Thesis for Ants

A few weeks back, the reddit user (‘redditor’) /u/FaithMilitant posed the following simple question to the subreddit, /r/AskReddit:

PhD’s of Reddit. What is a dumbed down summary of your thesis?

While the resulting discussion proved rather intriguing, for my interests here, and by using it as discourse, I formed the following thesis:

This discussion represents a particular bias, or rather, a particular discursive perception of the concept ‘PhD,’ and how the public might perceive of that concept as something more predominately associated with the sciences, rather than the humanities.  


Let’s begin with how this discussion has been disseminated.

Shortly after it took place on reddit, the ‘click-bait’ website, tickled.com, published a collection of the top twenty comments.  While their version is easily accessible, I thought it might be best to list the one’s they’ve chosen here:

Does music express emotions or just elicit them? Read the next 200 pages to not find out. 
/u/Welldogmycats 


Girls take birth control. Girls then pee out unmetabolized estrogens from birth control. Pee goes to water treatment plant, estrogens not treated, male fish become female fish.
/u/Altzul


Nanoparticles are weird and I accidentally made a bomb and electrocuted myself.
/u/M33 


People trying meditation for the first time get aroused.
/u/PainMatrix


When I get rid of this gene, it messes the brain up. A lot.
/u/NeuroscienceNerd


Computer AI systems can learn to operate a warp drive and automatically build an instructional system to train people how to do it. My dissertation is probably the only one in existence to reference the Star Trek technical manual.
/u/DrBiometrics 


My experimental drug does NOT cure addiction.
/u/NotSoCleverPork 


Making new magnets from old magnets because we’re running out of magnets.
/u/IAmAHiggsBoson


Inpatients with schizophrenia are happier and socialize more in the context of a music listening group. It was obvious before we began the project and we learned nothing.
/u/Wouldyestap


Little things stick together. Here’s a slightly easier way to calculate their stickiness.
/u/Born2bwire


There are amoebas living in volcanos, but I never captured Bigfoot on film (I tried).
/u/RNAPII


We can take random pieces of bacterial DNA from beaver poop and put them into other bacteria to discover new things, like how to break wood down into biofuels. Yes, I had to dissect dead beavers and handle their poop.
/u/Geneius (account seems to have been deactivated, and the original comment has been removed)


This protein looks like it might contribute to asthma. Oh, turns out it probably doesn’t.
/u/Bear_Ear_Fritters


I crunch numbers using a supercomputer in the hopes of ensuring a fusion reactor in France doesn’t get fried on the inside.
/u/PhysicsFornicator


Two proteins touch each other in a specific place in the developing heart. No idea if it’s important for anything.
/u/Penguinpaige


I can make models of galaxies in a computer, but I can’t explain why they don’t act like real ones. Even if I bash them together or stir them around.
/u/McMillan_Astro


People sometimes think about animals as if they’re people. People like those animals a little more than regular animals. Except when they don’t. I can’t believe they gave me a PhD.
/u/too_many_mangos


Sand washes away, don’t build important stuff on it
/u/Zoidy-1


Why does a coffee stain looks the way it is, and how you can use it to make anti-laser glasses.
/u/Stockholm-Syndrom


You can make antimatter move in strange ways if you set your equipment up wrong.
/u/DrTBag


Aside from the interesting diversity of each of these ‘dumbed down’ Thesis topics, they all stand out as predominately science-based, from computer science, to biology, physics, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, zoology, psychology, and neuroscience.

So, then, how do these comments reflect a discursive perception beyond how they have been disseminated by this article?  To understand that, it might be necessary to explain a bit more about how commenting functions on reddit.

Most of these comments, chosen specifically by the author of the article (Zainab Coovadia), are what are known as ‘best comments.’  That is, within the context of a reddit discussion, since every comment made can be ‘down-voted’ or ‘up-voted,’ these comments have each amassed a large number of up-votes.

Now, if we keep in mind that each up-vote correlates to a single individual, as a user can only up-vote or down-vote a comment once (bearing in mind individuals might have more than one reddit account), then the number of up-votes for each comment equals the number of individuals who read that comment.  In the case of these ‘best comments,’ this equals out to a couple thousand individuals.  In fact, /u/Bear_Ear_Fritters‘ comment (“This protein looks like it might contribute to asthma. Oh, turns out it probably doesn’t.”) has, at the time of this writing, 8178 up-votes.

While the notion that over eight-thousand people have seen this comment points out the rather interesting manner in which the internet, and sites like reddit, assist us in presenting our research to the ‘general public,’ it also provides an intriguing discursive look at how signifiers, such as the term ‘PhD,’ are filled with meaning by large groups of people.  After all, while Coovadia may have chosen these twenty dumbed-down thesis descriptions based on their popularity on reddit, their popularity itself determines the fact that, in the context within which they exist, the notion of a ‘PhD’ is tied almost exclusively to the sciences.

As well, though this somewhat stereotypical assessment is, of course, open to a great deal of interpretative questioning (such as, is the average redditor more science-minded than humanities-minded?), as pure data, it would not be unreasonable to hypothesise that perhaps this popularity reflects a publicly perceived notion that a PhD is something usually related to research in the sciences.  This is especially so when we consider that there are a number of humanities-based comments that did not receive the same level of up-votes/views.

As further evidence of this, we might equally cite the number of news articles published recently that share a common thematic headline: ‘the humanities is an endangered species.’

Here we find a discourse crystallising the reddit discourse, though perhaps not directly.

Where with the reddit one, the meaning of the term ‘PhD’ is determined by its research within the sciences, established by the fact that the ‘best comments’ are predominately science-based.  Then, with the discourse arising out of the articles cited above, that meaning is solidified by the fact that the humanities is ‘in crisis,’ thus perpetuating the notion that a ‘proper’ PhD has something to do with the sciences.

In this way, though they are thematically unrelated, the two discourses feed into each other, further establishing the idea that a science PhD somehow carries more weight, or ‘meaning,’ than its counterpart in the humanities.

While this analytical conclusion might tell us something about the relationship between the public’s perception of a concept and the way that perception is organised and determined by the language used by sources such as the news media, it also tells us something about the efforts we must take in both describing our research, as well as how the public’s opinion might change via that description.

This might, then, equally explain the growing popularity of humanities programs that are designed to look like science programs (the cognitive science approach to the study of religion, for example), in an effort to counteract the notion that the former is something easily dismissed when school budgets are cut.

Or, more than anything, perhaps it reminds us that though there are differences between these two fields, the level of importance between a thesis that tests the accuracy, or even existence, of a Higgs-Boson, and a thesis that argues that all writing, from ethnography to a novel, is fictional by means of its ‘artificial’ nature, is in itself a fictional differentiation established by our discursive perceptions, and perpetuated by the language of random sample data.

Understanding how that works will largely influence both the future of the humanities, as well as the future of education worldwide.  After all, how can we be expected to promote and describe our research, if we can’t even control how those descriptions fit into the discourse on what it means to have a ‘PhD?’

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One thought on “Thesis for Ants

  1. Pingback: Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review | everything is fiction

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