Research Episodes

In an recent blog I commented that:

…we continue to be committed to the idea of extending our current knowledge. For this to happen we should be willing to add but also to abandon ideas. This requires that some old ideas, no matter how venerable or favoured, get replaced. The criteria would be that the replacement-ideas are expected to do a better job of explaining what we call our “current raw data”, that is, materials previously gathered and collected during “research” episodes, but which have not yet been methodically and systematically processed and sorted.

There are several ideas here which merit further discussion.

Foremost is the notion of a *research episode*, which I view as a prolonged and systematic inquiry into one or more well-articulated problems, and where each problem studied relates to some earlier research. There are many examples which could be cited, for instance the many cited in Hawkings A Brief History of Time (1988), but my own research was heavily influenced by two newcomers in the early 1950’s, by ethology (a form of studying animal behaviour: Niko Tinbergen, A Study of Instinct, 1950) and the study of operant behaviour as advocated by B.F. Skinner in his book The Behaviour of Organisms (1938).

I often met Tinbergen on his regular visits to lunch with my friend and colleague B.M. Foss at Birkbeck College; I met Skinner in 1951 in Sweden at the International Congress of Psychology and thereafter every few years. We stayed in contact for the next 35 years. Both had founded new schools of research which reached far beyond Oxford and Harvard and each gave birth to distinct “schools” of thought which led to significant research efforts by others throughout the world and which expanded into fields of study other than the “Herring Gull” or the pigeon in its “Skinner box” pecking at discs. Both men deeply influenced the way we in the 20th century thought about our world.

I use the term *research episode* in a wide sense, as not confined to a short period of time, or as associated with a particular individual, but as a period within an existing science which may develop considerable momentum as new problems are explored by an increasing number of investigators (often on a cross disciplinary basis). The methods and ways of thinking about problems is influenced as new frontiers of inquiry are reached and breached. Such episodes may start as a distinct, even limited form of inquiry, and then may expand either slowly or rapidly to cover more and more “problem areas” as also inadvertently “invade” other territories.

The ethology of Tinbergen, or “instinct theory” as it was often referred to in its early days, had a profound impact on comparative neurophysiology — and continues to influence it. It extended and dated the earlier concepts of Pavlovian neurophysiology which had started almost three quarter of a century earlier. Pavlov’s thinking itself was influenced by the notion that the nervous system was a direct extension of the reflex-arc and was influenced by the idea that all neurological systems were built on a similar, closely related architecture. Differences were attributed to levels of complexity and eschewed the idea that levels of complexity could be the source of irreconcilable differences in nature itself.

What is research? The term *research* is well established. In English it comes from the verb “to search”, to look into and to look for. It covers trivial efforts — like the birth date of a favorite composer or author — to issues which require prolonged investigation, e.g. how honeybees return to their hives after foraging, or informing other bees on their return from a location of a flower patch recently visited. Doing research invariably involves that one identifies a specific problem or set of problems and follows each of these to the point when most central questions seem satisfactorily answered.

In practise the original issues which first aroused one’s interest become modified en passant, are reinterpreted and as a result of such reinterpretations the conceptual net often becomes larger. It seems that two separate tasks are involved in research: the first requires much skill in asking questions. This has to be learnt and is skill honed through experience. One has to learn how to ask the right questions, something which nay require a long apprenticeship. The second requires that one learn how to move from translating a question — however it was initially stated — into a method of discovery, a method of enquiry.

The first example refers to something done quickly, in a jiffy so to speak! Today all one needs is a computer with Internet access and the know-how about how to search for answers in Wikipedia or similar sites. Most kids in my neighbourhood know how to do this. Some are wizards at this even at a tender age! No need for them to know anything more than how to approach a computer and ask questions, or so it seems. No need to memorize answers when it is so easy to access the memory of a computer! The “search” episode can therefore be very short, whereas understanding answers discovered may take long! It is different with questions about how honeybees communicate the direction and distance from hive to food source and then return! Do bees learn by their mistakes — like we do — or is there little tolerance for those who pass on misinformation to their hive-mates? Furthermore many questions cannot be answered by referring to the work of one’s predecessors. One enters the forrest alone, without companions, and with luck or skill exits at the other side.

