Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Two Cultures Revisited: Knowledge is necessary but not sufficient

I read the 1963 follow-up to "The Two Cultures", titled "The Two Cultures: A Second Look."  He covers a number of points in response to the criticisms he'd received from his surprisingly widely-received lecture, and I have responses to two key aspects.

First, a number of critics were unclear on how, exactly, he was defining the two cultures, or whether he approved of the arrangement.  He tried to clarify that he drew a science/humanities line because he saw the "literary intellectuals" as the people who interact more with the wider society, since they write about people, but the scientists are communicating neither with the wider society nor with the intellectuals who speak to the wider society.  I think a lot has happened with science communication, science journalism, and science publicity in the last several decades, but I agree that the gap is still there.  What's interesting to me is the mechanism by which the National Science Foundation has tried to address this over the past two decades, pushing basic researchers to engage in public outreach via the Broader Impact criterion for funding.  While public outreach is laudable for those who have the time, interest, and talent, it is not in everyone's skill set and it is not necessarily the best use of everyone's time.  Nonetheless, as I have noted before, Broader Impact is consistent with many of America's democratic cultural notions, so here we are.  The implicit assumption is that direct engagement of scientists and the public is what matters at least as much as engagement between scientists and other intellectual classes.

Second, Snow conceded that some of his predictions about economic development had been too rosy, but he believed that what would ultimately improve the lives of billions around the world would be the spread of the Scientific Revolution.  On that I think he erred badly.  There are plenty of poor countries with universities that actually do a fine job in educating students in science; many of those countries produce a great many science graduates who get better test scores than Americans.  What holds those countries back, what stands between their populations and the fruits of modern science and medicine, is NOT a lack of scientific knowledge or appreciation.  Rather, it is failings of economic and political systems.  The problem is not that the classes of intellectuals who study people and make recommendations about human affairs don't understand the importance of science, but rather that they either fail to make good recommendations about human affairs or else fail to get the people in power to listen to good recommendations.  As Kentaro Toyama said in Geek Heresy, technology and the fruits of science are mere instruments, not conductors.  Technology can amplify advantage, and the lack of technology can amplify disadvantage, but the mere possession of technology does not improve a society.  Human efforts, human decisions about the use of technology, those are the things that improve a society.

There are plenty of good reasons to break down walls between the two cultures, plenty of ways in which science can inform the efforts of the general public, the policy-makers, and scholars of the humanities, but spreading the fruits of science may actually be the least of those.  The fruits of science are tremendously valuable, and tremendously beneficial.  They will be fairly distributed (by whatever your yardstick of fairness might be) in an economic and political system that efficiently and fairly distributes value and benefit (again, by your yardstick of fairness).  Scientific knowledge is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one.

Anyway, my book has several more lectures and essays by C. P. Snow.  Let's see what else he had to say.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Bias, Madison, and Human Perfectability

Today's blog post by Dean Dad is a good one:  He responds to a recent article in the Chronicle, by a hiring consultant talking about the importance of raising awareness of our implicit biases.  Dean Dad makes the point that this smacks of trying to re-educate people and cleanse their thoughts.  There's plenty of bad history behind such efforts, and it is ironically at odds with the idea of diversity:  The goal is less to get everyone on the same page and more to bring together a bunch of different perspectives and let people check and balance each other.  (Hence James Madison.)  I like the way of looking at it.  If our implicit biases are deep-seated, persistent, and always acting then the very utility of awareness is questionable.  OTOH, bringing together different people with different viewpoints and giving them equal voting power in a consensus-oriented process might actually mitigate some of the effects of our biases.

It's also worth noting that the author of that piece in the Chronicle would be delighted if you wished to hire her firm to help you run a search process that will minimize the effects of bias...

Two Cultures: Where's the other one, dude?

