Monday, April 28, 2008

Typed this in early March and wanted to think about it further to expand it into a blog entry. Didn't know how to, later it slipped my mind to wonder about it some more.

"In the Internet age, verbal discourse has been replaced by duels of the written word. Discuss."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

It is difficult for me to express how much Fleck's book means to me, on a level quite apart from its content.

I bought it in late Nov 2005, a few months after I'd graduated. I'd only found work a month before that, in a field completely unrelated to biology or research, or any tertiary qualification for that matter. I thought I might never have the chance to do biology again. I thought I had failed. I thought that by all standards including my own I had wasted those four years of my life in tertiary education, that people did not even want to hire me for what Philip Yeo deprecatingly called "test-tube washing".

Anyway, so, I was browsing through the biology shelves at Kinokuniya, and its title (Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact) caught my eye. How could a fact develop? Had it not always been in existence, immutable? I paid an exorbitantly high price for it and brought it home :) It was the first non-fiction book I'd ever bought, so I wasn't particularly sensitive to its price tag at the time.

I tried to read it, on and off, a few times over the years following. Each time, I could not get past the first chapter :) . This book has been with me throughout the most peaceful times and some of the most tumultous times. It was with me during some of the quiet conversations I had with WT in his house, which is, incidentally, where I also read American Gods. At other times I forgot it completely, when my parents got cancer and my younger sister developed her condition, for example. And it remained at the back of my mind as a symbol of my former existence in biology, when I decided to take up a social work undergrad degree shortly after.

I can no longer fully trace the path I took to eventually return to it. Part of it involved forgiving my first ex, developing a greater awareness of political and scientific ideas, talking to many many boys and "stealing" their books to read :) , getting a few more jobs with even worse prospects and two with fairly good prospects (including my present one), and growing up, in no particular order. I would have said that Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions brought me into the world of reflecting on science, but that isn't true although Kuhn's book remains an invaluable trove I think every aspiring scientist should explore. Instead I think that I was always looking for something real in the world of science, in some way. And it simply took me some time to find Fleck's book again along the long fairly rapid path of books that seemed to naturally follow one after another. This path stretches out unending, and I quite like it.

It is true after all, that paradigm shifts exist. Fleck's book was no longer incomprehensible, nor painful, nor an obligation or symbol. Like all the books that came before it, each one of them shifting my gestalt perception of the world, it was a joy to read.

Put in another way, everything is the boys' fault. ;-)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The art of becoming a postgraduate. Education@The Guardian, 22 April 2008.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

In continuation of the previous post on resistance and thought constraint,

"In the field of cognition, the signal of resistance opposing free, arbitrary thinking is called a fact." (italics in the original)

I'll pause here awhile to let you digest the shock of that statement, that facts are signals of resistance, -opposing- free arbitrary thinking. Science research is about finding such facts. So science research opposes free arbitrary thinking, alright? Scientific facts are not little nuggets of solid gold waiting quietly to be found along the way by determined patient labour. The notion that facts resist - what are they resisting? - they resist being melted away during repetition of experiments, although they cannot in any sense be considered objective or reproducible independent of the existing thought style. We can almost say that "facts" exist as a resistance despite our best efforts to make them not exist via the necessarily incomplete controls of experiments.

I believe that when Fleck says a research scientist is "look[ing] for that resistance and thought constraint in the face of which he could feel passive", he is saying that a thought constraint, not necessarily rational or objective, exists within experiments that somehow allows those experiments to be revealing of unambiguous positive or negative results.

But we experience facts as facts, you protest.

"The resistance must be effective within the thought collective. It must be brought home to each member as both a thought constraint and a form to be directly experienced."

A form to be directly experienced is what we commonly regard facts to be.

"In cognition this appears as the connection between phenomena which can never be severed within the collective. This linkage seems to be truth, and conditioned only by logic and content."

"If a scientist of that time had been asked why the principle was accepted or why the characteristics [...] were conceived in this way, he could only have answered, 'Because it is true.' Only after a change in thought style did we learn that the opinion was constrained mainly by the methods applied."

