Monthly Archives: October 2018

A PhD should be about improving society, not chasing academic kudos.

Implicit in this recent article is the often heard argument that for science to be more relevant, or more clearly benefit society, individual research projects need to be scrutinized for their societal impact. In other words, if we want to increase the benefit of science to society, we need to increase the direct benefit of individual research projects to society.

That this is true is far from clear:

Science as a whole is meant to benefit society. However, it doesn’t follow from that that it will best do so when each piece *individually* directly benefits society (nor does it follow that the people producing those pieces must be directly motivated to benefit society).

Why? Because science is a collective endeavour that is made up of many parts, parts which interlock in unexpected ways, and which are frequently re-purposed in entirely unexpected ways.

A simple example is Boolean algebra. Boolean algebra involves representing logic with zeros and ones. It is at the heart of the estimated 2 *billion* computers in the world. Yet when George Boole developed it in the mid 19th century, none of that was remotely on the horizon. Likewise, what George Boole thought and felt about what he was doing at the time is entirely irrelevant to those 2 computers.

There is a wider principle here. Imagine a structure designed to shelter from the rain (say, a bus shelter). The structure doing this successfully is not dependent on all its parts individually sheltering from the rain. In fact, the most effective shelters may well have parts that merely support the functions of other parts (walls, foundations for those walls, all of which prop up the sheltering roof). And there are countless examples like this.

What is in operation here is, arguably, the so-called fallacy of division: the mistaken inference that what is true of a whole also has to be true of its individual parts.

It may, in the end, turn out to be the case that maximising the direct benefit of individual research projects such as PhD’s is the best way to maximise the overall benefit of science to society, but actual evidence for this will be required.

Scrap the Iran deal because it only offers weak protection

“The deal has failed to live up to the original goal of the international community when talks with Tehran started: to stop Iran from ever getting nuclear weapons. Instead, at best, the current deal only delays it by 10-15 years.”

This is an interesting argument which has cropped up repeatedly in the context of debate about whether or not the US should revoke the Iran deal, signed by President Obama, and designed to curb the development of nuclear weapons.

The deal, as the political situation itself, is complex, so there are many arguments involved. But this one seems baffling on closer inspection:

Yes, if one thinks nuclear weapons development is very bad, then delaying that for just 10-15 years is a lot less desirable than delaying it indefinitely. But wouldn’t delaying it by 10-15 years still be preferable to not delaying it at all?

The argument that something offers flimsy protection seems meaningful only as part of a contrastive argument for better protection. If what is intended is an argument that some other course of action offers more than 10-15 years protection, or offers a better guarantee of 10-15 years protection, then that other course of action needs to be spelled out clearly and its advantages determined.

But, as readers can see, there is no such attempt in the piece from which we have drawn this argument. The piece concludes simply:

“Trump needs to ask himself one very simple question on May 12: Does the Iran deal stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons forever? If the answer is no, then he must walk away.”