Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Structure of Scientific Activity

What does interdisciplinary look like? Starting from science outwards, it may look something like this crazy multicolored dotted web-wheel. Scientists collected data on over a billion user interactions with online scholarly portals, tracking the activity of scientists and the general public as they clicked through and engaged with publications in all sorts of disciplines. The result? A clickstream map of science that suggests just how interconnected the dynamics of scholarship can be. The wheel's hub is formed from closely-related journals in the social sciences and humanities, while the rim is made up of natural science journals. The spokes are journals that connect across disciplines (fields like brain research, human geography, and alternative energy). 

Besides being pretty to look at, what is this clickstream map good for? Here's what the scientists say:
Maps constructed from clickstream data can serve numerous functions. Like citation maps they provide a means to visually assess the relationships between various domains and journals. However, clickstream maps of science can offer an immediate perspective on what is taking place in science and can thus aid the detection of emerging trends, inform funding agencies, and aid researchers in exploring the interdisciplinary relationships between various scientific disciplines.
It's even getting support from humanities professors, who are chiming in about the map here. I'm all for it – science, bring on the color coding. 

Related Link: article in SEED magazine on networked knowledge and Science 2.0

Friday, May 21, 2010

Conversation with Dawkins

> view of earth as a pale blue dot

After reading, thinking, and writing about the work of Richard Dawkins, I had the unbelievable luck of speaking to him in person!! At the recent Science and Religious Conflict conference, over beef wellington, I got a chance to ask him about the public understanding of science (he held an Oxford chair by that title), popular science book writing (he's now working on a children's book), what role religion plays for him (he calls himself an atheist Anglican), and life in the little town of Oxford. Still reeling from the encounter, I'm going to try to write some coherent thoughts about everything we talked about.

One subject that came up was how somebody should go about communicating science. He thinks there are two main approaches – one that emphasizes the usefulness of science (look what this new pill or piece of technology can do for you!), and the Carl Sagan approach, emphasizing the wonder, awe, and sheer marvel of science. Dawkins suggested that he favored the latter, since it draws people into a longer-lasting appreciation and interest in science that provides more than a fleeting fascination with the latest fad or gadget. He’s probably on to something – a little while ago the NY Times found that its most e-mailed articles tended to be those that inspired awe, particularly science articles.

But what about the usefulness approach? After all, many people may first be introduced to physiology when they get a blood test, to chemistry when they look at the nutrition facts on a cereal box, to electromagnetism when they have to replace some batteries, or light and optics when they’re buying a new camera. A Pew Research Center study found that most people, even if they don’t know basic high-school science facts, still know something about the areas where science is personally relevant to their health and daily lives. So the science we deal with on a day-to-day basis seems like a good starting point for discussion and further curiosity, acting as a bridge into the wider world of science that Sagan championed and Dawkins promotes. One approach may feed the other, and if a combination is possible – the useful and the awe-inspiring, the relevant and the celebratory – so much the better. 

On that note, some words from Carl Sagan about the pale blue dot:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena... Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves... It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What is a Philosopher?

I'm pretty excited about this new opinion series in the New York Times called The Stone, which will "feature the writings of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless." The first piece is by Simon Critchley (the moderator of the series) who tackles the question what is a philosopher? in little more than 1000 words. Here are some of them:

By contrast, we might say, the philosopher is the person who has time or who takes time. Theodorus, Socrates’ interlocutor, introduces the “digression” with the words, “Aren’t we at leisure, Socrates?” The latter’s response is interesting. He says, “It appears we are.” As we know, in philosophy appearances can be deceptive. But the basic contrast here is that between the lawyer, who has no time, or for whom time is money, and the philosopher, who takes time. The freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity. Pushing this a little further, we might say that to philosophize is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at our backs...

Socrates adds that the philosopher neither sees nor hears the so-called unwritten laws of the city, that is, the mores and conventions that govern public life. The philosopher shows no respect for rank and inherited privilege and is unaware of anyone’s high or low birth. It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party. As Socrates concludes, the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls. In thought, they are elsewhere.

This all sounds dreamy, but it isn’t. Philosophy should come with the kind of health warning one finds on packs of European cigarettes: PHILOSOPHY KILLS.

