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Who do you get to say I am?

9 January 2015 3 Comments
English: Mathematics formulas () in a PhD thes...

Mathematics in a PhD thesis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s an argument I often hear that brings me up short. Not so much short because I don’t have an answer but because I haven’t managed to wrap my head around where it comes from. It generally comes in one of two forms, either “You can’t possibly understand our world because you’re not an X” (where X is either “humanist”, “creative” or “social scientist”) or its close variant “You can’t possibly understand…because you’re a scientist”.

There are a couple of reasons why this is odd to me. The first is a surface one. I’ve spent more time reading Foucault and Ostrom recently than Fire or Tsien. Of the projects I’ve been involved with recently more of them could be described as humanities (digital or otherwise) or economics than science. There has been more Marxist historical theory and discourse analysis than laboratory experiments in my life over the past few years.

But that, as I say, is a surface issue. I can’t claim to be an expert in the process or methodology of any of these disciplines. The deeper issue is with the assumption that I am “a scientist”. Because by any measure that my old colleagues would apply I don’t qualify as one of those either. Indeed by their standards I’ve completely flunked out. So if I were to define myself by what others allow me to be, I am not allowed to be anything at all. I apparently don’t exist.

This is a problem familiar to researchers carving out new disciplines or new approaches. The power politics of disciplines are exclusionary by design. The right to be listened to is supposed to be earn by demonstrating expertise through specific apprenticeship pieces – the PhD thesis most obviously – but as a researcher advances there are also the journeyman works; in the humanities the first monograph, in the sciences a sufficient body of research articles, first as lead researcher, then as principal investigator. Those pieces only count if they appear in the right places, approved by the right authorities.

I’ve deliberately used the pejorative term “exclusion” here but the motivations need not be malicious. Exclusion is a mechanism for protecting the time of experts – ensuring that their attention is focussed on worthwhile and relevant material. When (if) it is functioning well, the system allows meritocratic inclusion in the club to be earned through demonstrating expertise. If instead of “exclusion” we use the less judgemental word “filtering” then we can ask the right questions – is the filter working properly? What is the rate of false positives and of false negatives? Can that be improved? And what would that cost, in time if not in money?

It is the question of false negatives in our filters that should give us pause. The problem is that the politics of our filters are inextricably bound up with the politics of our communities. We define our communities via shared practice and values, and disciplinary communities are no different. We exclude those who don’t share our practices and values. And this occurs in a fractal manner – the humanities can be defined by their differences to the sciences, the historians by the way they differ to economists, the historiographers by differences to the theorists, the Marxists to the Feminists and so on and so forth. Our disciplinary identities are tightly bound up in the way we exclude those we perceive as different. And our modes and media of communication tend to highlight those differences so we know who to (bother to) read.

And yet…

I think the differences are basically bogus. There are differences in scholarly practice, differences in the models used, indeed differences in what we mean when we use the word “model”. These in turn are reflected in the different frameworks and assumptions that those models and practices are built from. But all of these support the same basic human activity of sense-making, of organising our understanding of the world around us. There are human, social and political reasons for us to organise and self-identify around the different tactical approaches to doing this but the underlying purpose and motivation of the activities are very similar. The social systems that create motivation to engage in these activities, through assignment of prestige and power, emphasise those differences even though the human processes through which they are assigned are remarkably similar.

The communication of scholarship is often used as the fulcrum of arguments for defining disciplinary difference. The way in which the business models for monographs necessarily differ from those for journals and the tradition of long form vs short form writing (a subject worth of some revisionist historical study of its own) is conflated with a perception that the actual motivations and structure of communication differs between disciplines.

It has become reflexive in debates on Open Access in the humanities to assert that the mode of communication in humanities is qualitatively different from that in the sciences. Debates around licensing revolve around the importance of the language itself to humanists, contrasting this with the imagined objectivity or data dependence of scientific communication. Claims are made that in the humanities the writing is the scholarship. Of course, these claims commit exactly the same sin that I am accused of above, but more ironically they represent a failure to apply rigorous standards of humanist (or at least historico-literary) analysis to scientific and humanist discourse.

