Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Tim Hunt Debacle highlights the fundamental errors of STEM and the Problem of Fear

There's an excellent letter in the Times Higher this week concerning Tim Hunt's silly comments: see Ottoline Leyser, Professor of Plant Development at Cambridge, points out the scientific error with Hunt's comment, and both points she makes articulate an important position regarding the inseparability between scientists with sentient bodies, emotions and hangups on the one hand, and cold matter, equations and computers on the other. Her first point makes it most precisely:
"he argued that romantic relationships in the lab (which are not always heterosexual) are a distraction, and thus damaging to science. This plays to the curious idea that the best scientists are robots. Progress in science depends on creativity, imagination, inspiration, serendipity, obsession, distraction and all the things that make us human. The best science happens in precisely the environments where people fall in and out of love. You can’t have one without the other."
Yes! And, from what she's says about Hunt as a teacher, I wouldn't be at all surprised if, on reflection, he would also say she was right. Of course I might be wrong, but that would be to reflect her second point (about the obstinacy of the male ego!).

Gregory Bateson made the point many years ago that "when you stick a probe into a system, the other end of the probe is sticking in you". More recently, scientists and science-studies scholars like Karen Barad and Joseph Rouse, together with other philosophers and sociologists have been articulating a more refined approach to science working around the fundamental problem that Bateson identifies. Barad talks about the "entanglement" between matter, values, meaning, and so on. Whilst the 'socio-materiality' which she has played a role in promoting may have a tendency to slip into a very wordy post-modern  discourse (which I must confess to losing patience with), there is a hard-edge to this work which deserves much closer empirical inspection.

The other side of this is that popular conceptions of science - particular those conceptions of science held by politicians like Nicky Morgan (who recently told kids not to study arts subjects) makes precisely the same mistake that Tim Hunt made: they think scientists work like robots. These same people also seem to believe that the function of education is to turn complex machines like children (what Von Foerster calls 'non-trivial machines') into "trivial machines" - where, given a set of inputs, the output is predictable. Exam systems are excellent at testing the qualities of trivial machines!

Politicians like this because it isn't politically challenging. STEM is supported - to the utter devastation of arts education - because it is apolitical. Children being programmed to do functional things in predictable ways must be good for the economy, mustn't it?! Unfortunately, this is bad science, bad economics, and produces a situation where too many scientists have become robotic number-crunchers, whilst the people doing the deep critical scientific (and economically valuable) work are often artists (think of Cornelia Parker, for example)! At least they are allowed to show their feelings - although the best of them display a remarkable coolness faced with the enormous complexities they have to manage.

Scientific discovery, like artistic creation, emerges from complexity. We clearly are part of the complexity we seek to describe. Unfortunately we also posses the mindless capacity to suppress our own complexity rather than use it imaginatively: it makes us fearful. This is what our current crop of University managers are doing. Making occasional silly remarks is an expression of complexity. Sacking people instantly because they say something silly is an expression of fear and untrammelled power. We must learn to tell the difference between expressing complexity and expressing fear.

More importantly, we must deal with the corrosive, corrupting fear that is endemic in the management of our institutions.


Anonymous said...

Scientists are good at applying scientific method within their own discipline - they have very little knowledge of how different approaches are required as we climb the ladder of maths, physics, chemistry, biology... the emergent properties from simple laws generate systemic views of reality where the outcomes are NOT predictable - Jim, formerly known at Bolton

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Jim - good to hear from you,

There is a great variety of interpretation of scientific method. Not all scientists have the theoretical and philosophical sophistication of Bohr, for example. They all "do" science, many are funded, but are often unclear (or worse, unshakably certain) about what it is they actually do. It's in the weird world of new sciences like big data, neuroscience, DNA sequencing, social network analysis that these underlying problems are surfacing. You're right that it's dialectical - I'm writing a book about that at the moment. That also means that the institution of education, its organisation and management, is fundamentally important for science. I recommend the Barad book...

Best wishes,