Thursday, February 22, 2007

Arguing for Objective Definition

This article talks about my idea about the relation of objectivity and science. After dwelling a bit upon how objectivity is the holy grail of scientific practice, we take the opposite stand wherein viewing and interpretation is not a matter that has been ignored and hushed up, but a subject of fascinating studies. We then discuss the question of what is the most significant characteristic of science. The purpose of this discussion would not specifically be to answer the question, but to analyse the undercurrents of the questions of objectivity in that. Finally, we make some simplistic prescriptions as to how scientists would make better scientists, not by hushing up the inherent subjectivity of their trade, but by capitalising upon it.

1 Objectivity in Science
“Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions, considering only facts.” That is the definition of the term ‘objective’ in Oxford dictionary. (Natural) Science (hereon referred to as just science) has come up as the de facto instrument of human race to create a body of knowledge which stands on such rigorous assessment that the possibility of its ever being contradicted can be
reduced to practically nil. The proof of this rigour has two vehicles – formal theory and experiments. In fact, the emphasis on the non-contradictability of scientific knowledge is so much that it has been decided to gradually shunt certain questions – by no means less interesting and challenging than any other – out of the purview of science study, at least for the present. These questions do not lend themselves well to a rigorous scientific study – at least
at the present time – due to the presence of one or more attributes which are difficult, if not impossible, to measure. Examples of such attributes – beauty, emotions, welfare etc. Such questions fall in the purview of arts and social sciences. We will devote a later section on developing more elaborate arguments about what could be a precise definition of science. For the present, the point of the matter is the stress laid on the need for objectivity in science.

What is behind the obsessive pursuit of objectivity in science? Philosophical beliefs of positivism, realism, dualism and idealism interplay with each other here to point us to the possible answer. In essence, the pursuit of science seems to rest on the belief that there is one unified truth about
everything. It may or may not be known or even knowable, but its independence from the knower is complete. That truth is absolute. There is an implicit claim in the idea of science that science is pursuit of the knowledge of that absolute truth.

2 Beyond Objectivity
We observe myriad things and events which are interesting and intriguing. However, their interestingness may often be associated with something beyond our power of measurement. Science refrains, in general, in claiming a central role in understanding such subjects. However, it hasn’t stopped any interested soul from pursuing such subjects. Let us use this section in iden-
tifying a set of such subjects. One important inference that can be drawn from this part of the discussion is that objectivity does not always count as the most important aspect of a scholarly pursuit.

2.1 Aesthetics and Art
Beauty, for instance, is intuitively a universally sensed attribute of various things. However, its actual immeasurability depends not only on its subjectivity, but also on the intractability of its physical origins. For example, it may be argued that a painting is beautiful owing to the faithfulness of its details to how people see the world. This isn’t true about paintings which
intentionally use effects which don’t add to the its realisticness, and yet add beauty value to it. The absence of this realisticness aspect is even sharper in a beautiful cartoon, where the artist’s achievement is in distorting the real world to the utmost to evoke humour. Perhaps, the beauty of a cartoon lies in the cartoonist’s ability to capture the essential features of a object, and
distorting it to a ridiculous degree, yet preserving the essential characteristic of the subject. The beauty might be tentatively identified as anything that evokes so called positive sensations in the onlooker, e.g. humour or surprise or admiration. However, that may not be true if we consider that works of art – drawings, movies, music etc. – demonstrating morbid things like death
and suffering earn tremendous accolade as excellent pieces of art. To say that they lack beauty would not be acceptable at all. Then perhaps, one would say that beauty resides wherever there is creativity and sensitivity involved in an act. Quite surprisingly, beauty of nature is the most undesputably beautiful thing. It does not require a believer to appreciate this beauty (though this statement could be disputed). Therefore, beauty is not necessarily associated with only a creation.
We are far from equipped to state with any confidence what causes the presence of beauty in something, let alone, to measure it with any degree of precision. Yet, this question has intrigued people for centuries. And the urge to create beautiful things is one of primal urges present in varying quantities in all human beings. Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which
tries developing an understanding of the nature of beauty, particularly in works of art. The practice of creating beauty is art.

