How I spent my summer vacation – in Toronto

I’ve spent the last week at the University of Toronto attending the summer doctoral program hosted by the Oxford Internet Institute. Conveniently abbreviated as OIISDP. Every summer the institute hosts a group of ~30 graduate students who are working on research related to the internet. I was lucky enough to be one of the students accepted for this year. The program is two weeks long and consists of presentations by faculty from Oxford, other schools, and the students themselves. One of the main reasons I wanted to go, aside from getting out of Knoxville for a few weeks in the summer, was to meet fellow doctoral students who may be working on topics close-to my own interests and the program has met my expectations and more.

Today was Saturday, the first day we’ve had off since arriving on Monday. I used the free time to walk around the city with fellow students and enjoy some plays that were part of the Fringe Festival of Toronto. I saw two productions today Almost, Maine and How to Be a Spinster. The former was enjoyable but some of the metaphors were a bit too on the nose. The latter was a fun comedy about being a spinster/single person with the conceit of presenting the play as a inspirational workshop you might find at a conference. There was one dig about being a PhD student that struck close to home.

I hope to write more about the content of the program soon.

Why is Popper so popular?

There is a disconnect between the philosophy of science as it is practiced by philosophers and the philosophy of science as it is interpreted by scientists. I think this difference is the main reason why the paradigm battles between quantitative and qualitative or positivist and interpretivist are still being fought so hard today. I’m wondering how much of this difference can be attributed to the popularity of two philosophers from the middle of the twentieth century: Kuhn and Popper. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. Popper published Logik der Forschung in 1934, and the English translation, Logic of Scientific Discovery, was published in 1959. Both works have become bestsellers and remain in print today.

Kuhn is the contemporary source of the discussion of paradigm as the disciplinary matrix within which scientific research occurs. Revolutions are caused by anomalies that cannot be explained within a current paradigm. Later paradigms resolve these anomalies and become part of the background assumptions within normal science – the state in which science works most of the time. During normal science problems are proposed within the current paradigm and appropriate solutions are discovered within the accepted criteria of that paradigm.

For the social sciences paradigms became an easy shorthand for describing a long-term debate about the application of scientific methods to the study of human activity. In the late 19th century the debate was known as the Methodenstreit - or method dispute. On one side were the naturalists who argued that human behavior was just an extension of physical activity and therefore would be best understood by applying the method of natural science – experimentation. The other side argued that human activity was a matter of developing meanings shared between different people. These meanings and understandings were not necessarily accessible to the methods of natural science.

Logical positivism in the early twentieth century was an outgrowth of this argument and the place where Popper made his crucial intervention. Popper argued that science could be distinguished from other forms of inquiry because it used a method of falsification. Science proposes theories or hypotheses about the world and then seeks out empirical evidence that may falsify the idea. No confirmatory evidence will ever be sufficient to completely prove an idea because the world could change tomorrow. However we can still propose conjectures about the world, act upon those conjectures, and then revise them at some later point in time when new evidence calls those conjectures into question.

Science is demarcated from other endeavors based on the idea of falsification. Other human endeavors, such as religion, are based on faith or some other claim. These claims cannot be tested through experience in the real world and are thus non-scientific. This fulfills one of the main goals of logical positivism – finding a way to separated statements about the world from metaphysical speculation.

Today Popper is one of the most commonly cited authors in textbooks on the philosophy of science in both the natural and social sciences. There have been a number of criticisms of his philosophy from other philosophers which are nicely described at Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I’m interested in knowing why Popper remains as popular today as ever, even if many philosophers of science have moved beyond his ideas or dismissed them entirely. I think the answer lies in some of the rhetorical effects of Popper’s arguments.

The idea of falsification is very powerful and also relatively succinct. If science does indeed take everything as provisional then science becomes the sine qua non of open-mindedness and experience. How can bias be present when the statements of science may be denied the very next day in response to more data? This vision of science appeals to the vanity of scientists.

But the reality of science may be different. It’s not all clear that falsification is enough to replace a theory. The Duhem-Quine hypothesis about the underdetermination of theories suggests that a single theory can never be tested on its own because it is always part of a larger whole. So evidence falsifying the whole can never be enough to falsify a particular part of the system.

A Flash of Mortality

A few hours ago I learned that Iain Banks, one of my favorite SF authors over the last twenty years, has been diagnosed with cancer. I was in the middle of writing up some of my research on citizen science and have been kind of gobsmacked for the last hour.

