Who’s afraid of technical “solutionism”?

There seems to be a growing trend of articles in political and cultural circles critiquing the “solutionism” of Silicon Valley; the tech industry’s willingness to identify ever more societal problems that could be solved with increasingly clever devices and software.  Bloggers at the Economist and the New York Times have been looking at an article in the New Yorker, and possibly it’s associated book The Unwinding, by George Packer (in fact, it wasn’t until I was typing this up that I realized they both were referring to the same thing).

I have not read all of thew New Yorker article because it’s behind a paywall, but a follow-up by Packer gives some of the thesis:

My analysis of the Valley’s politics isn’t about left-right in the usual sense. It’s about a particular brand of utopianism that sees solutions for social and political problems in the industry’s products and attitudes.

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Why Lamar Smith Doesn’t Seem to Understand Science

So we’ve looked at the research that seemed to motivate the following criteria that Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has proposed that all NSF-fund research be certified as fulfilling:

  1.  ”… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
  2. “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  3. “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

Now I’d like to break down why these criteria reflect a poor understanding of science and the National Science Foundation. Let’s just go through each point.

  1. First, Smith has the theoretical point of NSF backwards. The legislation that founded NSF put the mission “to initiate and support basic scientific research and programs to strengthen scientific research potential and science education programs at all levels in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, social, and other sciences” before Continue reading

In Praise of Social Science and Science Studies at NSF

Consider this a slightly belated reaction (and a slightly different take) to the proposed bill from Congressman Lamar Smith that would propose the National Science Foundation certifying all research is

  1.  “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
  2. “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  3. “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

I’d like to address why requiring ALL projects funded by NSF to meet all these criteria is bizarre (especially 3, preventing the funding of multiple research paths or even funding what would essentially be the  reproducibility of an experiment suggests Smith literally does not know how scientific research is done), but I’ll save that for a future post. But for now I’d like to address what seems to be some of the underlying motivation of the first criterion by looking at the projects Smith seems to be concerned by.

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