Every doctoral dissertation supposedly consists of a new contribution to knowledge. New? The true story is that one asks questions which invariably lean on the work of others. Of course, one may lean on a house of cards or neglect the work of unknown predecessors. One may avoid errors by acquiring extensive knowledge of the history of a problem, yet errors and ommissions are unavoidable, although one can learn to reduce these in time.

Yet asking questions such as those already mentioned take place in a context. Broadly speaking the context is the culture of the petitioner(s). Although each question follows a string of earlier questions, the sequence is not necessarily orderly. The logic also is not rigid but is often a heavy mixture of materials drawn from earlier periods which themselves are infused with analogical materials, like what if all animals are like the branches of a tree, a common trunk from ground to sky, which branch out in familiar fashion? There is also often some element of “serendipity” which helps to uncover clues en passant — often rather unexpectedly.

These clues can dramatically change the order of discoveries made. Wrong leads are familiar to most experienced researchers. However orderly sequences do occur, as during conversations between like-minded people, or when one person instructs another in a teacher-pupil relationship. One guides the other. Conversations between colleagues also keep a discussion on track and encourages each discussant to follow implications of their thoughts. Some discussions are guided by appointed chairpersons, other move along and therefore have less structure, but may nevertheless reach comparable conclusions.

Conference organizers often try to follow this model. Left on their own most people — even disciplined, somewhat compulsive and single minded professors — “skip” from topic to topic without raising questions in a coherent manner, as if questions can be peeled layer by layer like the wrappings of a Christmas present, no matter where you start! The more wrappings the greater the excitement! Ultimately the core is exposed.

*Culture* is a flexible concept. Applied to a modern community it covers the idea of a mix of micro and macro cultures. But there is a significant difference between a group — viewed as an aggregate of individuals — and a culture. A culture involves a group of individuals, marks them as belonging together by virtue of common interests, not common physical markings. What is it that individuals prefer, what draws them to each other, what holds them together over time despite diversity of experience, physical dissimilarities? Those who are devoted piano players of Mozart or attend exhibitions of Picasso are already on board — as it were — and have cultural affinities. Whatever binds their interests and commitments may be limited, but forms a common ground.

In time, three men in a boat will form a community, functional or dysfunctional. In short, although there may be significant differences in the affiliations of individuals who form a group — the Thursday evening concert goers, say — these serve as the bricks from which a modest dwelling can be built. Thus individuals are viewed also as a member of a smaller community whereas none are likely to be members of all groups which make up the society as a whole.

What about “new arrivals” i.e. immigrants? These go through an acculturation period and process which can vary from one generation to another. At first each is reared as members of several small social groups, but this changes so that mature adults often become members of several quite distinct groups with interests and interactions shared some, but not all, of their time.

Take a standard example of how we may come to get involved in a problem and in attempts to find its solution. The problem may be complex, may not have a single solution but be a multiple problem with solutions for one but not for all aspects of the original problem. “Why did the hen cross the road?” This event happens all the time in country lanes, but never — as far as I know — on Bloor Street in Toronto, or Hyde Park Corner in London. What catches our attention and arouses our curiosity most often are what to us are unusual happenings: hens crossing city roads being one.

Take another example: I visit a learned friend’s home for the first time and note that his opulent library is arranged with books placed on the shelves in order of size, not colour, not content, not alphabetically or thematically. My initial shock turns into curiosity. Why do it that way? I sense a problem and I rummage for ideas I have had about organizing my own library, about what we know about the psychology of collectors, about library science. I do so for two related reasons: I wish to explain to myself what I have seen and perhaps share my explanation with friends and colleagues! There is a leap from individual perplexity — based on personal ideas about what is normal and what people do routinely — to an awareness of a general problem, that my problems are prototypical of those of others.

This general problem can be expressed in the following manner: what leads people to organize their phenomenological experiences into categories, and what consequences follow from adopting a “grouping routine” developed by an individual and by a group of cohorts?

