Humanities vs Science. 4. Semantics and Semiotics

See here for the story behind this series.

Signs and symbols are the oldest mode of communication. We were using pictures to show our clan which way the berries were long before the golden arches were invented. A sign is anything that has meaning, including words, and the most powerful signs transcend languages, dialects and cultures.

How is this relevant to science? Communicating scientific research through any medium (yes, even academic journals!) is all about people. Good communication uses signs and symbols effectively to transcend scientific cultures, sub-disciplines and public audiences. Most humanities disciplines teach meaning and context, but two disciplines are particularly relevant to meaningful communication – semantics, the study of meanings and relationships of words; and semiotics, the study of signs.

The Science of Semantics

Words are powerful. The way they are used can completely change their meaning and interpretation. Sentences aren’t just big piles of words dumped on a page. Those words need to be put into groups, and those groups into a meaningful sequence, before the reader can interpret the sentence. Continue reading

Can too much Innovation be a bad thing?

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. – Jill Lepore

Innovation is one of the most overused buzzwords in the business world. Now it’s started turning up in discussions about research and policy, in government science goals and research funding priorities.

But there are two main caveats to the pro-Innovation argument that are often glossed over. The first is the word’s corporate connotations.

Once upon a time, innovation didn’t have a great reputation. It was a punishable crime to the worst degree. It was (ironically) reinvented in the 1930s, grounded in economic theory – it became seen as a source of positive economic change at a time when things weren’t going so well for some national economies. New products would get money flowing again, so the theory went. And a buzzword was born. Benoît Godin has done some excellent research on the evolution of the term and its place in society.

If you’re an ‘innovator’, you’re now a star. You can start trends and make lots of money. And because economic growth is the goal of most countries, innovation is now promoted, not punished. Continue reading

A Halloween natural history

Before Halloween became a consumption holiday, it had a somewhat ambiguous cultural history. No one is really quite sure where it came from. It appears to be a case of a myriad traditions, rituals and festivals being narrowed over time into one, and then linked back to an apparent history through its calendar date.

Whatever festival you think it stems from, the general theme is death, but not necessarily in the macabre and horrific sense it has become associated with. It’s also about regeneration and the life that comes after a death, whether it be honouring the legacy of saints (eve before All Saint’s Day, the Christian holy day) or celebrating the end of summer fertility and preparing for the bleak winter (the ancient Celtic harvest festival Samhain). Continue reading

The Good, the Bad and…the Ecology

There are very few (if any) true ‘wilderness’ areas left, those completely untouched by human influence. This isn’t a tragedy – it’s an opportunity to grow, learn and discover more about the amazing planet we live on. Many ‘natural’ ecosystems have become social-ecological systems, where humans and nature can co-exist, not out-compete each other.

Agricultural systems are a perfect example. It’s hard to keep wild animals out of agroecosystems. They affect crop yields directly and indirectly across the growing season through positive (e.g. insects pollinating flowers) or negative (e.g. birds damaging fruit) interactions with crop plants. Because humans tend to label and categorise things (labels are easier to manage, justify or remove) we generally label these animals as either ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – aphids are annoying pests, bees are little angels. That’s all there is to it.

In reality, no organism is completely ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to the extreme; the effect it has on other organisms around it, including us, varies with context. All the individual plant-animal interactions happening in a single crop system are influenced by seasons, landscapes, management practices, and the social, cultural and economic values of the local farming community. Continue reading

Science needs room for creativity

Ecologists: where do your research ideas come from? And does this influence the science you do?

This excellent blog post by Stephen Heard illustrates how observation and creative freedom are such an important part of the scientific method. We all know how to run an experiment to ensure the results are actually ‘science’.

But why do we run experiments or collect data? Where do we get the idea to do the experiment in the first place?

We might not know why we start an investigation, in formulaic ‘null hypothesis’ terms. But our knowledge and experience to date, however limited or vague, has given us the idea that collecting these data in that system is worth doing – there is some level of uncertainty in the system that inspires us to investigate further. Often we can’t clarify that uncertainty in words or numbers…so we put it down to ‘I was bored and just wanted to see what happened’.

But if you already know for certain, through knowledge and experience, that testing an idea is pointless, you wouldn’t waste your time, right? You don’t just suddenly say “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if I pee while standing on my head? I’m bored, so I might try it and see…” Continue reading

Humanities vs Science. 3. Art History

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Studying art is a bit more scientific than simply loitering at gallery openings. The discipline of Art History is the study of how visual art styles and movements have evolved over time. It teaches how to read and interpret art; but it also provides valuable insight into how humanity, society and their values have developed across the ages…insights that are very relevant to science. Here are a few ways that scientists could benefit from studying Art History:

Natural history

In the modern age of Twitter, Instagram and camera-phones, we sometimes forget the natural history we can learn through art of the non-digital kind. Yes, Darwin’s sketches taught us a lot about ecology and biogeography. But he wasn’t the only artist to leave us with a stunning legacy of natural history resources. Continue reading

Ecology on Holiday

There is no better way to appreciate ecological change across landscapes than by taking a road trip.

My partner and I just had one of the best holidays of our life: two weeks driving from our home in Albury in southern New South Wales, to the Sunshine Coast in south-east Queensland, where I grew up. We have done this trip a few times, but have always used the drive (about 1500 kilometres, one way) as a means to an end, i.e. getting to the coast to see friends and family. This trip, we took our time, sacrificing a few extra days at the beach for more time to explore en route. And it definitely paid off!

The road trip.

Australia is one of the lucky few countries that include most of the major terrestrial biome types. An interstate road trip is one of the best ways to see them! Ecologically, our trip was well-timed; the end of August signals the start of spring and wildflower explosions all over the country. The wattles were already in full swing around Albury, lifting our damp, grey spirits from a very long winter. Continue reading