Archive for March, 2011

Inventing and Discovering

March 24, 2011 Leave a comment

“You can’t say that Oxygen was invented, it was discovered”  My 4th grade science teacher explained.

“What’s the difference between the two?” I asked.

“Well when you discover something, it was already there to begin with, you didn’t create anything new. Whereas an Invention is something that did not exist before but that you made.”


I didn’t know it at the time but this little difference in definition is something which still puzzles philosophers to this day.

The problem in distinguishing between invention and discovery becomes more complicated once we take ideas into account. I’m sure many will easily agree that Narnia was a mental invention rather than a discovery. Likewise I expect that there will be significant agreement that the many pagan gods and myths of ancient times were also “invented” as Voltaire says “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.

Things get messy however when we delve into science. To what extent can we say that Oxygen was discovered rather than invented? The difference between the two is less clear than is generally thought. The atomic model which we are taught is very much an invention, atoms don’t look anything like the image we use to understand how they work. Things get worse as we get to smaller and smaller physical particles, or to larger and larger ones, it seems that given human physiological limitations, it is impossible to “see” any of the phenomenon that are happening. The use of instruments to portray these inaccessible levels of observation is problematic because instruments as inventions only show us the image that we construct them to. In which case all instrumental observation is just as much invention as it is discovery. To complicate matters further even at scales which humans operate on, it is difficult to conclude that our way of seeing the world is objectively accurate. Our sensory organs are all limited by their own methods of functioning, just as much as the instruments we construct.

A famous example of discovery turning to invention is in the Copernican revolution. In showing that the Earth’s centrality to the solar system was very much false Copernicus turned what had been established as fact into invention because it did not exist prior to our discovery.

All of the above discussion has dealt with questions of natural science, delving into the realm of the social the distinction between discovery and invention seems to fade away all together.  What is the difference between Narnia and “Democracy” or Gondor and the family unit. Perhaps this is a non-problem in that everything is an invention rather than discovery? Feyerabend calls all human enterprise to uncover nature (discovering and inventing) “sculpting” in that we shape the reality we look on.

In any case the problems involved do not look set to be solved anytime soon. Though the repercussions seem to foretell the unraveling of the fabric on which academia is built, the consequences of these questions have and should largely be ignored. The conclusion I prefer to draw from this is that the object of science is not the pursuit of truth, what it’s purpose is however is something we have yet to have an answer to.


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The End of Literacy

March 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Why is education in our present times still adamant about the use of text as the medium through which assignments are completed and arguments made?

One article I read reflected on the difference in form that intellectual works have taken through the ages. It used to be that epics and ballads were the medium through which knowledge was transmitted, then the use of books and poetry, later prose came to be the form of choice. I don’t remember who wrote that it is one of the most puzzling curiosities that academia in our time is conducted in as short a medium as peer reviewed journals.

While noting that in other countries and cultures other mediums represent forums of intellectual debate (the newspaper comes to mind in the Arab world where journal publications are deplorable) the generally accepted form of intellectual and scholarly work has come to take the form of articles in peer reviewed journals and often peer reviewed books as well.

Changes in technology have made it possible and practical for audio recordings to be used as viable mediums to transmit knowledge and practice scholarship. I am subscribed to a handful of podcasts which discuss the social sciences and often times I resort to youtube looking up a particular author for an interview. Berkeley’s “Conversations with History” are particularly good for Political Science students. I find that I get a much quicker and clearer account of a scholar’s argument when I listen to him in this form. Listening to Kenneth Waltz for 45 minutes is quicker and more efficient a method of learning what he is all about than taking hours and even days to go through several of his books and journal articles. Audio files have come a long way in the last few years, they  no longer take up massive amounts of physical or virtual space and they can be easily listened to again.

Lectures, power-point presentations, assignments and exams can already be completed online.  Were books and articles to be added to the list the academic craft would be made far more accessible, students would be able to quickly sift through larger amounts of information in shorter times and the voices capable of partaking in the debates would be increased.

Academia however is not about giving voice to the most number of people, it is by nature selective and one of it’s roles is the creation of legitimate authority figures with control of knowledge. Perhaps it is justifiably so, a brief listen to any of the free online talk radios will show the degeneration which occurs when a large number of people are able to participate in discussions in which they have very little at stake. Trolls, flamers, and griefers abound and it makes for great entertainment but not for productive discussion.

I can think of a few of the cons in developing the medium of podcasts or audio files in the place of books and articles. Firstly one can be swayed by the voice of the author rather than the power of his argument, but that is very much present in writing style in texts. But perhaps the auditory senses are more prone to emotional influence (though research shows that the sense of smell is most directly linked to emotional impulses).

A second point is that text can hold a much larger amount of information, it may be that after all reading is quicker than listening. The average page takes about four minutes to read out loud but less than one minute to read by heart. On the other hand such a change may push authors to make their arguments more concise. Academic books, dissertations and theses are becoming lengthier with time, this has resulted in some sort of perverse relationship between book length and academic legitimacy. A return to audio could provide a way of cutting down on this trend for needlessly lengthy word counts.

Using audio it could be argued is not suitable for all students, writing provides a sense of formality which sound recordings cannot capture.  Again this point can be refuted by showing how text becomes a medium of formal communication by practice rather than by nature. If anything the spoken word is the first form of communication we learn and for most people it is the the form they most practice in. Measuring the persuasiveness of an argument by tone, pitch, and pauses used is a return to a truer reflection of what debate is really about. Rarely are points made through the sterile back and forth which scholars partake in.

Developing speaking skills will hone those educated to a way of argument which allows them to engage with the rest of the population rather than leaving them woefully unprepared for such exercises where they could be outstripped by self serving charlatans. The infusion of a generation of well spoken academics into media and social circles would probably have a positive effect on the level of popular argument and debate and would be conducive to creating a society which is empowered to take its own decisions.

On the other hand I am not one to talk, I find myself much more comfortable sitting in anonymity behind a screen writing away without a care or effort to the quality of my voice or the impression my accent may leave on the listener. I think that ultimately a good path to forge would be to add short audio summaries to academic books and to increase the frequency of publicly available interviews. This would be a crucial tool for students in granting them easy access in shorter time frames while maintaining the textual form of the book for those who wish to delve in depth into specific issues of interest. Obviously such a forum is impractical for showing statistical equations, but it is a useful venue for the non-mathematical aspects of our work and in my opinion would bring dynamism and energy into the field.

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