Friday, 26 May 2017

Bees and car accidents kill

more people than terrorists in Downunder - so goes the claim of the estranged wife of David Hicks. For her thesis saying such things she has just been granted a PhD from the humanities department of Wollongong University.
Yes, she is stating a fact - but it is not one worthy of a doctorate. It is sort of "doctoral thesis" which lead other people to wonder what is going on in the humanities departments of universities. 
I know many people who view subject areas like "Women's Studies" with suspicion. (My own view is that there is a place for studying both female and male roles in society.) There are subject areas like "Media Studies" - and someone wrote a doctoral thesis on day time soap operas like "Days of our lives", of which I have never seen an episode. 
I had a severely disabled friend, now sadly deceased, who was a mathematician. His doctoral thesis in pure mathematics was thought by many people to be "absolutely useless".  It wasn't.  The idea he explored is now being explored further in an attempt to understand how space works. I know someone else whose son works in the area of "algebraic topology". The maths isn't something I pretend to understand but I can see the potential applications. Many people just think he is playing with pretty shapes.
My own doctoral thesis was in the area of visual perception. It wasn't something I intended to do at all. I was, and still am, much more interested in language and languages. But, there was a potential problem which needed to be investigated before people invested a lot of time and effort in developing a  system which would allow others to communicate more easily. It was something we needed to know. I abandoned other ideas and concentrated on what was needed. I'll admit I never felt the same buzz as I do about language but at least what I did was genuinely useful. 
Does a doctoral thesis need to be useful? Should we only study what is likely to be useful? No, that would be ridiculous. We should explore what interests us as well as what "might be useful" and I have gone on to do that. 
It is probably fair to say that most research is not "exciting". In science it is often dull and repetitive and there might never be an answer to the problem. The research roads are littered with abandoned ideas but the passing traveller may still pick one up, examine it, and use it in some way.
But, it would have been possible to simply look at the available statistics and draw the conclusion that bees and car accidents kill more people than terrorists in Downunder. That alone is not worthy of a doctorate. I will assume there is more to the thesis than that but, right now, I am wondering how that doctorate advances our understanding of the world.


Anonymous said...

How I wish I could talk to you about communication with the learning and physically disabled.

I worked with some of them for over seven years in the U.K. and this was a topic of very real interest for me.

We used Makaton which has hand signs and written symbols. I wondered why we did not use British Sign Language and common signs (such as the common symbols - or words - for "toilet"). Makaton is not widespread (or it was not, five years ago). Also, the sign for "toilet" could be open to misinterpretation and the symbol is cluttered and unattractive (and was rare in public places).

A field needing a lot of PhDs and common sense.


catdownunder said...

Don't even get me started on that topic! My doctoral supervisor was interested in Makaton and we used to argue over the need to teach BSL instead. It is still not widespread.
Then we had the Blissymbol issue - people stopped using it here and went over to "picsyms" and other things which were impossible to draw and not universally understood but they claimed were "easier" for the child to understand.
What all these things really do is limit the child's ability to communicate. Give me BSL/Auslan and Blissymbols any day!