Battle-Fisher Producing Documentary on Transhumanism

Congratulations to Ronin Institute Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher, who will be a co-producer on News2Share’s upcoming film Transhumanism: A Documentary. Here’s the concept trailer:

The project is currently raising funds on indiegogo. Check out the project page to learn more:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/transhuman-a-documentary-news-film#/

On a related note:

Banerjee on International Scientific Collaboration

Ronin Institute Research Scholar Soumya Banerjee has posted a preprint of an analysis of scientific collaboration networks, focusing on patterns of collaboration within and among different nations. He writes that

Our latest article looks at a scientific collaboration network and finds novel patterns and clusters in the data that may reflect past foreign policies and contemporary geopolitics. Our model and analysis gives insights and guidelines into how scientific development of developing countries can be guided. This is intimately related to fostering economic development of impoverished nations and creating a richer and more prosperous society.

More information on the work can be found via the following links:

Paper – https://arxiv.org/abs/1509.07313v2

Talk – http://cs-dc-15.org/papers/multi-scale-dynamics/knowledge-maps/analysis-of-a-planetary-scale-scientific-collaboration-dataset-reveals-novel-patterns/

Slides – http://www.slideshare.net/neelsoumya/analysis-of-a-planetary-scale-scientific-collaboration-dataset-reveals-novel-patterns

Code – https://bitbucket.org/neelsoumya/public_open_source_datascience/src/80f60386e3295eca2bddc62d1a39582da78b64c2/scientific_collaboration/?at=master

Ruth Duerr and Colleagues Win International Data Rescue Award

Congratulations to Research Scholar Ruth Duerr, who accepted the 2016 International Data Rescue Award in the Geosciences on behalf of a team of researchers from multiple institutions. From an article on the award in Eos:

This year’s winning project, “Revealing Our Melting Past: Rescuing Historical Snow and Ice Data,” is an effort to digitize the Roger G. Barry Archive at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder. The archive is a trove of snow and ice data in many formats, including prints; images on microplates and glass plates; ice charts from early expeditions to Alaska, the Alps, South and Central America, and Greenland; and handwritten 19th century exploration diaries and observational data.

“This is a project that is all about rescuing glacier photos that go all the way back to the late 1800s,” said Ruth Duerr, a project team member who represented the group at the award ceremony. “For science, it is giving you a 150-year record of individual glaciers around the world and how they have changed in terms of mass lost or gained; mostly lost,” said ESSI president-elect Duerr, a research scholar in science data management and software and system engineering at the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship, which is based in Montclair, N.J.

As also noted in that article,

The award was announced just 2 days after news broke that some other scientists are frantically copying unrelated U.S. government climate data out of their fear that the data could vanish during the Trump administration. That fear is based in the idea that some likely appointees are climate science skeptics.

So, congratulations to Ruth, and to everyone involved in the project! Check out the Eos article for some fantastic photographs that show the dramatic consequences of climate change over the past century.

Help Fund Scans of Dolphin Genitalia

Research Scholar Diane Kelly and her collaborators at Mount Holyoke College are raising money right now to fund CT scans of dolphin genitalia. From the project description at Experiment:

Our goal is to assess the depth of penile penetration during copulation and to explore which anatomical landmarks are in contact and where. The penises of adult males will be inflated with saline and inserted into the vaginas of adult females from the same species. The penises will be inserted as deep as possible to simulate copulation.

After the genitals are CT scanned together, they will be dissected to identify anatomical landmarks (Orbach et al. 2016), which will then be located on the CT scan images. The depth of penile penetration and the points of contact between the male and female genitalia will be identified and compared across species to explore broad patterns of genital coevolution.

So, maybe you’d like to help support some cool marine reproductive biology, or maybe your tastes, like those of Christian Grey, are singular. Either way, visit the project site for some inspiring science and horrifying images.

Graeber on the Transformation of Universities

Following up on the previous posts on bullshit and tenure, Research Scholar Ralph Haygood drew my attention to this passage from a 2014 article by David Graeber in the Journal of Ethnographic Theory.

