[Humanist] 27.627 the social conditions of our work

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Dec 17 08:26:14 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 627.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 16 Dec 2013 09:55:13 +0000
        From: "Prescott, Andrew" <andrew.prescott at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re:  27.619 the social conditions of our work
        In-Reply-To: <20131214071651.657567796 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

Two comments:

1. You are right to stress that the pursuit of research funding has create pressures which distort research funding. Another discussion of this to add to the excellent list which you provide is:


However, scientific research is expensive, and often simply will not take place unless it is funded. We all have an interest in well-funded pharmaceutical research. I personally would be happy to pay more taxes to ensure that there is a vibrant scientific research culture which is not dependent on commercial interests, but I suspect that this is not a view which command widespread assent. The same issues apply with Digital Humanities. DH is potentially expensive and that creates pressure on researchers to find money to fund their research ideas.

2. I don’t think we should assume that older generations of researchers were all as scrupulous as Fr Busa. One need only think of the controversy around Cyril Burt to show that this is by no means a new problem (A good new discussion of the Burt controversy is by Plucker, J. A. (Ed.). (2013). Human intelligence: Historical influences, current controversies, teaching resources: http://www.intelltheory.com/burtaffair.shtml). Burt’s motives remain obscure: some have ascribed them to illness, others to an overweening sense of self-aggrandisement (the besetting sin of academics, far more worrying than pursuit of research income): http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/webdav/site/education/shared/hattie/docs/the-burt-controversy-%281991%29.pdf. This pursuit of respectability and social prestige appears to have been in the past a major factor in scientific fraud, as the series of fraudulent discoveries (including perhaps Piltdown Man) associated with the name of Charles Dawson suggest: http://www.bournemouth.ac.uk/caah/landscapeandtownscapearchaeology/piltdown_man_a.html. 

Maybe the issue is not that scientific fraud is becoming more commonplace, but rather that the motives are changing - it is nowadays more frequently a case of financial survival, whereas in the past fraud was undertaken in pursuit of fame and fortune.

Professor Andrew Prescott FRHistS 
Head of Department 
Department of Digital Humanities 
King's College London 
26-29 Drury Lane 
London WC2B 5RL 
+44 (0)20 7848 2651 

On 14 Dec 2013, at 07:16, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 619.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Fri, 13 Dec 2013 18:24:58 +0200
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: the social conditions of our work
> At the still ongoing Twelfth Workshop on Treebanks and Linguistic 
> Theories (TLT12, http://www.bultreebank.org/TLT12/) António Branco 
> (Lisbon), in "Reliability and Meta-reliability of Language Resources: 
> Ready to initiate the Integrity Debate", provoked vigorous discussion 
> that badly needs to spread out into the rest of the academic world. He 
> raised the question of how the development of language resources could 
> aspire to first class status as scientific work ("scientific" here meant 
> in the European sense). But at least for me what jumped out of this 
> question was great concern for the social conditions of intellectual 
> work. These, I would argue, lead rather directly to the shocking problems 
> Branco detailed in his paper: the extent not just of fraud and carelessness
> in scientific work ("scientific" now meant in the usual Anglophone sense) 
> but the failure to be able to verify, i.e. replicate, results across the natural 
> sciences and medicine.
> Branco detailed "worrying signs that, in what concerns mature and well 
> established scientific fields, scientific activities and results may be 
> untrustable to an extent larger than the possibly expected and 
> acceptable. That this issue has recently hit the mass media is but an 
> indicator of the volume and relevance of these signs, whose assessment 
> and discussion became unavoidable across all sectors of the 
> international scientific system."
> From the mass media he cited the following:
> "Unreliable Research: Trouble at the Lab", The Economist, 19 October 2013.
> Michael Hiltkik, "Science has Lost its Way, at a big Cost to Humanity", 
> Los Angeles Times, 17 October 2013.
> Carl Zimmer, "A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform", The 
> New York Times, 16 April 2012.
> Sharon Begley, "In Cancer Science, Many 'Discoveries' don't Hold up", 
> Reuters, 28 March 2012.
> Gautam Nail, "Scientists' Elusive Goal: Reproducing Study Results", The 
> Wall Street Journal, 2 December 2011.
> The accepted and much publicized goal of scientific research, we all 
> know, is to produce results that are totally independent of the 
> researcher, time and place. Results have to be replicable. Some of the 
> not-holding-up is indeed due to fraud, some to carelessness, some to hurry. 
> But there are two issues here that concern those of us not in the 
> natural sciences.
> The social issue is the pressure put on academics for publishable 
> results and how some, or perhaps many, respond. During this same 
> workshop Fr Roberto Busa's meticulousness was cited as the ideal that it 
> is. But, I thought, consider the social conditions under which that 
> great Jesuit scholar worked, and compare those with the conditions which 
> afflict most of us now. Is this not an issue about which we should 
> raise our collective voice? Why, I wonder, do we appear to be so helpless 
> in the face of the corps of managers?
> The other issue is raised e.g. by Evelyn Fox Keller in her subtle and 
> powerful essay, "The Dilemma of Scientific Subjectivity in Postvital 
> Culture", in The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power, 
> ed. Peter Galison and David J. Stump (Stanford, 1996). This issue is the 
> systematic erasure of the human actor in scientific research -- the 
> creation of the abstract "scientist" in the 2nd half of the 19C "who 
> could speak for everyman but was no-man, in a double sense: not any 
> particular man, and also a site for the not-man within each and every 
> particular observer." Keller cites Brian Rotman's very fine study, 
> Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero, in which he studies "the 
> progressive loss of the anteriority of things to signs throughout 
> European culture".
> So, a social problem and a philosophical problem, tightly interconnected.
> Like the scholars at this conference we have yet to figure out 
> how to assess much of what we do. So, perhaps, at least as far as the 
> philosophical problem is concerned, we have a chance to work out a way 
> of saying "good" that can stand and be relied on without having to mean 
> "good for everyman, and therefore no-man". But, then, the social problem 
> cannot be avoided. The mindless, compelled rush into print, the silly chasing 
> of public impact exercises, the following of grant money rather than one's 
> developing interests, the bandwagon jumping etc. etc. harms us all. Do we 
> lack the courage of our convictions because we've lost the convictions?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
> Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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