I finished reading C.P. Snow's Two Cultures essay of 1959.  It isn't quite what I was expecting.  I've always heard it described as a lament of the divide between the two sides of academia.  I was thus expecting some sort of essay along the lines of a defense of broad liberal arts education, and I was dreading the platitudes.  Instead, it seems to be more of a critique of the UK's historic emphasis on humanities over the sciences in their elite educational establishments, followed by a comparison of the ways in which the UK, US, and USSR educated people in the 1950's and a discussion of alleged needs for more scientists and engineers in the UK. He's not trying to integrate science and humanities so much as get STEM up on the pedestal.  He might insist that it's a call for equality, but there's precious little discussion of the UK's needs in any area outside STEM, or a comparison of how other countries educate people in subjects besides STEM. In many ways it could be read as an early "STEM crisis" narrative.  However, it's difficult for me to extract much from that for comparative purposes, because I'm mostly only familiar with American "STEM crisis" narratives, not the UK analogues, so I can't really say if this essay is sign of everything happening before and happening again, or a sign of genuine change.

Here are some interesting tidbits that I can take away from it:

First, Snow acknowledges that the Industrial Revolution happened in the UK despite the lack of a first-rate basic science establishment in the 18th century, and without much involvement from college grads.  This is an important thing, one under-appreciated by the STEM crisis hand-wringers.  I made this point before regarding Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon.  I wish he'd considered what this might mean for future economic development.  We academics over-estimate our own importance, and he went from academia to the Ministry of Labour and then a post as a civil service commissioner.

Second, the differences that Snow notes between the US, UK, and USSR systems, regarding their relative levels of specialization, seem to remain true today.  To this day, Russian scientific research institutes often have incredibly narrow names and mandates.  They don't produce mechanical engineers; they produce graduates in computational thermal systems analysis, and structural mechanics, and so forth.

Third, he traces the cultural differences between science and humanities to the fact that the humanities scholars study the human condition, which tends to inflict pessimism, while scientists believe that technical solutions to problems are possible.  On that point I agree with him completely.  I wish he'd said something interesting about how to educate people who integrate those mindsets on some interesting level, not just "OMG, I'm, like, so broad-minded!  Because I see multiple perspectives!"

Fourth, I give Snow credit for recognizing that the production of Einsteins is not the main task of a STEM education program.  He believes that the "alpha plus" types will do fine as long as they're put in some sort of half-decent academic environment.  It's hard to screw up with them.  It's also pretty hard to screw up the "alpha" types.  (He seems to have adopted the language of Huxley's Brave New World here.)  He recognizes that the hard part is training people in the third tier, some of whom will do technical work but many of whom will go on to do managerial or business ("human") work in the technical fields.  I give him credit for recognizing that that's more important than trying to ensure that a system maximizes the output of top talent.  With the top talent you mostly have to get out of the way, and it's only the dilettantes who worry about how The System is allegedly so unfair to would-be Einsteins.  He doesn't have much in the way of practical advice on how to do it, but he gets full points for at least recognizing it.

He has one spectacularly wrong prediction:  He predicted that since human ability is pretty much the same everywhere it's inevitable that the gap between the rich industrialized world and the rest of the world would evaporate by 2000.  While he was right on the even distribution of ability around the world, he under-estimated the systemic, cultural, and institutional factors that are needed to develop successful industrial sectors.  That said, he was at least right that the poor countries would start to compete with rich countries; by 2000 the off-shoring of factories was well underway, and this November we felt the effects of that in the US election.

So, in sum, Snow's "Two Cultures" lecture isn't what it is usually cited for being about, but it contains an interesting bunch of tidbits.  I purchased an edition with several more essays and lecture transcripts, so I'll have more to say about Snow in the coming week.

Legitimacy, authority, and diversity

One theme of this blog is pondering why educational elites are disproportionately interested in dimensions of diversity that don't relate to social or economic class.  Certainly there are sound moral reasons for attaching high significance to ethnic diversity (frankly, if I were pulled over by the police I'd sooner be a poor white man than a black man of any class, even a politician).  Then again, there are also valid moral reasons for treating class more seriously than it's currently treated in many academic environments.  Ultimately, it's a value judgment, and the question is why people judge it the way they do.  (I should be clear that treating it as a value judgment rather than a matter of objective fact is not to trivialize it.  Some of the most important issues in human society are value judgments, and the fact that values are ultimately just, like, your opinion, man, does not make the stakes any lower or the moral significance any lesser.)

