Catastrophic success

By Gordon Rugg

Sometimes, you know a concept, but don’t know a name for it. I’m grateful to Colin Rigby for introducing me to a name for this article’s topic, namely catastrophic success.

It’s a concept that’s been around for a long time, in fields as varied as business planning and the original Conan the Barbarian movie. It’s simple, so this will be a short article, but it’s a very powerful concept, and well worth knowing about.

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Some myths about PhDs

By Gordon Rugg

This article covers three myths about PhDs that seem to be popular at the moment.

  • First myth: You have to find a PhD topic by looking for advertised PhD studentships
  • Second myth: You have to have a 2:1 or a distinction to get onto a PhD
  • Third myth: You have to start in September, or you’ve missed your chance till the next year

All three beliefs contain enough truth to look discouraging to many people who might be thinking of doing a PhD, but who don’t fit the criteria set out in the myths. However, that doesn’t mean that those myths tell the full story. The full story is longer and more complex (which may be why it isn’t as widely known as it should be) and is also more hopeful for anyone who isn’t able to follow the usual PhD route.

Before we get into the details, here’s an encouraging pair of classical pictures to put you in an appropriate mood, showing the transformation from solitary uncertainty in the wilderness to public adulation and success…

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Research ethics

By Gordon Rugg

I have done questionable things….

Note: I’ve written this article, like all the other Hyde & Rugg blog articles, in my capacity as a private individual, not as a member of Keele University.

This article intended as an explanation of why researchers need to pay serious attention to research ethics. It’s not intended as a complete overview of all the issues that ethics committees have to consider, which would require a much longer article. For example, I don’t discuss the issue of informed consent, although this is a very important topic. Similarly, I don’t discuss whether ethical review could lead to a chilling effect on research. Instead, I’ve focused on the underlying issue of why a researcher’s own opinion about ethics isn’t enough.

Research ethics committees are interesting places. The ethics committees I attend are the only committee meetings that I actively look forward to. This is partly because everybody is focused on doing a good, professional job as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then getting back to our other work. It’s also partly because the cases that we deal with are often fascinating.

Most research students view ethics committees as an obstacle to be passed, taking precious time and effort. The reality is very different. If you’re a researcher, whether a novice or an expert, the ethics committee is a valuable friend, and can help you avoid all sorts of risks that might otherwise cause you serious grief.

In this article, I’ll discuss some ways that ethics committees help you, and some things that could go wrong in ways that you might not expect. Some of those risks are seriously scary. I’ve avoided going into detail about triggering topics wherever possible, but some of the things that go wrong with ethics might trigger some readers. By way of a gentle start, here’s a restful image of a tropical beach.

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Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HammockonBeach.jpg

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Patents, pensions, and printing

By Gordon Rugg

The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution are often portrayed as a flowering of bright new ways of thinking about the world, shaking off the dull orthodoxy of previous centuries. Well, in some ways that’s true, but there’s also a fair amount of unglamorous practical underpinning that usually receives less attention.

This article is about those underpinnings.

One of the striking things about technological developments before the Renaissance is how many of them spread slowly, if at all. Why was that?

If you look at the question from the viewpoint of a mediaeval inventor who has just come up with a bright new idea, then you start seeing the importance of various factors that don’t get much attention in popular history.

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Grand Unified Theories

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re a researcher, there’s a strong temptation to find a Grand Unified Theory for whatever you’re studying, whether you’re a geologist or a physicist or psychologist or from some other field.

That temptation is understandable. There’s the intellectual satisfaction of making sense of something that had previously been formless chaos; there’s the moral satisfaction of giving new insights into long-established problems; for the less lofty-minded, there’s the prospect of having a law or theory named after oneself.

Just because it’s understandable, however, doesn’t mean that it’s always a good idea. For every Grand Unified Theory that tidies up some part of the natural world, there’s at least one screwed-up bad idea that will waste other people’s time, and quite possibly increase chaos and unpleasantness.

This article explores some of the issues involved. As worked examples, I’ll start with an ancient stone map of Rome, and move on later to a Galloway dyke, illustrated below.

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Why are we being examined on this?

By Gordon Rugg

It’s a fair question, if it’s being asked as a question, rather than as a complaint about the cosmic unfairness of having to study a topic that you don’t see the point of. Sometimes, it’s easy to answer. For instance, if someone wants to be a doctor, then checking their knowledge of medicine is a pretty good idea.

Other times, though, the answer takes you into deep waters that you’d really rather not get into, especially if there’s a chance of some student recording your answer and posting it onto social media…

Why do some answers take you into deep waters? That’s the topic of this article. It takes us into history, politics, proxies, and the glass bead game.

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What happens when you get what you wish for?

By Gordon Rugg

A favourite plot device involves someone getting what they wish for, but in a way that leaves them either back where they started, or worse off than when they started.

That plot device ties in with a couple of widespread beliefs about the world.

One is known as the just world hypothesis. As the name implies, this belief holds that there’s an underlying pattern of justice in the world, so that what you get is balanced against what you deserve. Good events, such as winning the lottery, are either a reward for previous good actions, or are counterbalanced by later disaster, to set the balance straight.

This is a comforting belief, because it implies that we don’t need to worry too much about bad things happening to us; in this belief system, we’ll get what we deserve, so if we behave well, things will be fine. There’s the added bonus that we don’t need to feel guilty about other people’s suffering, since that will also balance out one way or another.

Another widespread belief is that hubris – excessive pride or ambition – will be punished by Fate. This is very similar to the tall poppies effect, where a social group disapproves of group members aspiring to or achieving significantly more than the rest of the group.

Both of these beliefs have far-reaching implications; the beliefs and their implications have been studied in some depth, and are well worth reading about.

They’re beliefs, though. What about reality? What actually happens when people get what they wish for?

The short answer is: Usually, not much.

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Images from Wikipedia; sources at the end of this article

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