Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A shifting mode   posted by Razib @ 12/02/2009 11:02:00 PM

picture-31-(1)Here's the source. The fact that there's been so much change since 1990 is what is striking to me.


Monday, May 18, 2009

The Two Cultures, and some data on the public's response   posted by agnostic @ 5/18/2009 03:04:00 PM

SEED has a set of short video responses to the question "Are we beyond the Two Cultures?", a reference to the split between the arts & humanities types and the science types. Steven Pinker discusses several ways in which the arts can benefit from working with the sciences, such as gaining a better understanding of human attention, visual processing, and so on. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker argues that one reason that 20th C. art and architecture have been such huge flops is Modernism's denial of a basic human nature, both in terms of how the mind works and what things push our pleasure buttons. But aside from what has been going on in academia and the art gallery world, where does the art-consuming public stand on bridging the Two Cultures?

If we are to believe Tom Wolfe's account in From Bauhaus to Our House, in the first several decades after WWII, most of the elite considered it cool to sit in (or at least display) furniture that embodied the Modernist aesthetic. He emphasizes that Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair was particularly sought after. So, some decades later, how much does the public value Modernist design as compared to design whose forms are derived more from nature?

(The latter forms appeal to what E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia," or our native apprecation for natural forms. This idea goes back at least to the mid-19th C., when the British architect Owen Jones wrote The Grammar of Ornament, available online in full and in color. It sought to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences by investigating the general laws of aesthetics in ornamentation, and especially by pointing to the central role that nature-based forms play.)

Searching's home & garden section for Modernist keywords "Barcelona chair" gives 957 results (other searches for this item give fewer hits), "Mies" gives 435, "Corbusier" gives 284, and "Eames" (who is much more palatable) gives 1,258. Contrast this with Art Nouveau keywords: "Tiffany lamp" alone gives 10,381, while the broader "Tiffany -breakfast" (to remove Breakfast at Tiffany's memerobilia) gives 16,565 hits. Price differences don't seem to account for this, since the objects from both styles are moderately expensive.

The same order-of-magnitude difference shows up for searches of's home & garden section too. "Tiffany lamp" gives 2,003 results, while "Barcelona chair" and "Mies" each give about 40, "Corbusier" gives 303, and the less-insane "Eames" gives 466.

Finally, searching gives 147 hits for "Tiffany" (Studios) and 191 for "Gaudi," compared to only 22 for "Eames," 38 for "Corbusier," and 16 for "Mies."

So, as far as the art-buying public is concerned, most people seem to belong to the Third Culture already. It's only arts academics, critics, and others in the business of art who insist on a sharp divide between the arts & humanities and the sciences. After all, they have their territory to defend from the ever-encroaching sciences, whereas outsiders are disinterested.

I found something similar when I looked at the under- and over-valuations of composers and of painters as well: most of the art-buying public values mid-late 19th C. music and painting, mostly ignoring the Modernists.

When the elite art world abandoned its interest in the sciences, more or less as a fashion statement, it doomed itself to silliness and obscurity. Science types already read a lot outside of their main area, so we don't have terribly far left to go. However, arts & humanities types flaunt their ignorance of the sciences -- unlike Alberti or Owen Jones -- so that the burden of "closing the gap" falls more on them.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Is news coverage of science focusing more on substance than before?   posted by agnostic @ 5/05/2009 10:15:00 PM

One thing that many of us worry about is how well educated the educatable public is about biology and evolution -- are they reading superficial stories, or are they being exposed to the deeper ideas? (Set aside whether they'll remember any of it in a few years.) Actually, what most really worry about is whether or not science reporters are doing a better or worse job than before, since we can't really know how much substance the public shoud be expected to grok. There's actually a fairly crude but helpful way to measure this, so let's see what it shows.

I started with the complaint that when a science isn't very mature, people focus too much on individuals -- they're like disciples hanging on every word of the prophet, or quoting him in exegesis if he's dead. For example, Freudian, Marxism, Chomskyan, and Darwinian or Darwinism are common terms, yet they don't actually say what they're for -- just whatever the guy said. Contrast this with the rare or non-existent terms Lavoisierism, Newtonian (the far more common phrase is "classical" mechanics), etc. Adjectival forms in math are only meant to show who discovered or invented something -- Gaussian distribution, Hessian matrix, Laplace transform, etc. -- rather than refer to a large body of theory that the guy put together.

This is compounded in journalism since writers usually are arts and humanities majors, who will thus be tempted to write biographical pieces and present the social history of the scientists, rather than digest what their contributions were and convey that substance to the readers. Such articles would certainly contain their names, but not necessarily the concepts they invented.

So, my measure of "fluff" is the number of articles that contain a famous scientist's name (funny way of defining fluff, but you'll see). My measure of "substance" is the number of articles that mention a particular theory, concept, or whatever, associated with that scientist. I then take the ratio of substance to fluff and track this over time. This ratio answers the question: "For every article that mentioned the scientist, how many articles mentioned a big idea linked to him?" Larger values mean a greater focus on the theory itself rather than the person who invented it.

