Blogging, open science and the public intellectual

For the last half-year I’ve been keeping TheEGG to a strict weekly schedule. I’ve been making sure that at least one post comes out during every calendar week. At times this has been taxing. And of course this causes both reflection on why I blog and an urge to dip into old unfinished posts. This week I deliver both. Below is a linkdex of 7 posts from 2016 and earlier (with a few recent comments added here and there) commenting on how scientists and public intellectuals (whatever that phrase might mean) should approach blogging.

If you, dear reader, are a fellow science blogger then you might have seen these articles before. But I hope you might find it useful to revisit and reflect on some of them. I certainly found it insightful. And if you have any important updates to add to these links then these updates are certainly encouraged.

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Models as maps and maps as interfaces

One of my favorite conceptual metaphors from David Basanta is Mathematical Models as Maps. From this perspective, we as scientists are exploring an unknown realm of our particular domain of study. And we want to share with others what we’ve learned, maybe so that they can follow us. So we build a model — we draw a map. At first, we might not know how to identify prominent landmarks, or orient ourselves in our fields. The initial maps are vague sketches that are not useful to anybody but ourselves. Eventually, though, we identify landmarks — key experiments and procedures — and create more useful maps that others can start to use. We publish good, re-usable models.

In this post, I want to discuss the Models as Map metaphors. In particular, I want to trace through how it can take us from a naive realist, to critical realist, to interface theory view of models.

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Bourbaki vs the Russian method as a lens on heuristic models

There are many approaches to teaching higher maths, but two popular ones, that are often held in contrast to each other, are the Bourbaki and Russian methods. The Bourbaki method is named after a fictional mathematician — a nom-de-plume used by a group of mostly French mathematicians in the middle of the 20th century — Nicholas Bourbaki, who is responsible for an extremely abstract and axiomatic treatment of much of modern mathematics in his encyclopedic work Éléments de mathématique. As a pedagogical method, it is very formalist and consists of building up clear and most general possible definitions for the student. Discussions of specific, concrete, and intuitive mathematical objects is avoided, or reserved for homework exercises, Instead, a focus on very general axioms that can apply to many specific structures of interest is favored.

The Russian method, in contrast, stresses specific examples and applications. The instructor gives specific, concrete, and intuitive mathematical objects and structures — say the integers — as a pedagogical examples of the abstract concept at hand — maybe rings, in this case. The student is given other specific instances of these general abstract objects as assignments — maybe some matrices, if we are looking at rings — and through exposure to many specific examples is expected to extract the formal axiomatic structure with which Bourbaki would have started. For the Russian, this overarching formalism becomes largely an afterthought; an exercise left to the reader.

As with many comparisons in education, neither method is strictly “better”. Nor should the names be taken as representative of the people that advocate for or are exposed to each method. For example, I am Russian but I feel like I learnt the majority of my maths following the Bourbaki method and was very satisfied with it. In fact, I am not sure where the ‘Russian’ in the name comes from, although I suspect it is due to V.I. Arnol’d‘s — a famous Russian mathematician from the second half of the 20th century — polemical attack on Bourbaki. Although I do not endorse Arnol’d attack, I do share his fondness for Poincaré and importance of intuition in mathematics. As you can guess from the title, in this article I will be stressing the Russian method as important to the philosophy of science and metamodeling.

I won’t be talking about science education, but about science itself. As I’ve stressed before, I think it a fool’s errand to provide a definition or categorization of the scientific method; it is particularly self-defeating here. But for the following, I will take the perspective that the scientific community, especially the theoretical branches that I work in, is engaged in the act of educating itself about the structure of reality. Reading a paper is like a lesson, I get to learn from what others have discovered. Doing research is like a worksheet: I try my hand at some concrete problems and learn something. Writing a paper is formalizing what I learned into a lesson for others. And, of course, as we try to teach, we end up learning more, so the act of writing often transforms what we learned in our ‘worksheet’.
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The Noble Eightfold Path to Mathematical Biology

Twitter is not a place for nuance. It is a place for short, pithy statements. But if you follow the right people, those short statements can be very insightful. In these rare case, a tweet can be like a kōan: a starting place for thought and meditation. Today I want to reflect on such a thoughtful tweet from Rob Noble outlining his template for doing good work in mathematical biology. This reflection is inspired by the discussions we have on my recent post on mathtimidation by analytic solution vs curse of computing by simulation.

So, with slight modification and expansion from Rob’s original — and in keeping with the opening theme — let me present The Noble Eightfold Path to Mathematical Bilogy:

  1. Right Intention: Identify a problem or mysterious effect in biology;
  2. Right View: Study the existing mathematical and mental models for this or similar problems;
  3. Right Effort: Create model based on the biology;
  4. Right Conduct: Check that the output of the model matches data;
  5. Right Speech: Humbly write up;
  6. Right Mindfulness: Analyse why model works;
  7. Right Livelihood: Based on 6, create simplest, most general useful model;
  8. Right Samadhi: Rewrite focussing on 6 & 7.

The hardest, most valuable work begins at step 6.

The only problem is that people often stop at step 5, and sometimes skip step 2 and even step 3.

This suggests that the model is more prescriptive than descriptive. And aspiration for good scholarship in mathematical biology.

In the rest of the post, I want to reflect on if it is the right aspiration. And also add some detail to the steps.

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