Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Greatest Gift

"You OK?"

The voice had genuine concern, whatever that meant. She tried to answer but the attempt induced a fit of coughing: the remnants of the river she had inhaled barking and spluttering from her mouth. Gradually the coughing subsided.

"Yeah, I think so."

There was a long pause, then he spoke again. Tentatively.

"If I might say, that seemed deliberate."

"What did?"

"Well I was watching and that definitely wasn't a fall. You jumped right in there."

She looked at her rescuer. Hair plastered to his face. Clothes shining wet in the moonlight.

"No it wasn't. An accident, I mean. My intention was to kill myself."

"Well I'd say it was a good job that I was here. But you might not think so."

Her attempt to reply was drowned in more coughing.

"I mean, you might ask what right I have to prevent someone from carrying out an action that they clearly intended. An act that, one might say, was of their own free will."

She looked at him sharply. Did he know? But his face was impassive and gave no indication of any deeper knowledge of her predicament.

"Fuck that." She replied. A dry cough serving to underscore the final word.

"You think I have that right?"

"No. I don't think anyone has any rights at all. Or at least if they do, it doesn't make any difference. The "that" I was fucking was free will. It was free will -- or rather the absence of it -- that led me here in the first place. That drove me to try to take my own life."

His subsequent exhalation metamorphosed into a laugh. This annoyed her. There was something stage-managed about it, almost commedia dell'arte. A laugh invoked by the recognition of something that an unseen audience had yet to find out. The exaggerated thigh-slapping laugh an English Literature teacher does in front of his pupils on hearing a Shakespearean joke. Seemingly recognising her irritation he spoke ahead of her retort.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh. It would be odd enough to say that you were compelled to do something because of free will. It seems even odder to say that you were compelled to do something because of the absence of free will. Or, thinking about it further, maybe the absence of free will just leaves one perpetually compelled. For if there is no freedom, what else remains but compulsion?"

"I wonder." She said. "Whether it is traditional for people to have this kind of conversation when one of them saves the other from drowning. It could be the case, I suppose, I guess such conversations are rarely recorded for posterity."

He laughed again, this time more naturally.

"I imagine closeness to death seldom inspires immediate philosophising. A friend of mine was involved in a near-fatal car accident and he told me that far from his life flashing before his eyes all he could think about was whether he had put the bins out."

It was her turn to laugh, but he continued.

"Philosophy is seldom best done when ones mind is doused in adrenaline -- if I may be so bold and mix ontologies in such a way -- a cup of tea and an armchair, yes, drowning, definitely not."

She looked at him more closely now. He'd scooped his sodden hair back off his face. It was an everyday kind of face, a face that does the job of presenting its owner to the world without presumption, a face that makes no specific claims about the person beneath. By the two pink depressions on either side of the bridge of his nose he had also lost his glasses.

"Well you're certainly managing to sound like a philosopher, bins or no bins."

"I dabble. Although I would hate to call myself 'a philosopher'. It is a bit like calling oneself a poet or a comedian no sooner has the word passed your lips than its 'ooh give me a rhyming couplet then, crack me a joke, explain Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence'. And of course, in such situations one's mind quite dries up. Although, I guess that might be useful right now."

He blew a drip of water theatrically off his nose.

This time they both laughed.

She shivered which brought her mind back to the reason why she was here.

"Strange that of all the people who would rescue me it should be a philosopher. Or at least someone who dabbles, or should that be paddles?"

The expected laugh did not come. She turned to face him, for the first time there was an intense, almost grim, look upon his face. He was staring right at her.

"Miss Bailey, I'm afraid I'm here to rescue you twice."

TBC

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Free Will: A comfort blanket for the distressed

Free will is a huge pain in the arse for those who think about it and particularly for me. Here is the central paradox.

If we live in a deterministic universe then free will is impossible, if we live in an indeterministic universe then free will is impossible.

Here's why.

A deterministic universe means that so long as you know the particular starting conditions of the universe AND you know all the laws of physics then you can predict all future events (this is an 'in principle' argument, as you might have realised). So a sufficiently intelligent and knowledgeable individual could predict knowing the conditions after the Big Bang all future events, including the formation of the solar system, the evolution of life and -- because our minds are just made of stuff -- your response to this sentence (the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace imagined a daemon that could do this).

