Author: Jonathan Taylor (page 1 of 2)

Reflections on the Celebration of Research

The phrase “the end of the beginning” is thrown a lot these days as kind of a pseudo-spiritual allusion to there being more to come. But if you think about, this is, literally speaking, the point at which we find ourselves. The end of the series of lectures on origins. Using fancy linguistic algebra (which is an actual thing–I read an article on it, though I’m not using it in accordance with the way it was designed), we can determine that the end of the origins series is, in a way, the “end of the beginning.” And we ended the beginning with a small conference celebrating varying research projects, from the sociological precedent for Bitcoin to the anthropological origins of a group of Kenyan ethnic groups. But why did we end the semester this way?

I could’ve answered this question by sending any number of people involved in the Center for the Arts and Humanities a quick email. But philosophically musing for a page or two is a lot more fun.

To me, the significance of ending a semester spent investigating origins with a celebration of research is fairly complex. I like to try and distill it down to thinking about presenting research as an outcome of having evaluated origins in the abstract sense, not just in the literal sense. Think about it in this way: If you have a research question (just drawing from the plethora of questions presented at the celebration, an example might be “are there any historical social precedents for the behavior we observe surrounding Bitcoin?”), then it’s a popular thing to do to try and get to the heart of the question. My high school teachers pounded this idea into me like a nail into a two-by-four.

So researchers will try to get to the heart of their question. Any decently written peer-reviewed journal article will discuss the implications of this question, it will it will discuss opportunities for further research germane to the question, and it will, most importantly, discuss the origins of the question. In this way, we can empirically observe how our academic society has heralded the origin of a question–the notion of understanding from whence the topic area came, how it has been historically influenced by changing zeitgeists, et cetera–as a modus operandi for ascertaining a proper understanding of the research to come. So it’s totally fitting that we ended our investigation into origins with a celebration of the logical conclusions of origins: Research.

Let me try and phrase it differently. An alternative way of understanding something never hurt anybody. Think about the “onion” model that Professor van der Meer discussed with us. The onion itself represents the research question at hand. There are billions of onions in the world, just like there are uncountably many feasible research questions. So once you’ve picked an onion, you have to start peeling away layers. These might be layers of colonialism, layers of record-keeping, or any other barrier to proper understandings. But once you peel them away, you’ve made it to the center: To the origin.

Social Constructions and Science

It’s Tuesday afternoon, which means that it’s time for me to choose which of my various rambling essays to copy from my notes and paste on this page.  For this post, I wanted to expand on an idea more fundamental than what most of what Dr. Aronova discussed, but is nonetheless integral thereto. I’ve been trying for a week to put this into words, but I keep coming up short, so please bear with me as I try and make sense of my own ideas.

It’s been a longstanding belief of mine that science is, at its core, a social construction. I don’t mean to trivialize the term “social construct” nor do I want to use it in the same way that one might describe, say, the gender binary, but the fact of the matter is–the way I see it–that what we hail as subsets of science are only relevant to us because we have decided to make them relevant. The Scientific Method, for example: It only is useful in terms of the ascertainment of truth insofar as we as a society place trust and belief in our conceptions of truth as some kind of semiological signification. To clarify, things are only true if we believe them. Things that we don’t believe may exist, but that doesn’t make them true. Truth is a social construct. This may be the hill that I have to die on, but I am inflexible on this point. If you look at it sociologically, the only things that meaningfully impact societies are things that are accepted as true. Paradoxically, this also includes falsehoods: You accept the truth of the rejection of another message.

My point is that science as we know it today would cease to exist if our conceptions of truth and the results of controlled experiments were different, and if we were for some reason unwilling to realign those same conceptions of truth. Science works, generally, because humans are good at realigning what they believe in to be more in line with what is true (even if it takes a couple of generations), but if we weren’t, then it would all fail to exist. We’d have, basically, a scientific method that churned out irrelevant data points that imply irrelevant conclusions.

This is a conundrum that has seen a good deal of critical response, and it’s a hot topic in a lot of philosophy journals these days. But what I find interesting–and this is where I tie the post into last Tuesday’s lecture–is that, historically, this has only a been problem in the West, not in the Soviet Union. In describing the contrast between these two states, Dr. Aronova touched on what I’m driving at: She mentioned that citizens in the Soviet Union were more likely to participate (I think she cited a case study about seismological research, though I could be mistaken) in scientific research, were more likely to accept the conclusions of government research, et cetera, et cetera. It seemed to me like Dr. Aronova was painting the Soviets as a people who had faith and resolve as it pertained to scientific findings, implicitly implying that Americans tended to be more skeptical.