The material in quotes above are from Fleck's pp. 101-102. The following paragraph is from p. 104, and I hope it will sound the death knell once and for all, for science research as discovering objective reality:

"The initiation into any thought style, which also includes the introduction to science, is epistemologically analogous to the initiations we know from ethnology and the history of civilization. Their effect is not merely formal. The Holy Ghost as it were descends upon the novice, who will now be able to see what has hitherto been invisible to him. Such is the result of the assimilation of a thought style."

I will be glad to take questions on this now, since I have finished the book at long last.

Friday, April 18, 2008

More Fleck (pp. 94-95). He amazes me and makes me laugh :) .

"... Feeling, will and intellect all function together as an indivisible unit. The research worker gropes but everything recedes, and nowhere is there a firm support. Everything seems to be an artificial effect inspired by his own personal will. Every formulation melts away at the next test. He looks for that resistance and thought constraint in the face of which he could feel passive. Aids appear in the form of memory and education. At the moment of scientific genesis, the research worker personifies the totality of his physical and intellectual ancestors and of all his friends and enemies. They both promote and inhibit his search. The work of the research scientist means that in the complex confusion and chaos which he faces, he must distinguish that which obeys his will from that which arises spontaneously and opposes it. This is the firm ground that he, as representative of the thought collective, continuously seeks. ..."

Someone wise once said that science research is about distinguishing implausibilities from plausibilities.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A case history of the discovery of the Wassermann reaction [1] to syphilis, originally published in German in 1935, and republished in English in 1979 after having been cited by Thomas Kuhn as an important influence on his own conception of the history of science. (this concise summary of the book is from Wikipedia, here)

For all that Fleck's book was so influential, it was a strange one to read - I had to uncomfortably suspend (dislocate, perhaps...) my modern-day thinking about biology so as to resist writing snarky comments about Fleck's biological thought style [2] of his day. Sometimes imposing the hegemony of the modern thought collective [3] is appropriate. This wasn't one of those times.

This, on the other hand, was outstanding for its clarity and merry snarkiness amidst my discomfort:

"... Some views advanced knowledge and gave satisfaction. These were overtaken not because they were wrong but because thought develops. Nor will our opinions last forever, because there is probably no end to the possible development of knowledge just as there is probably no limit to the development of other biological forms.

Our sole purpose has been to demonstrate how even specialized knowledge does not simply increase but also basically changes. Yet we do not want to confine ourselves merely to some banal statement about the transience of human knowledge."

- Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, p. 64. University of Chicago Press 1979.

And Fleck does try to develop ideas on sociological and historical aspects of science, in his book. Thus the influence on Kuhn. [4]

[1] Note that the Wassermann reaction is deprecated these days as a diagnostic test for syphilis.
[2] In Kuhnian terms, the paradigm.
[3] A thought collective is "a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction" (p. 39).
[4] I am a Kuhn fangirl. A specific reference would be his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published 1962/1970/1996.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I have finally given in to curiosity and Google-stalked someone. You know who you are :) . It's only fair after all; you told me in the face that you had google-stalked me. :P

PubMed-stalking is proving more fruitful, though.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I have a new computer at home, at last. Yay. She's pretty. :)

(Acer Aspire M1640)
Intel Core 2 Duo E4600, 2.4 GHz
800 MB FSB, 2 MB L2 Cache
nVidia GeForce 8400
19" LCD screen

and Genuine Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium *coughs*.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

I do not have perfect pitch - I do not know the sound of a C-sharp. Eight years after I'd stopped singing 10 hours a week, my innate middle C has become some odd note between B-flat and A.

Which makes it all the more puzzling why I have perfect relative pitch.

Essentially this means I can construct a full instrumental range of scale notes from one starting note that may be horribly "out of tune". And these notes will match perfectly with the starting note. It certainly came in useful during group singing, when I was still doing that.

Each of those notes has its own taste and warmth to me, I feel the air brushing gently past different parts of my face when someone speaks to me and am disconcerted when a note in a song sounds colder than it should, realizing after I pay attention to its pitch that it is slightly flat within that song's scale. I wonder how much of people's experiences of music are made up of such oddities.

Did you know that you can hear your own voice accurately if you touch your index finger to the back of your jawbone, below your ear? You'd hear it much more if you were singing, of course.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

More on children, re the March 14 entry. Trophy children! Sounds familiar? Takchek has also written about this many times.

(Link courtesy of Bee.)

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