A response to an article on methods of inquiry

Today I posted a comment on a college friend of mine's, Mike Chapman's, blog post, which will hopefully soon be a magazine article, about the validity of alternative inquiry styles in science. I recommend reading Mike's post, even if you have to look up a few of the big words like I did, but I've pasted my comment below because a lot of points make sense even outside context of the article.

Great read, Mike.

I myself have slowly, and somewhat subconsciously, been constructing a framework on which I could hang any academic discipline, or at least that would be the idea. Of course, being a mathematician, I reserve a special corner of the framework for hard sciences like mine. Physics and finance wouldn't be too far away, and another step in that direction might take you to chemistry and economics, or something of that nature. Perhaps the complete opposite side of this construction would house the Arts, creative writing, sculpture, music, and so on. In the middle hang the "pseudo-sciences" psychology and sociology, and the interpretive disciplines like history and journalism.

I admit to having never heard or read the word "positivism" until reading this essay. But possessing this new term, I have no qualms about asserting that I have experienced a nearly-pure positivist education. I also admit to shying away from non-positivist disciplines, or even belittling their methods. However, the further along in my education I ge, the more I witness the disadvantages of a purely positivist scientific community.

It is not enough to know what we can "know" about a topic. In many cases it is incredibly beneficial to know what might be true, assuming the existence of a truth. Even in a "hard" science like computational biology, where I now work, we see two crowds of researchers with differing methods: inference and simulation. Inference is, in short, attempting to discover things about the data we have, and simulation hopes to mimic the behavior of the data in an explainable way. Of course, these two ideals are not far from one another, since even inference requires beginning assumptions, and simulators adjust themselves to the data. But, the fact remains that there are two valid ways to approach the problem, one looking for truth and the other seeking a plausible explanation.

Perhaps two years ago I would have disagreed with you, but as I find my thoughts and ideals slipping towards the more curious world of the unquantifiable, I realize that there is absolutely a place in this [scientific] world for pseudo-science and even non-science, whatever those might be. Some of the greatest thinkers this world has seen have provided insight using non-quantitative observation alone. Some even publish their work in the form of fiction, Nietzsche, for example. And it often occurs to me that, considering my aforementioned framework, philosophy, being perhaps the most abstract of all disciplines, is only a step away from logic, upon which the whole of mathematics is based.

When reading your piece, the first thought I have, on the topic of individuality within a collective, is that fear of prejudice, or being prejudiced, could be a driving factor in the unwillingness of the scientific community to describe a population in anything but a positivist manner. In most cases, stereotypes, which I consider to be the non-judgemental conceptual version of prejudice, develop for a reason, that reason being: some part of the collective can be described as such. Now, describing a part of a collective in a certain way, without being able to say exactly which part, can be dangerous in a prejudice-phobic society. Furthermore, it's conceiveable that this is precisely the reason that non-positivist thinkers have often softened their work through fictionalization before publication.

Or, it's because people's attention spans are short, and so a heavy topic is best passed along with a spoonful of sugar.

Also, I never would have suspected The Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I suppose he has become the freethinkers' collective idol. Very nice of you to include him in the discussion.

So, you have my support, however far that goes. Best of luck!


The Pleasures of Heredity

I had lunch with my grandpa at my favorite restaurant, Skyline Chili, at the beginning of the month, a couple of days before coming back here to Vienna. It was an enlightening experience.

My grandpa and I have always gotten along well, but this time was exceptionally good, because not only did we keep good conversation going, but even now, over a week later, I'm still thinking about some of the things he said.

First of all, he said he liked the movie The Bourne Supremacy. That surprised me. The first time my grandpa recommended a new movie to me (newer than anything John Wayne had done, anyway) was when he saw O' Brother, Where Art Thou? in the theater, and talked about it for a few days. Because I had never gotten such a recommendation from him before, I went and saw the movie, and very much enjoyed it. I ended up buying the DVD, but then it got stolen. So, I began to trust my grandpa's taste in movies.

Perhaps I'm too hard on today's action movies, but I lost a little faith in him after he told me he liked The Bourne Supremacy. I get easily bored watching those types of movies, perhaps because the question, "who's going to get killed next?" or "will he get away?" doesn't excite me nearly as much as the nuances of language or thought. I'm the one laughing during the James bond movies, which in general I love, because the action there is often sarcastic or ironic. I don't like movies that take themselves too seriously. If I want to see super-serious action, for me it doesn't get better than watching that part of The Matrix starting from entering the office building lobby and finishing just after Neo pulls Trinity to the roof after she crashed the helicopter. But I don't need to see the rest of the movie; it's mostly boring.

To get to the point, maybe I'll have to reconsider my opinion of the Bourne trilogy, because of my grandpa, I don't have much hope, because I don't think I'm closed-minded enough to have ignored the good parts the first time around.

The second, and more important thing my grandpa said: "I can't get bored." Now, this is something I've long thought about myself, but I had never heard anybody else say it. My grandpa said, "I can sit here and look out the window all day and find something interesting out there."

That brings me to a topic I've thought about on many occasions. Some people ahve made the comment that today's youth, whoever that is, is overstimulated. They are constantly using their cell phones, iPods, internet, and Portable Whatever Devices. But I say they're understimluated. If tey were stimulated enough, in a meaningful way, they wouldn't be continually searching for something with these electronics. Unfortunately, these electronic devices are preventing meaningful stimulation when, for example, people wear iPods when in public, or someone uses Facebook as a surrogate for real-life socializing. And it's not just kids who are doing this. Let me toot my own horn here: I think I'm the only person left who doesn't even want an MP3 player. I have one, and a radio, built into my phone, and I don't use it. I think hearing people talking on the subway is more interesting that hearing the same songs I always hear. Maybe that's why I don't get bored, either. I mean, looking out the window is more interesting to me than listening to music.

This is also further evidence that my grandpa and I are related. It was a belated Happy Thanksgiving email from him that made me realize from where I got my interests in conversation, meeting people, and using creative language. Put that together with my Dad's dedication and perfectionism, and you've guy who likes to meet people, talk to them, and then beat them at something. That's me, if that wasn't clear. Thank God I have my mom's tolerance and (some of her) humility.

Families are cool.