Another look at the people of the screen
Two points of method in the debate about online reading
Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information. All in the name of progress.

This is Christine Rosen writing in The New Atlantis on the fate of reading in a digital age. Needless to say, it's not a very happy article. Rosen means the article as a counterweight to the work of "techno-utopians", who see the digitisation of books as an unalloyed good. But Rosen doesn't just balance things out -- she slides them into gloom. Screen-reading won't just be book-reading in a new medium, she says. It'll be a new activity altogether, where reading is shallow and aimless and readers are numb to their own humanity.

I'll look at Rosen's main worries in the next post. But first, here's a couple of general points about the debate, inspired by Rosen's article: compare like with like, and don't let differences of medium obscure similarities of function.

Compare like with like

To be fair, Rosen scolds a "technophile" (Steven Johnson in the London Guardian) for failing to compare like with like -- for comparing computer programmers with book readers in terms of their likely economic success in the digital climate. As Rosen points out, "Johnson would have done better to compare obsessive novel writers and obsessive computer programmers...Most of the people immersed in screen worlds are not programmers. They are consumers who are reading on the screen, but also buying, blogging, surfing, and playing games."

That's fair enough, but it rubs both ways. Rosen is as misguided as Johnson when she compares the book-reading community with the entire web community, in all its moods and activities. It's more plausible to compare the web community to the entire non-web community, where the latter includes (along with book-readers) its fair share of shallowness, idleness, and wasted time. The online community, like the offline community, has its disciplined and intelligent suburbs and its more scruffy one. The real question is whether the internet will give a net outflow from the former to the latter.

So if Rosen is right, and cognitive content of normal reading has been replaced by, and not just supplemented by, a "vaguely defined screen savvy", that's something to worry about. But if we do an equivalent of quality reading on the internet now, as before, there's no immediate concern. Importantly, this means that we may be OK even if we spent the majority of our internet time in the aimless, shallow, "power search" mode that Rosen laments.

Different medium, same function

Rosen scolds Johnson again for failing to distinguish between the values of the digital world and values within the digital world. Computer programmers might earn a lot in the "digital climate", she says, but that's no use if the climate itself is wrong. And there's truth in that. But the overall lesson of Johnson's article, in seems to me, is not just that techies achieve techie goals. It's rather that they achieve goals that everyone wants to achieve -- like professional success and political awareness. Activities in the digital medium can serve the same function as different activities in other media -- even if the difference of medium tends to obscure the similarity of function. In Johnson's words: "Are you not exercising the same cognitive muscles because these words are made out of pixels and not little splotches of ink?"

With this in mind, the following claim from the article looks fishy: "People who read regularly for pleasure are more likely to be employed, and more likely to vote, exercise, visit museums, and volunteer in their communities; in short, they are more engaged citizens."* Perhaps your average blogger is less likely to go to museums or help out in the local soup kitchen. But they become engaged citizens in ways that are peculiar to the internet -- online donations, political awareness, writing open source code, getting involved in decent online forums.
*To be fair, the claim comes from a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) study, not from Rosen. And she counters it with Harold Bloom's skeptical view of the link between books and civic engagement.
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Review of "Lords of the Fly" by Robert E. Kohler
A fine book about flies and scientists

Robert E. Kohler. Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life. University Of Chicago Press, 1994.

First of all, Lords of the Fly is an excellent book. It is readable, thorough, vivid and original. It contains enough technical detail to guide the reader, but not too much to confuse him. It describes, in a novel way, an important and much-studied period in the history of biology: the rise of genetics in the first half of the century. It contains considerable detail about the everyday working lives of the “Drosophilists,” the men and women who worked with the fruit fly Drosophila. But it always tries to link those details to the actual science they produced. “I hope to persuade the readers of this book,” writes Kohler, “that experimental sciences have been shaped by their material cultures.” Kohler succeeds.

The challenge is to explain that success. What lessons does the book contain for those who would write laboratory-based histories of science? One lesson is that comparison works. Kohler uses the comparative approach to illuminate two separate but similar historical episodes: the early years of research based on Drosophila, led by T.H. Morgan at Columbia University; and the work, led by Beadle, on Neurospora.