This means that all your actions could have been predicted billions of years ago. There is exactly one possible future (as Dennett puts it), so no free will.

On the other hand if the universe is indeterministic then this means that there is an element of randomness. Sometimes a particle goes this way, sometimes that way. Which means that your decisions might also contain and element of randomness -- a coin flip. The reason why you decided to read this post might have just been the result of some random event inside your head. Your actions are -- at least partly 'determined' by indeterminate randomness. Again, doesn't feel like free will to me.

Many people get depressed by this, but you really shouldn't. The source of most people's depression is the feeling that what they do 'doesn't matter'. "If everything is determined" they say "then it doesn't matter what I do." Or "This means that I have no control over anything".

Both of these positions are, I believe, false. The problem is that bloody word 'I' (or 'me' in some cases).

If you are talking about some kind of ghostly 'I' (or 'me') that is somehow outside the physical world then this is true, but if you think of 'I' as meaning 'The set of biological/cognitive processes that constitute what I am as a human' then you very much do matter and you DO have a choice. Take the decision to save a drowning child (I assume you would do this because I assume you are nice people). You might say that that is not a free decision because someone (Laplace's Daemon) could have predicted your choice a billions years ago. But the fact is that YOU with all you particular genetic quirks and life experience had to be exactly how you are in order to make that choice. That simple decision is a the result of a cascade of neuronal/cognitive processes drawing on information from inside (your emotional response -- sympathy, empathy) and outside (that the rescue is possible, for example).

In Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life' the protagonist gets to see the world as it would be if he had never lived. He sees misery and corruption, a dead brother that he was never around to save, an 'old maid' that he was never able to marry, etc., etc. The central message is that he mattered, he made a difference because the world would have been different had he not been born.

It is the same with free will. You genuinely did make that decision to save that drowning child, to join that gym to give up smoking. No one or thing make that decision for you. If the universe were deterministic that decision could -- in principle -- have been predicted but you were the one that chose to do it.

The reason for the confusion and nihilism is that people ask the wrong question they ask 'do I have free will', To this I think the answer is no. Free will is not something that you 'have' like a cocktail shaker or a cocker spaniel. Having something means that you can do something with it. If you want to preserve the term 'free will' then think of it as something that you are.

As a coda I must address a final point of nihilism which is when people respond to the above by saying 'OK OK I get all that but it still means that it is impossible to change the future'. WTF does that even mean? Of course you can't change the future because it hasn't happened yet and once it has happened it's the past (and you can't change that either!)

Monday, December 19, 2011

What Gok Wan can teach us about Higher Education

Higher Education Institutions up and down the country are asking themselves how to deal with student expectations in the forthcoming New Dawn of increased tuition fees. In my institution we have responded by increasing the number of contact hours by starting earlier in the term and finishing later.


The belief seems to be that students will demand more teaching for their money.


But is this right?


It is sometimes said that no-one wants a drill, they want a hole. Similarly students don't want teaching they want knowledge, skills and, ultimately, a qualification; teaching is a means to an end, not an end in itself.


Being on the receiving end of teaching -- despite our best efforts -- doesn't always top of students' list of Things That Constitute a Fun-Packed Day. When my colleagues express surprise that students don't turn up for additional teaching I suggest they might find an answer if they replace the word "teaching" with "all over body waxing" or "rectal examination" which are also not ends in themselves.


Like all over body waxing, cosmetic surgery and dieting teaching is a necessary evil to achieve the end of positive change and it is this that we "sell". The creepy Dr. Christian Jessen presenter of Supersize versus Superskinny and the frankly bizarre Gok Wan presenter of I Like Fat Ladies know that people will endure all manner of humiliations and agonies if they can present them with a positive"before" and "after" picture at the end of the programme. 


Before and after pictures are difficult in HE, not least because of Red Queen effect "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place". Students just manage to acquire one set of skills/knowledge and we shift the assessment goal posts assessment in order us to ensure they have developed the next set. Although this is standard practice, it is hard to think of a more demotivating system: all that time, all that effort to go nowhere.


If we are to justify our extortionate fees to students and their parents we need to make it clearer that we are agents of positive change and we need to provide concrete evidence of this. Don't stress over the contact hours, look what you've become. 

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A short story about parasites

"Parasite?"

"Yes professor, but it is a fascinating one."

