Bullshit fighting


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According to American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, a key difference between liars and bullshitters is that the former tend to accept that they are not telling the truth, while the latter simply do not care whether something is true or not.

Bullshitters strive to maximize personal gain through a continuing distortion of reality. If something is true and can be manipulated to achieve their selfish objectives, then good. If something is not true, who cares? All the same. These attributes make bullshitting worse than lying.

Furthermore, according to Frankfurt, it is the bullshitter’s capacity to get away with bullshitting so easily that makes them particularly dangerous. Individuals in prominent positions of authority may be punished for lying, especially if lying has serious damaging consequences. Professional and casual bullshitters at all levels of influence typically operate with freedom. Regardless of their roles in society, their exposure is not necessarily accompanied by negative legal or intellectual consequences, at least for the bullshitter.

Instances of bullshitting are found on a daily basis across public and more private domains. It is not only the politician or marketing campaigner who can put a big smile in front of a bigger pile of bullshit. They also include the masters of fear mongering, the attention seekers and the deniers of scientific facts.

Science, the natural ground for combatting non-sense, also hosts and even promotes a good deal of bullshitting. This is done when scientists and entrepreneurs put “great stories” above strong empirical evidence, marketing above demonstrable expertise, and soundbites above critical discourse. Scientists also become bullshitters, or at least facilitate bullshitting, by over-hyping their findings in an attempt to make the news or demonstrate to politicians the “impact” of their research. This in turn can be abused by other bullshitters in their quest to favor particular political or economic agendas.

Researchers may also be guilty of bullshitting by omission. This is the case when they do not openly challenge bullshitting positions, either in the public or academic settings. Scientists frequently wrongly assume that the public always has knowledge of well-established scientific facts. Moreover, scientists sometimes over-estimate the moderating role of the media or their capacity to differentiate facts from falsehood, and solid from weaker evidence.

Bullshitting happens. But very often it is a byproduct of indifference. Indifference frequently masking a fear of appearing confrontational to peers and funders. Depending on where you are or with whom you work, frontal bullshit fighting may not be good for career advancement.

In a world with an imperfect scientific peer review system and increasing market-oriented pressures, there are few options but to continue fighting bullshit. Scientists and informed citizens cannot just simply ignore it. They can also help to identify and expose it for what it is. Bullshit!

Bullshit fighting must be accompanied by a more active involvement in day-to-day discussions of science and technology, in and beyond classrooms and laboratories. Above of all, this means not accepting that bullshit should become the norm in our lives, rather than the exception. As H. Frankfurt put it, bullshit is an insulting substitute for the truth. Thus, we need to reject it wherever we find it. It is both the right and intelligent thing to do if we care about reality.

This article is also available at Medium.

Scientists and inspiration

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Are scientists inspired? Where and how do they get their most pressing concerns? What fuels their innermost motivations? Is it a requirement for them to be inspired?

Inspiration is a foggy and yet fascinating preoccupation among scientists.  Many scientists wish to be inspired, and inspire others: their students, peers and the public. Yet this state of mind may collide with their assumed rationality, their “objective” identities. How can your ideas come from “inspiration” in a frosty world of observation, impartiality and analysis? The problem may be that scientists presuppose that emotions and inspiration are in close proximity, and strangely, feel embarrassed by that. Thus, to search for inspiration may seem like a transgression. And in any case, scientists do not envy artists and poets.

But ultimately, there are specific experiences that drive scientists, sometimes like an obsession, to explore or create something new and valuable. Such experiences, involving people or feelings that may not always be easily described, are central to the process of scientific discovery and innovation.

Scientific inspiration, such an almost inexpressible substance, may be derived from the simple enjoyment of thinking and understanding. The Feynmanian “pleasure of finding things out”.  A fixation on confronting reality, not escaping from it. Or possibly the need for taking a glance at what is going on to make life more bearable, a little more consequential.

Or perhaps it is something brought to you by other people.  Their stories of pain, joy or achievement. A calming fire ignited by a phrase or an image. The sense that it is possible to go beyond what you are today, how you feel now.  The conviction that to feel alive you must transcend a necessity, a period of boredom or a moment of mediocrity. Or is it taking a breath to prevent you from doing the same, again and again, everyday?

