather than a choice based on a reasoned analysis of alternatives. (Paul, correct me if I am wrong.)

3) I agree with David that the outcomes of the science of economics influence people's behavior, and thus precisely what that science is measuring. But is that much different from other social sciences? Sociology? Psychology? Or medical science? As David said, it goes beyond Heisenberg's uncertainty. Social outcomes are not only influenced by the METHODS used by social science, but also by its OUTCOMES.

4) The view of consumers as mere victims at the mercy of the media and publicity doesn't seem the only possible intrepretation of reality either. There are numerous examples of needs created not by the market, but by consumers. Think about medicalization of childbirth and birth control at the beginning of the 20th c., or the recent alternative medicine trend. Or patients' increasing demand of spirituality in medidine, which has already created a need for curriculum change in some med schools.
Not only do I think that the interaction between consumers and the media is a complex one, and actually goes both ways, but I also refuse the nihilistic view of people as puppets totally devoid of free will, and unable to influence social change.

Purity and Danger
Name: Elliott Sh
Date: 2003-11-18 12:01:54
Link to this Comment: 7307

I want to second Paula's contribution by asking that we all start to examine the assumptions that we bring to these discussions and thereby allow for the possibility of a more complex understanding of the issues involved. It is too easy to make statements about how things are now and how they once were when we were younger and then pronounce that things are worse. It drives historians bananas, as you heard from me at the talk and from Paula in the preceding posting.

One of the ways we might go about this could be to start thinking in less absolute terms. Less in terms of being certain, of looking for purity and warding off ideas that seem alien because perceived to be dangerous to our ways of seeing the world. More in terms of trying to understand a concept on its own terms, not in our own comfortable terms, so that notions like "scientists" or "advertisers" become ways of opening up the conversation and not codewords whose meanings are fixed.

ET phone home!
Name: Jan Ttremb
Date: 2003-11-18 14:03:56
Link to this Comment: 7311

In thinking of more examples of the way counting changes what it's counting, I'm still trying to puzzle out whether the idea of increasing cell phone use as "a good thing" (or "a bad thing," although this wasn't a nostalgia question -- I was interested in different cultural contexts for its usefulness) is affected by our awareness of it in a way that differs from advertising or marketing the service, and also whether it differs, in the sense of "moreness," from the increase of automobile use. It's striking me that the distinction is a specious one.

back to the questions
Name: Radcliffe
Date: 2003-11-18 21:29:53
Link to this Comment: 7320

I would agree with Paula that the idea that money and other easily quantifiable variables are the dominant basis for judgements is not really an accurate statement about the world. The world is in fact a far more messy and complicated place (and, as a classical historian, I would say it always has been). It is thus far more difficult to predict what people will do, much less figure out their precise individual motives (sometimes relatively pure, but usually humanly mixed). What I found most interesting about David's presentation, therefore, was the way he exposed the fundamental premises of economic science as dependent on just this kind of rational choice model, with individual irrationalism subsumed into the aggregate, and yet as subverting its own premise of the free market of ideas because of the prestige of quantifiable goals. I found the paradox delightfully troubling, not least because of its very applicability to other social sciences, as Paula very well points out. The idea of what constitutes a healthy mind or body is just as subject to the influence of people making use of authoritative forms of discourse as is the idea of what constitutes the good life. (It is, as Paula reminds us, important to keep in mind that people are making use of quantification or religion or whatever form of authority, just as people are choosing whether to accept or contest those claims to authority.)

What then interests me is the authoritative status of this particular mode of communication: quantification. I do not for a moment mean to suggest that it has no real no basis for authority, no usefulness for social ends, no peculiar properties that distinguish it from other ways of describing the world. But I also want to know its limitations, the ways in which it can be abused as well as used. I wanted to pursue David's idea that the quantification of economic well being is problematic because of contradictions within its own system of measurement. Is this true? To what extent does the influence of economic measurement corrupt its data set? How much worse is economic observation of human behavior at the aggregate level than the Heisenberg principle at the subatomic level? For if it does skew the data much more, that means that the authority granted to quantification in our society does indeed exceed its real basis, that it is used in circumstances in which its actual usefulness is questionable. What then happens when people choose to make decisions as though money or other easily quantifiable variables are the only legitimate criteria? All of which brings us back to the questions with which David ended: Who cares? and What can we (who presumably do care) do about it?

