This diagnosis is a forgery!

by reestheskin on 02/11/2016

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There was a story in the FT a few weeks back (paywall). It concerned the painting ‘Portrait of a Man’, by the Dutch artist Frans Hals. Apparently, the Louvre had wanted to buy the painting some time back, but were unable to raise the funds. However, a few weeks ago, the painting was declared a “modern forgery” by Sotheby’s — trace elements of synthetic 20th-century materials have been discovered in it. The story has a wider resonance however. The FT writes:

But if anything the fake Hals merely highlights an existing problem in how we determine attribution. In their quest to confirm attributions, dealers and auction houses seek the imprimatur of independent, usually academic, experts. Often that person’s “expertise” is deduced by whether they have published anything on a particular artist. But the skills required to publish a book are different to those needed to recognise whether a painting is genuine. Many academics are also fine connoisseurs. One of the few to doubt the attribution to Parmigianino of the St Jerome allegedly connected to Ruffini was the English scholar, David Ekserdjian. But too often the market values being a published writer over having a good “eye”.

Here is a non trivial problem: how can we designate expertise, and to what extent can you formalise it. In some domains — research for example — it is easier than in others. But as anybody who reads Nature or the broadsheets knows, research publication is increasingly dysfunctional, partly because of the scale of modern science; partly because the ‘personal knowledge’ and community has been exiled; and partly because it has become subjugated to academic accountancy because the people running universities cannot admit that they do not possess the necessary judgment to predict the future. To use George Steiner’s tidy phrase, there is also the ‘stench of money’.

But the real danger is when the ‘research model’ is used in areas where it not only does not work, but does active harm. I wrote some time back in a paper in PLoS Medicine:

Herbert Simon, the polymath and Nobel laureate in economics, observed many years ago that medical schools resembled schools of molecular biology rather than of medicine . He drew parallels with what had happened to business schools. The art and science of design, be it of companies or health care, or even the type of design that we call engineering, lost out to the kudos of pure science. Producing an economics paper densely laden with mathematical symbols, with its patently mistaken assumptions about rational man, was a more secure way to gain tenure than studying the mess of how real people make decisions.

Many of the important problems that face us cannot be solved using the paradigm that has come to dominate institutional science (or I fear, the structures of many universities). For many areas (think: teaching or clinical expertise), we need to think in ‘design’ mode. We are concerned more with engineering and practice, than is normal in the world of science. I do not know to what extent this expertise can be formalised — it certainly isn’t going to be as easy as whether you published in ‘glossy’ or ’non-glossy’ cover journals, but reputations existed long before the digital age and the digital age offers new opportunities. Publishing science is one skill, diagnosing is another, but there is a lot of dark matter linking the two activities. What seems certain to me, is that we have got it wrong, and we are accelerating in the wrong direction.