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December 2015

I'm On An Anthropological Expedition

"Of the dozen cases of possible research misconduct I've looked into in the last ten years, I was able to retrieve the original data in exactly two." This from a colleague (I won't say with which university) bemoaning the state of current data management practices. When I quote this to some of the Data Wranglers here they're not at all surprised.

On the other hand, when I mentioned it to another colleague, a historian, she was rather shocked. In her field, keeping meticulous records and clear documentation of every statement of fact that goes into an article or book is standard practice.  That there's a research world that has such an apparently casual attitude towards the data is foreign to her.

But in the biomedical research world, as the hapless teddy bear researcher in the brilliant NYU Library video says, all the data you need is in the article.  You do your experiment, you extract the data you need for your article, you move on, leaving your data behind.  ("So many boxes!")  Changing that mindset is just one of the fundamental hurdles.

Each investigator looks at the world through the lens of their own practices, as if all of science and scholarship behaves the same way. I move through it like an anthropologist, trying not to let my own biases about the world color my perceptions of what the natives are doing and why.

When I embarked on this full-time gig fourteen months ago as the mysteriously titled Director of Digital Data Curation Strategies I believed I had a very good high-level understanding of the issues involved. I'd been dabbling in this space for many years, through the Open Access wars, my involvement with the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable and an increasing understanding that open access to data held far more potential for revolutionizing science than open access to journal articles. I knew that addressing the challenges at the institutional level would require bringing people together from all across the institution, that it wasn't a library problem amenable to a library solution. Indeed, it wasn't a problem localized in any unit of the university.  Given the way our research institutions are organized, there isn't a unit within the typical university that obviously has primary responsibility for figuring this out.  Most often, it's librarians who have taken the lead, but they can only touch a portion of the problem.

I still believe that I was correct. I did have a very good high-level understanding. But I did not imagine how delightfully complex it would be once I started to dig in.

I'm starting to get to know some of the #datalibs and a fascinating, brilliant and passionate tribe they certainly are.  I'm learning a lot and enjoying that tremendously.  

My perspective is a little different, though.  I remain the quasi-outsider, observing through my anthropological lens.  Since I'm no longer in the library, I'm not preoccupied with building a library service and marketing it to my research community.  In Charleston, one of the panelists in the "Making Institutional Repositories Work" session was explicit that once you have developed a solid institutional repository service, the next step is to engage with the faculty to see what problems the IR can solve.

At the monthly Data Wranglers sessions, and in the numerous conversations I have with individuals throughout the campus, I'm mostly trying to listen.  I want to understand what the problems are first.  What do investigators need in terms of services & infrastructure to comply with the data management requirements of funders and publishers?  How do we develop institutional policies that assist researchers rather than creating more administrative headaches?  How do the needs of the social scientists and historians differ from the epidemiologists and brain mappers?

If we can map that out, then we can start to identify roles.  What can the Office of Sponsored Programs take on?  How do the libraries contribute?  What do we need in terms of IT infrastructure?  How do we incorporate effective data management practices into the various graduate and post-doc training programs?  We'll probably identify the need for an institutional data repository of some sort at some point.  But we haven't gotten there yet.  I have much more field work to do.

 

 


Epistemology

Mr. Lucky posts to his timeline: If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about middle eastern people seeking refuge and being turned away.

Nicely done, I think, and indicate approval.  As do a couple of others.

But very soon, not surprisingly, comes the dark side. "Why are they all young men? What about women and children first? Think about it."

Absurd, of course. I'm a librarian, so immediately I go looking for facts.  I quickly find them from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 50.5% women, 38.5% under the age of 12. I post that.

Did I expect the dark side to express gratitude and surprise?  Well, no.

He just says, "Sure they are."

Mr. Lucky bans & blocks him. This is good for Mr. Lucky's page and the friends who hang out there, but the dark side remains.  Unmoved.

How do we know what we know? How do we know that we can trust it?

My way of knowing is constructed from a set of principles developed in Europe over several centuries, starting with the Greek invention of symbolic logic and the beginnings of an empirical approach to science, a way of looking at the world that comes to fruition in the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

That way of looking at the world leads me immediately to search for verifiable objective facts, to balance competing narratives using logical principles, leavened by appeals to trusted authority.