2.2 History
Among all things man wants to know, his past is one. Man’s wish to know everything of the events that led to him might well have been the dominant reason for him to start studying history. Yet, history has evolved far from merely a subject which just tries to reconstruct the past. The concept of historical thinking or historical reasoning points to a skill of reasoning in
historians quite different in nature than scientific thinking. It is an interesting matter to ask why historical thinking must be sanctioned a different form. In my view, the answer partly lies in the sparseness of concrete evidences using which history is created. An account of an event that happened far removed in time and space from now and here can be expected to have lost many of the threads that lead it to us, and now could lead us back to it. However, the onus on the historian is an ambititious one – to construct a story out of those evidences. This story involves not just plain physical elements but human factors which are far more complex than anything else. Even in this information age, to discover the exact links of causality between various
interesting events is difficult. If we temporarily give space to the (dubious) assumption that societies of the past were simpler than the present, still their complexity was demonstrably daunting. Is it, therefore, hopeless to look backward as history does? Critics of history have strong arguments to provide. As per them, History neither qualifies as an art, nor as a science. Its interpretation are subjective and value laden. Historians have been charged of trivialising the individual man by placing disproportionate importance to the evolution of the human society. The worst aspect which is almost a conventional wisdom is that the chronicles created at every point, which later act as the principal tools of a historian, are at the mercy of the ruling powers of the age and country. Such documents are liberally used by many to serve their ulterior motives. How does one make use of such adulterated documentation to create an accurate account of the past?

Despite all these negative factors, study of history remains an interesting thing to do. The subjectivity – to some extent, even the sensationalisaton – of the accounts, instead of being detrimental to the cause of the study of the past, has turned into an effective method to create interesting narratives which can then be discussed in a lot bigger council of historians. Finally,
this should create consensus about the past – a simplistic, but necessary assumption.

2.3 Literary Interpretation
Literary criticism is the application of literary theory – a subject which deals in developing understanding about literary work. The central questions revolve around : What is literature? Good literature and bad literature? Various aspects of a literary work? The role of a critic?
Literary criticism as a practice is as old as literature itself. Its importance cannot be overstated, going by the fact that that there are now authorities on whom a general consumer of literary work can rely for informed and balanced review of literature. Like any study that tries to theorise an art, literary theory can be criticised for trying the place works of literature into
pigeon-holes. However, like any other field of scholarly study, literary theory has also developed tremendously, and is an approximation of the ideal of a complete and correct theoretical infrastructure for evaluation of literary quality.

From the point of view of our current discussion, the history of literary theory discloses an all pervading element of subjectivity in the process of criticism. The question of the role of the critic in fulfilling the meaning of a literary work is vividly studied. In a sense, a peculiar aspect of literature comes out : A literary work gets its many meanings when it goes into the
hands of its many readers. The subjective aspect of literature is an inherent and essential one. That’s a point rigorously accentuated by the subject of literary criticism.

3 How Objective is Science?
In this section, I summarise the ideas that raise an important question about Science: How objective is science, after all? These ideas have often come from authoritative figures in the world of science. This demonstrates that science, in its highest attire, perhaps never claims a total lack of subjectivity.

A good scientist doesn’t just accept the presence of subjectivity, but often seems to accept that its presence is an essential ingradient of what could be called science. Of the innumerable evidence of this widely recognised fact, I rather expectedly have had access to some which are close to my area of interest, Computer Science.

3.1 Knuth – The Art of Computer Programming
Donald Knuth, in his Turing lecture [1], spent a considerable hour emphasising how computer programming is as much an art as it is a science. The central argument of the lecture is that even though computer programming is now largely a science, it is an artistic activity at its core. Even though our understanding of what it means for a program to be correct becomes more
elaborate, programming itself is not on its way to dissociate itself with good taste, beauty and divergent thinking.

