Sunday, June 23, 2013

Outline for a series of last lectures

DRAFT--The list is too long, and has some missing parts. MK 23June13

You want to say something about what you've learned.

1. Thinking and having ideas you work out is good work
2. Reading widely, but also knowing who is authoritative.
3. Take quantitative work seriously, but also ask how it is vulnerable statistically or in how it was gathered.
4. Models and mechanisms drawn from natural science are often useful, but rarely probative.
5. Discourse on the sacred from religion is often very useful.
6. Concreteness is essential. Abstraction that is cute and wonderful is cute and wonderful. Whether it is essential is up to the facts of the matter.
7. Many if not most people are much smarter than I am. They can follow arguments in philosophy, or in theory, or in mathematics or some such; they know about many concrete situations (they are specialists). Most of the time my eyes glaze over. In any case, I always check my work (that is, my speculations) with experts to be sure I am not missing something big. Usually they tell me: It's ok, but so what? Or, Only you would think of this!
7a. Many people are much more capable than I am of holding in mind a long complex argument.
7a. Most people are experts in their fields, and they can ask decisive questions about research work. All I can do is ask about motivation, general thrust, and provide analogies with other work. I can be readily bamboozled by an expert. On the other hand, I am good at listening to the music and picking out the big themes.
8. Analogy is how I come to understand stuff: Something is like something I do know.
9. Usually, only after I have written a book, and it is published, do I begin to understand what I was up to.
10. I take lots of photographs, but I am not a photographer as that is understood.
11. Everyone needs someone who understands what they are doing, and can mirror them back to themselves. I'm good at this.
12. Students are surely vulnerable, but unless you tell them like it really is, they are likely to make big mistakes. Often they undervalue their strengths. What they need to learn is how to do work, and how to do projects, and also how to lead and contribute. About the latter I have nothing to say, except by analogy to sacred figures.
13. In general references in social science or the humanities, reference meant to model something, to quantum mechanics, relativity, general relativity, quantum field theory, string theory, etc gets you noplace. On the other hand, you can say the features of complex adaptive systems in such a way that a historian would find them very familiar. Chaos Theory, Catastrophe Theory, Nonlinear..., etc usually provide nice ideas but none of their formal apparatus will help you. The Uncertainty Principle, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, "path dependence", The Conservation of Energy,... may well be useful models, but again it's very unlikely that anything substantive will be learned from those subfields of physics that could not be said in ordinary everyday language. On the other hand, the equations of physics or chemistry might well be useful for social science or the humanities, but that does not mean that the physicist's motivations for those equations is apt. In fact this applies to the physicist who borrows an equation from a different subfield.