Wikipedia and the workshops of NIMH

I’m recording a short intellectual journey I undertook in the last five minutes that to me illustrates what I love about the internet, and also how knowledge can both provoke and disperse mystery and fascination.

I was watching an edition of the televison programme QI, made available to me through the power of the social networks around the Bittorrent technology, in which a chance remark on William Farrish’s 1792 contribution to our current mechanisms of formal assessment (using numerical grading to assess written answers in an examination: previously, according to that august and illustrious mouthpiece of his researchers, Stephen Fry, candidates’ fluency within a given area of human knowledge was judged through their spoken Latin responses to examiners’ questions) led me, through Google, to a summary of the proceedings of a 1997 round-table discussion on paradigm reform within the social sciences hosted by the American National Institute for Mental Health.

The remarks, as presented on the web, were articulate, important, relevant in many ways to my professional interests, and I found myself distracted, as so often happens on the internet, by their attempts to frame their debate within a Kuhnian analysis of scientific endeavour, when I was struck by a phrase of Dr Hoagwood’s: “Here at NIMH…”. Instantly, my mind was transported to my old school library, and a book I’d never read but whose title had always fascinated me: the Rats Of NIMH.

Never having read the book, I had only a shadowy conception of the entity called NIMH: to me it seemed redolent of robes and secrets, the capitalisation and lack of crucial final vowel suggesting a kind of Gaelic Gnosticism (I had only recently learnt of YWHW and the mystifying lack of vowels in Hebrew). The conjunction of this panel of learned social scientists, concerned with helping their disciplines to make an even more substantial contribution to human life, and this childhood fantasy brought to my mind a picture that tickled me, an image of sensible thinkers saying things like, “Our solutions are not necessarily going to be monolithic”, and, ” Yes, on the Wittgensteinian analysis the social domain comes about through essentially discursive practices”, with the hoods of their robes over their brows, and the power of the amulets worn by all made visible through the spectral motes dancing around their quills.

Of course, on reading the Wikipedia entry (spoiler warning) for the Rats of NIMH, I learnt that these two NIMHs were, had always been, one and the same, that the rats in question had strong links with the mental health organisation, and in an instant a twenty-year-old part of my mind reserved for the magical and unexplored crumbled and shrank. One less temple to explore: one less cult to study and disband. I should be more grateful for my newly-knowledgeable state, but, you know, I’m not.

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