In both examples the initial question represents the first step to what could turn out to be a long series of successive steps. Each answer is likely to lead to additional questions, then to more enquiries. Had I asked a pedestrian question, like who designed and built the St Paul’s cathedral in London, an answer would be available readily, by consulting an on-line (internet) encyclopedia. To help distinguish between these two types of inquiries it is fitting that we give each an appropriate name. I suggest that the term “research episode” be used for those many cases where the answer to a question (a) is not already readily available; or (b) where the search for an answer to a question requires that one pursues several different alternative hypotheses, which developed during the search. Some of these hypotheses will be rejected but others may serve as stepping stones, or toeholds, to additional answers and wider, perhaps newer areas of research.

I believe that formal concept of a “research episode” is new. It is categorical — not canonical — the sense that the concept helps us to organize what is already known independently, prior to the application of the category to the material. These categorical concepts may in time be elevated and become canonical, that is, become part of an established religion! An example may help: suppose you are given a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle and several possible blueprints? One way of tackling this frustrating task is to conjecture an idea of what it is — a painting by Picasso or Turner perhaps — or work on an entirely different presupposition, namely that the puzzle will form a square or oblong picture, or perhaps a round or oval one. On what basis are thee suppositions made? What clues were used, if any? If one were told in advance the identity of the painter, or perhaps the topic of the painting, the task would be easier. (Note: we rarely enter such tasks naked; we usually get a chance to prepare ourselves — and this illustrates the importance of approaching any task with some preparation and about what is likely to happen once we start our journey of exploration.)

Suppose you find only 100 pieces of a puzzle. If told that the completed puzzle is a rectangular picture you that you need only 4 right angles pieces to form the corners. So the chances of an error in detecting a corner pieces are now 1:25, better by far than 1:5000 ! “Detect corner pieces” and “detect those right-angled pieces which define a corner” are procedural imperatives which are categorical, and may lead to the solution of the task. But if the picture is oval? Heaven help you — you will have to start by gathering together pieces by colour matching.

No Free Ride to Certainty

Earlier I wrote (Nov. 2013) that,

“Science should not be likened to a bound hard-cover volume, a collection of unchallengeable, incontrovertible truths. It is more like a loose-leaf folder in which our latest insights into nature, into aspects of ourselves and the accumulated wisdom of past learning are stored.”

The implication: science is more like a soft-cover book. A better analogy would be that science has the features of a loose-leaf file which is appropriately date stamped on every page. Its pages can be removed — but not trivially discarded. Continuity is an important factor in understanding!

What I therefore reject is the notion that a record of what we see has especial epistemic validity. Rather, it is a moveable decision that a “claim of particulars ” has been registered; may be only one of an evolving series. Such a claim is in a position to be challenged, and can continue to being challenged for ever and a day. It is a falsifiable hypothesis which could be overturned by a single negative instance. It cannot be reinstated except by re-writing the “terms of particulars”, as when we change the claim “all swans are white” and replace it with “except those (many) which originated in Australasia”.

“Seeing” here refers to a preferred method of personally checking the status of our claim. Reading a dial, or confirming by noting the change of a beep emitted regularly by an auditory monitor, i.e. hearing, is an alternative method. It is not seeing — the visual act — that leads to believing, but it is the testing of a hypothesis which is critical, no matter how done.

There are many other things which could be done to falsify a hypothesis, although we often let some position die through neglect and then no longer defend it. Hypotheses can become trivialized, and lose their interest and sway over us. For example, a dark, black area in the sky is not “empty space” to an astronomer. He may only see black areas — as do others — but these are not necessarily signs of emptiness! The microbiologists is in a comparable position: he may not see anything — but may add that this may be due to the weakness of the current microscope, then get another or invent a new one.

But what is at peril is the idea that belief is based on experience and furthermore that experience does not lie but is sacrosanct. Experience — note — is our way of expressing the idea that our specific claims have risen beyond reasonable doubt. It is however itself a claim, has to be viewed as such and therefore what we see can be doubted.