The communication can never be more than a representation of the scholarship. Whether in Buckheit and Donoho’s critique that the article is “merely advertising of the scholarship”, in Pettifer et al’s argument from surrealist painting that differing article formats are the representations of the work, that “ceci n’est pas un hamburger”, or in O’Leary’s manifesto that “context trumps content” we understand two things. First that communication can only ever be a representation of an internal mind state in the process of sense-making. Second that, because communication involves an attempt to externalise that internal mind state, it is subject to interpretation – that the context of the receiver is matters. The author is always held hostage by the reader.

The structure of scholarly communication

We have sought in the past to make that context as predictable as possible by creating disciplinary boundaries that exclude those that don’t share our expectations. But despite this balkanisation of context the structure of scholarly communications remains remarkably consistent across disciplines. Anita de Waard has described bioscience articles as “stories that persuade with data” and she draws on the strong structural alignment between those research articles and fairy tales when she does so. If the structures are consistent from children’s stories to crystallography, are they really so different between history and chemistry?

In fact all scholarly literature appears to fit a similar mould; stories that persuade by placing evidence in a context. The rhetorical structure of both books and articles is built on introductions that provide context, a journey through which evidence is presented and the conclusion in which the argument is brought together. We don’t adopt this structure because it is the only one possible (it isn’t) or because it is “obvious” in some way (it’s not from a de novo structural perspective) but because as humans we communicate through stories.

The way we create context, the standards of what is acceptable evidence and the ways in which that evidence is marshalled, analysed and integrated differ according to disciplinary practice. But at core we all seek to persuade. The grammars may differ – in extremis ranging from a grammar of data presentation to the grammar of English language – but rhetoric has an important role to play throughout. Assuming that science communication is somehow “objective” and independent of the structure and persuasiveness of the argumentation is as naive as suggesting that humanities discourse is “just someone waffling on”.

The challenges, and the opportunities, of shaking those arguments up – of seeing them in new contexts and new juxtapositions – are precisely the same in my view. Breaking the existing grammars down to see how new creoles or pidgins might form necessarily involves breaking down the monolithic integrity of the original argument. But I would argue that integrity is broken down anyway. The moment that the words, or the data, are put down the context has changed and the author is at the mercy of the reader. There are risks here – risks of mistaking context and of misrepresentation but to me these are the risks inherent in communication itself.

Positive filtering rather than negative

In the end this is a question of risk assessment. There is always risk in communication and choosing to communicate more openly arguably involves greater risk. As humans we have a tendency to overplay risks and underplay the potential opportunities in any assessment and as scholars we are no different. In the end the only way of ensuring absolute control over the risk of misinterpretation and misrepresentation is to not communicate at all. Scholarship has the risks of communication at its heart. Indeed a scientist might suggest that conceptual mutation and evolution is a positive opportunity for scholarship. Is peer review not a form of selection under variation – the usefulness, persuasiveness or power of the idea or claim after it is mutated through the perceptions and context of the reviewer?

The selection for dissemination of our traditional models of peer review are a particular type of filter. They act on the output side and they are negative in the sense that they exclude works from dissemination. But the filters that we apply, the choices we make in our mode and medium of communication, act in both directions. If we choose to only interact with peer reviewed literature we are applying a different kind of filter, still negative, still exclusive. Similarly if we choose to only react with certain journals, or the outputs of our own discipline, or the outputs of those people who belong to our discipline, then we are applying negative filters of subtly different types.

Negative or exclusive filters are important when selecting physical or rivalrous goods. Only so many articles can fit in the pages allowed, only so many books can fit on the truck. In the digital world many of these restrictions disappear. The restriction that remains is the limitation of the researcher’s time or attention. It is not that we do not need filters, but that the online world gives us an opportunity to build differing filters, positive filters, filters that enrich, instead of filters that exclude. For me this is a great opportunity for scholarship because it is the surprises, the new insights, and the new connections that arise when we lift our eyes beyond our narrow disciplinary scope that create value.

Who am I really?

