In Search of Lost Ambiguity

by Jalees Rehman

Lorax meets Rorschach (by Mark Turnauckas via Flickr)

Probably. Possible. Perhaps. Indicative. Researchers routinely use such suggestives in scientific manuscripts, because they acknowledge the limitations of the inferences and conclusions one can make when analyzing scientific data. The results of individual experiments are often open to multiple interpretations and therefore do not lend themselves to making definitive pronouncements. Cell biologists, for example, may test the role of molecular signaling pathways and genes which regulate the cellular functions by selectively deleting individual genes. However, we are also aware of the limitations inherent in this reductionist approach. Even though gene deletion studies allow us to study the potential roles of selected genes, we know that several hundred genes act in concert to orchestrate a cellular function. The role of each gene needs to be interpreted in the broader context of their role in this cellular orchestra. It is therefore not possible to claim that one has identified the definitive cause of cell growth or cell survival. Addressing causality is a challenge in biological research because so many biological phenomena are polycausal.

This does not mean that we cannot draw any conclusions in cell biology. Quite the contrary, being aware of the limitations of our tools and approaches forces us to grapple with the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in scientific experimentation. Repeat experiments and statistical analyses allow researchers to quantify the degree of uncertainty for any given set of studies. When the results of scientific experiments are replicated and confirmed by other research groups, we can become increasingly confident of our findings. However, we also do not lose sight of the complexity of nature and are aware of the fact that scientific tools and approaches will likely change over time and uncover new depths of knowledge that could substantially expand or challenge even our most dearly held scientific postulates. Instead of being frustrated by the historicity of scientific discovery, we are humbled by the awe-inspiring complexity of our world. On the other hand, it is difficult to disregard an increasing trend in contemporary science to obsess about the novelty of scientific findings. A recent study analyzed the abstracts of biomedical research papers published in the years 1974-2014 and found that during the 30 year time period, there was an 880% (nine-fold) increase in verbiage conveying positivity and certainty using words such as “amazing”, “assuring”, “reassuring”, “enormous”, “robust” or “unprecedented”.

Why are some scientists abandoning the more traditional language of science which emphasizes the probabilistic and historical nature of scientific discovery? Read more »

On Our Critical Categories: Pretentiousness

by Ryan Ruby

“Ordinary men commonly condemn what is beyond them.” —François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

6a01bb08d71165970d01bb08f31a8b970d-350wiFor the American reader Dan Fox is an ideal guide to the murky space where class overlaps with taste. His position in the art world—he is a co-editor of the renowned contemporary art magazine frieze—has furnished him with ringside seats to some of the “nastiest brawls over pretentiousness.” Moreover, he is British. The class education the English receive as a matter of their cultural heritage enables them to view the matter more clearly than their American counterparts, whose understanding of class has been systematically retarded by taboo, ideology, and denialism, resulting in a deeply classed society that has no idea how to talk about this aspect of itself.

Class is not “just a question of money and how you spend it,” Fox helpfully reminds us in his book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Coffee House Press, 2016). It's also “about how your identity is constructed in relationship to the world around you.” When we divide classes solely on the basis of wealth—into upper, middle, and lower—as we tend to do in America, it becomes easy to forget that the division is not only arbitrary, but also a gross simplification. In fact, the more generally we talk about class, the easier we fall into confusion. The so-called upper, middle, and lower classes are by no means unified groups, whose members view themselves as bound by the same interests. Every member of the “upper class,” for example, may be considered an elite, but this elite group is comprised of a number of class segments, whose members may in turn be ranked on the basis of their access to various kinds of capital (financial, educational, social, cultural, geographical, symbolic, etc.) whose relative importance is in a permanent state of flux.

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Evolving to the Future, the Web of Culture

by Bill Benzon

CB1

“The interests of humanity may change, the present curiosities in science may cease, and entirely different things may occupy the human mind in the future.” One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

Stanislaw Ulam, from a tribute to John von Neumann

In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery–the farther back you are able to draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot.

R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path

Let’s get started:

  • A week ago The Guardian published a long piece in which Pankaj Mishra argued that the Western world no longer provides a model the rest of the world should or even can follow, if it ever had.
  • A couple of weeks ago polymath David Byrne asserted that he’d lost interest in contemporary art, feeling it had devolved into “inoffensive tchotchkes for billionaires and the museums they fund,” a sentiment that the late Robert Hughes had been promulgating for some years.
  • Back in 1996 science journalist John Horgan published The End of Science, in which he argued that many fields of science had reached a point where they were no longer intellectually productive. The big problems had been solved, more or less, and further investigations seemed to be running in circles without any clear sense of progress.