In high school I dreamed of winning a Hugo award for an SF novel, along with a Nobel prize in physics, but now I will be happy to get a research job after I finish my Ph.D. It’s interesting how both dreams and the scope of the future shift over a lifetime. I’m closer to Banks’ age, 59, than I am to high school. And I can feel the slight breeze wandering over my grave that asks what have you left behind for the world or another?

One of the side effects of working on a Ph.D is closing off parts of your life because they take up time that cannot be wasted. I’ve tried to disconnect from politics over the last 3 years because paying attention to that is too much of an emotional drain and an energy sink. I want to add something to an area where people aren’t paying enough attention – namely citizen science and its effects on the relationship between science and society.

But being a specialist means that the audience for your ideas is limited. Few people care about the history behind the sociology of science or the twisted tracks that distinguish correspondence, coherentist, and deflationary accounts of truth. But, at the same time, the only way forward for humans as a whole is for each person to put their shoulder to the wheel and try to push a tiny piece forward. I’m toiling at it as best I can. Are you?

Managers Think Workers Are Stupid and Other Critical Errors

Today’s feature in meaningless survey research is this new poll by the American Management Association on American workers communication skills. MSN is reporting that ‘American workers fall short’. Should anyone be surprised that this is the conclusion of the American Management Association?

There’s an obvious bias right there on the part of the executives who are being surveyed. Would it really be in their interest to say that American’s workers are doing well? Global competition is a great way to make workers work harder.

But the reporting is even more misleading. If you look at the survey you see that most executives report that their workers are ‘average’
or ‘above average’ when it comes to skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. The scale has 5 points – lowest ability, below average, average, above average, and highest ability.

Most people should be average – that’s the whole point of being average. If we expect those skills to be normally distributed in the population than the average should be the highlest level. I don’t see anything to be surprised about. There is no way for every company to have the highest level of people because then there wouldn’t be any differences between individuals. It’s the Lake Woebegone effect.

Facebook and Me and You and Society and Value

I’m conflicted about Facebook. I would have been an eager supporter of a social network like Facebook ten years ago. I dreamed of a computer program that would show you everyone’s interests, what books they liked to read, the television they enjoyed. Knowledge management was all the rage in business journals and management magazines. KM gurus talked about interest browsers and knowledge networks, being able to immediately find out all the people who were interested in X within organization Y. Merrill Corporation, where I worked for half a decade, built a knowledge directory system that was mothballed almost as soon as it was released. People just weren’t ready for the future.

There was a time in the middle 2000s when social networks sprang up like internet weeds, enough of them to generate an acronym – YASNS – yet another social network system. Web 2.0 became a buzzword for silicon valley
businesses trying to ride the next wave of internet innvoation. Facebook was one of those companies, after Friendster, delicious, Flickr, and many more.

I just finished an abstract for an upcoming issue of Information Society on the labor that goes into posting all of the updates on Facebook. Christian Fuchs wrote an article analyzing user-generated content from a Marxist perspective in 2010. The upcoming issue is responding to his article and an argument against his article that was published in 2012. Arvidsson and Colleoni argued that measuring labor online using a time theory of value from Marx misses the difference of modern labor in the networked world. Affect, or feeling, is the way we create value from social networks.

I’m interested in the argument because I’m currently studying a type of user-generated content: citizen science. The biggest difference is that citizen science is not commercial in any direct way. A deep Marxist might note some forms of exploitation and power differentials between the scientists who run the projects and the volunteers. But that’s not my argument. In fact I didn’t mention citizen science explicitly in my abstract.

I do think there is a form of alienation that may be going on when people do social work for free on the internet. But it’s not a direct equality between the amount of time spent and the value created. It is a combination of affect, time, and alienation that I’m still struggling to understand and express. Something hinky is happening and I’m trying to figure out what it is.

A recent opinion piece on Google Glass reminds me of the problem, although it frames the worry in terms of privacy and surveillance. Mark Hurst writes:

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about. The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.

Facebook began to change how we are citizens in the world and technology is moving forward to continue making change. But the course is not pre-determined. We have choices about how we deploy technology. Thinking carefully about how people value their online social work is one step toward this dialog.

Tracking the popularity of the sciences

I was thinking recently about the popularity of various sciences. Off the top of my head I believed that the social sciences were usually less popular than the natural/hard sciences. I also guessed that sociology or anthropology would be less popular than psychology, among the social sciences.

The natural sciences get a lot of publicity from television programs such as Nova or Nature. I don’t believe there is very much coverage of the social sciences at all on television.

Books and print media are a harder case to consider. I would guess that natural sciences would still be more popular even in these media.

