The borderlands of amateurism

The notion of the amateur was once a term of endearment for many endeavours, however with the professionalisation of many disciplines such as physics, mathematics and so forth; the amateur is now indistinguishable from the quack. The quack is described in Michael Shermer’s ‘The Borderlands of Science’ and has certain criterial features such as their perceived ‘rejection’ from the intellectual mainstream and a bohemian complex.

Many people appeal to the fact that many of the worlds greatest figures were ‘amateurs’ in their field. This however, is anachronistic a reading at times. Socrates, or Plato did not have any philosophy credentials in the sense of a doctorate, because there were no such academic standards. It is anachronistic to impute our modern standards to them; likewise, it is also ignorant to thing that mutatis mutandis, today’s standards of excellence do not apply.

I’d like to consider some other cases: the foundational figures of social sciences had very little social science credentials. By modern standards this can easily be shown by the lack of rigour in early social research. Of course, some time has passed to give us the wisdom of epistemic rigour in social sciences. It is also the case that we may have more to learn in terms of methodologies in the social sciences (consider the case of feminist insights on methodology). So, we find that figures such as Comte, Durkheim or Marx. These figures had intellectual backgrounds in the sciences that were pre-existing in their time, so they were necessarily ‘amateur’.

Another factor in an anachronistic misreading of the amateur is to consider the techno-socio-economic conditions. In the age before the university institution, or a separation of church and civil society; Islam and Christianity had a serious impact on mainstream (European) intellectual culture. Thus figures such as William of Ockham or Aquinas worked within the locus of the church and the fruit of the Islamic translation movement.

Not only was scholarship and the construction of theories important, but also the preservation and dissemination of texts. This involved the skill of translation and copying. In modern day academia, we have the system of journals; most of which can be accessed by the internet. Almost all papers these days are also digitally encoded so we have little utility for the copyist. If anything, it is easier for the amateur to ‘thrive’ in an environment of greater open access to learning materials. It is for this reason that I support the open access movement for journals and public domain texts and things such as the gutenberg project, wikipedia, librivox and the open university.

Perhaps there is a sense in which some barriers are established to the amateur. Some sciences, for instance, have become so complex that the tools for experimental analysis have become too expensive or developmentally young to become publically accessible. But there are computational programmes and other avenues for the amateur to work. With the onset of more computational methods in experimental studies, we can contribute our computer time towards processing very powerful computer tasks such as protein mapping; identification of galaxy types or interpreting complex images.

In the computer sciences there is room for amateurism. A ‘professional’ in the computer world used to be someone who had a PhD in logic; then it became someone with a doctorate in mathematics; then maybe you could say it was a computer scientist. However, there is a social division between people who work as programmers without formal qualifications such as mathematics or computer science degrees (I have a friend who is a fairly proficient programmer and is an ex-vet student who just became obsessed with linux); and those who write papers about certain code and assess the situation in a professionalised way. The scope for amateurism is quite like the borderlands of science insofar as new innovations that eventually become the mainstream are formed in that border.


A sociology of philosophy

Around many of my circles I hear people talking about sociological aspects of philosophy. What do I mean when I say this? Let me clarify. The sociology of philosophy concerns philosophy as an academic practice, not the subject matter, but the conduct of its practitioners. Here are some things that could be pointed out:

1. Philosophy is professionalised to the point of being an ‘occupation’ instead of a ‘vocation’
2. Proper philosophy has become so specialised and insular that non-philosophers are unwelcome to participate.
3. Philosophy as a job, aims for various job related goals: tenure, reputation, publication, the first of these three is very hard these days
4. Philosophy and wider social phenomena: the economic situation has had an impact on philosophy, the “New Atheism” movement draws a lot of philosophers, but on the other hand, draws out the most philistinic of them. As was pointed out in a previous post, those who call themselves new atheists to some extent show themselves to be uninteresting insofar as they exhibit a lack of awareness to the ‘old’ atheism (I don’t like either of the terms…)
5. A lot of initiatives are being made about being more sensitive in the politics of identity; I have been told of a group known as the “Sheffield Feminists”, for instance, the leader of which, is well known for positively endorsing women-friendly departments.
6. The relationship between philosophy as a university subject, and other subjects; physics, for instance, mathematics, or, the (dark) arts, who normally talk about those dirty continentals.


Social psychology

There are quite a few philosophers who draw from empirical research these days:

1. Neuroscience/neuropsychology
2. Economics/game theory
3. Social psychology
(among others)

I think I’ve changed my mind about this a little over the past few months. I used to outright reject any insight from such disciplines (possible exception of nonempirical game theory); but I deem that there are some important provisos that should be fulfilled before considering them as having philosophical implications. And, oddly enough, these are non-philsophical considerations.

i. Are the variables sound?
ii. Are the variables sufficiently able to be mathematically constructed?
iii. Are the findings empirically repeatable?
iv. Has a pilot study been conducted to deem methodologies effective
v. Is the study ethical?

Let me consider the last point. Why should we care that a study is ethical? There are various reasons, and most of them perhaps you may not have considered. The obvious one is that, unethical studies cause harm to the research subject. Minor implications: reputation of the researcher, his group, their funding agency, their university/institution, and the discipline’s reputation as a whole comes to jeopardy. This means people will not trust researchers if they are unethical, and for good reason too if they were known to cause harm. Some of you might be more filppant and say something like okay so we may have done this research already, there is still import of the study, right?

Not necessarily. Unethical studies are difficult to repeat, one for ethical reasons, two, because often the variable are too different to repeat in exactly the same way. Studies that cannot, or will not be repeated are too difficult to verify, but they are, if you are innovative enough, able to falsify it (by testing the aspects of the operation design process). Unethical studies tend to stand in a singularity, very few studies would bear resemblance to them, so there is no context, and further, the researcher-subject relationship; due to the nature of oppressive and coercive relationships, are difficult to reconstruct. Further, studies like Milgram’s social psychology experiment are difficult to interpret given certain presuppositions that must be addressed: nature or nurture? What is the structure of explanation?