America's educational institutions are institutions dependent on the patronage of the state and the upper classes (via donations), and a large part of their task is to train people for public service, whether we're talking about people studying criminal justice before going on to law enforcement careers, ROTC students, or Ivy League schools training future Cabinet Secretaries and Supreme Court Justices.  The United States government has many sins to answer for, but in two crucial political conflicts the US government came down on the better of the two sides.  Both of those conflicts involved race, and both involved existential questions for the government's power:  The Civil War and the Civil Rights Era.

In the Civil War the authority of the federal government was challenged in the starkest terms possible, and the root of the controversy was slavery.  Say what you will about state power, or economics, or whatever else, but the state prerogatives in play concerned slavery, and the economic issues concerned the needs of a slave-dependent economy.  The federal government was on the better side there.  There's much to be said about the federal government's failures regarding the rights of African-Americans after Reconstruction, but it is ingrained into the institutional and cultural memory that the starkest challenge to our political institutions concerned race.

The next starkest internal challenge to the authority of our political institutions concerned the ending of de jure segregation (not to be confused with de facto segregation).  Southern states tried to openly defy the feds, resulting in National Guard troops being deployed to desegregate schools, and numerous federal court cases and Department of Justice civil rights actions starting in the 50's and continuing to the present.

Race in America is thus an issue where the existential imperatives of public institutions are intimately entwined with moral imperatives. Seen in that light, it makes sense that institutions that exist to serve (in part) the workforce needs of public institution would prize racial and ethnic diversity over class diversity.  We thus have a mix of sound moral concerns (like I said, a case can be made that race is rightly more important), institutional imperatives (at its core, the state will preserve its own authority), and somewhat hypocritical class sympathies.  Like any cultural fact on the ground, it is neither wholly pure nor wholly tainted.  It is tied into the good and bad of human history.

I said a few weeks ago that in the era of Donaldik Fydorvich Trump academia will no doubt damp down some of its internal political tensions in order to unite against a common outside threat.  While I hope that some sort of sincere effort to improve the lot of the working class in the Rust Belt and small towns might emerge from the post-election soul-searching, this is me recognizing that there are deeper historical reasons for our focus on race, and in the era of an unabashed bigot in the White House it is appropriate for reasons of past, present, and value judgments that racial and ethnic diversity not exist our moral calculus.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Next reading project: The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow

My next reading project will be The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow.  It's a famous critique of the humanities/science divide.   I've heard it referenced many times but never actually read it.  It's often noted ruefully by scientists that you can be considered truly sophisticated.  Chad Orzel has often noted this.  In certain circles, people would look at you funny if you confessed to being unable to grasp history or literature or fine arts, but they would chuckle appreciatively if you said that you never got math or science.  Snow apparently had a lot to say about this.

Of course, one theme of this blog has been the increasing emphasis (in many but certainly not all) elite circles on STEM over other subjects.  At first glance it might seem like disinterest in science is becoming less socially acceptable, and science is no longer a second-class subject in the eyes of "sophisticated" types.  Certainly administrators and politicians are pouring money into STEM.  However, much of this emphasis on STEM is happening in the context of democratizing STEM, of bringing egalitarian impulses to bear on a specialized, technical, difficult subject.  Nobody said that the democratized STEM graduates will be admitted to the fancy cocktail parties.  I don't get to go to many of those myself, but my limited observation of that world suggests that classical music is still more popular than planetarium shows.  Democratizing STEM is how we will fill technician jobs with the more worthy among the masses, and elevate a precious few to elite research positions, so that the elite world can be legitimized by its ostensible openness.  That doesn't mean the opera will be replaced by public lectures on science by Neal de Grasse Tyson.  Science popularizers will be invited to go to receptions and schmooze the donors in private banquet halls with violin music after their lecture to the public; the public science lecture will NOT be the treat for the donors.

So, in a strange way, although this is allegedly the moment of STEM's ascendancy, I think that democratizing it will ironically reinforce its tradesman-like status, not elevate it.  I will be curious to read Snow and see what he has to say about it.

Stage lights flashing, it ain't so smashing...