But that's just one way of looking at the world. It "works" in the sense that it provides an epistemological underpinning for Western science & engineering that enables us to manipulate the world pretty effectively to improve health and physical comfort -- along with building extremely effective tools of destruction.  Those of us who follow this path believe that it gives us an accurate picture of the world.  It leads to true knowledge. (It is, however, pretty useless for answering questions about morality or the meaning of life.)

So what of someone who rejects all that? What if one's epistemological principle is to rely on intuition and how one feel about the world? Rather than building knowledge empirically, using logic, construct it from emotion, a sense of tribe, an appeal to religion, history and family. Knowledge comes from who one is and the place one occupies in the world.  Perhaps the goal is not to test knowledge, but to keep it safe.   Use information to reinforce a construct of the world that is organic and that rejects western logic altogether. Make judgments about facts in an entirely different way -- accept those that reinforce one's views and reject those that challenge them. Rather than an appeal to some objective reality, to logic or science, measure facts against the reality that one already knows to be true. Proceeding in this way makes my views ever stronger, makes my hold on reality -- my reality -- that much more solid.

I can't argue against this using my tools of logic and empiricism.  My appeal to the UNHCR is useless. Since my antagonist already knows that the refugees are all young men, the facts that I present are evidence that the UNHCR cannot be a trustworthy source.  I think my facts will undermine his beliefs; instead, his beliefs invalidate my facts.

The rationalist says, "You're entitled to your own opinions, you're not entitled to your own facts."  And so the rationalist looks at the comment threads in frustrated bewilderment, throwing more and more facts, never wavering in the belief that eventually facts and logic must win.  They must. Otherwise, how is knowledge even possible?

And yet, it is apparent that for many people, belief comes first.  Then one chooses one's facts.  The rationalist has no way to counter this.  I can say this is illogical.  My antagonist counters, That's your problem.

 


The Despicable Senator Cruz

Throughout our re-watching of The Day of the Doctor last night I kept thinking of the bellicose Senator Cruz arguing that we needed to accept civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq in order to defeat ISIS. Most disgusting is his claim that by trying to adhere to international law on the avoidance of civilian casualties, Obama "does not wish to defend this country."

This will be very popular with Cruz's fans, many of whom would be happy to make no distinctions among the people of Syria and Iraq in any case.

The plot of The Day of the Doctor centers on the Doctor's guilt at having wiped out Gallifrey in order to end the Time War. He made the utilitarian calculation that killing those billions of innocents was justified in order to spare the many more billions who might die in the wider war if it could not be contained. Then he spent four hundred guilt-filled years regretting it.  He has the chance to undo that decision, and he takes it.

The dilemma is a classic one. What lives are you willing to take in order to prevent greater harm?  We see it play throughout the history of war. The U.S. chose the destruction of innocents in Dresden and again in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We still argue about it.  Was it better that we kill all of those innocent, suffering men, women and children in order to end the war?  

At the Nuremberg trials we began to understand what happens to a culture, and to the people who are a part of it, when you choose the path that leads to dehumanizing the "other."  There's no easy solution, and in war, innocent people die, But we try to recognize that the easy acceptance of "collateral damage" (that soul destroying phrase) places us on the same plane of barbarism of those we are trying to subdue.

Cruz appeals to the barbarism that is still within us, to the fear and the tribalism that will make it easy to accept those civilian deaths in order to save ourselves from this "threat to Western Civilization."   But our response, when it leads to torture, loss of civil liberties, dehumanization of those we see as not like us, and a willingness to easily accept the destruction of innocent life, profoundly threatens the values on which that civilization has been built.

I don't know what the solution is. I'm not a tactician.  Clearly ISIS is not amenable to a diplomatic solution. They need to be fought militarily and more aggressively than we have figured out how to do so far.  But I have no patience for the internet armchair generals who will rage in comment threads and on twitter about what we "obviously" have to do, and who will boast about their willingness to be tough enough to kill as many children as it takes.  Idiots, who will never have to stand for the consequences of their choices.  

I am not willing that we should descend to their level of barbarity and ignore the humanity of those who are caught on the ground. I want to see leadership that will find a solution, difficult as it is, that doesn't destroy our values on the pretext of defending them.  Unlike the Doctor, we don't get a second chance.