Friday, March 03, 2006

Write this way, Part 2

Hi all,

Eric Harris sent this thoughtful response to my piece on scientific publication (two entries down), and has given me permission to post it here. My reply comes next. Eric's promised a response to that, too, so stay tuned.

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Hi Matt,

I couldn't resist replying - this stuff is fun to think about. This semester I've been trying to be a devil's advocate by trying to disagree as much as possible, until I can't think of any counter-arguments. If the response to my disagreements are strong enough, I reject my criticisms. That's what I've tried to do here...(for the sake of fun, of course).

My understanding of your argument:

1) scientific publications can be separated into two gropus: 'ideas' vs. 'data'. Both are published in the same kind of journals.
2) the realm of ideas changes more quickly than the realm of data.
3) we need to publish 'ideas' papers more quickly to have a record of proper authorship and to keep current.

1) I think that 'ideas' and 'data' are more closely linked than you acknowledge. How can you ever get a piece of data uncloaked by the web of techniques, theories, instruments that were used to make the data? If you look within the horizon of surrounding decades it may appear that there are data that can pass through the years, unattached to ideologies that supported them. But try centuries - does a collection of plant information in an herbal written in the 1600s have data that appears free of ideology? Additionally, I'd argue that most 'conceptual' papers (in biology) are rooted in empricism and supported by data - is Darwin's Origin of Species solely conceptual? Ultimately though, I guess a review paper is different from a primary source (even BIOSIS knows that). I just feel that the further we look through history (or across cultures), the more this distinction starts to blur.

2) Even if 'data' and 'ideas' are separate - why does it seem that the half-life of an idea is much shorter than data? I like thinking of the dichotomy between "the problem" and "solutions to the problem". Take your example - bird teeth. The problem: why did birds evolve to not have teeth? The (possibly incorrect) solution: teeth are too heavy for flying. The idea to make 'bird evolution' a problem is different from the idea about the solution to the problem. I would argue that changes in what constitutes a problem (e.g. the nature of bird evolution - or even evolution in general) take much longer than changes in what constitutes a solution to a problem (e.g. the specifics of how that evolution happened).

"But I think most concept papers should be written and submitted as fast as possible;
if it takes more than a month to make that happen, the ideas are probably getting stale
(or maybe we're just unused to the idea of moving so fast)."

This seems to be the crux of your point about adopting a faster means of publishing ideas. I think that if an idea is updated in the year that it takes to publish the paper, it was a probably a crappy idea in the first place. And if someone lucks out to publish the same thing first, well the time was right. Though I'm mixed about this - I'd be pissed if someone scooped me, but I also feel that knowledge is a cultural institution, with ideas arising at the proper time and place, almost making the idea of 'individual authorship' moot. Small consolation if it happened to me, though.

3) I think that people should keep their ideas written down. And (if my brain is any indication) it's good to write ideas quickly because it's easy to forget them. I agree with you in principal here. But the reason for my agreement is NOT because we need to have some record for posterity so that philatelic historians can sift through the records to attribute the original idea to the author. The act of creation is one of performance. An idea is not an immutable corpuscule lying in the bottom of the pool of the subconsciousness, waiting to be found. An idea is a changeable, malleable substance that is enacted. By writing our thoughts down, by finding the proper arena for their articulation, by engaging in an appropriate career for expression, by interacting with others in a social setting, by attempting to convince, and so on - we perform an idea and if successful, hopefully influence the current state of understanding. Otherwise it may just drop to the ground like the coke-bottle in The Gods Must be Crazy. I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you get a creativity credit for just writing a thought down on a piece of paper, you better as hell get some kind of chocolate medallion for doing the work to get it in the textbooks.

(I've been waiting to use the cokebottle reference for a while)
thanks for the thought-provoking writings,
-eric

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