Universities are—or, better said, until recently have been— among the only institutions that survived more or less intact from the High Middle Ages. As a result, universities still reflected an essentially medieval conception of self-organization and self-governance; this was an institution managed by scholars for the pursuit of scholarship, of forms of knowledge that were seen as valuable in their own right. This did not fundamentally change at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when university systems entered into an often somewhat uneasy alliance with centralizing states, providing training for the civil service in exchange for keeping the basic principle of autonomy intact. Obviously this autonomy was compromised in endless ways in practice. But it existed as an ideal. And it was important. It made a difference both in legitimizing the basic idea of a domain of autonomous production driven by values other than those of the market, but in any number of very practical ways as well: for instance, universities were, traditionally, spaces in cities not directly under the jurisdiction of the police.

In this sense what’s happened to universities since the 1970s—very unevenly, but pretty much everywhere—has represented a fundamental break of a kind we have not seen in eight hundred years. As Gayatri Spivak remarked in a talk she gave to Occupy Wall Street, even twenty years ago, when people spoke of “the university,” in the abstract, they were referring to the faculty; nowadays, when they speak of “the university,” they are referring to the administration. Universities are no longer corporations in the medieval sense; they are corporations in the capitalist sense, bureaucratic institutions organized around the pursuit of profit, even though the “profit” in question is, nowadays, slightly more broadly conceived. They are most certainly not institutions dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding as a value in itself. In that sense, I really think it can be said that the university, in the original conception of the term, is dead.

The whole article is fantastic, open access, and available here: http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau4.3.007

Paul Graham on Risk and Discovery

In a short post Paul Graham (computer scientist, venture capitalist, and opinion haver) notes that biographies of famous scientists tend to focus on the subset of their ideas that panned out, neglecting their failures.

Biographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus more on physics than alchemy or theology. The impression we get is that his unerring judgment led him straight to truths no one else had noticed.

[snip]

In Newton’s day the three problems seemed roughly equally promising. No one knew yet what the payoff would be for inventing what we now call physics

[snip]

Newton made three bets. One of them worked. But they were all risky.

You can take this argument even further. There have been a ton of people throughout history working on topics that, at the time, seemed as promising as physics or alchemy. People don’t tend to write biographies about the folks for whom the big breakthrough never comes.

The written history of science tends to be a post-hoc narrative of linear progress imposed on a roiling, chaotic mess of false starts and wrong turns. (As does the history of not-science, for that matter.) The problem is that it leads us to think that we can have progress without risk, success without failure. It leads to our risk-averse approach to funding scientific research, which has proven itself effective at producing huge volumes incremental science.

The fact is, if we want to fund the research that will lead to the next Principia, we’re going to have to become okay with funding a lot more alchemy.

Missouri Looking at Eliminating Tenure

Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin has introduced a bill that would eliminate tenure at public universities in the state. The text of the bill can be found here. This follows on the heels of a similar bill that has been introduced in Iowa.

The Missouri bill would also require universities to provide information about the costs of different degrees and the job prospects for people with those degrees. That bit actually sounds okay to me. Job opportunities and future earnings are not the only things you should consider when making decisions about your education, and I firmly believe that a good education, particularly in some of the less lucrative fields, can enrich your life in ways that don’t translate financially. However, allowing students to make an informed choice seems good, particularly for those students who may not have the family financial resources to fund an education that won’t lead to a decent career.

But what about the tenure bit? That seems, on its face, to be setting the stage for future attacks on academic freedom. Tenure is what allows people to pursue ideas with some degree of insulation from political and financial pressures. The Chronicle for Higher Ed has an interview with the author of the bill, and they ask him point blank:

Q. Are you concerned that eliminating tenure would damage academic freedom, or professors could get fired for political reasons?

A. Like I said, in what area do you have protection of your job for whatever you say, whatever you do, you’re protected? You don’t have that. Their job is to educate, to ensure that students are able to propel themselves into a work force and be successful. That’s their job.

If they are going off the rails and not doing what they are supposed to as a hired staff of educating those kids, should they not be held accountable? Should they have the freedom to do whatever they wish on the taxpayers’ dime and on the students’ dime? That should be more the question: Should they have that freedom to do that? Their focus should be to ensure that we have an educated person to be able to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

That sure sounds like a long way of saying, “Yes, professors could be fired for political reasons.”