3.2 Penrose – The Emperor’s New Mind
The Emperor’s New Mind [3] is a monumental popular science book written by the famous Oxford scientist Roger Penrose. His central argument in this book is to convince the reader that with the given state of the art in our knowledge of Physics, it is impossible to build computers that could possibly think. The many arguments in this book are borrowed from various fields
– Theory of Computation, Quantum Physics etc. – all showing that it is fallacious to say that computers of the current day indeed do anything like thinking in the proper sense of the word.
A dominant theme of this book also expresses that critical aspects of human thinking are not algorithmic in nature. The book can’t be quoted as a book against objectivity as such, but it does disavowes the notion that mechanisms of human thinking, as we know it, are understood well-enough that they could effectively be mimicked by any machine in the short future.
The roots of the most critical features of human thinking – creativity, imaginativeness and visualisation – lie beyond what has been discovered about the physical world.
I dare to add that an important indication is that when that (or those) breakthrough understandings about the physical world do unravel themselves to us, our notion of objectivity will not remain untouched by that breakthrough.

3.3 Proof As a Social Process
A very active area of research in computer science is verification, wherein people create tools and methods to formally prove that a computer program meets its requirement. The motivation comes from the need of significantly enhanced confidence in a program’s correctness and quality. The central claim of the proponents of verification is that if a program can be automatically and undesputably proved to be correct, they will be of a higher quality, and the process of software development would be much faster and enjoyable. Alan Perlis, the first ACM Turing Award winner, writes in his 1979 paper Social Processes and Proofs of Theorems [2], how erroneous the basic assumptions of verification proponents are. Perlis et al. go on to argue that there is no interesting mathematical proof which is accepted and used without having gone through an elaborate social process. They claim that proofs are a very essentially human activity, involving immense stress, strong emotions, publicising, reviews and so on. Opposed to this, a verification proof would be an unreadable piece of automatically generated symbols, which nobody would be able to read in the first place. Consequently there is no hope of an automatically generated program verification proof to ever take the place of a mathematical proof. The field of verification has made significant strides since the above paper, though the progress has not significantly disputed the above claim. The interesting point from the point of view of this article is the stress that the authors put on the social nature of mathematical proofs of theorems and
hence programs. There is a strong indication that the authors believe that the activity of proving things is not algorithmic or mechanical; it’s inherently human.

3.4 The Lost Knowledge Argument
The superior credibility that science has earned for itself is perhaps not to be disputed. What could be questioned is the role of objectivity in that. The most respected findings of science have been simple, often intuitive. They have also been proved wrong after surviving for several centuries. The most rigorous theorems in science are at best cursorily understood by the wide
scientific community. Their details are often way beyond the comprehension of all but a handful working in that area. This puts a serious question on the universal claim of objectivity that is made in science. The barrier of tremendous complexity protects many scientific claims from both being understood and from being seriously questioned by a large number of people.
It becomes a proprietary property of sorts of its owners. How does such a piece of knowledge claim to be objective?
One argument in favour of objectivity would be: If you try hard enough... Let us examine this argument a bit closely. The statement is inherently value laden. Not only does it rest on an unmeasured quantity of ‘hard enough’, there is a subtle menace communicated which seems to glare negatively at both not trying hard enough (insincerity), and not being able to try hard enough (lack of intelligence). The fact that mathematical rigour is inaccessible to a large portion of the population should not be waved away as a state of affair, but should be given due importance in the definition of objectivity.
I am repeatedly tempted to liken scientists with mystic gurus of the orient who professed to have seen the truth. If you wondered to them: ‘Hey! But I can’t see it!’ They too would perhaps say, ’If you try hard enough...’ It is an important question to ask as to what really differentiates the mystic’s claim from a mathematician’s claim. While the mystic claims to have developed
a perception for things beyond the limits of our usual senses, a mathematician seems to have sharpened his skill of looking through the mathematical symbols to seeing what they mean. Unless, the difference between a mystic’s and a mathematician’s capabilities is well understood, the debate on the objectivity of science is far from over.
Another strong argument in favour of objectivity is: In case of science, there are at least some experts who can work the proofs out right from the start to the end. This is not true for mystical subjects, or subjects like astrology.
Try looking at the argument from the other side. What happens if, of our five senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste), one of the dominant ones (say, sight) disappears? What would happen to the large body of scientific knowledge that requires the existence of this faculty. Were this faculty to disappear from the face of the Earth, there would be no way by which this
category of knowledge (in which, I am sure, a better portion of scientific knowledge can be put, directly or indirectly) could be proved or disproved. There would remain no expert on such vast volumes of knowledge. Would such knowledge continue to remain scientific? The situation appears contrived, but raises a fascinating question: Is a piece of knowledge objective owing to some inherent attribute of it, or due also to certain circumstantial parameters? It appears to me that the answer is the latter. Scientific knowledge of today could lose their status as scientific knowledge if certain circumstances were to arise. Or else, scientific knowledge would have to forsake its claim that at least some experts exist who can prove their truth. The existence of a sufficient number of such experts is not an inherent property of the knowledge; it’s partly circumstantial.

