Monday, August 24, 2015

Academic Knowing

Academic writing expresses academic knowledge. In order to write something academically, then, you need to know it first, and to know it in an "academic" way. That may seem trivially true of all knowing and all writing. ("Write what you know," as the old saw goes.) Before you can write about tables you have to know about tables. It seems obvious. But there's an important reciprocity in the case of academic writing and knowing that we do well to remember. In order to write a book about how to build tables, you need to know how to build tables, but there's no obvious sense in which the opposite also holds. We can perfectly well imagine a carpenter who can build a table but who is unable to write a good book; indeed, we can imagine an entirely illiterate and yet entirely masterful carpenter. An illiterate scholar, by contrast, is a contradiction in terms.

Academic knowledge, we might say, is expressed in writing. There are other modes of expression—speech and debate, for example—that, we might say, suggest academic knowledge, but it is only in writing that this knowledge is truly demonstrated. Some people can present themselves convincingly as scholars in conversation, but their claims to know what they are talking about are undermined if we discover that they haven't written and can't write about their subject. This is why I make the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph about something an essential part of my definition of knowledge "for academic purposes." As a scholar, it is sometimes tempting but ultimately not at all helpful to kid yourself that you know something if you are unable to write it down. If you are struggling to write it down, you should treat this as part of the struggle to know it.

I should admit that this theory of knowledge stands in a certain kind of tension with my more practical writing advice. In some circles, I'm famous for suggesting that you should separate your writing process entirely from your research process. But I really just mean that you should spend some of your time writing down things you're no longer struggling to know. You should not think you can solve your knowledge problem through writing. But what I said in the previous paragraph still holds: part of your knowledge problem just is a writing problem, so you have to work on that too sometimes.

The solution to the problem of how to write something lies in an understanding of who you're writing for. (I normally cite Virginia Woolf for this point, but "know your reader" is really as old a piece of advice as "write what you know".) And therein lies the clue to understanding also why writing is an essential part of academic knowing. Academic knowledge is always held by communities, often very specific ones consisting of tens or hundreds of people. Whether or not you know something academically depends on whether or not your views are plausible to these specific people. You learn about them by reading them and they learn about you by reading you.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The Social Construction of a Science Factoid

When I consider how cheaply the alleged fact of Tim Hunt's sexism was constructed, and then how costly it became for him and for science, I must confess I am sometimes brought to the verge of despair. That there is power enough in the world to make so much history of so little knowledge both boggles the mind and breaks the heart. After all, the same people who told us that Tim Hunt is a sexist tell us also that sexism is a major problem in the sciences. I think it is fair to imagine that their basis for asserting the more general fact is as considered as their basis for making the specific allegation.

And what, then, was their basis for asserting that Tim Hunt is a sexist?

They had listened to him speak extemporaneously for about five minutes**. They had "compared notes" afterwards and reached an agreement about what he had said. Three hours later, they announced to the world that a leading figure in cancer research harbours "Victorian" sentiments about women, attributing to him the absurd notion that labs should be sex-segregated. In those three hours, they did not ask him what he meant. The following day, they did not hear what he had to say when introducing "top young talent" for the European Research Council. They did not look into his record on the promotion of gender equality. They listened to him speak for five minutes** and made up their minds on that basis.

It was Norman Mailer who coined the word "factoid" to denote "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper."* That Tim Hunt should be a sexist is precisely such a factoid. The mere act of tweeting it, perhaps, did not create the fact. But it was quickly picked up by, as Deborah Blum put it, "countless media platforms". It became what is now called a "thing". Tim Hunt had become a sexist, even a misogynist. He had been given a set of character traits that no one who knew him could recognise.

The effects of such shoddy constructions of fact are serious. When I suggested that I wasn't so sure any longer that sexism is a serious problem in science, the sarcastic retort was that all the women who have been mistreated by men in science will be happy to hear that. But it is precisely the stories of those women that are becoming increasingly hard to take seriously, not because they are untrue, which many of them probably are not, but because their basis in fact is simply never secured by the people who report them. The case of Tim Hunt shows how cheaply these so-called facts are made. The actual, underlying truth about sexism in science, which is no doubt both real and troubling for those who are affected, is done no favours by allowing anything at all to be said about it as long as it is done in a properly outraged tone of voice.

And there are even wider effects of such a careless fabrication of facts. The whole range of science factoids, the stock in trade of science writers, is drawn into doubt. Let us keep in mind that the same people who assured us that Tim Hunt's remarks were "no joke", tell us also that vaccines are safe and global warming is caused by human activity. One minute they're telling us that "climate change denial is a threat to national security", the next that the Tim Hunt gaffe has "shone a spotlight on the rampant sexism in society in general and in the sciences specifically". These judgments are, we must presume, made on the same sort of basis, with the same degree of care.

I, for one, have now entirely stopped believing what science writers say. Indeed, I will not even bother to consider their words as serious attempts to do anything other than channel the ideological dogmas of the moment*. If the profession wants my trust, it will, minimally, have to do some public soul-searching about what it did to Tim Hunt. A profession with a serious interest in science and fact would not take important things so lightly.

*[Update: It's worth considering the longer version of Mailer's definition: "Factoids ... that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority." That's exactly what has happened here.]
**[Update: There's been some discussion on Twitter about the exact length of his toast. Photo time stamps apparently contradict the 5-7 minute estimate in the original factoid, suggesting no more than 3 minutes instead. It's significant because the factoid has him "going on and on" indifferent to the stunned reaction of his audience. As we now know, the audience was not stunned, and he did not go on and on.]