"Qua-Kon Kin, our research project was specifically aimed at understanding human reproduction and you bring me here to tell me that you've discovered a parasite."

"We're still working on reproduction, our bacteriologists have discovered that, like us, Earth bacteria divide by a process of binary fission, some larger creatures also, but so far we've not managed to observe the process of division in humans. It is all very curious."

"Curious? Of course it's curious that's how we managed to secure the funding; if it wasn't curious there'd be no point in doing the research in the first place. Listen, we have only one more year of funding and I, for one, do not think that the research council will be pleased if after three years our final report says that 'its curious'. Nor will they be overly impressed if all we can stump up is another bloody tapeworm. What is it about you and tapeworms anyway?""

This isn't a tapeworm, professor, this is far bigger and its life cycle is ... well interesting."

"Oh very well Qua-Kon, tell me about your parasite then"

"Well you know the one we discovered on a previous expedition, the one that takes control of the brain of an ant, driving it up a blade of grass so that it gets eaten by a sheep?"

"The brain worm, yes I remember."

"Well we've found one that does something similar in humans."

"I wasn't aware that sheep ate humans, I thought it was the other way round."

"No I meant that it seizes control of human's brains."

"Go on."

"Well like many other parasites it starts of as a tiny cyst-like structure and then grows to quite some size. It uses a kind of anchor that it fixes to the abdominal cavity. And here's the clever bit, the anchor taps directly into the host’s blood supply. It steals food and oxygen straight from them."

"Clever, very clever. So it doesn't need to have any way of digesting the food itself?"

"Precisely professor, the host does all the donkey work in finding food and digesting it. The parasite just steals it. The ultimate ready meal, I suppose. Anyway it quite quickly reaches quite a size."

"How big?"

"Three, maybe four kilograms."

"Noticeable then?"

"Very. By the end the sufferer’s body is distended so much that they find it difficult to walk easily."

"And then what?"

"Well then it ... how can I put this ... leaves the hosts body. Do you remember that film our anthropology department picked up being broadcast from Earth? The one about the alien?"

"I do indeed. Another piece of offensive human propaganda, if I recall correctly, depicting anything that is from another planet as evil, crude and predatory. What of it?"

"Well professor, the parasite leaves the body in a similar way."

"Oh my..."

"Exactly, it rips itself out. A process that involves blood, gore and lots and lots of screaming. Sometimes it can take hours. Some of our scientists have had to have counselling as a result of the trauma. Compared to this, tapeworms are a walk in the park."

"But Qua-Kon we know that parasites are creatures of stealth. They operate by subverting their host's biological processes and using them to their own ends, so conspicuous a parasite would surely get killed as soon as it emerged."

"Yes."

"And it if were killed it would be unable to divide..."

"Precisely so."

"So if it can't reproduce how does such a parasite continue to survive? This is against every biological law. I'll never be able to publish this. I'll be a laughing stock! We'll all be a laughing stock!"

"Ah but that's the really, really clever part. It doesn't get killed."

"How so?"

"Well as I said earlier, it takes control of the hosts mental processes. Look you'd imagine, would you not, that if a great, blood-spattered parasite tore its way of your abdomen you'd look around for the nearest coal shovel and batter the life out it if."

"Certainly, I would."

"But they don't. They wrap it in a blanket and cuddle it.”

"Cuddle...?"

"Yes cuddle it professor. And they smile at it. And touch it gently. They even allow it to feed itself by apparently chewing on parts of their upper abdomen. You see what I mean when I say it subverts their mental processes?"

"This is all too much Qua-Kon."

"I've not even got my pants off yet, if you pardon the expression, professor. So great are its powers of manipulation that it continues to parasitize the host, or I should say hosts -- you know how these earthling tend to inexplicably hang around in pairs? Well it parasitizes them for years."

"Years?"

"Years, professor. The hosts spend many thousands of their earth pounds providing the parasite with all it needs -- food, drink, even small artifacts that the parasite seems to derive some sort of pleasure from. Although we currently have no conception of what biological purpose these artifacts play in the parasite's life cycle."

"From what you say, Qua-Kon, this sounds more like a symbiotic relationship. Mind control or not, no rational organism would surely devote so much time and effort satisfying the desires of such a parasite. There must be something that the parasite -- or symbiont as I would prefer to think of it -- gives back to the host. I simply refuse to believe that such a degree of psychological manipulation is possible."