Nota bene: There is no free ride to certainty. Each of us has to learn how to maintain doubt during our most perilous moments.

Philosophers as Shamans

This is the first of several short pieces on the relation between shamans and philosophers. Each piece deals with an aspect of the theme of how faith—healers differ from philosophers, how metaphysical thoughts may influence how we perceive our world — that is, what we actually claim to have seen, whether through rational persuasion by others — by changing the framework of perception and coincidentally changing our sense of personal well—being and of the body itself. Shamans — male and female — are precursors of priests and organized religion, but more often are viewed opponents than friends.

How to distinguish Philosophers from Shamans

This strange and challenging title joins two groups: philosophers and shamans. In the popular mind these seem to have very little in common.

wittgensteinBoth can be soothsayers, but philosophers traditionally deal in wisdom whereas shamans with well-being, the esoteric, the health of body and mind. The general view is — I think — that philosophers are educated, wise, cool in judgement, perhaps a little eccentric and monistic, inclined to press and urge their “take on things”, are often anti-establishmentarians because they challenge some features of what is perceived by others as common-sense. After all, the ordinary person does not walk around and claim that “time is not real” as some philosophers have done, or suggest that all things are made from the same unseeable substance, from atoms, which by definition cannot be “sensed”. These views varies from what is normally accepted. Philosophers however have negotiated with others a license to raise issues about obvious matters and issues and are often permitted by their fellow citizens to utter the unutterable, and speak whereof the ordinary person must remain silent. This is generally speaking a benevolent view of philosophers : it views them as gadflies, but not as vicious rampaging mosquitoes.

Lest we forget, most societies in the past have not been tolerant towards philosophers, but have been more hospitable to shamans and faith-healers. Their claims seem to much more plausible. Shamans are more rare in moderns society than they once were. One see an occasional sign on the window of a private home advertising their services. We may also hear about them in Anthropology 101, a subject fewer students study now than in my day — relatively speaking — but the term may also occur en passant in Sociology 101, a subject which attracts an increasing number of students in colleges and universities.

But shamans, as I will argue, are the original or ur-physicians, and emerged as a force within tribal societies before medicine was hijacked as a “profession” and became increasingly devoted to “physical medicine” and less and less with the spiritual well-being of individuals.

The shaman in early society was a standard figure in larger human groups and his/her role was to achieve relief from pain and discomfort for others by their specialized knowledge of “nature”, plants, animals and what we would call “natural resources”, and also by their presumed access to the world of spirits, either benevolent spirits, indifferent spirits or evil ones, that is, demonic and covetous, spirits.

Like humans, spirits responded to others, could be helpful or mischievous, even downright evil. They have to be contacted and approached before one could negotiated, even master, them. This was the unique job of the shaman, a job perhaps inherited from the father or mother and required a life-style different from those of tribal confreres. Indeed, in many early societies the role of supreme ruler (king) and shaman were combined — a potentially hazardous combination because when kings fail they face revolt and execution. Kings accepted their responsibilities for the future of their “tribe”; shamans do not.

Generally speaking, shamans also do not guarantee success in restoring the health and comfort to their “patients”. They could not be sued for malpractice! Failure of their mission could be attributed to extenuating circumstances, never to the shaman as an inadequate practitioner of their esoteric art. One price paid for this exemption of responsibility was that they were often viewed as outsiders and some modern commentators have suggested that shamans had symptoms of schizophrenia, which could easily isolate them from the rest of their tribal fellows.

I do not want to give the impression that there is a smooth continuity between the shamans of old, as they operated within early societies — in some cases many thousands years ago — and contemporary medical practitioners in countries like the USA, Canada, France, Germany or Scandinavia who have their roots in a series of critical developments during the 19th century, in the work of Semmelweis, Pasteur, Charcot and Freud, Lister, Ehrlich — and in retrospect above all in Darwin and modern genetics, those medical practitioners who focussed on the role of biological mechanisms which underly life itself. Far from it. But this applies equally to other disciplines, especially to physics which underwent several “scientific revolutions” (in Kuhn’s (1962) sense) during the 20th century and who are almost as far away from the speculations of Democritus (400 BCE) and Aristotle (c. 330 BCE) as the shamans (c. 10,000-5000 BCE) are from moderns physical medicine and psychiatry. Continuity is not linearity and does not imply a smooth uninterrupted development from early roots to the present, but refers to similarity of problems, not of solutions.

