Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Fodorgraph Redux


In this post we bring you a brief addendum to our interview with JFo.

After we ended out chat about linguistics, the conversation took a turn for the political. Since we enjoyed the outcome quite a bit, we've decided to make a habit of asking all our interviewees about their beliefs regarding the politics of science doing.

If the value of this topic isn't self-evident to you, consider the following:
  • science is done by people
  • science is done by people working within massive institutions 
  • massive institutions are closely networked (read: funded) with states & industries
  • (therefore) the structure of these institutions is going to reflect the interests of the states & industries in which they are embedded, at least in part 
This way of organizing our science world not only has the consequence of shaping the values of our universities, but it also has the consequence of narrowing down which individuals get to participate by filtering out those persons that don't share those values. 

Of course, the political economy of the university system is not solely determined by institutional pressures from outside; for all sorts of historical and economic reasons it is still the case that a significant part of the House of Higher Education is run by those that work in it. 

The practical outcomes of this arrangement (for science) aren't unambiguously negative. For instance, our state system still reflects (some shred of) a commitment to the public welfare. Thus our universities produce scholars that are often civic minded. One could easily imagine (and in a number of cases witness) an arrangement in which universities are places where scholars are totally divorced from a concern about the popular applications of their work. (Needless to say, what it means to be civic minded is hotly contested; see Noam's Liberal Scholarship and Objectivity for an in-depth discussion of the topic...sort of). 

On the other hand, this arrangement often leads to attenuating the deep questions into superficial engineering questions. Typically, this happens under the pressure of industry for new sources of profit. For those of us interested in brain-y things, the more egregious case of this is probably the study of artificial intelligence. That is, at some point in its development as a field, A.I. went from being concerned with understanding organic intelligence by studying the nature of computational, representational theories of mind to being concerned with building better ipods. If you'd like to hear someone with more clout on the topic say this, check out this (fairly) recent symposium on artificial intelligence held at MIT which included the fields founding figures. Specifically, check out what Patrick H. Winston has to say (time index 1:39:00)   

More specifically for linguistics, the era of the corporate university has had some dubious affects on linguistics. For example, the field has been inundated with quantitative studies wherein the motive for descriptive analysis of language overrides any interest in the big questions: such as what the hell is it that we're studying? what is language? (see here for a more personal account of this sort of change by Sascha Felix). 

As JFo says in the interview: the corollary to the desire for short-term profit in industry is the desire for discoveries at the 0.05 significance levels in the academy. In other words, the political climate inclines people to take less risks. (You can find Sydney Brenner saying something analogous in this recent interview).

Maybe where this whole big-picture discussion meets the everyday life of the researcher is at the laboratory. It is now common to hear that a researcher or research institute will spend half of their time on writing grant proposals. It is equally common to hear serious grumblings about the peer-review system, and the publish-or-perish era as a whole. In sum, there seems to be a general crapification of academic life that has measurable consequences. 

Homework Question: what happens when you build an enormous infastructure that is dependent on state and industry funding and then you take away the state?

  1. Apologies for some glitches in the recording. Stand by for new recording equipment.
  2. Tune in two weeks from today to hear our interview with C. Randy Gallistel.   

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