Sunday, December 19, 2010

Science in trouble?

Because I like to throw around the latest trends in social science, I read this awesome article in last week's New Yorker with great interest and more than a bit of dismay. Lots of scientific experiments report significant effects that turn out later to be kinda bullshit. What could be more damaging to my worldview?

That was my first line of thinking, at least. The magnitude and pervasiveness of the "decline effect," by which certain "proven" trends decline precipitously over time, is troubling for those of us who put a lot of philosophical stock in the scientific method and see it as the basic, and most trustworthy, gateway to truth.

After thinking back to my own forays into the world of scientific research, I realized that the decline effect isn't terribly shocking after all. What people often fail to realize about science is the pervasive biases that could exist in most experiments--even the well designed ones--without ever showing up in the final draft of the scientific paper. Because the popular press, and even scientific papers, never report every detail of their experiments, these biases are easily lost on the reader, and only reveal themselves years later.

I saw the messy details of experimentation at work in three front-line research areas in college: a comparative cognition (monkey) lab, an unconscious cognition lab, and in my own senior research project in theoretical astrophysics.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

emily howell, cont'd: essentialism

Okay then! Before I start rambling on about essentialism, let me just say that I've now listened to a bunch of music composed by David Cope's programs. Most of it is terrible (the older stuff, where EMI is trying to imitate composers of the past). But the newer CD is intriguing to say the least, and certainly worth listening to if you have any interest in the future of music. To argue that the Emily Howell project and artificially composed music isn't at least a worthwhile venture, or that it doesn't have the potential for making beautiful and powerful music, is absurd.

Anyhoo, I've recently made the claim that humans' natural inclination toward essentialism distorts our perception of art, and indeed, lots of stuff.

Essentialism, roughly defined, is the idea that things have intrinsic properties that go beyond their more obvious external, analyzable properties, and that these intrinsic properties are in some sense or another irreducible and essential to the things themselves. The classic example is a species like a tiger: there is some essential "tiger-ness" to every tiger that has nothing to do with the way any individual tiger looks or behaves. Rather, "tiger-ness" is an invisible but necessary property that all tigers share, and that all non-tigers lack.

Psychologists have shown how people--cross-culturally, and from very early in life--believe this idea of species essentialism despite the fact that it is, strictly speaking, false.

Friday, December 10, 2010

DADT repeal: am I missing something here?

I just emailed a bunch of senators urging them to repeal DADT. Did you???

The Senate's failure, earlier today, to repeal the military's DADT policy is the latest and worst case of "Oh my God if they can't pass that then what can they do?" type legislation that has met its recent death in the Senate.

What's most frustrating is that DADT is not only cruel, discriminatory, and harmful to the military and our national security, it's also opposed by an overwhelming majority of the public and the military.

What's strange, moreover, is the shocking and inexplicable lack of political calculation by Republicans holding up the vote.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

what is music? a debate sparked by emily howell

Over the past year or so a performer-turned-scholar musician friend and I have debated on and off about our various philosophies regarding what we call "art music" or "classical music." I think I've written a little bit about the matter at hand a few times before, but given his conversion to scholar, I can no longer shrug off his ideas. Here is my initial attempt to organize my own thoughts thoughts, with the ultimate goal of perhaps putting them in some more tangible form, as a rebuttal to my friend's crackpot theories (don't worry, the mutual respect runs deep).

Emily Howell, for those who don't know, is a computer program created by computer scientist and composer David Cope. David Cope's previous program, Emi, analyzed music in a given style and was then able to compose music in the same style. Emily, however, purports to write music in her own style.

The reason Emily Howell is such a controversial figure--well, at least in the world of art music--is that she (it?) makes us question what music is, why it's important, and ultimately, why we value it.