who cares
Name: Paula
Date: 2003-11-19 10:34:36
Link to this Comment: 7323

Who cares? And what can we do?
Well, it seems to me that everybody does care. Just listen to people talking at home (even while watching TV), or at the mall (even when spending their money). As to solutions, when the problems involve ethics, I always come back to the same one: provide information, alternatives, and ways for people to choose. In this case, the more the best. Of course the eternal problem is to balance this almost "laissez-faire" ethics with some kind of social regulation that restrains behavior we agree to consider unethical. Who decides what unethical is, how is consensus arrives at, how is it enforced, all these aren't easy to solve. But to put ourselves in the arrogant position that we, intellectuals, are the ones who know best, the only enlightened ones who recognize the problems, and should dictate the solutions, is repulsive to me.

against a guarded education
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-19 19:15:13
Link to this Comment: 7340

I was really struggling during David's talk; for some reason, I was having a lot of trouble getting "a- holt" of what he was trying to tell us. Having written up the summary (finding that my notes "knew" a lot more than I did) and having profited from the very thoughtful on-line discussion since (especially Rad's so-clear articulation of David's key point, that economics creates a contradiction w/ the fundamental assumptions of its models, actually "corrupts its own data set," by--in the very act of counting--changing what it purports to measure), I think I now understand and value highly what David was telling us.

But I'm still hung up on the starting presumption that each of us comes with "immutable desires," predetermined and fixed, and that the goal (of economics? education? life?) is to preserve them. I just learned from a piece on the college's history (by Eric Pumroy, in circulation now), that in 1915 M. Carey Thomas described Quakers as "afraid of the best education"; she also spoke very strongly then against "the fetish of a guarded education." I hear in that the back story to what Elliott says above: that we stop trying to "ward off ideas . . . perceived to be dangerous to our ways of seeing the world." I'm less interested in "preserving" and "guarding" my "immutable" self than engaging it in challenge, exploration and change . . . . therein lies, I think, the "best" education.

"positive"-feedback loop?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-23 13:00:20
Link to this Comment: 7373

A marvelous/awful (depending-on-your-point-of-view) example in today's (11/23/03) New York Times of what David Ross was tracing for us last week: the phenomenon of when counting changes what we are counting. A piece about the expanded scope of Zagat's guides observes that

"the Zagats have quantified public opinion in a more influential way than perhaps anybody outside politics over the last two decades....Mr. Zagat said, 'What we're trying to do is organize and accumulate the word of mouth'....the guides are yet another way that public opinion, once it has been measured and disseminated, is now doubling back to influence the public itself. Whether it is's book-sales ranking, Google's search engine or the weekly list of Hollywood's box-office performance, popularity has increasingly become a positive-feedback loop."

The "what counts?" series continues to ask whether the effects of such a positive-feedback loop are positive or not....

relation between narrative and numbers, redux
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-26 10:09:16
Link to this Comment: 7399

Writing up my notes from the great conversation we had this week with Michelle Mancini about the relation between sentiment and statistics, I found myself reflecting on her notion that, for the Victorians, the "non-quantitative had little significance without the quantitative; they knew that responses to suffering were aroused by individual cases, which functioned as indices to collective measures." This reminded me strongly of something Michael Tratner wrote, in response to my own earlier talk in this series about the relation between narrative and numbers (a comment more recently put into play in the emergent systems working group):

"the outlier, in literary history, that matters is the one that somehow generates a whole series of object similar to itself....a test that stands as simply 'different' from all the others around it (in a period, in a genre...) is not very important unless it somehow provides a pattern for repeated variants....for a surprising text to be readable to many different minds, it must have some regularity, and for it to generate the desire to be read by many persons, it has to provide something 'unusual' that is at the same time repeatable...for a text to be both surprising and regular/original and influential it has to interact not only with the norms for texts, but with the questions being debated about texts at that moment: the surprise that is also regular or predictive...."