The question is how to test any of these suppositions. One easy method is to look at Google Ngrams, the online tool that searches for words or phrases across the corpus of books digitized by Google. You can explore the ngram viewer I used for yourself or see the picture below.

A Google Ngram of the Sciences

Notice that most of my guesses are correct for much of time period covered by this graph.

  • Chemistry has a long-period of domination through much of the 19th century.
  • Biology has been growing steadily for the past century and by 2000 is tied for third and looks likely to continue to grow.
  • Among the social sciences psychology experiences very rapid growth until about 1930, falls off for a decade, and then bounces back to a steady-state.
  • Sociology has a curious flourish in the 1970s that I have no idea how to explain.

The early dominance of chemistry supports the idea that chemistry drove much of the industrial revolution. Biology only really comes into its own after the Darwinian revolution. Psychology exploded after Freud and continued to grow rapidly for three decades.

I’d like do something similar for newspapers and magazine coverage. Perhaps using a search in Lexis/Nexis.

View the full graph via the link.

Upgrading to Markdown on Save Improved

Last weekend I upgraded my wordpress installation to use Markdown on Save Improved, a plugin that saves two versions of each post, one that is written in markdown formatted text and another that is HTML. The latter is used by wordpress to serve pages to the viewer, and the former is used by the author to write posts. The advantage is having the markdown preprocessed before being served to viewers, thus cutting down on the total resources used by the server. (Of course, too much traffic has never really been a problem on this website.)

One problem I encountered was how to deal with the 500 some odd posts I already had, for which 60% or so were already in markdown. I needed to find a way to trigger wordpress to transform these older entries into HTML and store that HTML for display, while keeping the markdown for editing. The plugin didn’t have any of this functionality so I had to resort to SQL and PHP hacking. So fair warning to anyone who may try something similar – backup your database. I’m not responsible for any lost data.

I started by looking at the WP database using PHPMyAdmin. I wanted to change the wp-posts column to move my old markdown entries from post_content to post_content_filtered. I ended up with the following SQL statement.

UPDATE `wp-posts` SET
`post_content_filtered` = `post_content`
WHERE `post_status` = 'published'

Be careful with this statement and make sure you put the destination_column first or else your entries may be erased. I tested my syntax on a single entry first to make sure I had it correct.

The next step was modifying the plugin. I did this with the built-in plugin editor in the WordPress control panel. I noticed that there was a function already present that would format old posts if they had content in the _post_content_filtered column. I wanted to make sure that this function would be triggered when I re-activated the plugin.

So I altered the public function activate to call update_schema regardless of the if statement testing for the version. To minimize the changes I needed to make in the code I just changed:

if ( version_compare( '2.1', $previous_version, '=' ) )

to

if ( TRUE )

and then reactivated the plugin. The server churned for about a minute and successfully formatted all of my old posts. Then I reverted all of my plugin changes to the original code.

Use this information at your own risk. I’m not going to do support for you.

How did you become interested in social science?

We were talking in class yesterday about how each of us became interested in social science, specifically sociology. What kind of articles did we admire or remember? A few people mentioned some qualitative articles they had read and the rest of the class nodded along with the professor. Yes, qualitative articles are what we remember most, those quantitative articles are just a mess of numbers that never go far enough to analyze what is behind the numbers. I exaggerate, a bit.

I’m not surprised by this attitude; I’ve taken enough sociology classes at UTK to know that the slice of the department I’ve seen is very qualitative. There’s nothing wrong with this, most of my own research is qualitative. But there was a tiny taste of condescension that made me want to object. I can’t get it out of my mind or mouth.

But first some context. Most of the social sciences today are dominated by quantitative research 1. There are a lot of reasons for this, some philosophically justified, some just dumb historical luck and habit. The argument, pro or con, for quantitative and qualitative research will have to be saved for another day. Let’s just conclude that a lot of qualitative researchers feel put upon to shape their research to the prevailing winds of disciplinarity which always seem to blow in a quantitative direction. I have some of the same war stories to share from my own personal experience. It’s disheartening and it makes people defensive, so when they find a safe place to complain they usually do.

But, for a moment, I want to defend quantitative research. First, there is the problem of argument by anecdote and personal experience. There is a value in finding the meaning and coming to an understanding of subjective experience, whether your own or another person’s; an argument that many philosophers and methodologists have made quite cogently. But sometimes the world is just too damn persistent and stable. Not everything boils down to an interpretation. The Earth orbits the sun, climate change is real, and evolution is a true theory. Sometimes the statistical or mathematical weight of experience is impossible to ignore. (I will bracket, for now, the question of whether the standards of the physical sciences should be applied to the human sciences.)

