The vocational vocative

The ever-eloquent Plashing Vole has some interesting meditations on forms of address in academia. This is an awkward one for me, though perhaps for different reasons from Dr Vole’s. (I find that my courteous pen can’t bring itself to refer to him as Plashing.) Continue reading

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Curious cosmologies and killer rabbits

Another dissertation season has been and gone. For our weaker final-year students this season meant struggling gamely with the constraints on self-expression imposed by English grammar as their supervisors understand it; for me it meant struggling less gamely to  understand what these students had written and, if possible, why. It was an unusually rich season for puzzling statements, and two specimens in particular got me thinking. Continue reading

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On having “no experience of the real world”

I know one shouldn’t feed the trolls, and that it’s bad manners to shout about the difficulty of one’s middle-class job in this seriously screwed-up world, but the latest sneer from the Stupidist movement has  caught me on a sore point. So, for the record… Continue reading

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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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