My happily-going-into-Thanksgiving-thought is that the "versus" explicit in Michelle's title, like the one implicit in my own, need not be an opposition at all, actually traces a much more positive and generative feedback loop between two ways of figuring the world. That's "what counts"--the ability to keep working the tension between these two poles.

Rationality and Freedom
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-11-30 22:03:20
Link to this Comment: 7409

In the Dec. 4, 2003 New York Review of Books is an account of a new text by Amartya Sen, Rationality and Freedom, which forms an acute extension of David Ross's talk on how Counting Changes What We Count:

"as health care improves and people become aware of the contrast between the possibility of good health and the actuality of minor illness, they notice what they would have ignored if there had been no progress. The implication is that objective measures of well-being--longer life expectancy--may not match subjective measures--feeling well. It is an understatement to say that this complicates evaluation of standards of living across time and in different societies."

Sen (who won a Nobel Prize in 1998 for his work as an economist) seems to explore in this new book an aspect of political philosophy that richly informs and extends many of the conversations we have had this semester about "What Counts?" Like Paula, he questions the narrow notion of "rational choice theory"; even more interestingly and expansively, he attends to the question of social choice: "Is there a rationally defensible way of getting from the preferences of individuals to what a whole society should choose?" Working hard against Kenneth Arrow's 1950 "General Possibility Theorem"(which showed that there is no rule for combining individual preferences into a social choice that does not generate paradoxes), Sen goes beyond judging social outcomes by their legitimacy (that is, whether everyone's rights have been respected) to look @ matters of goodness (whether society as a whole is doing well); he's actually willing to think comparatively about well-being (by focusing not on "commodities" but rather on "capabilities," or what he calls "functionings": our abilities to accomplish our aims).

This review ends with the observation that what liberals need--and what all of Sen's good work has not yet provided-- is "a coherent and principled account of which [individual] preferences can and cannot be counted" for the purposes of collective choice. Such an account might expand the current debate in the Graduate Idea Forum about "unconscious coin-flipping" as a form of choice-making. It might assist, as well, in the current discussion among Bryn Mawr department chairs regarding ways in which departmental preferences may best be negotiated in the larger context of college- (nation?- world-?) wide interests.

Rationality and Freedom
Date: 2003-12-01 16:45:49
Link to this Comment: 7419

Sen is a world treasure. I don't know whether it says more about Anne's optimism or the pessimism of my discipline, but Arrow's result is the "General Impossibility Theorem."

Rationality and Freedom
Name: David Ross
Date: 2003-12-01 16:46:19
Link to this Comment: 7420

Sen is a world treasure. I don't know whether it says more about Anne's optimism or the pessimism of my discipline, but Arrow's result is the "General Impossibility Theorem."

shrouded in darkness: possibility w/in impossibili
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-12-03 10:20:02
Link to this Comment: 7438

I AM an optimist, David--but the source of the mis-citation is actually my (slightly slippery) reference to The New York Review of Books (12/4/50):

"In 1950, Arrow, a graduate student at the time, published his 'impossibility theorem'--its formal title was the more optimistic-sounding 'General Impossiblity Theorem.'"

Nestled w/in impossibility is...
For which see also pruning "rules"?--and the (now HUGE) back story of Emergent Systems.

While I'm I summarized the discussion we had earlier this week w/ Jan Trembley about Defining "Success'" (in life after Bryn Mawr), I was reminded of one of the key texts of my life, Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, which worries repeatedly the linked queries of where the "procession of educated men" is leading us, whether we want to join it, and on what terms. Woolf proposes an alternative, the creation of a "Society of Outsiders," which seemed one version (is it the one we want to sign on to?) of the myth of Bryn Mawr as the educational home for individualists, which was mentioned several times during our conversation with Jan:

"The Society of Outsiders has the same ends as your society--freedom, equality, peace; but seeks to achieve them by the means that a different sex, a different tradition, a different education, and the different values which result from those differences have placed within our reach....they will dispense with the dictated, regimented, official pageantry...they will dispense with personal distinctions--medals, ribbons, badges, hoods, gowns--because of the obvious effect of such distinctions to constrict, to stereotype and to destroy...the limelight paralyses the free action of the human faculties and inhibits the human power to change and create new wholes much as a strong headlamp paralyses the little creatures who run out of the darkness into its beams....ease and freedom, the power to change and the power to grow, can only be preserved by obscurity; and...if we wish to help the human mind to create, and to prevent it from scoring the same rut repeatedly, we must do what we can to shroud it in darkness."

