Two parables: The Frustrated Scientist (I)

Lately I heard of two stories, one is a testimony of a career scientist, and another is a narrative from pop culture of the last decade. I thought re-telling these accounts as parables might make more sense of what I try to do in this blog. For most of the posts of this decade I have focussed on (inter alia) two issues: one is on the nature and scope of scientific method, explored through a largely Kantian lense, and the other concerns the potential for promoting dissident or critical thought through the media of art.

I refer to these stories as parables, for want of a better term. A parable usually has a moral to the story. However I feel that these are parables in which I cannot determine what the moral is, or perhaps the moral of these stories are open ended. I thought these parables would be an accessible introduction to the way in which I frame my reading of Adorno and Kant, and illuminate through a concrete pair of examples why these seemingly abstract and textual issues are of interest to me.

The frustrated scientist

Let me tell you a story about a Frustrated Scientist. FS Is in her late 20s, just out of grad school after finishing her doctoral thesis in the UK and within weeks of her viva examination has begun a postdoc placement at a university in Northern America. FS is working in Canada because of an unstable and competitive scientific and academic jobs market, domestically and internationally. FS was taught in her PhD training that specialisation would be key to her employability and marketability in the research jobs market. Some of FS’s friends have left academia altogether due to the instability of the postdocs market, the obscurity and lack of applicability of their area of specialism (AOS) and the general lack of opportunity and career progress in science and academia at large.

Within days of beginning work in Canada, FS has found problems from the get-go. The datasets that she has to work on relating to her postdoc AOS project have numerous methodological problems; she is given a task to process the data and report findings for an upcoming joint paper, but reports explicitly to her colleagues (project partners and project leader) that the data is basically unanalysable and unusable for a variety of technical reasons. The colleague (lets call him ‘Other Postdoc’) who was responsible for the experiment and collation of the raw data maintains that their work was coherent and done well, and takes the point that FS has made personally and as an affront to him. Project leader listens to these objections but has no input or contribution to these specific issues, but stresses that the research group must have results about the data written down for the upcoming joint paper and it is FS’s responsibility.

FS is in an impossible situation. FS cannot do much due to funding issues about repeating the experiment, FS thinks that the data shows that the experiment is unrepeatable and poorly operationalised for any worthwhile and publishable data to come out. FS is forced to make some stretched out conclusions based on the data, and not publish the raw data it is based on in the paper. The paper is published and forms part of a career portfolio of papers that FS will need to list on her dossier that future institutions will look at when she applies for future jobs. FS is worried about the jobs market, her employability and making a place in an industry that is fraught with personal politics and methodological nightmares. On top of this FS has pressures from funders and her project lead, who are in a distinct power relationship of dominion over her and her career, and pointing out flaws in their research is not in the spirit of having a reputable output of ‘high impact research’.

Moral of the story

So here comes the ‘parable’ bit. What does FS’s story tell us about the role of scientific method or scientific norms in actual scientific practice. With all the discussion I’ve had in previous years about the role of things like parsimony, systematicity, mathematicisation or other such abstract normative items, where is the method in actual science? The obvious conclusion might be that there is no place for this kind of high minded idealist talk of scientific method and scientific values, or even of scientific knowledge, when we are faced with concrete social circumstances where scientific research is much like any other part of the professional industrial world: it’s about hitting targets, reaching audiences and maximising profitability and brand presence. Where is the method? Where is the committment to truth and clarity? I’ll just leave these as open questions.

In my next post I will consider my second parable, of the Comedian.

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