"I know professor. The thought had occurred to us too. But our scientists report that the parasite provides nothing to the hosts. Not only that, but if the hosts aren't supplying enough food, or enough drink, or enough of these apparently functionless artifacts the parasite makes these noises."

"Noises? What kind of noises?"

"Oh horrible, blood-curdling noises. Screams the like of which you've never heard. They also throw themselves on the floor flailing their limbs so much that we initially thought it was experiencing some kind of seizure."

"And then what?"

"Oh the hosts are soon off getting food, or drink or artifacts which seems to placate the parasite temporarily. I tell you professor; some of our scientists have themselves taken to obtaining a selection of small artifacts just in case the hosts fail to stump up the goods. That's how nerve-janglingly awful the whole thing is."

"And for how many years does this last?"

"We're not exactly sure, but we get the feeling it may well last for the host's lifetime."

"A lifetime! Hell's teeth I thought that those parasitic wasps we discovered were bad, but this is immeasurably worse. How do they believe their god could permit such a thing?"

"According to our religious studies experts their god seems to actively encourage it. In some cases even banning devices that could prevent the infestation, and prohibiting surgery that could remove the parasite before it emerges."

"And humans believe that their god loves them? Tsh!"

"They are indeed a very peculiar species."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Facebook as a social cheeseburger

I'm generally wary of the word addiction. It seems too easy to label any behaviour performed to excess as an addiction. In the old days addiction was used to refer exclusively to the misuse of pharmaceutical products (alcohol, drugs) that exert their effects by way of a direct tinkering with neurochemistry. Further, it seems that the word addiction can be used as a means to exculpate the individual from personal responsibility. We hear of sex addiction, shopping addiction and gambling addiction -- the old-style response would have been "pull yourself together and take control of your life". Nowadays such people are looked upon sympathetically and described as having 'a disease'.

But hang on. If we accept pharmaceutical addiction as real should we not accept behavioural addictions as real also? After all they affect the same reward systems and neurochemical pathways as do drugs; they just do it indirectly rather than directly. Cocaine and, say, sex have similar effects on the neurotransmitter dopamine, so it seems churlish to refer to a craving for the former as an addiction and the latter as not.

But what about Facebook addiction? Is it possible to describe excessive use of Facebook as an addiction? The fact is that many so-called "internet addictions" are misnamed. People aren't really addicted to the internet per se (the internet is just a bunch of cables, routers and protocols, after all) what they are addicted to are online services. So people with "internet addictions" have addictions to online gambling, pornography, shopping and the like.

So a Facebook addiction is probably a social addiction but the notion of a social addiction still seems odd. You might well consider someone who morbidly browses eBay for hours on end a shopping addict, but is it possible to be a social addict?

Consider a person who spends 5 hours of their day chatting to friends face to face or on the phone, is that person a social addict? What about someone who spends 10 hours doing it? We probably all know people who find it difficult to spend time on their own, who find that they always have to be engaging in social interaction with others, however trivial. Although these people can be irritating -- especially when you have work to be getting on with -- we would probably never think of them as being social addicts.

Interestingly if you look at the synonyms for "sociable"

accessible, affable, approachable, close, clubby, companionable, conversable, convivial, cordial, familiar, genial, good-natured, gregarious, intimate, neighborly, regular, social, warm.

All positive, things you want to be.

And here are the antonyms.

introverted, snobbish, unfriendly, unkind, unsociable

All negative

My point is that our language enshrines our view on sociability, it is seen as a good thing to be sociable and a bad thing to be unsociable. Is there even a word that means "excessively sociable"? Is there such a thing as an "excessive social personality". A few minutes on the internet suggested not. All I found were webpages on William's syndrome a chromosomal disorder that, among other things, leads individuals to excessive sociability. This is seldom seen as a problem apart from the fact that their generally low IQ can lead to them being overly trusting and ripe for exploitation.

So there is no such thing as social addiction (at least not yet) and there are no words to describe personalities that crave the interaction of others. But interact with other people through a computer and hey presto you have a "social media addiction" or a "Facebook addiction" (Google them).