If you’re still reading this, congratulations. Had I not been the author of this post, I wouldn’t have made it this far. But I hope that my contextualization of the subjectivity of science and subsequent use of this idea to explain a point that Dr. Aronova, in some small way, can shine a light on some of the fundamental differences between science in the West and in the Soviet Union.

Janet Browne: Charles Darwin as a Celebrity

Though I, regrettably, was unable to be at Professor Browne’s lecture, I did manage to read one of her articles on Darwin. As the title of this post suggests, the article that I read and will discuss here is Charles Darwin as a Celebrity, published in the Science in Context journal in 2003 (Click on the title to see the article).

My reaction to this article is generally positive. It should be noted that there is an underwhelming focus on how Darwin’s public image materially impacted the content and reception of his work, but the article is nonetheless a solid starting ground for those looking to explore that same proposition in more detail.

But I’m not writing this to critique the article. I’m writing to reflect on one of the article’s most important–and paradoxical, perhaps–arguments. Essentially, a great deal of time is spent describing how Darwin was an ostensibly private man–he gave limited interviews with the press, he didn’t expose himself to gawkers, et cetera, et cetera. That makes it all the more impactful when Browne mentions that one of the great rhetorical selling points, so to speak, of The Origin of Species is its personal, nearly autobiographical undertones that made Darwin a seemingly more approachable and relatable author. As Browne herself says of this point, it “is not trivial.” It can be inferred that this “not trivial” point posits both a juxtaposition and ground for public-verses-private comparison.

I think that the logical implication of this argument is that, by suspending his propensity for privacy and instead pouring himself onto the page, Darwin made a controversial book less inflammatory and more approachable. Browne outright states this, but there is considerable tension between that point and Darwin’s aforementioned penchant for secrecy. The way I see it, though, this argumentative dichotomy can be resolved by taking the People Magazine approach.

Let me explain.

Something that the article doesn’t do (at least explicitly) is use modern tabloids and whatnot to contextualize what Darwin’s approach to his fame had been. Though I’m aware of the presentist implications of such a methodology (after all, I railed against presentism in a previous blog post), I think that it’s important given how many other elements of present-day sociological analysis appear in the article. Today, anyone in the checkout line at Hannaford or Walmart or even a gas station has the opportunity to flip through a magazine. That the magazines we have today claim to “expose celebrities’ biggest secrets” and a whole host of other things should not be a surprise to anyone. However, it’s commonplace for celebrities (or it was commonplace prior to Twitter, but bear with me here) to only relate to the public via magazines. Though they may be snoopers, liars, and shameless paparazzi, magazines are a vessel for public-private relations with celebrities. Almost like a PR firm that no one hired.

My question is this: What if we take this assumption made about People Magazine and extrapolate it to also be about The Origin of Species? It would make sense. Darwin had a good number of autobiographical subtexts (or so says Professor Browne) in his landmark book, but not a whole lot of public appearances. Could we be able to explain this away by saying that The Origin of Species was Darwin’s “public appearance?” It would certainly help bridge the logical leap between Darwin’s purported secrecy and the openness of his book. If Professor Browne winds up following this article up, then I certainly hope that she answers this question.

The Villainy of Superheroes

Professor Gavaler made a number of interesting–to say the least–points in his discussion of the societal impacts of super-heroic imagery. Particularly interesting is how he mentioned that societies all over the world, perhaps as a result of evolutionary psychology that’s been ingrained in humanity since before the invention of the wheel, have a common tendency to develop tropes of “saving graces.” To put it simply, I took away from Prof. Gavaler’s lecture that the development of super-heroism in literature is a byproduct of humanity’s need to absolve itself of responsibility for the rectification of our systemic problems.

 

Let me explain, because I just made a big logical leap that probably isn’t justified given the context I provided.

 

In the lecture, it was noted that Wonder Woman arrived in our society (or at least in  William Moulton Marston’s fictional rendition of our society) to bring peace to America at the behest of a C.I.A. officer.* She was supposed to fight Nazis and conquer crime in wartime and postwar America. Superman, similarly, came to Earth from Krypton to bring Earth back from the brink of sociopolitical collapse. Batman, too, avenges the death of his parents by enforcing justice and security in the city of Gotham.

