The Bucket or the Searchlight?

“The Bucket and the Searchlight: Two Theories of Knowledge” from Sir Karl Popper presents two views of knowledge. We advance knowledge in research and disseminate knowledge in teaching. How we undertake these tasks depends on which view we take.

The bucket theory underlies many mistakes. Notably in universities.

I raised Popper’s essay in two papers published in 2001, illustrated nicely with cartoons by my daughter, Sarah. The cartoon data to be scooped up or interrogated, according to one’s viewpoint, are from DNA microarrays. Today I’d think more of genomics, perhaps GWAS, while the microarray example is not entirely outdated. Think, perhaps, transcriptomics and RNA-seq.

Bucket
The Bucket. A theory of knowledge. Data are scooped up, at random. Collect as many as possible.

The race continues – the race to acquire a bigger bucket than anyone else, one large enough for “big data”. The bigger the bucket, the more expensive, and the more attractive the bucket theory becomes to the clowns and crooks who hold that research output is not knowledge, but grant income. Then there is factory science, as described by Sydney Brenner.

‘So we now have a culture which is based on everything must be high-throughput,’ Brenner continued. ‘I like to call it low-input, high-throughput, no-output biology’.

I suppose high-throughput biology is roughly equivalent to equipping the bucket-brigade with a hosepipe. Or water-cannon. The truly ambitious now divert rivers to fill reservoirs.

And the race continues, in teaching, to fill students’ empty buckets as quickly and completely as possible, while obsessively trying to gauge how much they’ve retained. The examination as dipstick.

What a waste of time. And energy. And money. And human potential.

While all the while the searchlight is there for us to use, to share, and to pass on.

Searchlight
The Searchlight. A theory of knowledge. Data are examined to see how they compare with the prediction of an hypothesis. Its prediction is on the clipboard.

Popper, K.R. The Bucket and the Searchlight: Two Theories of Knowledge. Appendix to ‘Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach’. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1972.

Allen, J.F. (2001) Bioinformatics and discovery: induction beckons again. Bioessays 23: 104-107.

Allen, J.F. (2001) In silico veritas – Data-mining and automated discovery: the truth is in there. EMBO Reports 2: 542-544.

Bolingey

Late July 2017.

Family holiday in Bolingey, near Perranporth, Cornwall. Fabulous.

You can tell which is the geologist. He or she stands on the beach and, instead of looking out to sea, looks at the cliffs.

Heidelberg

22 September 2017.

1. Why do chloroplasts and mitochondria contain DNA?
2. Research Questions, Hypotheses, and Cell Evolution

Centre for Organismal Studies, University of Heidelberg, Germany

Uskmouth

“When members of the international jet-set get together and the conversation turns naturally to fun spots of the Western world it is probably safe to assume that the word ‘Newport’ does not crop up frequently in the conversation”.

I once read this attributed to the redoubtable South Wales Argus, a newspaper today inexplicably not barred from representation at White House press conferences.

The river Usk flows through the town where I was born and grew up.

There is much to see at either side of its mouth, shared with the Ebbw, out to the wonderful Severn Estuary, which the Romans called “Sabrina”. The Usk is about as far West as the Romans ventured in Britain.

West Usk – The lighthouse, where Carol and I stayed last weekend.

East Usk – West Nash. St. Mary the Virgin, in whose churchyard lies the grave of my brother, Garrick. The church still bears the high water mark from the Bristol Channel Tsunami of January 1607.

View across Uskmouth from West Usk to Goldcliff, of which I have fond personal memories. Romans first set putchers there, in the intertidal zone, to catch salmon from the fast-flowing Severn.

Newport – home of the Mole Wrench

James Ladyman | Universities as cartels?

Universities as cartels?

A succinct Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) Opinion piece by James Ladyman, 15 January 2017. Quote:-

On the subject of the closed shop, one might as well ask why we let the medical profession control who becomes a doctor rather than the market. We don’t expect patient choice to set standards in clinical care, and we should no more expect student choice to set standards in higher education.

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