Another problem I have is the dreadful ignorance of statistics by both those who are enamored of qualitative methods and the general public. I’ve often thought that we would all be much better off as a country if high school students studied statistics instead of calculus. Calculus presents us with exact models of physical reality that work very dependably but the ‘real world’ of human interactions is stochastic, sometimes things just don’t go the way we modeled. The error terms never completely disappear (not that they do in physical sciences either, but I don’t remember talking about error terms when I was doing physics problem sets on inclined planes).

My final point against going all in for qualitative research is the inherent dangers of story-telling 2. I will use a recent example from the world of science journalism. Jonah Lehrer is a science writer whose career went down in dramatic flames last summer when it was discovered that he had plagiarized his own work and falsified some quotes. I’m on the fence about copying your own work because copying runs a fine-line alongside revising and improving. Falsifying quotes, that gets you kicked out of college and every newspaper or magazine I know of.

I was reminded of Lehrer’s story and my own worries about qualitative research today. [Janet Stemwedel wrote a blog post] that quoted and pointed me to another blog post about the appeal of story-telling and the Lehrer incident. Christopher Chabris writes:

In my opinion, the fabrications and the scientific misunderstanding are actually closely related. The fabrications tended to follow a pattern of perfecting the stories and anecdotes that Lehrer — like almost all successful science writers nowadays — used to illustrate his arguments. Had he used only words Bob Dylan actually said, and only the true facts about Dylan’s 1960s songwriting travails, the story wouldn’t have been as smooth. It’s human nature to be more convinced by concrete stories than by abstract statistics and ideas, so the convincingness of Lehrer’s science writing came from the brilliance of his stories, characters, and quotes. Those are the elements that people process fluently and remember long after the details of experiments and analyses fade.

We expect, and respond, at a deep, psychological level to a good story. When we say something ‘makes sense’ we are saying that it tells us a good story about ourselves and the world. This is the danger I feel, creeping up behind me, whenever I start to think that qualitative research is where it’s at.

Dismissing quantitative research because we can’t get a handle on it or because the analysis doesn’t go far enough (more synonyms for telling us a good story) is foolish. We need more experience, more knowledge, even more truth (although it pains me, a tiny bit, to use that loaded word in this context) about the world. Numbers, statistics and quantitative methods are one way to test our hard won research against the world. They are not the only way to know or learn, but they are valuable.


  1. I have a lot of problems with the article at the Atlantic on the value of political and social science. But the complaint that the majority of published research uses quantitative numbers to bolster arguments is well-taken. 

  2. The link is to my Diigo set of URLs tagged ‘story-telling’ There are multiple examples in the list of where our human, oh so human, attraction to a good story becomes a danger or a distraction. 

Candles, Faraday, and Teaching

I’m giving a guest lecture to a STEM class in about two weeks. I plan to talk about my research into citizen science. One of the questions I want to get the students thinking about is what makes someone into a scientist. Is it education, knowledge, skill, social influence, professional certification, or something else? But starting with one question always leads to another.

So my mind began to wander back to when I was a volunteer at the Science Museum of Minnestoa in the 1990s. I worked in the Experiment Gallery doing various demonstrations about physical phenomenon. One of my favorite activities was inspired by Micahel Faraday’s famous lectures on the ‘Chemical History of the Candle’.

Thinking about the boundary between scientist and non-scientist raises issues about education and learning. Do we learn more or less in an informal setting? How important is naive exploration and experimentation?

I searched on YouTube for some video clips about Faraday’s candle and found a video by Ian Russell doing an updated version Faraday’s lecture with some comments about learning science and the power of exploration.

Comps – the experience of grad school

I participated in a panel with some fellow third-year grad students in CCI this afternoon. We talked about our experiences with comprehensive exams, mostly to students who haven’t finished them or are preparing for them right now.

I was struck by how different the experience is for each person. There are differences based on fields (CCI has students in journalism, communication, advertising, and information science), based on the personalities of the committee members, the pedagogical styles of the committee chairs, and the subject field of the dissertation, and more. All of these are external factors, outside of the control of the student.

Internal factors, like styles of writing, studying, reading, managing stress, communicating with committee members and more create further confusion. Like the dissertation, there doesn’t seem to be any one, best way to go through comprehensive exams.

The biggest lesson I learned from my experience is learning to manage the tedium. Sometimes there are hurdles, real or imaginary, personal or organizational, that you just have to wade through. Bullheadedness is sometimes the determining quality for success as a Ph.D student.