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-12-06 10:20:24
Link to this Comment: 7474

I'm not sure why Paul suggested we look @ "Why Americans Keep Spending" for the last Brown Bag discussion of "What Counts?"...

but, looking at it this morning, I did have a sudden awareness that--for all the richness of this series, for all its productive back-and-forthing between the theoretical and the practical, the historical and the present-day, the international and the local, the national and the BMC variants of answers to this question--we have neglected one major realm of exploration: that of "what counts" in matters psychological. "What counts" on the inside? I've been reading Mark Edmundson's Towards Reading Freud: Self-Creation in Milton, Wordsworth, Emerson and Sigmund Freud (Princeton U P, 1990), which frames this query in precisely the terms we've been using in this series:

When Freud formulated his economic theory of the drives, he posited that we each have a finite and more or less constant quantity of libido, or psychic energy, at our disposal. This quantity we invest establish and ensure our own egos. With what remains after this initial commitment of psychic funds, we may invest in "objects" in the world....The narcissistic ego's situation reminds us...of a national economy in which the governing powers are compelled to invest and reinvest their capital surpluses, often at some risk, to preserve the system from destructive inertia. The center of individual governance, the ego, seeks for...moderately safe and reliable investment opportunities for its reserves of disposable libido. Even in the best of markets, this is a high-risk activity....some of us...repeatedly select a knd of object that consumes our surplus, then draws on the reserves at a frantic rate, or another kind that suddenly declares that it is bankrupt of our funds, or that it never requested or received them. In time we may take our portfolio of libidinal disasters to an analyst or investment counselor, most of whom are rigorous supply-siders. The analyst's task will be to bring our investment into life with our true goals and interests, allowing us to break even, or perhaps in time to operate at a profit. "The therapy of all Freud," Philip Rieff says, "is not to attach oneself exclusively or too passionately to any one particular meaning, or object." For Freud, romantic love is wild is the only salvation....

Edmundson's book is a critique of this representation of the psyche as a trope of loss and profit, one in which the "calculated life" involves a governance of quantity in order to arrive at some state of equilibrium; he's invested in a contrary "romantic" reading of Freud which is not afraid of "wasting" and "inefficiency" in the psychic life, which does not guard itself against whatever attachments might inhibit one's vitality. As I read through his resistence to what Auden called "lucrative patterns of frustration," as I listened to him refuse Frost's claim that "strongly spent is synonymous with kept," I thought again of our discussion, earlier this week, about "Measuring Success" After Bryn Mawr: how much calculation goes into making our psychic lives more "measured," our work lives more "lucrative"? How much of our thinking about how we live our lives is measured on a calculus of scarcity?

"Trusting in the irrational isn't for sissies"
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-12-09 06:37:05
Link to this Comment: 7487

Paul's talk about the need for a qualitative science, to complement the quantitative science we valorize, finds its exact complement in an article in the 11/28/03 Chronicle of Higher Education, Lennard Davis's "Scholarly Appreciation of Irrational Inspiration":

"every rational work of scholarship is based on fairly irrational moments of Einstein once said, 'Imagination is more important than knowlege'....the German chemist F.A. Kekule...went to sleep after trying to sort out the chemical diagram for the benzene molecule...he dreamed of a snake that whirled into a circle and then bit its own tail. In the morning, Kekule suddenly realized that the molecule for benzene had to be arranged in a ring. The future of organic chemistry took off from that intuitive leap...

how do we choose our subjects if not from the deep well of our unconscious?...the most meaningful scholarly work usually comes from the deep, flowing well of one's own obsessions and interests...Freud wasn't so far off in describing how we sublimate our darker impulses and brighten them up with the spick-and-span of scholarly organization...It is sad that creative writers learn to find their voices while academics learn to lose them...

it's probably emotions rather than ideas that lead to intellectual insight...relax enough to allow the subconscious to do its part....The rise of the irrational into consciousness can't be rushed...Scholarly creativity involves tolerating the pain of uncertainty or lack of resolution...the ability to wait, to let one's conscious ideas percolate in the bubbling unconscious until the moment of imaginative synthesis, is tough...Trusting in the irrational isn't for sissies...