Kohler also shows that structure works. Throughout the book, Kohler treats Drosophilia and the Drosophilists in three different ways: as technological devices, with the Drosophilists manipulating their flies to create scientific instruments; as an episode in natural history, with the human and animal organisms migrating, specialising, adapting, selecting; and as an example of a “moral economy,” a human community with a set of values, procedures, and penalties. These themes serve as a map, opening up a field of inquiry and setting its elements into clear array.

Kohler also makes good use of metaphor and analogy. At times her analogy between experimental life and ecological life is merely decorative. But often it is illuminating, casting descriptive and explanatory light. For example, he writes: “Intragroup conflict, by isolating Dobzhansky from the traditional practice of his American colleagues, cleared the way for the rapid evolution of a new species of experimental practice.”

The subtitle of the book is a nod to Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air Pump, the ground-breaking study of experimental science in the seventeenth century. Kohler only takes what he needs from Shapin and Schaffer, which is an interest in the details of experimental practice. He does not pick up Shapin and Schaffer's task of pricking the pretensions of scientists. By showing (for example) that Morgan and his students “constructed” a new fly by manipulating its genotype, Kohler means to show how scientists work, not to challenge the integrity of their results. In one sense this approach limits the force of Kohler's book, since he does not enable himself to explain the resolution of disputes about ultimate results. But it also opens up room to explain many other features of experimental life, such as choices of research topics, the pace of research, the harmony or otherwise of the “moral economy,” and the failure of interdisciplinary efforts.

Sometimes Kohler pushes his aims too hard. He suggests, for example, that material practices were the “controlling factor” in the rapid expansion of Dobzhansky's project of mapping the phylogenies of naturally occurring Drosophila pseudoobscura. From Kohler's account, however, it seems that a theoretical breakthrough (the discovery of a link between phylogenetic maps and chromosomal inversions) was just as important. Also, one might protest that Kohler does not fully capture the amount of repetition and long-term drudgery that was involved in processing Drosophilia. But the reader gets glimpses of this aspect, as in Dobzhansky slaving over mounds of flies. Kohler might have turned the glimpses into a full view by including more technical detail and literary evocation. But those two features are not on the book's agenda. As for Kohler's actual aims, he meets them in style.

Lords of the Fly on Amazon
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"Representing Electrons" by Theodore Arabatzis
An ambitious and pretty successful biography of the electron
Theodore Arabatzis, Representing Electrons: A Biographical Approach to Theoretical Entities. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006

In Representing Electrons, Theodore Arabatzis gives a detailed account of scientific inquiry into the electron, covering roughly the years 1891-1824. The main message is that scientific entities have a "life of their own": they can act independently of theory, theoreticians, and experimenters. In delivering this message, Arabatzis makes a bold and largely successful attempt to bring the historical and philosophical approaches into a mutually stimulating relationship.

You can see Arabatzis’ dual interest in the history and philosophy in his choice of advisors and collaborators. While at Princeton University Arabatzis came into contact with the philosopher Bas van Fraassen, and numerous other philosophers are energetically deployed in the body of the book: Karl Popper, Larry Laudan and Thomas Nickels are quoted on the topic of “problem situations”, Paul Feyerabend and Ian Hacking on scientific realism, and Hilary Putman on theories of reference. Also featured in the author's acknowledgments are prominent historians of science, including Jed Buchwald, Warwick Taylor and Ernan McMullin.

In Representing Electrons, Arabatzis puts his multi-layered background to good use. Three themes dominate the book: realism and meaning change; the "discovery" of scientific entities; and the autonomy of theoretical entities. In Arabatzis's account, each of these themes has a historical and a philosophical dimension.

Take the topic of scientific discovery. Here, Arabatzis corrects the commonly-held view that J.J. Thomson “discovered” the electron. In doing so he uses the historian’s tools, probing scientists’ ideas through their scientific papers (such J.J. Thomson’s Cathode Ray article in Philosophical Magazine) and other writings (Lorentz’s Nobel Prize speech, for example. In later chapters he uses interviews conducted by Thomas Kuhn.) But this historical spade-work is guided by a philosophical discussion of “discovery” that draws on Hacking, Kuhn and Nickles. Here Arabatzis argues for the possibility of an account of discovery that is realism-neutral, and stresses the gradual, consensual nature of discovery: what we call “discoveries” are usually something more like “constructions.”