Here is the way I think of it. Salt, fat and sugar are essential for life but were rare in our ancestral environment so we developed a strong preference for their flavour to ensure that when we got them we ate as much as we could. This strong preference is now problematical as the industrial manufacture of foods makes them plentiful. We repeatedly gorge ourselves on each cheeseburger as if it were the last with the result that we become fat. Likewise as social species we evolved an obsession with the lives of others we need to know where we are in the pecking order, who's doing what to (and with) whom, who's in, who's out, who's up and who's down. Facebook presents us with all of this stuff on one easily digestible site so we gorge ourselves. But what are the negatives?

Hard to say. Aric Sigman thinks using Facebook will lead to poor mental and physical health ("Facebook gives you cancer" the headlines screamed) and there are plenty of others out there who will reach for their apparently endless supply of non sequiturs and present poorly constructed hypotheses as fact (but enough about Susan Greenfield).

Many of these arguments rest on the premise that people are neglecting their "real" (by which they invariably mean face-to-face) friends preferring to chat with their online friends (who, if you read the Daily Express, are a collection of men pretending to be women, paedophiles, stalkers, identity thieves, spammers and psychopaths). But most online friends are offline friends so most aren't neglecting these relationships and there is no evidence that use of Facebook leads to a decrease in face to face activity.

If Facebook addiction truly an addiction with no consequence? The fag that doesn't give you cancer, the booze that doesn't bloat your liver, the cheeseburger that doesn't make you fat?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Truth or dare: on the pain of not being a relativist

Sometimes I wish I was a relativist.

If I were a relativist (or whatever fancy name they have now) then I don't think I would have tied myself into such epistemological knots as I did just a few hours ago. I was doing a bit of web research for my previous blog post on academic publishing and Web 2.0. Specifically I was trying to find out about arXiv (the document sharing platform used by physicists, mathematicians and the like), even more specifically I was researching the claims that some physicists (including Nobel Prize winners) were blocked simply because of who they were rather than the content of their articles. Terrible stuff.

One of the articles I referred to (by Frank Tipler) consisted on an excoriating attack on the weakness of the peer reviewing process, arguing that (1) nowadays 'genius' papers are likely to be reviewed by 'stupid' (his words) people, and (2) some topics will be dismissed out of hand because they go against current scientific orthodoxy. I found myself nodding in half agreement at these arguments while expressing a certain caution at his choice of words which tended to be rather bellicose.

Then I read on.

It turns out that one of the topics he believed was off limits was intelligent design as espoused by Michael Behe and William Dembski and argued that these folk should have a voice. "OK" I thought, maybe he has a point. Researching Tipler a little further it turns out that he has a pretty glittering career in mathematical physics (Nature and Science publications). Then I read this in Wikipedia:

"In his controversial 1994 book The Physics of Immortality,[4][5][6] Tipler claims to provide a mechanism for immortality and the resurrection of the dead, consistent with the known laws of physics, provided by a computer intelligence he terms the Omega Point and which he identifies with God. The line of argument is that the evolution of intelligent species will enable scientific progress to grow exponentially, eventually enabling control over the universe even on the largest possible scale."

Err....

Apparently, however, his views were supported (to some extent, at least) by David Deutsch the parallel universes guy who is pretty well respected. But then some of Deutsch's ideas can be a little left field as well. But then, isn't all theoretical physics left field nowadays?

Tipler's article is fascinating but problematical for four reasons. The first I have already dealt with above, should I believe the opinions of someone who believes what appears to me to be crackpot ideas? The second concerns the fact that the article is of uncertain provenance. Rather undermining the argument of my previous post I kept asking myself "was this peer reviewed". My suspiscions were further aroused by the fact that (third reason) there was no reference section and (fourth reason) it contained typos. Surely in the title

"Refereed Journals: Do They Insure Quality or Enforce Orthodoxy?"

"Insure" should be "Ensure", no? (OK, I guess he could have used either but "ensure" seems more traditional). Further, physicist Max Planck is referred to at one point as"Man Planck".

I do typos too of course (I'm sure you're aware of this, as doubtless there are some in here) but this is an opinion piece, dashed off, rather than a deeply considered piece of writing. The more serious a piece is the more typos matter.