Not only am I sympathetic which each of these ideas, I think they all reflect the same underlying cause: the wellsprings of old ideas – about social organization, artistic expression, and scientific explanation, certainly, but also about fiction, legal codes, economics, education, music, gender and family, and a host of others – have run dry and new ones have not yet been discovered.

I’m quite familiar with this phenomenon in the case of literary studies, where I received my graduate training. The French landed in Baltimore in the Fall of 1966 and catalyzed three decades of intellectual invention. The invention all but stopped about twenty years ago, leaving literary studies afflicted with a sense of malaise that goes deeper than budget cuts and umbrage taken at silly articles in which humorists of The New York Times take potshots at papers presented at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association.

How could new ideas just stop? Have people gotten stupid or is something else going on? If so, what?

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A Comet Unnoticed

by Alexander Bastidas Fry

Comet ISON, HST/NASAComets have long been portents of change. They challenge the rote repetition of our skies. An astute observer of the sky will perhaps have recently noticed a new object in the sky, a comet, present for the last few weeks (you would have had to look east just before sunrise near the star Spica). This was the comet ISON. But comet ISON, having strayed too close to the Sun, has been mostly annihilated. If there is a comet in the sky and no one sees it, was it ever really there?

William Carlos William's poem, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, captures the essence of comet ISON's elusive journey around the Sun. Brueghel, the Felmish Renaissance painter, carefully recorded the event like a faithful astronomer, but the worker is not keen on the sky and Icarus goes wholly unnoticed. It is just the same to the worker, for had they noticed Icarus or not it would likely make no difference to their toils in the field. And similarly ISON went largely unnoticed.

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

ISON made a brief appearance to the unaided eye for a few days before it grazed the sun and then uncoiled itself. But to the learned astronomer ISON is still interesting. Comets are rare objects in the inner solar system so even a dead comet is a chance to learn something, in fact, further spectroscopic observations of this dead comet's remains will continue to tell us exactly what it was made of. There is a legacy here.

Let us begin at the beginning. Some four or five billion years ago as the Solar System itself was forging its identity trillions of leftover crumbs were scattered into the outer solar system.

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Desire Paths: Reading, Memory and Inscription

by Daniel Rourke

The urban landscape is overrun with paths. Road-paths pulling transport, pavement-paths and architectural-paths guiding feet towards throbbing hubs of commerce, leisure and abode.Beyond the limits of urban paths, planned and set in tarmac or concrete, are perhaps the most timeless paths of all. Gaston Bachelard called them Desire Paths, physical etchings in our surroundings drawn by the thoughtless movement of human feet. In planning the layout of a city designers aim to limit the emergence of worn strips of earth that cut through the green grass. People skipping corners or connecting distinct spaces vote with their feet the paths they desire. Many of the pictures on the right (from this Flickr group) show typical design solutions to the desire path. A delimiting fence, wall or thoroughfare, a row of trees, carefully planted to ease the human flow back in line with the rigid, urban aesthetic. These control mechanisms have little effect – people merely walk around them – and the desire path continues to intend itself exactly where designers had feared it would.

The technical term for the surface of a planetary body, whether urbanised, earth covered or extra-terrestrial, is regolith. As well as the wear of feet, the regolith may be eroded by wind, rain, the path of running water or the tiny movement of a glacier down the coarse plane of a mountain. If one extends the meaning of the term regolith it becomes a valuable metaphor for the outer layer upon or through which any manner of paths may be inscribed.

The self-titled first Emperor of China, Qín Shǐhuáng, attempted, in his own extravagant way, to re-landscape the regolith of time. By building the Great Wall around his Kingdom and ordering the burning of all the books written before his birth Qín Shǐhuáng intended to isolate his Kingdom in its own mythic garden of innocence. Far from protecting his people from the marauding barbarians to the West or the corrupting knowledge of the past Qín Shǐhuáng's decision to enclose his Kingdom probably expanded his subject's capacity for desire beyond it. There is no better way to cause someone to read something than to tell them they cannot; no better way to cause someone to dream beyond some kingdom, or attempt to destroy it, than to erect a wall around it. As we demarcate paths we cause desire to erupt beyond them. The regolith, whether physical or ethereal, will never cease to degrade against our wishes.

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