A similar pattern emerges in the next four chapters. Here, Arabatzis goes into considerable detail when dealing with the key episodes in the evolution of ideas about the electron, following the concept as it moves between various stages within physics (from classical to quantum and relativistic physics) and between disciplines (physics and chemistry). But his account is held together by the broad idea that the electron had a "life of its own," a capacity to throw up problems and suggest solutions.

Throughout the account, Arabatzis keeps a close eye on the stability of the "electron" concept through time and between practitioners. This conceptual stability comes to the fore in the concluding discussion about meaning change and realism in science. Arabatzis goes over some responses to Paul Feyerabend, who argued from meaning change to the non-existence of unobservable entities. When these responses fail, what is left for the realist? Arabatzis gives a two-fold answer. First, the case for realism can be supported by reference to the "writings" of the putative entity: if multiple observations give evidence of the same unobservable entity, you can be pretty sure the entity is real. Secondly, the case for realism can be supported by a historical account of a concepts' stability over time.

The final paragraph of the book draws out the implications of these arguments for historical accounts of the electron. Hence the attempted union of history and philosophy is carried right to the end of the book. Is this attempt successful? On the whole, the answer must be “yes.” There is a danger here of artificially gluing different disciplines together, but Arabatzis largely avoids this danger. The philosophical discussion in the concluding chapter draws on examples from the author’s historical account; during the historical discussion the reader is constantly reminded of the philosophical questions at hand; and the philosophy comments not only on the science of microphysics but also on the methodology of historians of physics.

One might complain that the philosophical discussion about realism and meaning change is independent of the “biographical approach” that Arabatzis takes to the electron. At least, Arabatzis seems to be in two minds about this. On the one hand, he pursues the “historicist” approach to discovery precisely because it does not require any prior commitment to realism or anti-realism: it keeps everyone happy. On the other hand, he writes the concluding chapter (on meaning-variance and realism) largely to justify his historical methodology: “for those who disbelieve in the existence of unobservable entities...a historical approach devoted to its representation may seem vacuous.”

In Arabatzis' defense, the final chapter does explore the implications of the historical account for the realism debate (not just the other way round). And his equivocation here may be just another sign that historians and philosophers (not just Arabatzis) have inconsistent aims. To a historian, who is worried about what happened in the past, the key criterion for existence of an entity is whether the entity was significant for past scientists. To a philosopher, the key criterion is whether it is, in fact, right to think that the entity exists. If Arabatzis is in two minds here, the problem does not lie with him, for being inconsistent, but with the two disciplines, for being different; Arabatzis' only real fault is not to clearly acknowledge this difference.

In the well-tilled field of historical research into the electron, novelty is crucial to a book’s success. The chief novelty in Representing Electrons is is the idea that concepts have a "life of their own." This idea does give rise to a fresh retelling of the atomic story: a vivid picture emerges of the electron standing on the outside of theory, teasing physicists into dead-ends and leading them on to unexpected new insights.

But Arabatzis has only given us a new picture insofar as he has applied it to a new entity: the ideas behind the picture are unexciting. For example, Arabatzis writes about Sommerfeld's selection rules, and how his “struggle to discipline the electron in a principled way ran into difficulties with its writings.” But do these metaphors convey anything more than the mundane fact that Sommerfeld had trouble matching his theory about the electron to his observations about it? A similar question may be asked about the fact that physicists found heuristic value of theories, and that they had trouble making the concept of the electron internally coherent. If the answers to these questions are “no”, this is not to say that there is no value in Arabatzis' biographical approach. It just means that the value lies in its contribution to the narrative structure of the book, and not to its philosophical depth.

One can always make quibbles about exposition, especially when an author tries to describe technical paths of reasoning. Overall Arabatzis does a good job here: a basic knowledge of maths is required to understand the derivations, but most of the discussion is within the reach of the ordinary reader. However, the book would benefit from more images of the relevant theories (eg. of atomic structure) and experimental results (especially spectral patterns). This would not just aid reader understanding. Copies of original diagrams of the electron would give a better idea of how physicists "represented" the electron to eachother and to themselves.
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