Some might argue that idea that conceptual mutation can be a positive for scholarship could only have come from someone with a background in science. Perhaps even only from someone with an interest in evolution. But is not critical theory essentially based on the same perspective? That only through seeking to understand an author’s context through the choice of language, can you fully understand their true meaning – and that the meaning may be adjacent or even opposed to what the author might claim. Indeed the “science wars” are rooted in the relativist and contextual claims of humanists and social scientists tackling the discourse of the natural sciences. Are based in a decontextualisation of scientific discourse that is arguably the same in form to that feared by some humanists.

I have recently come to realise that, for whatever reason, I have a greater sympathy for positive filters than our traditional negative filters. My best work, whether in my formal research career in the sciences or my more fuzzy “scholarship” as an advocate has been in the interstices. I constantly seek differing perspectives, new places to stand to view problems. Perhaps my single most important piece of research work arose when our team took a wholly naive, but as it turned out very helpful, new approach to tackling issues in DNA sequencing. I used to describe my research as lying in “the black hole between physics, chemistry and biology”. And now I read Ostrom and Foucault and Boyd and Fitzpatrick in an attempt to understand how we might build new communities to support scholarly discourse.

Adopting, even co-opting, different perspectives to look at a problem is what I do. A cynic might say that’s because its easy. Co-opting a new set of tools to look at an problem means not needing to dig too deep because it is easy to look at the newly revealed surface. It’s not an unreasonable criticism. But as I’ve become interested in tackling larger and more challenging problems it has also become obvious that new perspectives are needed.

This kind of approach needs positive, enriching filters, not negative ones, because by excluding certain streams you eliminate the unfamiliar perspectives. This is why being rejected because I am “a scientist” generally stops me cold. It is a rejection of perspective, a rejection in my world view of an opportunity. It is bound up in a self identify of difference that uses difference as a way to filter and exclude – something that for me is in opposition to the scholarship that is of most interest.

The right to speak is not the right to be listened to. The filters matter and the time of the expert is valuable. Part of expertise is exactly the skill in making the choice of how to filter. Nor am I so naive that I do not seek out the media and spaces where particular communities are more likely to be listening, even perhaps in the future seek the traditional kinds of validation and certification that encourage those communities to take an interest in what I have to say.

Yet at the same time I feel that we lose opportunities. Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University asked a question at the Berlin9 Conference in Bethesda that has stayed with me ever since. He asked what it would mean if a university was defined not by how exclusive it was, but by how inclusive it was. Almost all scholarly practice is defined by exclusivity and prestige, by engaging only with those certified and approved. It is defined by the disciplinary boundaries that we erect to contain and exclude those who use different tools and methods. And yet all scholarship is simply a human activity of sense making, discovery and communication.

I am whoever I want to be. You don’t get to define my value. The real question is whether the filters you apply are good enough to tell when I have something to say that is useful for you to hear. What opportunities arise if we can focus not on the differences between disciplines but on the common practice? What if in that focus we could identify where the opportunities for cross-fertilisation lie? What would a scholarship based on inclusion look like?


  • URLs of wisdom (January 11th 2015) | Social in silico said:

    […] Great read by Cameron Neylon on the dangers of being defined as one thing and how this hinders interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving – “as I’ve become interested in tackling larger and more challenging problems its also become obvious that new perspectives are needed. This kind of approach needs positive, enriching filters, not negative ones, because by excluding certain streams you eliminate unfamiliar perspectives. This is why being labelled as “a scientist” generally stops me cold. It is a rejection of perspective, a rejection in my world view of an opportunity. It is bound up in a self identify of difference that uses difference as a way to filter and exclude – something that for me is in opposition to scholarship that is of most interest.” […]

  • J said:

    Agree, inclusivity facilitates cross disciplinary and blue skies work, thinking outside the box etc and beyond……..

  • Don’t Fence Me In: The Bogus Walls Between Disciplines said:

    […] and this piece originally appeared on his personal blog, Science in the Open, under the title Who do you get to say I am?. This piece is reposted under CC-0 […]