Derrida's point is that every work has at its center a black hole...a kind of vortext of illogic and dissolution pulling the work apart. The writer attempts to combat the deconstructive force by creating the illusion that everything pulls together into a seamless, uncontradictory, whole argument ....Allowing for creativity involves having the patience to wait until the ideas coalesce into a right relationship, and then taking a mental photograph of the configuration at that moment. There is a Zen to this--because the ideas will continue to shift into new patterns...."

Fiction and the cult of information
Name: Ted Wong
Date: 2004-01-29 15:29:43
Link to this Comment: 7821

Some links to blog posts about the NYTRB's shift away from fiction:

local application
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-02-07 10:16:00
Link to this Comment: 8005

I've got a very local application that (I hope) may be illuminated by our two-weeks'-old theorizing about what distinguishes information from knowledge, meaning and noise. Should I continue to send out mass e-mailings announcing each week's brown bag? Is doing so an irritation that turns lots of people off? Noise that most of the college community filters (deletes) w/out thinking? Or information that each of you wants to have and can make use of--or @ least wants to have available for making use of as needed?
Thanks for thinking aloud w/ me here about this query; it would be useful to have your feedback.

Weekly reminders
Name: Doug Blank
Date: 2004-02-08 15:05:17
Link to this Comment: 8030

I would appreciate weekly announcements/reminders. Of course, you could make a mailing list so that only those people that want them would get them. Then, by definition, it is not noise!

In Searching We Trust
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-03-14 22:19:09
Link to this Comment: 8740

Today's (3/14/04) New York Times has a piece about googling that speaks directly to our recent conversations about the ways in which the internet accentuates the need for each of us to take personal responsibility for what we want to know: "with Google, everything is knowable now....We were much more passive about information in the past. We would go to the library or the phone book, and if it wasn't there, we didn't worry about it. Now...we can't pretend to be ignorant. But the flood of unedited information...demands that users sharpen critical thinking skills, to filter the results. Google forces us to ask, What do we really want to know?"

While I'm here, I also want to take note of a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week (3/12/04), featuring "A Contrarian Approach to Technology Transfer," called Second Generation, or 2G. The article harkens back to conversations about the marketability of intellectual property in an era of technology transfer, begun in this space by Ralph Kuncl and continued through last fall's What Counts? series.

The Chronicle focuses on the work on Gerald Barnett, a Ph.D. in medieval lit who directs the Office for Management of Intellectual Property @ Santa Cruz, and thinks about intellectual property as a "teaching device," rather than as a legal means for excluding use: "the traditional model, built around restricting rights with licenses and patents, is probably inappropriate for higher education. A promise not to sue is not aligned with academic values, says Mr. Barnett, whose solution is to build an environment for innovation that's more consistent with academic goals....To make this only a money relationship [he says] seems like such a shabby lack of imagination."

doing the right thing
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-03-26 12:38:47
Link to this Comment: 9013

I've just finished writing up a short summary of Nancy Collins' presentation on "what matters in public relations." I was particularly struck by her "punch line," the final claim of the session that what matters (I'm inverting her list, for my purposes) is

I said, as our session ended, that Nancy couldn't have all 3 of those on the same "page," in the same breadth, and I guess I want to think aloud here (and/or invite others to) whether that really is possible. I would like to believe what Nancy says, that "the relationship piece--honest, two-way communication--is the heart of PR." And yet I'm not convinced that we have (or that we can have?) the sort of relationship w/ our various "publics" (alums, prospective and current students, their parents, etc.) in which the conversation is really two-directional, in which we are open to revising who we are in response to what they say; in which they are open to revising who they are, in response to what we say. What is the relationship between "healthy relationships" (including, I hope, a healthy respect for difference), "bringing about desired change" (does that allow others to be differ, to differ, NOT to change in response to us?), "telling the truth" (who gets to say what's true? in what context?) and "doing the right thing" (ditto)?