Many scientists and inventors may argue that what truly inspires them is what they can bring to other people. A hidden truth, a cure, a new purpose, the soothing of sorrows. At least a little more hope or an expansion of their perceptions of happiness. Maybe their inspiration is the realization that opportunities for discovery choose the scientist, not the other way around. Or is it the willpower that is facilitated by smaller pleasures originating from family, mentors, school friends, nature, history or culture?

If there is a force that sturdily makes these individuals explore and understand, well beyond simple self-interest and vanities, then these people qualify as a cast of outsiders and freaks.  But it is not that simple. It is that, all of the above and even more.

Novel ideas and approaches emerge, aspirations refreshed and enthusiasms reborn also from a familiarity with a specific field of enquiry, including a solid appreciation of existing problems and needs. But this comes with different shades and depths: scientists freely moving on a continuous spectrum of knowledge and ignorance. This commonly requires a deeper comprehension of challenges and their viable solutions, reflections rooted in meticulous physical or abstract observations. Or sometimes all you need is to dive into a consensus of views, and figure out better ways to conform and belong to it.  Thus, for the scientist the temptation of blindly following fashions and trends is also hard to resist. A jump into the bandwagon of current advances and expectations: Sometimes scientists land on their feet, sometimes on their asses.

It is likely that many of the most respected and successful scientists are stirred simply by the outcomes of their own labor, the “stuff” that they perceive, calculate or generate. Or there is actually more to it: A sense of being chased by a lasting anxiety or pushed by an urgency. The impulse to tackle a public or private apprehension. Such states of mind fire scientists up, stimulate their work, and might even become reliable sources of pleasure.

Others are merely energized, or even spellbound, by the trajectories of their lives. The conditions and vicissitudes of their personal experiences: the need to fight an injustice, a passion for healing, the wish to measure up, the necessity to rise above imposed circumstances.

It is difficult to imagine that all this would be possible without persistent, even exhausting, levels of introspection. This must merit no less than a basic concern with the search for meaning and with sharing their implications and consequences with other people. This incessant rumination and thoughtfulness are the vehicles of the scientist’s inspiration. Something that, at least for a moment, raises their desire to understand what others miss, ignore or reject.

An edited version of this article was published in Euroscientist.

Equations on an airplane

Pattern 12 by F. Azuaje

Don’t be afraid, it’s just Math

A professor was recently escorted off a USA domestic flight and questioned by security staff because, according to another passenger, he was writing terrorizing symbols. The terrifying cyphers that led to this unfortunate incident turned out to be a set of differential equations.

For a few minutes after reading the news, I seriously tried to find a rational justification for such a “misunderstanding”, but I failed. That event was just another plain instance of stupidity.

The professor was racially profiled and treated as a suspected terrorist just because another passenger did not approve of his “strangeness”. Analyzing the socio-historical roots of such contemporary fears and bigotry are beyond the scope of this article. On the other hand, we may also argue that confusing Math with frightening messages is not necessarily surprising in a country where the public understanding of science is “so-so”, at best.

Anyway, there is not much passengers and crew can do in situations like this. Or is there?

Non-sense prevention measures

If you need to solve equations on a plane, here are some practical recommendations to prevent unpleasant circumstances:

  1. Introduce yourself to your seating neighbors and just admit that you are a nerd (or a geek, if you feel trendier).
  2. If you think that the passenger seated next to you did not believe you or if you do not have “geeky looks”, then explain that you are back to school and need to do homework involving puzzles.
  3. Carry a soft-cover book, not too big and without gold lettering, with a cover reading: “Science stuff”.
  4. If you work with differential equations, try to stick to the ordinary differential variety, and please, for Newton’s sake, use passenger-friendly notation, such as prime mark notation (a.k.a. Lagrange’s notation).
  5. If you must deal with partial differential equations, by all means ensure that the derivative symbols are not too curvy or exotic looking.

How to deal with math-unfriendly passengers?

