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Wednesday, October 02, 2002
Peer review under fire

John C. Polanyi, a professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto, sharply criticizes the way peer review is being conducted for the purposes of grant attribution (in Canada, I presume). He says that projects are being judged on external attributes, such as interdisciplinarity and networking, that do not guarantee excellence.

As much as I am into interdisciplinarity and networking, I agree with Polanyi that it is dangerous to explicitly require it, because it then becomes an end rather than a means. The same can be said of every word that gets turned into a buzzword as it is embraced and enforced by money-granting bodies.

But why, apart from the desire of governments to govern, should one want to apply these dubious criteria? It is because they are regarded as being objective. They constitute a form of accountability that can be quantified and appreciated by anyone. That is appealing. The drawback is that it is unreliable.

We would do better to explain that to the public. We must trust them to understand that performance in the arts, of which science is one, can only be judged by those skilled in the art.

Here I partially disagree. It is important to ensure that what you do is meaningful to people outside your clique. People who write obscure prose and only quote one another may be running around in circles, producing nothing of interest. If no one can come to the window, who will be able to tell?

Instead of requiring objectively measurable attributes such as the presence of interdisciplinarity (the term itself having for all practical purposes lost all meaning, as everyone proceeds to claim it), why not ask grant applicants to spend a couple hours on the phone with a few taxpaying citizens? Choose people who are not skilled in the art, but are smart enough to understand, and ask scientists to explain what their project means to them.

And every year, pick a few scientists at random, and fund them, no questions asked. Just let them do their thing.

I strongly agree with Polanyi's last sentence though:

Fostering creativity has never been more important.

Further criticism of grant-giving procedures can be found in this article (PDF, 453k) in University Affairs.

(P.S. I lost my source for this link. If you blogged it, just leave a comment and I'll be happy to credit you.)

What do you think? []  links to this post    4:58:21 PM  
The Ubiquity, Functions, And Contexts Of Bullshitting

wood s lot (via Tom) points to this lengthy analysis in the Journal of Mundane Behavior.

[...] Drawing upon illustrations from research, everyday life, and classical and contemporary theories, I argue that the study of bullshitting can inform and be informed by social theory. In so doing, an illustration is provided of Merton's (1973:59) observation that investigation of seemingly trivial social phenomena can yield insight not only into these phenomena but also into basic dynamics of social behavior.

I strongly agree with that last observation. I'd read the paper in full if the style were a little more straightforward. But here are a few of the functions of bullshitting, as identified by the author: socialization, exploration of the "self", expressing feelings, "passing time", resolving personal or interpersonal strain, impression management, gaining social, political, or economic leverage, defining and creating "reality".

All of which, I reckon, are also uses of weblogging.

Bullshitting and incompetence are different things, but they are closely related and both are ubiquitous, harmful to people and societies, and critically understudied. Back when I started the Wikipedia article on incompetence, I thought it would spark intense interest. As it turns out, I'm the only one who seems to care about the topic.

I believe that, just as research suggests is the case for incompetence, most of the people who bullshit are not aware of the fact, nor are they able to identify similar behavior in others. Self-knowledge would seem to be a key missing ingredient in such situations.

Then again, I might be bullshitting just right now, without realizing it.

What do you think? []  links to this post    4:07:19 PM  
Commodified News

Tom has a nice mini-story on what Google News means. I found the following two paragraphs especially insightful:

Google is exploring algorithmic wizardry that makes something of a hash out of branded content, puffery of organizational self-importance, advertising and subscription revenue schemes, and fripperies of web real estate. Welcome to the commodification of the news industry. Not that news corporations weren't already using a commodity model. Just that they keep trying to maintain two somewhat incompatible pretenses simultaneously: that the news of each news organization is "objective" at the same time it is "unique," proprietary and brandable.

Often, I just want the basic story. If I have to circumnavigate sign-up pages, pop-up ads, overwritten ledes, bad search engines, archive fees etc. to get it, well, now there are 45 or 1,075 alternative feeds for that particular story, some of which might prove more compatible.

Run-of-the-mill news is getting dirt cheap, to the point that many providers are becoming redundant in an blatantly obvious way and that only the cheapest and least intrusive will keep the eyeballs. Reading this reminded me of Stephen's August piece Five Choices: Or, Why I Won't Give Dave Pell Twelve Dollars. The lesson of all this: if I want readers, I had better provide content that people need but can't find elsewhere. But where shall I find such content?

Another post of interest from Tom is Of vines, on how knowledge has a lot more to do with gardening than with factories.

What do you think? []  links to this post    3:39:09 PM  
Academic control anxiety and the Internet

Beware: coming to a university near you, the Department of Internet Studies Department. (Redundancy not optional.) We will now have innumerable papers written by people with axes to grind about how the web is good for you, or not, or good for society, or not ~ and what laws should be passed to make sure that it's good for you and for society. [...]

The crux of academic anxiety can be seen in this quotation from Andrew Graham, Master of Balliol College:

"How do we learn fast enough so that we are learning faster than the world changes?" asked Mr Graham, "if we are not learning faster than the world changes then we cannot possibly control it."

Ah yes, control. Well, I say to them, good luck. Control would imply that centralized authority that you all seemed so concerned about just a quotation ago. I guess it's okay if it's your enlightened control, eh? Oxford has established a new institute for the study of the 'net:
Last week saw the inaugural conference of the Oxford Internet Institute, one of the world's first research centres dedicated to studying the net and its social consequences.... Delegates to the conference urged it to get involved with net lobby groups and policy writers rather than just be a dry, detached research group.

Don't get me wrong, I certainly feel that the internet is worthy of study. And I'm all in favor of people having opinions and acting upon them. I'm just disappointed that the overall reaction here seems to be just that, fearful and reactionary. [sorry, my bad: via BBC News]

[both2and: beyond binary]

What do you think? []  links to this post    8:16:40 AM  
Educational Outrage

is Roger Schank's occasional column on the evolution of education.

Also check out Schank's very interesting hyperbook "Engines for Education", about "what's wrong with the education system, how to reform it, and especially, about the role of educational technology in that reform".

The book is structured into short hyperlinked snippets, which allows for self-directed exploration. I really like that. See the connections out of and into this particular page that I wandered into, on "How You Know Things Without Trying".

I'd probably do well to dig deeper into this. I'll try to do it when education-related questions come up to my mind and see where it'll take me.

(via Remolino)

What do you think? []  links to this post    8:10:08 AM  

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