Sunday, October 16, 2016

Philosophy for PhD students

I keep thinking how no one seems to even know anything about philosophy of science. And I am talking about lecturers and doctoral students. Three years ago, I audited a series of research methods seminars at a certain university faculty where they literally laughed at the mention of epistemology. The consensus was that it is a nonsense concern. One student added, with everyone nodding to that, that - verbatim quote - "studying epistemology would undermine the very existence of our discipline". I wish I had filmed that moment, priceless.
Actually, there's not even a crash course in any basic philosophy for PhD (Doctor Philosophiae!!!) students that I know of! When I ask my fellow doctoral researchers, 'Who are your three favourite philosophers?' more often than not I get blank stares in response. And that is from students of social sciences, arts and humanities! Don't even get me started on natural scientists! Those guys just "believe" in science and their pop-prophets, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Hawking, who all I bet never sat next to a philosophy textbook in  their lives.

I really think that if SOAS wants to up its game it needs to make training in philosophy and formal logic compulsory. And real proper methodology training too, like at LSE. I remember vividly  how an academic supervisor reacted to my including a methodology chapter in my thesis. Doesn't how we collect data  affect our research findings?

When I try to talk about it here, I usually get, 'You think too much'.

Isn't that what we are meant to do as academics, thinking too much?

Surely, thinking critically about how we think should not be such an esoteric concern for a scientist?

What do you think?

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P. S. Adjacent to this is why we need to teach social theory to even start discussing any social issues. At the same seminar that I mentioned above, I was ridiculed for suggesting just that. The lecturer who conducted the seminar was part of that too.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

What are social facts and why we need to bother

Social facts to society are like grammar to a language, a higher level of abstraction that is nonetheless real, as it governs the way things/words are ordered. You can speak a language without knowing anything about its grammar.  Perhaps, that may affect the higher level of your command but you should mostly get by.

It is possible to deny the existence of social facts because they are not real in the sense of how physical things are real. It is never having been told about that that enabled Margaret Thatcher to claim, with a beady-eyed aplomb, that "there is no such thing as society". (The same woman insisted that a country finance is just like someone's purse: a deliberate lie  or a misguided naiveté, we shall  never know.) Some professional academics I know told me, very seriously, that identity, values and post-liberalism do not exist. They doubtlessly live according with their middle-classes values and various identities (class, gender, race, religion, etc.) in a very Neo-Liberal reality of latter-day London, yet since they have not been taught the grammar of (their own) social existence, they cannot quite put their finger on it. There is no vocabulary to talk about it and therefore it exists not: out of mind, out of sight. It is just like some of my students, very bright and eloquent young adults, who do not know a subjunctive clause from a parenthesis, because someone long time ago decided that teaching grammar at school is a waste of time, innit.

Learning grammar and learning social theory can and often do open up people's mind to a realisation that there is more to reality than just what is visible to the naked eye. As Castaneda's Don Juan wisely said, 'The true essence of the tree is between its leaves.' Without such an insight, one won't be able to see, metaphorically, the forest for the trees. Which automatically should disqualify anyone from any discussion about social matters. Unfortunately, that is still not the case, particularly where it matters: in politics and academia. Hence, we end up taught and led by people whose ability for mental abstraction and educated discussion does not exceed that of your average teenager.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Historians and the present

Historians seem to need to wait for secondary sources before assessing current social reality. Thirty years, on the average.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Qualitative methods and the footsoldiers of science

A very sophomoric attitude to science is to take it as the source of ultimate truth, a modern God of sorts. It is all too often exemplified by research footsoldiers in natural sciences as well as by frequent readers of science blogs. A result of that is an egregious, irrational and deeply misguided belief that the complexity, messiness and overdetermination of reality can be reduced to and explained by two arbitrary variables. For example, for the purposes of  this particular piece on  GM crops, yield and profit - while ignoring everything else - public health, environment, food quality, larger-scale economical implications, etc. - as mere "external factors". 

Also, limiting the time scope for meta-analysis - understandably necessary to make it handy - ignores any long-term effects even within the chosen yield-profit scope. That's how we end up with grossly biased and reductionist conclusions dangled around by BSc graduates and their associates as "scientific facts". It is very unfortunate that the same "facts" are then used for policy development and administrative decision-making. All because some dimwits were not taught Qualitative Methods and can't see the forest behind the trees.

#TheBanalityOfEvil #TheRuleOfExperts #GoodForTheEconomyShitForThePeople

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Right-wing anthropologist

Is there such a thing as a right-wing anthropologist? I am yet to meet one. My guess is that when you take so much time and effort learning about people's lives, walking in their shoes, trying to  understand their world in all this complexity, you can't go right-wing on them: blame them for the life they live, compare them with what they are not, treat them not as fellow human beings but as labels, bugaboos, somehow not-quite-humans and hence non-deserving.

Right-wing sociologists, on the other hand, do crop up every now  and then. I blame Quantitative Methods. When you are trained to reduce people to figures, graphs and spreadsheets, without bearing in mind that it's but an exercise in mental abstraction, that's essentially dehumanisation. And dehumanisation of other humans is a surefire precursor to right-wing thought and right-wing action.

*All that being said, the old-fashioned right-wing vs. left-wing dichotomy has been largely hollowed out in the political world. The majority of Tories and Labour, Republicans and Democrats are but mildly differing flavours of Neo-Liberal (right-wing, in the old sense, par excellence). The crunch nowadays is largely between the old establishment and populists. 

What do you think?

Monday, April 25, 2016

In the name of Science, Data and Quantitative Methods

Before God('s word) was the language of power.  This day and age, it is science. Or rather the religion of Scientism. Hard data. Statistics. Figures. Graphs. Flashy PowerPoint presentations. The tool of mass persuasion. The tool of policy justification.

It's the only language power speaks. It's the only language power understands.

That is why Quantitative methods are so in vogue. Heavily Quant-laden MSc courses command the three-letters-behind-your-name market: the fees are higher and so are the expected salaries. Tens of thousands of science graduates churned out into the labour market.

This is how Bloomberg calculates that Thailand is world's happiest economy. This is how development consultants' number-jugglery  for ever leaves the Third World struggling, while keeping the HQ in New York, London or Geneva pleased. This is how the rule of technocrats indoctrinated in Quantitative Methods runs entire countries into the ground. This is how nuclear energy is (falsely) made out to be the cheapest. This is how technocrats from Goldman Sachs get to assume top-echelon positions in European governments and bleed everyone white with their misguided austerity policies. Never mind that even natural scientists demonstrate that uncritically quantitative research produces false results.

Wars used to be fought over one word in the Scripture. Now countries are turned into "competition states" to climb up a few places in rankings, never mind the social, environmental and psychological  cost (ala, the externals, generally excluded from most business model, 'coz who cares!). Blind belief in holy words may have given way to a blind belief in  holy numbers, but the latter is even more dangerous because of how efficiently it commands far vaster resources and more advanced technologies.

Social science koan: inspired by Baudrillard

All human systems produce difference and waste.