Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

de Tocqueville on questions of science, science and progress

Chapters 10 and 15 in Part 1 of Vol. 2 of Democracy in America have some points that I find particularly worthy of using as a lens for modern academia.

In Chapter 10 de Tocqueville argues that a more egalitarian society will be a more economically competitive one (on this point I completely agree with him) and thus people have less of the leisure time that is so necessary for intellectual contemplation, insight, and advancement.  He thus argues that democratic societies will make most of their advances in the applied sciences rather than the basic sciences.

I partly dissent, and not because the second half of the 20th century saw such great scientific advancement in the US in spite of being a time of comparative economic equality and rising racial equality.  The middle of the 20th century was something of an anomaly in US history, with great prosperity enabled by the fact that the US had better infrastructure than anyone else in the post-WWII era.  That fact alone means that de Tocqueville's analysis of economic competition in egalitarian societies does not really apply to the 20th century US; we were very far from the sort of equilibrium that he was envisioning.  In fact, it would seem to support his case, precisely because it was an exception to his economic assumptions and a counter-example to his assumptions about scientific progress.  Instead, I partly dissent because he give short shrift to the relationship of the pure and applied sciences.  Advances in the applied sciences make advances in the pure sciences cheaper.  Imagine studying pure questions in turbulence without the insights enabled by modern computing power or high-speed cameras.  Imagine doing the purest work in cell biology without bioinformatics infrastructure built on our computing industry, the vast infrastructure of lab equipment suppliers who have made things cheaper and faster to compete for the budgets of labs and companies doing applied research, or the tools of modern microscopy and lasers.  How many people realize that the multi-photon microscope, a beautiful tool of neuroscience, would not be possible without the advances in pulsed laser technology enabled by the telecommunications industry?

On the other hand, it is definitely true that a leisured class, whether born into leisure or elevated to it through the academic system, is an invaluable element of a basic research apparatus.  In that regard, it is interesting to look at the structure of the modern academy.  It has become more and more unequal, with a class divide between high-status researchers (who do have a certain amount of time for contemplation) and low-status adjunct instructors, and a shrinking middle class that try to bridge teaching and research.  This certainly seems to mirror the aristocratic arrangement that de Tocqueville regarded as necessary for basic research.  However, even (especially?) the biggest of the bigshots seem to spend more time working on funding proposals than contemplating science.  The system has the superficial appearance of an aristocracy of philosopher-kings, but the reality is much less romantic.  OK, if there's one major theme of this blog it's that the past was never all that romantic compared to the present, but at the very least the current system demonstrates that pure research isn't really a product of leisure.

A more interesting place to look is at graduate study.  The best part of graduate school is that after a few hurdles it is largely unstructured.  I think every PhD looks back on graduate school and thinks "Man, if I'd known then what I know now I would have made better use of that unstructured time!"  The purpose of that unstructured time is to let the embryonic scientist enjoy an interlude of leisure (albeit impoverished leisure) so that they might focus on learning.  It is thus interesting to note that the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program is putting more and more burdens on graduate students.  When I applied in 1998 they basically wanted to fund smart and motivated students, and the applications were almost trivial.  Nowadays they want research plans and outreach plans ("Broader Impact").  Honestly, since leisure is wasted on the young I sort of get why they want to give bright young minds more structure.  I still think it's a mistake, but I get why they do it.

Now, if we look at graduate research fellowships through the lens provided by de Tocqueville, we must note that there is no organization more openly devoted to a semblance of democratic spirit and social equality in science than the National Science Foundation.  Their Broader Impact Criterion is, for good or ill, all about that.  Making graduate students engage in Broader Impact projects is not only in keeping with the social goals of the NSF, but it also keeps graduate students in a state of hustle and multi-tasking.  They can't just focus on their subject, they must also show people their public impact.  You can like it or dislike it, and it's not the same as the commercial competition that de Tocqueville considered, but it's clearly different from a vision of graduate study as sheltered time.

I can't say that anybody consciously decided that graduate study should be a time of greater structure for the sake of democracy, but it is interesting to see this pattern noted by de Tocqueville in one context show up in another, and via the intervention of an organization whose mission and viewpoint match the democratic spirit that he described.

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