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.

The antiomies of the foundations

There is a distinct contradiction, and yet, agreement, in the following two propositions:

P1. Mathematics cannot be shown to be complete
P2. We cannot but conceive of Mathematics, properly construed, as ideally composed of a set of axioms such that all and any system of mathematics can be reduced to a common simple system, or set of axioms such that shows a common genus to all mathematics.

This view, I maintain, is a Kantian view of mathematics. Kant’s constraints upon the proper conduct of science is that there ultimately originates a primary concept, but, that this concept is knowable or discoverable, or even actual, is not relevant, nor should we be too concerned if we never find it.

For science to be proper, Kant says, it must fit an ideal of knowledge, but such an ideal is projected (this entails the ideality of natural kinds) and not real. Such an ideal also seems to suggest that we use a bit of elipsis in our explanations and descriptions of science. A Kantian view of science also would set as a desideratum that there were a formalisability/mathematicisation constraint on anything if it is to be proper science at all.

The ideal is a projection, and is an “as if it were real” constraint (that is the ellipsis to which I speak of). Because it is a projection, our kinds and entities and laws within the scientific frame work not only can be subject to change, but desirably so, are they changeable, for scientific theories could always change, and are not rigidly set.

Rigidity is still present in the Kantian conception of science, however, in the desideratum of the constructability of formal langauges upon which we describe our phenomena. Consider the difference between ‘Water’ (h20) and water (that stuff we drink). Most, if not all the water we come across is not ‘water’, perhaps in some ways, ‘water’ does not exist, HOWEVER. Water necessarily presupposes ‘water’, in virtue of its ideality. For what makes water1 the same as water2 other than h20? Nothing.

H20 is criterial of water, but in a way, its pure form is never to be found in water, only ‘water’, which projects onto all thigns called water, makes sense of our empirical concept in such a way to be science. But, because ‘water’ is a priori regulatively ideal, it is also subject to change. The contradiction is, then, how is water necessarily h20, yet only indexical to our scientific understanding?

The answer to this lies in the conception of necessity. Necessity here, is defined as a criterial relation. Therefore, to say that “2 is a number” is necessarily true is to state a criteria. Necessity is criteria. But then, is not necessity similar to possibility? For criteria presupposes the conditions, and conditions is construed in the Kantian system as possibility. It would seem then that necessity can only take place as a concept where possibility is first defined, such that in a sense, necessity is only possible if, possibility allows, and this is necessarily so.

Destre (and Michael)