I'm sure you have vivid memories from high school chemistry class about what an atom looks like, but I'll bet you find it difficult to remember what's-his-name and you-know-uh-that-guy who developed the various parts of the model. That's good -- the key ideas stuck. Now on to the data.

I searched the NYT from 1981 to 2008 for "Darwin," "evolutionary," "natural selection," "Adam Smith," "invisible hand," "the big bang," and "Einstein" (removing results with "Einstein College"). And before the autistic geek brigade pipes up about how Einstein didn't propose the Big Bang -- no shit. But his ideas did help pave the way, and his name is the only one common enough to get lots of data for each year (unlike Lemaitre, who gets only 8 hits during the entire 28-year period). Likewise, general relativity and Brownian motion don't exactly get a lot of coverage. For physics, it's either the Big Bang or black holes, and the latter has been appropriated into common usage far more than the former, so using "the Big Bang" is better for making sure the context is scientific.

Here are graphs showing the substance-to-fluff ratios over time:

Overall, things look good -- reporters are focusing more on the deeper ideas of the field, compared to dropping names. The year-to-year variation is a lot wilder for economics, but it's a social science, and so less mature than biology or physics. So, writers may be more fickle when they're deciding whether to focus on the ideas or to invoke some famous guy's name. Indeed, we expect that in some areas of social science, education, and health and nutrition -- which are largely presided over by a dogmatic priestly caste -- the major breakthroughs in the field won't be reported at all, or will show downward trends over time, as the ideology police slowly buries them down the memory hole.

This jibes with what most people say about the NYT science reporting -- it's great for the hard sciences, but it might as well be the funny pages for social science or health and nutrition. Sure, the NYT regularly churns out stories about non-existent "trends" based on what's fashionable among a handful of neurotic Jewish mothers on the Upper West Side. But at the same time, the NYT also allows Carl Zimmer, Nicholas Wade, and John Tierney to get the word out about a lot of great research. I didn't read the NYT in 1981, as I was not even 1 year old for most of that year, but based on the above data, I would guess that the science reporting was not nearly as good as it is now.

It's yet another example of how the panic about the world going to hell only applies to the arts and humanities, not the sciences. No one gives a shit about contemporary art anymore, and quoting a Yale lit crit theorist these days would only get you laughed out of the room. This is good -- people have woken up. As far as the intellectually curious crowd is concerned, though, things are only getting better.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 27, 2007

Against Open Access???   posted by Razib @ 8/27/2007 08:47:00 AM

It seems that a coalition of non-Open Access journals, Partnership in Research Integrity in Science & Medicine, is out to take down journals like PLOS. I know people have to put bread on the table, but really there isn't an open-ended guarantee that you can milk your business model forever. In any case, Blog Around the Clock has links to many comments around the web in regards to this issue.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

NAS audio interviews   posted by Razib @ 6/09/2007 11:25:00 PM

The National Academy of Sciences has a small archive of interviews with prominent members.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Small planet!   posted by Razib @ 4/25/2007 09:21:00 AM

Check out these two posts on the extrasolar planet. I remember reading as a kid a short Poul Anderson essay on "how to design a habitable planet" (for a science fiction story).


Friday, February 16, 2007

Poll the experts!   posted by Razib @ 2/16/2007 07:54:00 PM

Do you remember the age before polling in politics? I don't. Today we bemoan the emphasis on polls and idealize the past, before candidates knew in scientific and statistically significant detail the temperature of the democratic water. But no one is going to ban polls in the near future, for every person who complains about survey data there are hundreds who are clicking refresh over & over to find the most recent tracking results on their website of choice.

I think something similar is necessary for the sciences (or scholarship in general). Is George Lakoff a laughing stock (as Chris would have us believe), or a thinker of gigantic Aristotelian proportions? I suppose if you were a cognitive scientist you'd know, your sample of individuals in the field with whom you'd engaged in personal communication would be vast and you could get a sense of the direction that the wind was blowing. But for someone outside the field you basically have to trust someone on the inside and hope they aren't misleading you (or, themselves). Is multi-level selection the next big thing in evolutionary biology, as Bora claims, or is it a relatively marginal and muddled field, my own general perception? Bora has made the Kuhnian claim that multi-level selection's day will come when the older scientists die off, but how do we know that his perception is correct? One's own sample is obviously going to be biased toward those with whom one is on common ground with, perhaps there are enormous social science departments steeped in conceptual metaphor theory that Chris has no knowledge of because he is boxed in within his old fashioned world of symbolicists?

I think my point is pretty clear here: in the sciences quite often laypeople are in the position where they know with great confidence that a theory is absolutely accepted at its level of precision (e.g., Newtonian Mechanics) or totally rejected (e.g., the Aether theories). It is as if our knowledge of allele frequencies was certain with any degree of confidence only if they were operationally fixed (i.e., greater than 99%) or very rare or non-existent (i.e., less than 1%). Not only would my proposal help the public, I think it could give scientists some perspective about their position within their discipline.

Labels: , ,