Typos and the like aside, theoretical physics messes with people's heads because it relies on fiddling around with mathematics until it tells you something. The great thing about doing this is that it can lead you to some really surprising predictions (e.g. the quantum indeterminacies that underpin the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment) unfortunately psychology seldom avails itself of such mathematical reasoning which is possibly why most of its theories (if not its data) are almost indistinguishable from common sense. Maths does that, it's not that these guys necessarily believe their theories. This kind of jiggery pokery leaves belief far behind; the maths tells them that it must be so, even if what it is telling them is weirder than the worst acid trip. Physicists are in this way as much a slave to their equations as the "computer says no" benefits operative. Of course the other way of doing it is to simply start with a random belief, that God is made from cheese, say, and prove this as an ineluctable fact by similar mathematical jiggering and pokering -- which approach Tipler used is hard to judge, though I have my money on the latter.

It's not just theoretical physics, though, determining the truth is a tricky task. In many ways science makes things easier (no, really) because it provides (more or less) an agreed-upon framework for testing hypotheses. And in much of my own domain -- psychology -- I can usually make some kind of a judgement as to whether a particular hypothesis is supported or not by the data by examining the results sections of academic papers. But on some of the stuff, I haven't a clue. I've tried reading some of the stuff on game theory -- the really heavy mathematical stuff-- and I'm just not equipped to judge. Likewise theoretical physics, likewise pretty much anything outside my narrow domain of expertise.

So what do I do? I do what everyone does; I rely on (a) authority and (b) consensus.

For (a) I happen to have a few folk whose views I happen to hold in high esteem. I know Richard Dawkins isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I have a deep seated admiration for his singlemindedness, his powers of explanation and (sharp intake of breath) his humility (honestly). (I think I also like him because his voice reminds me of Oliver Postgate of Clangers and Bagpus fame, which is why I think Charlie Brooker -- whose views I also admire but not on issues such as these -- describes Dawkins as "looking and sounding exactly like Professor Yaffle” the aforementioned bookend, carved into the shape of a woodpecker was voiced by Postgate.) The philosopher Daniel Dennett is someone else whose opinions I will take seriously. I don't blindly follow them, of course, but in certain areas I will follow them somewhat myopically.

For (b) well everyone does this don't they, at least in some areas? And don't we keep hearing with reference to global warming about the 'scientific consensus'? Well if consensus was what mattered the scientific consensus 60 years ago was that plate tectonics (or continental drift as it was known then) was nonsense leaving its founder (Alfred Wegener) an object of ridicule among the scientific community. Not that I am a climate change denier*, of course, just to point out that one era's consensus is another era's pseudoscience (phlogiston anyone?).

So here I am in an epistemological knot. Not knowing what to believe. If I were a relativist I would be untroubled, if there's no such thing as the truth then there's no need to be concerned when I can't lay an easy hand on it. But is anyone a relativist, really? I had a colleague, a Sociologist, who used to refer to himself as a "nine-to-five relativist". Relativism was his day-to-day stock in trade, he wrote papers about it, used it as a interpretive framework for his academic research which was on the social construction of learning in the planarian flatworm [!] (he also smoked a pipe). But when he was driving home and saw a red light he would put his foot on the brake: traffic signals might be socially constructed but he clearly wasn't going to put his life on the line testing his own world view.

He might have been a nine-to-five relativist but I’m a 24/7 realist and as a result the truth always bothers me, whether it’s the true location of my door keys or more arcane philosophical truths. The truth hurts, that’s for sure, but its absence hurts even more.


*The word "denier" is a funny one. If you look it up it most commonly refers to a measurement of textiles. Female readers will be most familiar with it as a measure of the density of what used to be called 'hosiery' in the department stores of my childhood. With this interpretation I advance a new product with the following strapline "climate change denier: tights that keep your legs cool as the world heats up."

Academic publishing and Web 2.0

Which of the following is true and which is false?

(1) An academic article is only as good as the journal in which it is published
(2) A journal is only as good as the academic articles that it publishes

Of the two (1) seems to me to be obviously false. Of course researchers and their research can gain a kudos for being published in a high-impact factor journal (Science, Nature, and so on) but it is that "only as good as" that sticks in the craw: there are independent factors that contribute to the quality of a piece of research other than where it is published. Naturally there will be a high correlation between some independent assessment of "research quality" and the impact factor of the journal in which it is published but the correlation will not be perfect (there are doubtless very good papers published, for whatever reason, in lower impact factor journals, and doubtless also some dross published in the "good" ones).

So now let's examine statement (2), this seems to me, at least, to be entirely true, at least in the long term. If the editors of Nature, say, started to suddenly publish low grade research then pretty soon fewer people would read it, it would thus have less influence and its impact factor would tumble.