If a passenger disrupts a flight simply because of an unbearable fear of math or science, then the airline and law enforcement staff could help as follows:

  1. Compassionately remove the disruptive passenger from the plane and rebook flights.
  2. While waiting, the math-unfriendly passenger should be encouraged (with a large cookie) to watch Sesame Street’s “Counting Bats with the Count”.
  3. Direct the passenger to a video store, but keep him/her away from sections offering “Homeland”, “American Sniper” or related classics.
  4. Instead, keep the passenger close to titles such as “The Big Bang Theory”, “Silicon Valley” and “Back to the Future”, to remind him/her that science people can be funny too. If the passenger looks calmer, offer a gentle high-five.
  5. To communicate with the passenger, never use words longer than five characters or sentences longer than three words. It may create more agitation.

The thought that people’s rights can be violated so easily, by virtue of other people’s foolishness, is scary. What is next? Reading and writing more than 140 characters will not be tolerated after boarding?

In the face of prejudice-driven insanity, it is either crying or laughing. As long as we are allowed to, let’s try to go with the latter, while expecting that human decency prevails. Let’s also laugh in the hope that, as Dostoevsky put it in The Idiot, “beauty will save the world”. Certainly, Math will continue revealing such beauty.

This article was originally published in the United Academics Magazine.

In praise of solitude in science

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Do scientists and innovators benefit from spending time alone?

In an age of big science and large collaboration consortia, the benefits of solitude may not always be evident. Perhaps many people too often confuse solitude with strained loneliness. Thus, being alone at regular intervals may be interpreted as evidence of a bizarre inability to belong or conform.

Here, solitude also means a minimum level of seclusion from the incessant electronic noise: the instant chatter, social media feeds and the like.

Solitude: Beyond productivity

Many people will accept that, in principle, you do more with fewer distractions that prevent you from prioritizing or completing a task. Thus, after all, solitude is even required for continually “getting things done”: that contemporary fascination, which is sometimes just a way to meet some measure of “performance”.

When you study or experiment, solitude can bring the right cadence. The impulse needed to let you focus on what is important, and not on what is the least expected from you.  This in turn can make us more creative or prepared for complex problem-solving.

Moments of isolation are also needed to help us go through the day and reconcile us with the world around us.  You can be there almost always surrounded by chatter or unsolicited intrusion, and suddenly you choose to go back to your own speed, to an innate serenity.  But such a natural rhythm is not necessarily imposed by inactivity and emptiness. It may represent a healing response to allow you to re-assess your work, or that of others. These are moments that can remind us of the reason behind a job or mission.  They are warranted breaks from the boredom of daily routines, and can even make us question what we take for granted.

Solitude and well-being

There is nothing wrong with a sprinkle of loneliness, and even idleness, in our working hours either. It could well represent the preamble to a new exploration, the trigger for deeper questions and their possible answers. Such periods also become crucial “move on!” or “go deeper!” flashes. These are not calls for laziness.  These are windows into possibility.

Hours in meetings, “connected” or in shared spaces may be effective in hurrying things up, or at least in giving the impression that we are moving towards an obligatory end. But unremittingly sharing spaces, for whatever managerial reasons, can also result in a succession of useless bustle and time waste.

Time for quiet individual work can give you a true sense of urgency. You accept the importance of the task at hand for what it is, and not as a mere measure of activity.

Solitude: Beyond individual experience

If individuality is a vital attribute of originality and invention, then we need to create and nurture, for us and for others, more opportunities to be alone.  Although discovery and innovation are collective enterprises, all starts, and may as well end, with a single voice. Novel insights and solutions are ultimately conceived as lonesome acts.

Thus, you do not have to feel secluded or justify to others the need to be in peace and quiet. Solitude is another companion to help us illuminate our purpose: at the desk, bench or field.  Solitude is a right and responsibility. It is also a right and responsible effort to wrestle the erosion produced by communal conformity and the illusion of consensus.

From these simple perspectives, solitude becomes an important work asset for promoting focus, encouraging novel problem-solving and facilitating deep thinking. With a little discipline and tenacity, solitude is transformed into a ritual for meticulously ordering your thoughts and aspirations. But also it is an experience that is worth sharing with others to help them dissipate noise and listen better to themselves.

This post was originally published in the United Academics Magazine.