The academic bullshit engine

Sir Humphrey: If local authorities don’t send us statistics, Government figures will be a nonsense.
Hacker: Why?
Sir Humphrey: They’ll be incomplete.
Hacker: Government figures are a nonsense, anyway.
Bernard: I think Sir Humphrey wants to ensure they’re a complete nonsense.

— Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes Minister, season 3 episode 3.

The bullshitter… does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

— Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.

I found myself recently studying the Google Scholar profile of a mathematician — let’s call him/her Professor X — about whom all that need be said is that s/he is substantially more powerful than I am. I had thought I knew X’s field of study reasonably well, but as I scrolled down the profile I discovered work in a startlingly different area. Impressed, I clicked on a title; then blinked; then double-checked; then went through the rigmarole again with another title; and finally I made a fresh cup of coffee and worked down the entire list. Around twenty publications, accounting for more than a quarter of X’s citation count, turned out not to have been written by X at all. Continue reading

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Lobby correspondences

And here it is to be noted that a prince ought to take care never to make an alliance with one more powerful than himself for the purpose of attacking others, unless necessity compels him, as is said above; because if he conquers you are at his discretion, and princes ought to avoid as much as possible being at the discretion of any one.

— Machiavelli, The Prince, XXI

I suspect I’m a member of what Simon Jenkins calls the “maths lobby”. I’ve sat on altogether too many committees, helped draft rather too many documents, organised or supported umpteen engagement or maths-enrichment events, and even attended the launch a few years ago of the Deloitte report on the economic benefits of the mathematical sciences. (I was the one in the corner tilting a glass of lukewarm apple juice and muttering about why that claim about 16% of GDP didn’t seem plausible to me.) It’s not surprising in the circumstances that I don’t have much sympathy for Jenkins’s conspiracy theories about the threat the maths lobby poses to society. I find myself more worried, these days, about the threat we might pose to ourselves. Continue reading

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The loss of Ian Bell

I’d not usually try to write a tribute to somebody I’ve never met, but Ian Bell is a special case. Knowing that I’ll never again open the paper at his column to find some abuse of truth and language being dissected with a fine intelligent anger feels less like losing a writer than like losing a more gifted thinker of my own thoughts. No excuse is needed — just an appreciation of the ironies — to be reminded of Winston Smith encountering Goldstein’s forbidden book: “It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden.” Ian Bell could write about football — even Scottish football; even the Hibs defence — and make it readable, and he could even do the same about Scottish and British politics. Continue reading

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Flexible, deep, or interdisciplinary: pick two

Look at what a lot of things there are to learn — pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six.  And then after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics, why, you can start to make a cart wheel out of appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your opponent at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.

Merlin, in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938), XXI.

I should say a little bit about this attempt to formulate an educational version of the infamous Iron Triangle of project management. I like interdisciplinary work; it’s where I spent most of my research career, and the first course I ever designed was an attempt to introduce some techniques of mathematical modelling through their applications in geoscience. However, as the years have gone by and I’ve been exposed not just to the failures of my own attempts in this direction but to the gallons of well-meaning tosh poured out in commendation of interdisciplinary education, I’ve become a reluctant sceptic. This is an attempt to explain why. Continue reading

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“Flipping the theatre” is the future of drama

For thousands of years the orthodox dogmas in the world of theatre have given actors and directors a privileged position, able to impose their own interpretations on the material. Many actors have employed this privilege to indulge in power-trips in which they demand slavish attention from their audiences, even prohibiting the use of mobile devices and multitasking activities during a theatrical “performance”. But a brave new movement is challenging this orthodoxy, empowering theatre-goers as co-creators of the drama and transforming the nature of theatre. A pioneer in the new “flipped theatre movement”, Prof. Nicholas Bottom, Director of the Association for Sylvan Studies, explains the philosophy behind it. Continue reading

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What does “challenging” mean, exactly?

In the coverage of the Principal Assessor’s report on the new Higher Maths paper, the key word was “challenging”, applied particularly to the infamous crocodile question. Needless to say, the various online stories don’t provide a link to the report from which this rather loaded word was taken; as the documentation is a little tricky for outsiders to locate on the SQA website, here are some direct links.

I spent a happy couple of hours hacking my way through these, and though I was slightly more reassured than I expected, I fear that whitewash is being slapped across some serious cracks in the brickwork. Continue reading

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More educational unspeak

This latest instalment of Malvolianism has to rest on hearsay; I wasn’t at the meet-the-nomenklatura session involved, for which I am profoundly thankful. Having been exhorted to make further and greater efficiencies in our teaching practice, a colleague asked how this was to be achieved given the University’s policy of replacing our big teaching rooms with a larger number of smaller rooms — an arrangement, one might naïvely think, which whatever its other merits does nothing for efficiency. The response, apparently:

You shouldn’t be thinking in terms of classes, but of co-creation events with students on their journey.

If anyone has the first idea what this means, or in what sense it was supposed to be an answer to the question, please write it on a postcard and send it to somebody who can cope with this tosh.

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