And with that rather dramatic thought, I leave you to find out exactly why philosophy is so dangerous. Take your time.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Building Peace Conference

Yesterday (Saturday May 15th) was the Building Peace Conference organized by the Oxford Network for Peace Studies, or OxPeace. OxPeace is a "a multi-disciplinary initiative to promote the focused study of the nature of peace, peacemaking, peacebuilding and peacekeeping, in Oxford. It aims to promote relevant research and teaching, and the inter-disciplinary cross-fertilisation of ideas, and to enable the sharing of research between Oxford academics and graduate students and those from other institutions in Britain and abroad, and with scholar-practitioners in the field." Keynote speakers were Professor of Peace Research Johan Galtung and Ugandan human rights lawyer Barney Afako. 

I'll be adding my notes from the conference over the next few days. Highlights from last year's conference, The Serious Study of Peace, can be found here.

Background (from the program):
There is growing interest in academic circles in the questions surrounding the nature of peace. This includes the making, keeping, and building of peace. Peace as a site for academic study raises unique questions and provides a distinctive shape to interdisciplinary endeavour, drawing on politics and international relations, economics, development, environmental studies, war and conflict, anthropology, psychology, law, ethics and theology to name only a few.

The focus on peace adds a fresh dimension to established disciplines and engenders a distinctive interdisciplinary synergy. It has produced an extensive, rapidly growing body of academic literature, and shows potential as a discipline in its own right, embracing all levels from senior research to undergraduate teaching. Much relevant research and teaching  is being done in Oxford. This Conference taps into some of this work, as well as providing a forum for sharing with colleagues from across the world.

Dr Liz Carmichael (St John's College, Theology)
Carmichael began with some introductory remarks about the history and purpose of OxPeace. She described OxPeace as held together by the idea of peace as a worthy academic focus. Its goal is to promote new centers, new institutes, and a new chair of Peace Studies at Oxford (for which they need funding). Carmichael emphasized the need to raise the profile and the study of peace at an elite institution like Oxford, which would lend credibility to peace studies as an academic field in its own right.

First Talk:

Professor Johan Galtung
After the Abolition of Slavery and Colonialism, War as a Social Institution: The Role of England.  An example of Applied Peace Studies

Johan Galtung is currently based near Geneva as co-Director of the Transcend Research Institute,  which he co-founded in 1993. A Norwegian sociologist and ‘father’ of academic peace studies, Johan Galtung founded the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) in 1959 and was its first Director 1959-69. He then became Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Oslo University 1969-78. He is a peace practitioner and prolific researcher, who has held numerous visiting professorships in Europe and the USA.

Galtung began his talk by urging Oxford University to become a “facilitator of solutions.” He described his role as “father of peace studies” in the 1950’s, where he worked to advocate peacebuilding, peacekeeping and peaceguiding. Over the years his work as led him to 10 findings, which he believes can help in the project of de-institutionalizing war:
1. The top will never abolish anything on its own – the top will never degrade itself.
2. Abolition never comes from bottom alone, it needs an enlightened element (often women play a pivotal role here).
3. Consciousness formation is crucial. Consciousness raising is often well performed by churches.
 4. There must be a vision of change, and spirituality can be used as a bridging concept, crossing divisions between religions of east and west. There must be emphasis on the linking of something out there to something in here. Heart and brain go hand in hand.
5. Need unlimited perseverance.
6. Cannot demand synchronicity, or implement change in all places at the same time. We need leading countries to provide the example.
7. Multilateralism (summit meetings) will generally lead to nothing. Galtung gives the example of the recent climate change summit as a failed attempt to implement change. Countries need to show the lead, especially now on the issue of nuclear weapons.
8 and 9. Sometimes heavy politics is necessary. “When someone has new idea, the first reaction is laughter, then suspicion, then a heavy politician who says ‘its been my idea all along’” There is a dialectic of success and failure.
10. There is a heavy price to any change. There will always be resistance from those who claim that if we don’t do this then someone else will. And every action will have often unforeseen consequences.

Galtung turned next to a “middle” position on what we would need to abolish war. After again emphasizing the role played by women, he says change will come from a variety of “middles”. The middle-aged – when they still have physical energy and have not yet solidified their ideas, although he acknowledges it is possible to be middle aged well into one’s 80s. The middle-sexed – who are not lost in narcissistic beauty concerns that take up too much time and effort in our modern society. The middle class – because the upper class is oblivious to problems, and the lower class is too concerned with its own.  The middle-towns – big cities have too many monuments celebrating the grandeur of their city, and growing up in this sort of environment seeps into a certain (righteous) view of world.  The middle-religious – somewhere between a hard religious outlook that is too uncompromising, and a soft religious outlook exemplified by groups like the Quakers. The Anglican church may be intermediary between these two extremes. Finally, middle-politics – that celebrates coalitions and seeks to find ideas that accommodate both sides. The idea of social capitalism or social democracy was itself such a coalition.

