Friday, August 12, 2005

Three books

  1. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Thomas Kuhn

    You've heard of this book, even if you don't think you have. Kuhn gave the modern meaning to the phrase paradigm shift. You may recall that I mentioned this book -- a month ago, perhaps? It took me a while to read it, just as it took me a while to read it the first time I was exposed to it some ten years ago.

    I tried briefly to summarize my thoughts about the contents of this book. It was hard. The difficulty, I think, is that SSR was not written as a book; it was written as an essay, which just happens to be the length of a short book. Indeed, Kuhn refers repeatedly to this essay, and occasionally mentions a book that he hoped to write (and never did, as far as I know) with further details and evidence for all his arguments. The writing is dense, so that if my eyes glazed over briefly, I had to go back and re-read what I'd missed in order to keep the sense of the arguments.

    Bah! you may say, what use are you if you can't bring yourself to summarize a few highlights, at least? At least, you might say that if you were inside my head. The only good responses I can give is that I will try again in another few years. If that's too long, you may read it and try for yourself.

  2. University, Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. Jennifer Washburn

    Are student journalists taught that nobody will read their work unless they describe the physical appearance of any major characters? I ask this seriously, because this is not the first book I've read in which I thought why on earth are you taking time from your argument to tell me that this guy has blue eyes and wild hair? Unless the subject of such scrutiny is an Einstein (or maybe a Carrot-Top), I'll pass on the descriptions of hair styles.

    Apart from tickling that particular pet peeve, I enjoyed this book. By enjoyed, I mean that I thought it was coherent, well-argued, and worth-reading. However, I was also troubled by it. The title neatly summarizes the book's thesis, which is that, in the past two decades, commercial influences have increasingly compromised the university's role as a home for educators, long-term scientific researchers, and independent experts. In particular, Washburn focuses mostly on medicine and bio-engineering (and a little on other areas of engineering), where the Bayh-Dole act had an enormous impact by allowing academic researchers to easily patent and commercialize ideas developed in a university setting.

    I know little of medical schools, so I will say simply that I was horrified by the behaviors documented in the chapter Are Conflicts of Interest Hazardous to Our Health. There seems to me to be something tawdry and unethical in a professor agreeing to sign off on a paper ghostwritten by a pharmaceutical company, and that was far from the worst of it. But in a way, I found the rest of the book more worrisome. I know and work with many people who are intensely interested in the commercialization of their widgets. It seems to me that many of these folks juggle their commercial and academic interests pretty well; the problem is that those commercial interests tend to creep into other areas of the academic landscape as well. An academic proposal is a sales pitch, but it bothers me when the sales pitch is not for an idea, but for profits to be had from an idea. And that seems to happen a lot.

    The problem is that what universities are good at -- or are supposed to be good at -- is building new tools and ideas, and then teaching the world about those tools and ideas. And, in some cases, teaching the world might involve developing a useful application and pushing it all the way to market (I use the scare quotes because the market need not be a commercial market -- witness the growth of various open software products). But I would prefer if the drive were not profits, but passion for making a good idea known. I'm reminded of something Edsger Dijkstra wrote, which summarizes my feelings nicely:

    I grew up with an advice of my grandfather's: Devote yourself to your most genuine interests, for then you will become a capable man and a place will be found for you. We were free not to try to become rich (which for mathematicians was impossible anyhow). When Ria and I had to decide whether we should try to start a family, we felt that we had to choose between children and a car; Ria had a Raleigh, I had a Humber, we decided that they were still excellent bicycles and chose the children. Today's young academics, whose study is viewed as an investment, should envy us for not having grown up with their financial distractions.

    Envy, indeed.

    I recommend this book to your reading lists.

  3. Flinch

    I was sitting at the bus stop, absorbed in a book, when he tapped me on the shoulder. Do you know anything about pre-Roman Italy? I said that I didn't, and recommended him to a library. Everyone I ask seems to say that, he said, but the books in the libraries are full of lies. Nobody knows the truth, so I'm writing my own book. He carried a yellow pad; I glanced down, and saw that Golgotha was printed in neat block capitals across the top, followed by several paragraphs of text written in a small, neat hand. The word Roswell was written in the corner and underlined.

    You see, he continued, all Europeans were caniibals back then. The rest of the world was fine, and everyone got along; then the Europeans went exploring, and spread their sickness throughout the world. I learned in public school that history only goes back 3000 years; how can that be? It's because of the cover-up. So I'm writing a book about it. I think people know about it; all the white people I tell flinch when I tell them about my book, because they've been trying to hide the truth. But there's signs of it everywhere, and when Bush cheers on the Texas Longhorns, that's really the sign of the devil that he's making. It makes me sick. I think my book will come out next September, if you'd like to hear the title?

    The bus had arrived as he told me this, and he asked the last question as I was waiting in line to board. I told him I thought he might be mistaken, paid my fare, and boarded. Sitting on the bus, I heard the question again through the window, asked to someone else: Do you know anything about pre-Roman Italian history?

    I don't recommend this one for your reading lists.