4 Conclusion – Science and Subjectivity
All the above briefly brings forth the idea that the practice of science has existed and excelled on many more factors than objectivity. A significant amount of creativity and taste categorically establish the artistic side of science. Therefore, it would be right to say here that instead of sweeping its subjective aspects under the rug, science should learn to accept them openly. I would even suggest that some degree of subjectivity would play an important role in making science more interesting to do, and accessible more widely. Follows a couple of prescriptions as to where such subjective elements would work in service to science. They may be simplistic and unpolished, but surely not grossly in the wrong direction.

4.1 Dialogue as a Communication and Pedagogical Tool
The ostensibly subjective nature of the subjects of interest in social sciences makes it a particularly challenging task to communicate the exact thought. The language of mathematics, which proves a fairly effective medium of communication in many of the scientific subjects, falls short in its expressivity in matters of social sciences. The activity of knowledge communication takes a very interesting form here: that of dialogue. There are long discussion on a matter, primarily not to work out details of an artifact, but to refine the understanding of a concept and create a consensus on the matter by establishing a common language (vocabulary and grammar). Such an exchange predates on looking at an apparently subjective issue from its various angles, weighing opinions, and likewise refining the language of discourse. Studying this method of communication would be of significant value to teachers of science. Scientific pedagogues struggle to make their otherwise dry mathematical subjects interesting by employing methods of exchange which are used rather commonly in social sciences, and have been developed to a very advanced level in such disciplines. Studying their methods would be of pragmatic value to scientific communicators. The tricks of these methods involve a narrative style, often studded with expertly moderated discussions between the instructor and the audience, among other things. Most scientists are woefully ignorant of such effective means of evoking interest in their audience. Somewhere deep down, all these tricks are rooted at a conventional appreciation of the inherent subjectivity of the subject, and also of the fact that the participants of a scholarly interchange are often human-beings. Their interpretation is by nature subjective.
The only effective methods of catalising such interchanges are not more and more excruciating details, but also those narrative styles, which scientists often dismiss as decorative.

4.2 Widened View
Science is done well if it involves focus. But it’s done better when there is a degree of widening of view. Science, despite its ivory tower self image has its takers, like anything else. It makes sense to situate oneself in a wider social context so the efforts are more goal-driven. The setting of context should happen in various ways. Something which is known as market research at the business level can be done also in the scholarly level by viewing one’s work as a part of a wider project. It would be too bold to claim that involving subjectivity in our world-view should bring in a revolution in scientific results, but surely, it could revolutionise the way we do science.

[1] D. Knuth. Computer programming as an art. In Communications of the
ACM, pages 667673–357. ACM Press, May 1974.
[2] R. A. D. Millo, R. J. Lipton, and A. J. Perlis. Social processes and proofs
of theorems and programs. Communications of the ACM, 22(5):271–280,
[3] R. Penrose. The Emperor’s New Mind. The Oxford University Press,

Friday, February 16, 2007


I don't know if I believe in them. I think they are useful, if not factual.
Doing hard things requires courage and determination apart from other things like hardwork and intelligence. Courage and determination are required to fight the risk. Risk is involved in all difficult projects. And that risk arises from the statistical fact that more people have failed in doing that than those who have succeeded. This indicates that on an average, it's wiser not to try anything risky, alias difficult, alias great, deed. A normal logic will always lead us to this conclusion.