 

The common thread with these superheroes is that they’re, well, superheroes. Shocking, I know. But the interesting thing about this shared super-heroic identity is that they exist basically in vacuums. The police never helped Batman. Though she was brought to America by the C.I.A., I don’t recall hearing about Wonder Woman’s enduring and effective multilateral partnerships with the United States’ government. Not to mention that Superman exists only to rectify the errors of the human systems, not necessarily to work alongside them.  What this essentially means is that we, as a society, have created (I know that “created” is a tricky word to use with groups of people, but the fact of the matter is that we wouldn’t have any superheroes had society not created a market demand for such literature) an “easy out.”  A form of absolution, if you will, that is a product of the same line of thinking that brought us things such as omnipotent Gods, spirits, and even determinism. That was a takeaway (or at least one of my takeaways) from the lecture.

I know that I’ve been sounding a lot like a summarizer and less like an essayist thus far. But I draw a very important distinction between my train of thought and that of Professor Gavaler. He didn’t really make any outright moral judgements about this facet of human psychology. I do. I think that superheroes are dangerous (not just because they sometimes are Pyrrhic victors in that they occasionally destroy cities in trying to oust its evildoers) because they promote and instill in the minds of young children that there is someone or something out there that can fix our problems. Nobody else has to. Nazis invading? Call Wonderwoman. A horrible crime spree ravaging your city? Not to worry, Batman will fix it. There is a lot of great literature on this topic–Suzanne Kappeler is a feminist philosopher and author who advocates against thinking (even fictionally) that superheroes will save us–and I’m inclined to defend it. I don’t like superheroes because they inherently promote thinking that it’s okay to sit back and let someone else fix your problems. That’s a bad ideology to give to young kids.

 

 

 

 

*That’s all based on my limited knowledge of superheroes. I never read comic books growing up and I’ve never seen a superhero movie, so please excuse my vapid understanding of the plot lines.

Nationalism

In his discussion of “national identity” and whatnot, Dr. van der Meer mentioned that historically, nationalism and its logical corollaries (such as shared identity and social homogeny) are confluences of modern constructs whose applications to antiquated civilizations are inherently presentist at best. He indicated that this applies to Southeast Asia in a manner made even more interesting by colonial interferences (I really don’t like to use the word “interference” because its harshness implies that I’m making some kind of moral judgement, which, again, would be presentist and epistemically immodest), meaning that any sense of “national identity” that did arise in the Indonesian societies about which he talked would have to have been either socially constructed or inorganically forced by years of subjective historiography. He talked at great length about this: Indonesian national identity, in the current sense of the word, functionally didn’t exist, yet societies functioned and flourished nonetheless. This paradox of nations without nationalisms is basically what threatens to derail a whole host of modern historiography.

So, if that’s the case, how would we ever really know what Indonesian societies–or any society, for that matter–looked like, at least from a sociological point of view? We might be able to conduct archaeological digs and ethnographic interviews that can shed some light as to the mechanics of the society, but how can it ever be possible to evaluate things such as social identity when our nationalistic perspective is so deeply flawed? European colonists had a long history of making cultural generalizations and forcing nationalism upon non-nationalized peoples, so that automatically means that many of the most well-preserved primary sources automatically go out the window. Dr. van der Meer recognized this issue, though he did a better job of explaining what the issue actually is than I ever could, and he thus presented an alternative research method aimed at solving this conundrum: The onion theory.

The onion theory proposes a historiography that behaves much like its namesake. As you chop up an onion, multiple layers flake off and reveal a layer beneath the one you just cut. Thusly, as you delve into a research question and gather more and more data, you can chip away at the outermost, most superficial layers of historical interference until you finally get to an indigenous, native understanding of the question at hand.

However, I need to push back on the onion theory just for a bit. My first major grievance is that we can never know where the layers stop and you finally have reached the all-important indigenous center. It’s just not always going to be possible to discern between indigeneity and outside influences. Second, you never actually know exactly where one layer stops. Where do you draw the line and say “okay, I’ve cut through that layer.”? If you’re looking at a society that the British integrated in the year 1600, do you decide that the outer layer is chopped away once you figure out what happened in 1599, or do you have to keep digging because that entire linear history is a subset of a presentist historiography?

In this wordy, relatively poorly thought out blog post, I tried to illustrate the need for the onion theory and its pitfalls. I just wish that I had the knowhow to propose a better theory.

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