Galtung’s concluding remarks reflected on war as a tenacious structure, as opposed to solely dependent on particular actors. There is cooperation between countries in maintaining the war system, and history has shown that we tend to stop war just in time to avoid putting an end to the entire war system. Righteousness makes all players think their views are universal, but it is time for an "intellectual helicopter sweep" to view countries from above and see the larger picture.

Second Talk:
Barney Afako
Grappling with Peace: Reflections on some efforts to deal with violent conflict in Africa

Barney Afako, a scholar-practitioner of peacebuilding, is a leading Ugandan human rights lawyer and transitional justice expert. Currently based in London, he is an adviser to the peace process in northern Uganda and other peace processes in Africa. He is a leading scholar in transitional justice specifically.

Afako began by describing some of his experience in Uganda  working with  local people in small communities. He noted that these people are mainly interested in their futures and those of their children, not in punishing rebels and bringing them to trial. They bring into sharp focus the idea that justice is a much bigger concept than criminality and criminal justice. Therefore it is possible to have a primary focus on bringing an end to violent conflict without giving up the need for accountability. Afako described how he would constantly run into arguments to pursue and nurture the idea of international criminal justice, but this is a far too limited view. In approaching peacebuilding, one cannot escape hard dilemma’s, and one cannot always resolve these dilemmas. But we can try to be prepared to handle these dilemmas. Mediators and peacebuilding practitioners step into the space between law and the local (bridging the gap between international criminal justice and ordinary people). This is a no mans zone, but people who want to make peace need to stand here.

Afako also emphasized the dual role of the state and civil society in the peace process. The state’s influence is both inescapable and utterly crucial. Yes, the state exerts control over any part of peace-building, but it is important to understand that there is no space in which conflict takes place that is not under some aspect of control. Therefore mediators need to keep having conversation with many actors of the state, and this involves going to the top. They need to help states organize themselves to respond to conflict, as well as keep the state cohesive. On the other side, civil society is increasingly mobilized on issues of justice, and lots of people are engaged with peace process. Civil society needs to have a part in the peace process; it needs to be at the table. People in civil society will bring perspective to those around the table. So while it is critical to focus on state, it is important to also focus on people. People without the state will not work, and the state without people will not have support. A mediator needs to carry everyone.

Finally, Afako addressed the importance of looking deeper into any conflict to identify the structural concerns. He says we can’t take our eyes off the parties involved, but we also cannot afford to forget the structural issues. The process of peace goes beyond the signatures on a peace agreement. He advises mediators to keep abreast of social changes so that new conflicts don’t take them by surprise.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


In Córdoba, Spain you'll find a roman catholic cathedral called the Mezquita (Spanish for "mosque"). The mosque-turned-cathedral was once a roman temple; that is, before it was a Visigoth church. After a few double takes at the minaret-bell tower, you may be inclined, as I was, to mutter something like: "oh, religions...aren't they all essentially the same thing?" And it would be exactly this sentiment that BU professor Stephen Prothero condemns as wholly mistaken (and quite dangerous)

In his recent article, Prothero describes what he sees as a pervasive notion of religion that "resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture." It's the notion that, when you get down to it, religions are just different paths to the same truth. But he warns that this is false (there are significant differences between religions that can't be glossed over), condescending (denying these differences is just like saying they don't matter) and a threat (only by taking religious differences seriously can we understand the religious conflicts that plague the world).
This naive theological groupthink — call it Godthink — is motivated in part by a laudable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths. This way of seeing has given us religious violence from the Crusades and the Holocaust to Rwanda and Nigeria. In response to such violence, the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.
I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.
When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. As the New Atheists (another species of religious lumpers) observe, we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.

I think Prothero raises a good point denial of religious differences may be comforting, but it moves from naive to pernicious when it leads to overlooking real problems or incorrectly analyzing a situation. More importantly, any kind of religious "lumping" (favorable or otherwise) skims right over the real complexities and nuances of the various beliefs, doctrines, rituals, social interactions, and institutions that we already lump together in the term "religion."  

Nevertheless, I still think there is a value in emphasizing religious similarities call me guilty of being drawn to that "reimagination" of the world. Maybe it's possible to reimagine, un-naively...