Thus, people have become speechless since we first adopted speech as our primary method of communication, but our understanding of what produces periods of speechlessness in our lives has radically changed as a results of systematic research done on this problem over the last 100 years.

Shamans assumed that our states of awareness (consciousness) reflected something about the natural order of the world they lived in: that spiritswere “of the essence” of things and that material bodies were “abstractions” in the sense that a “mountain” — or a “tree” — were manifestations or representations of a reality greater, or above, what was physically experienced. It is a view which is still with us — and which underlies much of what goes under the name of “philosophical idealism”.

What shamans in general assumed was that ubiquitous spirits, which were part of everything perceived, could be influenced even controlled by “special methods” which were unique to them. These methods included secret concoctions and brews as well as idiosyncratic methods of solicitations (like incantations and gestures, including dances). I am reminded of scientists in the mid-20th century who claimed that the true path to Truth is via method — itself a half-truth.

The shaman furthermore believed — as did their followers — that practices of divination not only propitiated spirits, but were instrumental in healing others through the mediation of other, to most people alien but powerful spirits. Healing for purpose of our discussion is viewed as “restoration” of spirit, for even boils and bodily wounds were often viewed as manifestations of spiritual. In general, it means that without a universal belief in different levels of reality — and a firm conviction that the world of spirits is primary — neither shamanism or religion would take root: chimpanzees, our close biological kin, are not known to divide their experiential world into a spiritual and a physical realm. It is a human proclivity to assume this.

We do know this: that our earliest text about what humans believed about their world, as recounted in Hesiod’s (c.650 BC) Theogony — only 300 years ago — reveals that our ancestors viewed their world as inhabited by gods which were not different in most respects to themselves, except that these were more powerful, more corrupt, more vengeful and conniving than we allow ourselves to be.

Our ancestors faced two sets of issues: unwellness due to spirits and un-wellness due to physical injury. The former could be “cured” by spiritual means, the latter could be alleviated. A woman bitten by a poisonous snake may be helped by ointments made from special (secret) plants, but a man in violent and uncontrollable temper or mood — overcome, as we say, by emotions — could more likely be helped by spiritual methods (although smoking pot or certain libations and brews, may also alleviate his distress). An arm lost to a lion could not be restored, but the suffering which follows could be abated by appropriate spiritual intervention.

Spiritual intervention means healing an afflicted person by restoring their sense of wholeness and well-being. Struck by lameness, loss of hearing, inability to balance when walking, loss of speech are all examples of such afflictions — and are prototypical of ailments from which a person can recover and have been known to recover fully or in part. Each of these functions can be restored through the help of a third party: the faith-healer, the miracle worker, perhaps with the help of a friendly exorcist, or the support by your social worker or spiritual advisor-priest.

All these “moderns” — whether dressed in white lab coats or in ceremonial and religious garments — fulfill the role and functions of earlier shamans. They often mediate the “cures” promised, whether for long periods or only temporarily — and they always have explanations why in some (many?) cases the treatment was “only temporary” or on occasions even unsuccessful. Not all the lame at a revivalist meeting raise themselves and walk as their preacher exhorts them to when they cry “Heal in the name of xxxx”!! Some do — and persuade the rest of their large fellow brethren, of the efficacy of the divinely inspired message of the preacher.

All treatments discussed above require an intermediary — a male or female “shaman”. All require that the afflicted person or persons believes in the efficacy of the treatment. Both parties to the cure share a theory to explain to themselves and to others why the treatment should work — and why it often does not. I shall address this problem in a follow up blog but remind the reader to keep in mind than a prothesis is not a shamanic device.

