Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Yesterday's lunch


I enjoyed our lunch yesterday. Seems like investigating the real [behavior] of real people is a pioneering area. So many directions it could go.

I want to thank you for telling me about [program relevant to our shared research interests]. I flipped through it today, and it looks really useful. Might take some getting used to, but the instructions seem clearer than most. I'm going to try it as soon as I get a chance.

In light of Trillwing's recent discussion of anonymity, I fully realize that what follows may put my own in jeopardy. Though, I also recognize that I am not so completely anonymous here. I have revealed myself to some of you, and others of you have surmised from my not so subtle hints ways of unveiling me (like my erstwhile armchair psychoanalyst, nom-de-plume someone wishing you better, who has continued to visit my sites, and clearly knows who I am). As my friend Trillwing points out however, it is ever difficult to discuss one's research, even if only obliquely, without revealing bits of one's identity. Yet, my research is inextricably entwined with my life, and my being. In any case, I am not ashamed nor jealous of who I am, so while I maintain the semblance of anonymity here, I tread this path without fear.

Harry Strope was the fourth reader on my dissertation committee, the only to provide substantive commentary, and the one member of my committee (though ostensibly the "outside reader") whose work and interests were closest to my own. He is an emeritus member of the faculty in my [Field 2] host department, in fact he was the one who suggested I pursue a Visiting Scholar post here. Over the years, we have had numerous lunches together, informal meetings at which we hash out research ideas, and just enjoy each other's company.

He is charming and delightful, in his own no-nonsense, down-to-earth way. I value his opinion highly. I am inspired by his ideas, and believe that his approval is far more valuable to me (at least in terms of intellectual honesty) than any search committee member's. In some ways, he is a throw back to an older scholarship methodologically, but one to which I am fully committed. To put it simply, he has dedicated much of his professional life to an empirical, observational approach, in the face of trends toward hypothesis-driven experimentalism. My dedication to this approach is in recognition that certain questions simply cannot be meaningfully engaged before a sufficient quantity of observation has been obtained. That is to say, experiments simply cannot answer all meanigful questions, despite the pretense that the scientific method absolutely requires a priori hypotheses.

At the ethologist Frans de Waal (2001) eloquently put it:
The urge of behavioral scientists to proceed in a straight line from theory to data, hence presenting themselves as more naive to the truth than they actually are, derives from a desire to be like physics, a science that has reached the lofty stage of armchair prediction. …

It is unclear whether the behavioral sciences will ever reach the point when logically derived predictions drive progress. Behavior is more variable than the dance of photons, and its explanation involves multiple layers, from the physiological to the mental. We cannot afford to look through a single pair of glasses; we need lots of different glasses to see reality. Theories do assist in this effort, by guiding our attention and making large amounts of data graspable, but they also induce selective blindness (182).
de Waal, F. (2001). The Ape and the Sushi Master. New York: Basic Books.

In this context, I was not particularly put-off by the following response to my recent article submission (though I was quite pleased with their speed):
Dear Dr. Dad,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript [Title] to [Field 2 Journal].

As part of our standard review process, and before recruiting external referees, the editors normally examine articles for completeness and for appropriateness to the Journal. [Field 2 Journal] tends to publish hypothesis-driven empirical research related to [disciplinary subfields]. Although the topic of your paper is of potential interest to our readers, we find that it is not particularly empirical or hypothesis-driven.

Consequently, we will not be able to consider your manuscript for publication in [Field 2 Journal]. We are sorry that we cannot bring you better news.

Sincerely Yours,

[The Editors]
Indeed, it wasn't an empirical paper in itself, rather an expository one, pointing out cross-disciplinary connections that might otherwise be overlooked, and discussing potentials for future research. It was in that way a theoretical paper, rather than an empirical one. Perhaps it simply isn't the right venue for the paper. Or maybe the paper itself simply isn't "publishable" in its present form. No matter. It was worth the effort to seek feedback. Now I have a better sense of what the editors of this journal are seeking. Though I confess to a small inner chuckle raised by their allusion to hypothesis-driven research, as a conference paper I gave a few years ago, critical of some rather prominent research in my real interdiscipline, took the title "Hypothetical Universe," intent to point out the over-reliance on their hypothesis, in the absence of any real-world empirical data to support it.

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