In asking these questions, I'm reminded of a conversation held, months ago, in the Diversity Series, about the distinction between (intellectual) risk-taking and harm reduction, and whether these two ideas/ideals are inversely related to one another. How much does our need to be well regarded among our various publics limit our willingness to risk saying...

what needs saying, to make the world "better" (more equitable, more cognizant of the value of diversity), more aligned w/ what we value?

"afraid to admit they can't make everything perfec
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-03-28 20:54:16
Link to this Comment: 9040

Our discussion w/ Nancy Collins last Thursday tested the noise theory (that "all publicity is good publicity") in a variety of venues. We spent a good portion of our time comparing those politicians who were willing to apologize for their mistakes (JFK after the Bay of Pigs: "Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. I'm the responsible officer of the government") w/ those (more recent ones) who are not. So I was particularly amused/interested to see the article in today's (3/28/04) New York Times entitled, "Where Does the Buck Stop? Not Here." It says that, given the way the "blame game" is now played, a politician's taking responsibility--whether or not he expresses regret--always has a salutary effect.

But most striking to me was the article's final line: "In the culture of today's politics, presidents may well be afraid to admit they can't make everything perfect." Maybe HERE'S the core of the problem; see again our discussion, from last fall, of The Theology of Arithmetic, in which Radcliffe Edmunds traced our by-now-centuries-old attempt to believe (and make) the "perfect real."

Seems like, in politics as elsewhere, we're still haunted by, and continue to pay for, those Platonic forms.

"Diversity's False Solace"
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-04-21 23:41:56
Link to this Comment: 9532

I want to pick up here on a comment Paul made during Jenny Rickard's brown bag presentation last week. When Jenny pointed out to us that Bryn Mawr is a leader in the area of socio-economic diversity, Paul reminded us that we lead only among private colleges; public universities do a much better job at admitting economically diverse classes.

This conversation arose for me again when--catching up on old New York Times Magazines, I came across an article by Walter Benn Michaels, "Diversity's False Solace" (4/11/04). Benn Michaels (quite favorably) compares the ethnic diversity at his public university, the University of Illinois, Chicago, with Harvard's, and although the article is curiously (suspiciously?) constructed--w/ lots of statistics regarding the make-up of Harvard's students, and none from UIC--he makes a couple of claims that I found worth our reflection:

"Race-based affirmative a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality....we like affirmative action...because it tells us that racism is the problem we need to solve...[which] just requires us to give up our prejudices, whereas solving the problem of economic inequlaity might require us to give up our money....when activists struggle for cultural diversity, they are in large part battling over what skin color the rich kids should have. a rich people's solution. For as long as we're committed to thinking of difference as something that should be respected, we don't have to worry about it as something that should be eliminated."

Name: M. Robinso
Date: 2005-04-27 16:57:16
Link to this Comment: 14904

Does science need the "foundational" concept of a world "out there"?
I imagine everyone knows that our "pictures" of the world are to some extent always abstractions, reductions, "theoretical". That would seem to be a given, and the work of science a matter of modifying those pictures based upon experiment and observation. Something is certainly controlling that process, which might be called the development of knowledge, or science would be impossible. It seems that much of our intellectual life must consist of such interaction between our mutable conceptual schemes and some aspect of the world "out there", whether what's there is the subject matter of physics or biology or literary studies. So what could it mean to do without that
"foundational" concept? Would it mean that anything we think up could qualify as knowledge? Of course not, but don't we have to be very careful about heading in that direction, taking the incremental steps that attenuate the connection between thought and world? We may not wind up in a state of clinical dissociation, but we just might become arrogant theorists immune to the correction of what used to be called reality. Attention, I have been led to believe, is a precondition for love. I would think that attention to the world - which would include other people - would in fact have to proceed on the "foundational" premise, ever alert to the need for change given new evidence. If the point is that the search for evidence is itself determined by assumptions, that of course is also a given. Let's hope for good will in the search, and let's also hope that the methods and techniques of science and of all the academic disciplines will continue with some independence their work of developing knowledge that actually has some relationship with a world beyond or thoughts.

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