Tail-note: Philosophers — but also modern psychologists — have a special interest in the “nature of belief” but the former try to remove themselves as far possible from acts which can be construed as therapeutic in intent. Wittgenstein was not a therapist. Do they succeed? Only partially — which is one of the reasons for writing this and future blogs. Philosophers often behave as if they have a therapeutic objective, as if by rewriting one’s script one can also re-structure one’s life. Perhaps there is some truth in this.

Character of Science

Science should not be likened to a bound hard-cover volume, a collection of unchallengeable, incontrovertible truths. It is more like a loose-leaf folder in which our latest insights into nature, into aspects of ourselves and the accumulated wisdom of past learning are stored.

This creates a highly correctable collection of items, not a book of ultimate truths. Our folder has inestimable value in a world which too often is haunted and harassed by self-righteous humans touting their own brands of Truths and Virtues.

I should add that although the collection itself consists of items we may regard as self-evident, it also contains much that is highly speculative. To sort this out is a daunting, unfinished business.

Fractionation: A Late Reply

The following is a reply to Sean’s comment on “Fractionation and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge”, posted March 2011.

zooming2Two years is a long time to get an answer to one’s mail but it often takes even longer to think through the implication of a counter-proposal or expansion to one’s ideas. That said, let me answer Sean (March 29, 2011) who suggested that one could view the divisions within science that take place over time, and with increasing frequency as well severity, a case of zooming. *Zooming* is not a common term applied to the expansion of disciplines, but is itself a neologism. It means that when all our knowledge is taken as a whole it is possible to focus on a section of it, zooming on a speck of this to the exclusion of all else. The effect is to give this section clarity whereas other matters become in-articulated, nebulous, even frozen for the time being.

Now if this is the case – and we must keep in mind that we are speaking in analogies – the greater clarity of the focal area, on which we have zoomed, will be at the cost of increasing opaqueness of all neglected areas, those which lie outside the focus. From my viewpoint this has the net effect of creating a chasm between the focus of the zoom and matters lying on its periphery, that is, out of focus. As Sean states it so well and succinctly “the details of any specific discipline (lying out of focus).. .. are no longer accessible”.

This situation would create an enduring tension between different disciplines. If, for example, discipline A – the focus of our attention – relies on pressupositons borrowed from discipline B, changes in B would undermine some of the positions taken within discipline A.

I think this is what happens. At the present time the new discipline of neuro-psychology – call it discipline C – depends heavily of two areas of psychology and at least two in neuro-physiology. The areas of psychology are studies of cognition and studies of learning. Each of these are themselves fractionated, have their own theories, their own data and often are in stark conflict with each other. This state of affairs make discipline C much less firm than one would wish it to be, and the theories emerging within C, he field of neuropsychology, will be less staunch than is claimed.

So zooming creates problems for those who hold that scientific knowledge integrates and will ultimately achieve the end-result wished for by earlier advocates of the “unity of science”. The growth of knowledge therefore refers literarily to the increased understanding of smaller segments of our knowledge without guaranteeing that these can be completely integrated in manner which will yield a comprehensive “picture” of our universe.

The universe is an idealized picture of what could be – but isn’t.

Fractionation and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge

During the past 75 years departments in major universities have increasingly divided or split into separate units, a phenomenon I term “fractionation”. Fractionation is not confined to the “mature” disciplines in the natural sciences, Physics, Chemistry, or Biology, but seems to apply generally.

There is some informal preliminary evidence that before a new discipline joins the community of sciences as an independent unit – a process which may take many years – it may already possess a solid theory and may even have impressive supporting data for it. The major attribute of such a new discipline would be its power to stimulate intensive research and its ability to gather much additional “confirming” data (i.e. knowledge).

This brief sketch of how contemporary science may be producing new knowledge disagrees in many respects with those accounts which are primarily based on case histories from the period from Copernicus to Einstein. But science in all its forms has become heavily institutionalized during the past century and it is entirely possible that this has also changed the character of science and how science is done.

Under what historical conditions has this happened? How does the process of fractionation affect the emergence of new theories and consequently the production of data? Does it change the dynamics of the growth of scientific knowledge? By pooling resources from sociology, history and the philosophy of science, I hope to explore and attempt to answer these open questions.