Friday, April 14, 2017

Traditional ethics and standards of scholarship

The astrophysicist Simon White concluded his introduction (pdf) to the 2016 Ringberg workshop on galaxy formation by asking how one developed consensus about what is well established. (Thanks to Petri Mähönen for bringing it to my attention.)

White’s answer: “Re-emphasise traditional ethics and standards of scholarship.”

The five specific instructions he supplied apply to any field of inquiry, not just galaxy formation. Here they are, slightly edited (as indicated by square brackets) to remove the references to astrophysics:
De-emphasise marketing – the goal is not to sell our model to observers, funding agencies or employers, but to understand [the phenomenon being studied]
Be up-front, even-handed and explicit about limitations, assumptions and failures, in addition to exhibiting successes
Read and discuss related published work in detail – establish, as far as possible, the reasons why it agrees or disagrees with our results
Be sufficiently detailed and explicit about what was done in each paper that it is possible for others to understand if they agree or not
Do not stop after exhibiting agreement with (some) [evidence] – does this reflects calibration/tuning or an underlying [reality]?

These principles are clearly the fruit of many years’ experience, and careful thought. They could be applied to planning research, writing a paper, reviewing a paper, or seeking funding. The qualifier that these are traditional ethics and standards implies that White thinks they are no longer being observed in scholarship; cf. Phil Mirowski’s Science-Mart. O tempora! O mores!

I was reminded of DARPA’s “Heilmeier Catechism” and Dijkstra's "Address to my students" number EWD956 (I learned about both from Petri, too). Heilmeier how one decides what to do; Dijkstra is how one should do it; and White is how one describes what was done.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Templates and narratives for change

At the end of a conversation with David Runciman about powerful women on the Talking Politics podcast (reposted on the LRB podcast; their chat starts around 18:00), Mary Beard had this to say:

The idea that women have a model for doing [changing the structures within which women can think of themselves as ambitious, as powerful, as clever, as articulate, and able to make that kind of difference in the world] -- and I don't mean a kind of role model, but I just mean a kind of cultural template for doing that -- until we can provide a narrative and a template, then I think we've got a problem.

This resonates with what I try (and fail) to do in policy innovation. It's not sufficient to have a new idea (= template). You also need to have a story (= narrative) that explains why anyone should care, and why it makes sense.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Spectrum is not a scarce natural resource


Almost every policy or technology story about radios starts with the litany that Spectrum is a Scarce Natural Resource. I will argue that this claim is false, and that it matters.

In short:

  • Spectrum is no more a scarce natural resource than sound.
  • It is more accurate and productive to talk about radio operation.
  • Rather than saying “spectrum is scarce”, it’s better to say “radio coexistence is hard.”


The pay-off is that this alternative language makes us focus on what matters – the best way to arrange the operation of radios – rather than on ways to manage a resource (spectrum) that may or may exist.

Sunday, January 08, 2017