But Nature, Science, Cell and the like are unlikely to start publishing rubbish so what am I talking about, where is this thought experiment going?

It has seemed to me for quite a while that the whole nature of academic publishing is the wrong way round. Having written up their experiment(s) researchers will usually strive to get the paper in the highest impact factor journal they can given their discipline, topic area, methodology and the like. This 'aim high' strategy sometimes works, but often the paper will be rejected (either before or after review) and the researchers will then move down the "quality" ladder until a journal accepts the paper (or they give up!).

But this seems wrong because, as the answer to the above conundrum seems to suggest ultimately journals have more to gain from accepting good articles than researchers have from publishing in good journals. So it is the journals that should be soliciting high-quality articles from the researchers rather than the researchers going cap-in-hand to the journals. (Note that I am using "should" in an ideal world kind of way here, rather than referring in a real world kind of way -- more of which later.)

This seems to happen in some scientific disciplines. I was interested to read here a story concerning the first experiments conducted on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The data were collected on Monday 23rd of November 2009, the paper written up by the following Saturday, and three days after this it was accepted by the European Journal of Physics. Now, it has to be said that the impact factor of this journal is not very high, about 1.7 compared to around 30 for Nature and Science, read into that what you will, but the point I am making is that it took just over a week to go from laboratory to "in press" -- unbelievable if you compare it to psychology (my field) where the same process is likely to take a year or more. (This assuming that it is accepted by the first journal with only minor revisions required by the reviewers.)

How did this happen? Well physicists can upload papers to a server called arXiv (pronounced "archive" as the X is supposed to be the Greek letter Chi) where it is moderated by other physicists which can lead to the authors revising the manuscript (or sometimes the moderators get in on the act of revisions too). Whatever, the process is much more rapid than the glacial act of peer review. How did the European Journal of Physics get in on the act? Well the article doesn't say but the implication is that the editors visited arXiv and decided to publish the article. Why? Because for a relatively lowly journal picking up on the first data to come out of the LHC will gain it a great deal of publicity which may, in the long term, lead to greater influence subscriptions, money and the like.

This is exactly the process that we've seen in other industries such as popular music. In the old days (pre-internet, I mean) a band would scrape together some cash to record a demo tape which they would send to the A&R department of various record companies in the hope that one of them would give it a listen, like it and sign them. This may still happen, but many artists and record companies are forgoing this process. The band puts their music on Myspace or wherever and waits for the record companies to find them.

The world has changed but academic publishing is still in the era of cassette tapes and jiffy bags. It is actually worse than this. Pre-web 2.0 musicians could submit their cassettes to as many record companies as they liked to maximise their chances of getting heard and maybe hoping that they could stimulate a bidding war if more than one company was interested in signing them. When you submit an article to a journal you have to sign a form (electronic, thankfully) stating that your manuscript has not been and will not be submitted to another journal: the journal has exclusive rights to review your paper.

Do we want bidding wars between journals? Won't that harm science in the long run? Maybe, but I guess the future is a world without journals as we understand them today. Quite a few influential papers are 'published' in arXiv and never end up in a journal. But, you might argue, if these articles haven't been peer reviewed how can we guarantee academic quality? Well, you can't of course, but then you never could. I will only refer you again to Alan Sokal's paper that was accepted for publication in a high-profile discourse journal despite being peer reviewed and despite being deliberate nonsense and to this interesting if occasionally borderline unhinged article by physicist Frank J. Tippler and move on. It seems to me that the community will provide far better checks and balances on academic quality than three anonymous reviewers who only (usually) get one bite at the cherry.

ArXiv isn't perfect, and there have been some claims that the administrators have blacklisted some scientists from publishing on arXiv simply because they have expressed views that run counter to current scientific dogma; but such problems should be relatively easy to solve by for example, expanding the number and diversity of administrators, or by having papers be submitted anonymously in the first instance ensuring acceptance is based upon quality of research rather than on judgements made ad hominem. (My feeling is that this also happens in traditional journals, btw, as well as its opposite: low quality articles gaining acceptance simply as a result of their being authored by someone with a lot of intellectual clout.)

If we as social scientists want our research to be truly current, not two or more years out of date then we need something like arXiv, academia needs to catch up with the Web 2.0 revolution.