Synchronicity effects in online discussions

Draft of 2006.07.27 ☛ 2015.03.17 ☛ 2016.07.25

So I’m drafting a long, semi-scholarly post and paper about the nature of online communities for lay involvement in scientific and engineering research, as a follow-on to my Erdős Number auction gag two years ago.

One of the important things to come from that experience was an understanding of the desire of laymen, or more specifically experienced and intelligent professionals outside the Academy, to participate in the dialog of science and more general research. It would be a good thing—on that basis alone—to break down the barriers to entry into the technical research process and somehow involve these folks in generating and pursuing research projects.

At the same time, over the same period we’ve come to realize that we live in a time of what might be summarized as unprecedented kookiness: not just among the Religious Right, but also among anti-vaccinationists and others scattered all over the sociopolitical landscape. People find it easier, these Internetty days, to say dumb things. Worse, they say dumb things in ways that are essentially undifferentiable by the rest of the lay public. Intelligent Design can thrive not because the scientific community is too lax in persecuting them, but rather because they adopt so well the semblance of what the lay political public (who is their real audience) perceives as correct and “fair” behavior. They play a media game (politics and religion), using words from a non-media culture (science). It would be a bad thing—on the basis of all these cranks and crackpots alone—to admit more specious work into the canon of discussion, without stringent checks and stops in place to point out their fallacies succinctly.

It’s a puzzle. It frames itself around a core of deeper philosophical puzzles: What is a crackpot? What harm can a crackpot do? What is a scientist? What good might a scientist do? What are the expected (and potential) costs and benefits of re-opening the world of basic research to the lay public?

And then this morning I am presented, at Crooked Timber itself, with this entry on the Maharishi Effect.

Watching the comments there will be an interesting exercise. How many who do research within the Academy even understand what it is? What is the implication of reactionary and revolutionary thought in this context, when so little culture is shared among those who practice science and those who watch it?

What do we choose, when we become real scientists, real researchers, even (in a weaker sense) real engineers? Do we choose a career? Or do we choose a culture?