If you’re thinking of taking a job in Missouri, you’ve got a brief window. The Chronicle states that the bill would not apply to anyone receiving tenure before January 1, 2018. The text of the bill actually says that it would not apply to anyone hired before January 1, 2018. So, if you started a position there this fall, you’d maybe be okay?

Or maybe it won’t pass! If you live in Missouri, call your state representatives (when you take a break from calling your federal representatives).

Required Coursework: Calling Bullshit

Here’s something that should probably be worked into every college curriculum in the country: a course developed by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West of the University of Washington — Calling Bullshit. Note, this is not an official course at the moment, although they plan to submit it to the University for approval. But right now, you can check out the rationale and the syllabus.

Here’s part of the intro from their new website:

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. So-called higher education often rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture has elevated bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit, then take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with second-order bullshit. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, often seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

Attention everyone developing college curriculum around the country: more of this please.

Ranalli on Thoreau

Ronin Institute Research Scholar Brent Ranalli has had two articles published recently in the Thoreau Society Bulletin. Both also appear on the Society’s blog. The first, co-authored with naturalist Cherrie Corey, seeks to identify the mystery mushroom that Henry David Thoreau describes in his journals as resembling a traditional New England “election cake.” The second uses literary sources to reconstruct Thoreau’s walking gait and asks what the gait reveals about the man.

Open Letter on the Election, our Values, and our Community

I was putting together a letter to send out to the community of Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute. When it was done, though, it seemed like it might be relevant to other academic communities, as well. So, I thought I would share it here:

Greetings Ronin!

On Tuesday, Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States. We won’t understand all of the consequences of that for some time. However, it seems unlikely to mean anything good for scholarship. There is good reason to worry that there will be negative impacts on funding, and it is possible that certain types of research could come under more directed attack. For some of you, there may be more personal and immediate dangers – things lower down on the Maslow hierarchy than publication expenses.

The Ronin Institute is a 501(c)3, meaning that we are specifically prohibited from lobbying for or against any candidate or piece of legislation, so we can’t, as an institution, take explicitly political positions. At the same time, we do have a certain set of values, values that are clearly at odds with much of the rhetoric and actions of the Trump campaign and its supporters. Given the way in which the violation of those values – and of many, many societal norms – has been mainstreamed and normalized in the media over the past several months, I think it is worth reiterating our commitment to our two cardinal values here.

The first value is truth. This is the core value of all scholarship. It means being careful and thorough in your research, and it means being clear and honest in your communication. It also means being open to the possibility of being wrong, and it means working every day to be less wrong. As we move further into what seems to be a post-truth period in politics, it is more important than ever for us to commit ourselves to uncovering truths and sharing them with the world.

The second value is empathy. That means treating each other with kindness and generosity, recognizing that other people may have goals and face challenges that are different from your own. And that entails a genuine commitment to diversity. No matter how much bigotry and harassment may become (further) normalized and (further) institutionalized in the coming months and years, they remain unacceptable here. And no, before you ask, valuing tolerance does not mean that we have to be tolerant of intolerance. If you think this sounds excessively naive or soft-headed or stereotypically liberal, this may not be the right community for you.

I’m not saying you have to be perfect in execution every time with these things. But you do have to be striving towards them in good faith.

Finally, I want to remind everyone that the Ronin Institute is a community, created specifically so that we can help each other to pursue our individual and collective goals. Normally, we think of this in the scholarly domain – exchanging intellectual ideas, or brainstorming solutions to problems like library access – but I want to encourage everyone to think also in the human domain. This election has brought an ugly part of our society out into the open, and for a lot of people, the country feels less safe than it did a few days ago. Unfortunately, given the incidents that have already occurred around the country, that feeling is probably accurate. The fact is that many people, particularly minority groups – both visible and invisible – are in a much more precarious position now.

I know that many of you don’t know each other, but here’s the thing: I have had at least some interaction with each of you, and we have a fantastic group of folks here. I don’t know what kinds of support people are going to need in the coming weeks, months, and years, but I do know that we have a lot of people who will do what they can to provide that support. So, if there is something that you or others in your community need, please ask. If there is something you can provide, please offer. This, by the way, would be a great use of that Slack account you’ve been ignoring!

Now let’s get to work!

Scientiam consecemus

Jon Wilkins
Ronin Institute