starting with a problem

by Sebastian Benthall

The feedback I got on my dissertation prospectus draft when I presented it to my colleagues was that I didn’t start with a problem and then argue from there how my dissertation was going to be about a solution.

That was really great advice.

The problem of problem selection is a difficult. “What is a problem?” is a question that basically nobody asks. Lots of significant philosophical traditions maintain that it’s the perception of problems as problems that is the problem. “Just chill out,” say Great Philosophical Traditions. This does not help one orient ones research dissertation.

A lot of research is motivated by interest in particular problems like an engineering challenge or curing cancer. I’m somehow managed to never acquire the kind of expertise that would allow me to address any of these specific useful problems directly. My mistake.

I’m a social scientist. There are a lot of social problems, right? Of course. However, there’s a problem here that identifying any problems as problems in the social domain immediately implicates politics.

Are there apolitical social problems? I think I’ve found some. I had a great conversation last week with Anna Salamon about Global Catastrophic Risks. Those sound terrible! It echoes the work I used to do in support of Distaster Risk Reduction, except that there is more acknowledgment in the GCR space that some of the big risks are man-made.

So there’s a problem: arguably research into the solutions to these problems is good. On the other hand, that research is complicated by the political entanglement of the researchers, especially in the university setting. It took some convincing, but OK, those politics are necessarily part of the equation. Put another way, if there wasn’t the political complexity, then the hard problems wouldn’t be such hard problems. The hard problems are hard partly because they are so political. (This difference in emphasis is not meant to preclude other reasons why these problems are hard; for example, because people aren’t smart or motivated enough.)

Given that the political complexity is getting in the way of the efficiency of us solving hard problems–because these problems require collaboration across political lines, because the inherent politics of language choice and framing create complexity that is orthogonal to the problem solution (is it?), infrastructural solutions that manage that political complexity can be helpful.

(Counterclaim: the political complexity is not illogical complexity, rather scientific logic is partly political logic. We live in the best of all possible worlds. Just chill out. This is an empirical claim.)

The promise of computational methods to interdisciplinary collaboration is that they allow for more efficient distribution of cognitive labor across the system of investigators. Data science methodologists can build tools for investigation that work cross-disciplinarily, and the interaction between these tools can follow an a political logic in a way that discursive science cannot. Teleologically, we get an Internet of Scientific Things, and autonomous scientific aparatus, and draw your own eschatological conclusions.

An interesting consequence of algorithmically mediated communication is that you don’t actually need consensus to coordinate collective action. I suppose this is an argument Hayekians etc. have been making for a long time. However, the political maintenance of the system that ensures the appropriate incentive structures is itself prone to being hacked and herein lies the problem. That and the insufficiency of the total neurological market aparatus (in Hayek’s vision) to do anything like internalize the externalities of e.g. climate change, while the Bitcoin servers burn and burn and burn.