The only thing that can break this argument is a self-image that 'I'm not normal'. And what/how I am trying to do is not normal. With that one can claim that in spite of the high risk, it's reasonable 'for me' to try it.

However, that self-image etc isn't based on reason. It's based on courage and determination.
Anything that boosts these is a useful thing. Good omens are such things.

I don't believe that they wilfully conspire to make things happen for our success. I think we conspire to interpret them that way. This conspiracy is rooted at our wish to do something good, extraordinary, great.


Monday, February 05, 2007

Frigid IISc

Some thoughts that came out of my wish to see the missing vibrance in the IISc community, and it being unfulfilled.

Recently I was in an interesting conversation (separate ones) with two of my friends. The topic revolved around our standing as a research institute vis-a-vis other places. We were of course, not talking about ratings and all. They are rather transient and shallow. We were trying to look at things from the view of insiders.

One issue was regarding students' magazines. A good magazine, with a regular release of hard-copies and a web-edition, does a lot in establishing the university to outsiders and insiders alike the strength of its existence. It's like the institute is so important that its events and life regularly gets documented and published for the peresul of everyone. IISc is pathetic when it comes to such funky things like magazines and other extra curriculars. We all personally agree that being a so-called premiere institute, it's rather expected that we should have a nice periodical of our own. Quite lamentably, IISc doesn't have a jazzy periodical. We do have something called 'Voices'. It's a very simple single-coloured newspaper style magazine. I am in the editorial team. Till recently, I also used to do the cartoon for that . Off late due to work pressure I have retired from that work. We do manage to create a 4-6 page monthly issue. I am sure we have been doing a good job at that. But, we are a pathetically small team. In fact, the general impression among ignorant IIScians is that there's some big team doing a horrendous job. When they come to know that we are just 3-4 of us who have been continuously toiling to bring out this magazine, they get surprised. I understand that we work under severe resource crunch in this respect. Guys at Stanford and Harvard have dedicated staff to publish their periodicals. We are in no such luxurious conditions. But, I don't feel bad about that. What's disappointing is that people just crib. There are matters people notice which need to be brought to the public notice. There are thoughts in each person's mind. But they come to the canteen, bitch a bit about the administration and general research quality etc., and then forget about it. The realisation is missing that putting a one-time effort in putting those thoughts together would go a long way in creating a more aware and alert IISc community, which will be ready to respond to its issues.

Ironically, the various regional groups in IISc are doing quite well in that respect. Especially the Bengali Cultural Group called Spandan is very active and powerful. They organise very good cultural programmes and bring out quite a respectable bi-annual magazine in Bengali. I know they too manage all this with tremendous difficulty. But they succeed in the end. Similarly there's Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Mallu, Gujju, etc. etc. cultural groups, all more active in themselves than the overall IISc community.\n

We have been hard at work in trying to beef up Voices (IISc monthly) to a better shape by getting more people, and by getting others to contribute guest articles. I am hopeful that we will get some fruitful results.

The other discussion I had with my friend was regarding how we in IISc usually are far more tensed up and self-loathing compared to other institutes of the world. Through our interactions with various people, we are rather confident at one level that individually, we are very much at par with the best of the lot. Nevertheless, IIScian's generally behave like dorks overall. We work hard, we toil, but our productivity doesn't reach the desired level. I attribute this to our unreasonable inferiority complex. I feel (and many here agree to that) that we should get up and start living our lives well. We should feel genuinely proud of ourselves. The sense of false urgency under which we always are is unnecessary and counter-productive. I am sure that each one of us has this onus on himself to figure out how each brick of confidence can be laid around himself. Brick by brick we can found a castle of confidence and productivity.\n

I am a believer that one valid way of solving a problem is to start solving it at one's own level. Successes and failures come in the way. But things change over a long time, bit by bit. The name of the game is: Never lose hope!

Jodi tor daak shune keyo na aashe, tobe akla cholo re.

(If noone responds to your calls, move on, alone!)
- Tagore

Related Posts:
The Lost Researcher