torsdag 8 oktober 2009

Sociology of Science

J. Bradford DeLong gives on his blog in The State of Economics in the 2000s Analogized 
to another major recent case in which an academic discipline went completely off the rails, namely English departments' swing into postmodernism in the '80s and early '90s, characterized by
  • In both cases, the people involved maintained, credibly, that you couldn't really assess the work in question without putting a lot of effort into understanding it.
  • In both cases, that required mastering difficult stuff. (In econ, all the math and models; in pomo lit stuff, mastering the literally incomprehensible language in which a lot of that stuff was written.)
  • In both cases, that deterred a lot of people on the outside who were generally puzzled and skeptical, but didn't want to spend years getting into a position in which they could credibly say: yes, this is, in fact, nuts.
  • So in both cases practitioners were largely insulated from criticism they had to take seriously.
This also describes several branches of modern physics including the theory of relativity and string theory, but also classical fields like fluid mechanics. The sociology of fluid mechanics be can experienced in my blog interviews with Editors of Journal of Fluid Mechanics, Glenn Research Science, Bryon D. Anderson: Sailing Expert, Anderson-Eberhardt: Flight Experts. See also Fear of Flying. 
DeLong concludes:
  • Relatedly, in both cases it took shocks from the outside to expose the problems in this (in the case of English, things like the Sokal hoax; in the case of econ, the near-collapse of the global economy.)
  • Both cases involved a lot of arrogance, and a generally dismissive attitude towards other approaches. Since, in both cases, practitioners were able to seize significant amounts of control over a discipline before their approach crashed and burned, this did real damage to the disciplines in question (leading to, e.g., large chunks of previous disciplinary history being forgotten.)
  • Both cases involved significant political motivation.Of course, it's possible that I only think this would be fun to write, and/or read, because it would tweak the Chicago economists to be compared to pomo English professors. ;)
Is this also the fate of classical fluid mechanics?

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