CDBU Public Lecture by Thomas Docherty

Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, and Anne Sheppard, Professor of Ancient Philosophy, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, and Anne Sheppard, Professor of Ancient Philosophy, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Thomas Docherty’s lecture on “Academic Freedom and the Social Responsibility of the University Institution” took place on 14 October 2015, at Royal Holloway, University of London. The poster advertised what amounted to a stimulating account of the necessity of academic freedom for any institution that qualifies, in my view, for the name “university”. Thomas also described current attacks on academic freedom, possible motives behind them, and their dire consequences for teaching and research.

I joined the Council for the Defence of British Universities on day one. It seemed, and still seems, to embody pretty well all the values whose implementation make universities essential to the maintenance of a free society. Last year I asked here What do universities actually do?

To my knowledge, those working at “change management” in UK universities have no answer. If we could inspect alternative aims and objectives then it might be possible to understand what exactly those currently on the rise are trying to achieve, thus to engage with them in useful dialogue. Thomas’s thesis, as I understood it, is that the aim of managerialism is precisely to prevent dialogue, and thus to silence dissent. Is there is an ulterior motive to that, or is the whole mess an unintended consequence of control having been acquired in some way by individuals averse to criticism, and hostile to public knowledge and social responsibility?

“Photosynthesis Research for Sustainability – 2015” in honor of Dr. George C. Papageorgiou

An International conference “Photosynthesis Research for Sustainability” held in Colymbari on September 21 – 26 at the Orthodox Academy of Crete.

I thank the organisers, especially Kostas Stamatakis of the National Center of Scientific Research “Demokritos”, Athens, who were most generous hosts. Merope Tsimilli-Michael kindly encouraged me to present new research and general thoughts under the title “Evolution of two light reactions. Cooperation and interdependency in photosynthesis, science, and society”. Allen’s abstract

My presentation touched briefly on the general topic of Merope’s fine lecture “Sustainability of photosynthesis research”. Tsimilli-Michael’s abstract

Merope Tsimilli-Michael
Merope Tsimilli-Michael
Tasios Melis and George Papageorgiou
Tasios Melis and George Papageorgiou
View from the The Orthodox Academy of Crete
View from the The Orthodox Academy of Crete

REF and Volkswagen’s cheating device

When a measure becomes a target then it ceases to be a measure.

From BBC News, 25 September 2015:

 According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some cars being sold in America had devices in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results.

“We’ve totally screwed up,” said VW America boss Michael Horn, while group chief executive Martin Winterkorn said his company had “broken the trust of our customers and the public”.

A tweet:

From this blog, on Research Assessment and REF:
And where changes in rank order are discernible, the question will remain: has anything actually changed? Or do the results reflect differing tactics, and choice of measures as targets?

The Devil in the Detail | fanismissirlis

The Devil in the Detail | fanismissirlis

A post by Fanis Missirlis on matters arising from our letter: Allen JF, Missirlis F (2012) Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Lancet 379 (9828): 1785.

Who guards the guardians? And what happens if meta-guardians themselves have something to hide?

Research Assessment and REF

What is ‘research output’? Can it be measured? If so, how? What are its ‘metrics’? from Allen JF (2010) Research and how to promote it in a university. Future Medicinal Chemistry 2: 15-20.

What must one do to avoid being made redundant…?
Continue reading “The Devil in the Detail | fanismissirlis”

Fascination of Plants University of Greenwich 2015

17 April. My pleasure to help provide the solar energy demonstration.

Dr Iskander M. Ibrahim demonstrates the power of sunlight with the famous solar-powered train set.  The demonstration was devised as part of my inaugural lecture, thinking outside the green box.  On this sunny April day in Chatham the train could be driven by sunlight rather than artificial light.  The unshaded silicon photovoltaic panel produced quite enough power to derail the train.

image1Source: Fascination of Plants University of Greenwich 2015 | Facebook

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.

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.

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.

The Many Worlds Interpretation

Sober reflection may be required after my paean of praise for physicists in the post In Our Time, The Photon.

Too many worlds is a thought-provoking Aeon article by Philip Ball.

Nobody knows what happens inside quantum experiments. So why are some so keen to believe in parallel universes?

Apparently there is a strongly held view that simplicity and elegance trump falsifiability, and there are an indefinite number of parallel universes in which everything that can happen does happen. The problem is that we are inhabit just one of these, and can know nothing of any of the others.

Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics by George Ellis and Joseph Silk (Nature, 16 December 2014) proposes that physics is becoming undermined by untestable theory. Any hypothesis is only as good as the evidence that supports it.

As card-carrying Popperian, I am with Ellis and Silk. However, all seem to agree that the Copenhagen model won’t do. The question is: what can we put in its place?

I have nothing to offer. However, important questions about the nature of reality and of ourselves clearly coincide in deciding how to interpret quantum mechanics.

I still wish I were a physicist. I have consistently sought unifying principles in biology, biochemistry, and evolution, while believing that nothing can advance understanding if it fails to make predictions about observations that could, in principle, demonstrate that it is false. I act on the assumptions that we all inhabit the same single World, and that we can, if we are honest with each other and ourselves, share our experiences of it, thus increasing our understanding; pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge; seeing more deeply into nature. The alternative seems absurd. And, in fact, dangerous.

Nevertheless, both physicists and biologists eventually run up against the insight that there is a problem in understanding how we can know things in the first place. There, I am endorse Philip Ball’s closing comment.

Here, after all, is a theory that seems to allow everything conceivable to happen. To pretend that its only conceptual challenge is that it leads to scenarios like the plot of Sliding Doors (1998) shows a puzzling lacuna in the formidable minds of its advocates. Perhaps they should stop trying to tell us that philosophy is dead.