Friday, March 10, 2006

Write this way, Part 6

More from Eric Harris.

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First, for clarification:
I think that the separation between what consititutes an idea versus what constitutes data is dependent on scale. The reason I'm skeptical of this distinction is because if we compare broadly across cultures or far through time, the idea/data distinction becomes blurred. BUT, it's a fairly clear distinction within the context of the last 100 years of science, or so. That's why I forged ahead with the distinction in my last email (considering it within a smaller scale).

I'd mainly like to take issue with the implicit point of your argument - that ideas are a homogeneous group of entities. My point about the half life of ideas is NOT that the half life of ideas is shorter - it's that SOME ideas move more quickly than others. I guess what I'd like to get at here is that I don't consider "ideas" to be a homogeneous category. Some ideas are more fundamental than others. Perhaps the more superficial ones move quickly, but the deep seated ideas may change much more slowly. Maybe your suggestion of electronic and quick publication would work for the ideas that are less fundamental ("solutions to the problem", like I mentioned last time) but an idea that really changes the landscape of a field (the "problem" itself) may need a longer gestation period. Ideas can be immature. Especially if they contradict some fundamental assumptions that people have. Blurting out an idea in an electronic journal may not be appropriate for ideas that could fundamentally change the way people think about the world. In these cases, a steady accumulation of data to support your theories and taking the time to work with your idea are probably more important than getting it on the internet. Like I mentioned previously, I believe that an idea isn't a substance that's in your head, but a combination of an insight, research, organizational work, cultural knowledge, and interaction. I imagine it's like writing a book. It's not that some people have the book in their head and then type it out. The idea develops as you write it and research it. And develops further as you stand by it and defend it in the face of opposition. But the degree to which all of these elements in the development of the idea are in play will vary depending on the "size" of the insight. Some - perhaps more suited for your method of electronic publication - will be short insights that solve a specific problem - but others need a different form of birth. You mention that ideas are r-selected, and data are k-selected.

Well, there's undoubtedly the mice and elephants in the safari of ideas too.

{Which gets to a question: can ideas be different sizes? and what does that mean, exactly?}

Lastly - I've been thinking about whether ideas really do change faster than data. The more I think about it, the more I think that data can die as quickly (sometimes quicker) than ideas. I was just flipping through a recent issue of Systematic Biology - the oldest reference I noticed was an old taxonomic monograph from 1854 (point 1: data lasts longer). But in another paper, the oldest reference was a paper on the theory of chromosomal evolution from 1971 (point 1: ideas last longer) When I think of my own research in phylogenetics, morphological data has largely been replaced by molecular data, but the method (theory) of phylogenetics has stuck around (point 2: ideas last longer). And some forms of data have been completely replaced (chemotaxonomy anyone?) (point 3: ideas). But the methods for doing specific problems in phylogenetics are constantly changing (point 2: data). I checked the 'journal half-life' metric on the journal citation index of web of science: biology & philosophy (ideas oriented) = 7 years, Systematic botany (~data) = 7.5 years. This is only one comparison, and a consideration of my specific situation. But I definitely do not think that it is clear and evident that ideas move more quickly than data.

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