Degrees of scientific separation

There are a couple of interesting entries here and here at the Touchstone weblog about the importance of scientific “descent”—who is descended from whom by apprenticeship or similarly intimate professional connection. It turns out to be very important indeed. It appears, for example, that all significant chemists are professionally descended from a small number of 18th and 19th century Germans. The mathematicians have even formalized the point as the Erdös number, which is the number of degrees of separation (by co-authorship of papers) between a scholar and the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös. That number is so important that a man with an Erdös number of 4 tried to auction off on Ebay the chance to co-author a paper with him, which would give the successful bidder an Erdös number of 5.

All of which is food for thought:

  • The situation verifies in the strongest possible manner the importance of specific concrete tradition: the particular organization of beliefs, understandings, attitudes, practices and memories handed down by personal contact. If personal connection and concrete tradition are so important in science, in which publicity, mathematical formulation and universal repeatability of procedure are such ideals, not as a corruption but as the basis of greatness, how much more important must such things be in other fields of activity?
  • When photos are taken of the world’s leading particle physicists the lack of diversity is quite notable. There are very few evident psychotics (to pay due respect to the concerns of the current British government), or even women of color. Why doesn’t anyone make an issue of the situation and complain about the discoveries that are never made because the voices of so many are silenced? Isn’t it just a waste of the government’s science budget to spend it all on middle-class white boys? Presumably at some point realism still takes over. Will that be true forever?
  • The specific tradition that now dominates discussion of public affairs is the tradition of liberal modernism. That fact gives liberalism and modernism an enormous advantage. It’s extremely hard to put anything else together that can compete because it goes beyond the grumbling of people who are out of the loop. The dominant liberal and modernist establishment, like any other establishment, really has to cut its own throat to give anyone else a chance. Luckily, that’s what it’s doing. We need to think about what’s involved in the rebirth of tradition adequate to the demands of social life. The fact we accept tradition as a principle is helpful, but it doesn’t do all the work for us.

1 thought on “Degrees of scientific separation”

  1. The rebirth of tradition has already begun — here, for example.
    From the log entry:

    “We need to think about what’s involved in the rebirth of tradition adequate to the demands of social life.”

    Just as did the left’s gradual accession to predominance from the early 70s on, any rebirth of tradition will both conform somewhat to prevailing attitudes *and* create new ones as it goes, its initial need to fit itself into the prevailing attitudes attenuating as it picks up steam and generates new attitudes congenial to itself: the more of these it creates, the less must it “conform.” Hollywood films, for example, were never blantantly leftist, and were all rated G, until somewhere around 1973 when they began to change. Until that point, far from having to “conform,” these films inculcated normalness powerfully, *and* were normal: in merely being normal they inculcated and reinforced normalness just as today’s films inculcate and reinforce degenerateness merely by being degenerate. So in a sense what’s involved in “the rebirth of tradition adequate to the demands of social life” is simply starting the process—what we’re doing right now at Turnabout and like-minded places.


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