Sort of related to They're Not Dumb, They're Different, in which outsiders critiqued physical science instruction and what they found off-putting, I occasionally have people come up to me and tell me that they might have majored in physics if only physics professors had [FILL IN THE BLANK].  But I don't think I've ever seen a physicist come up to someone in another field and say "You know, I would have majored in your subject, but..."  I think they do this because STEM is on a pedestal and physics places itself on a pedestal among STEM disciplines.  It would almost certainly be considered rude if we went up to people in other fields and did the same.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Beltway advocacy groups gonna Beltway

Something making the rounds among physicists right now is the following press release, which was posted by the American Physical Society but soon taken down after many physicists called it inappropriate:
Press release pulled from APS website














(Click on the image too enlarge it)

The American Physical Society is a DC-area advocacy group.  Yes, it exists to serve its members rather than the federal government, but most of its members are scientists who work or study in institutions that get federal money for research and educational purposes.  In recognition of that reality, the American Physical Society has its headquarters in College Park, Maryland, just outside DC.

Professional Societies that want the federal government to spend money on science invariably articulate that goal in language that will be pleasing to the people in power.  Donald Trump has used "Make America Great Again" as his slogan, and while that slogan carries quite a bit of baggage (e.g. it is historically uninformed, and carries an embedded assumption about certain demographic changes representing changes for the worse) it is clearly something that he likes to say and hear.  In fact, there's already an official government website devoted to the concept.  Moreover, we've been hearing for decades about an alleged "STEM crisis" threatening America's scientific pre-eminence and global leadership, so Trump's catch-phrase is (on the surface) tailor-made for the neuroses of academic scientists.

Seen on that level, the press release put out by APS was completely reasonable and squarely within their charge.

However, Donald Trump is also a bigot who threatens peace, prosperity, and freedom, and in light of his complaints about Mexicans and Muslims there's a clear implication that America will be great when we have sent certain people away.  Seen on that level, no decent person should invoke his catch-phrase in anything except a critical (or perhaps ironic) manner.  To the extent that the American Physical Society exists to serve its members as more than just an advocate for federal spending on science, they should pay attention to how the members will read and process their statements.

Here's the thing:  Barring some unexpected change in direction, the American Physical Society will, one way or another, engage with the Trump Administration.  It pains me to type "Trump Administration", but that is the reality that we live in, at least in this sector of the multiverse.  Most APS members are dependent on federal research funding, and the APS will almost certainly pursue an agenda that is cognizant of that fact.

There are two possible responses to the reality I just identified:  One is to ask something more substantial of the APS than slightly more sensitive phrasing of press releases while they continue to advocate for federal funding of science.  It means operating as an opposition group rather than a group that seeks a piece of the pie within the existing system. There have always been proud dissidents in the physics community (e.g. some great anti-Soviet dissidents) and perhaps the American Physical Society should rally us in that spirit of dissent.  But this is a radical path.  It means retaliation both on the large scale (reduced funding for physics) and the individual level (professional consequences for federal employees who resist their employer).  It is noble to choose that, and we can have that conversation, but it comes at a cost that people will have to weigh.

The other option is a practical one:  Accept the reality that the American Physical Society will serve primarily as a DC-area advocacy group, and just ask that press releases be sensitive to the fact that most (but not all) APS members don't want to be reminded that this means engagement with the Trump Administration.

I'm not writing here to promote one path over the other.  Resistance is hard.  Physicists have mortgages and kids and medical conditions that necessitate keeping jobs with health insurance.  Maybe it's better if the APS sticks to advocacy and lets physicists who choose the path of dissent do so in some other venue. On the other side of the coin, dissent is virtuous and the world may someday applaud those who took risks to dissent.  Maybe the APS should do that.  We can argue it either way and I'm not going to reach and defend a considered conclusion in this post.

What I am suggesting in this post is that we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the second path is all that virtuous or sensitive.  It is practical and seemly, but it is NOT making a stand in any meaningful sense.  It is NOT a stride for social justice.  It's just what people do when they have mortgages to pay.  The reality is that--barring some substantial change in direction at the behest of the membership--professional societies will engage with the Trump Administration, and that engagement will mean speaking in the catch-phrases of the Administration.  Now, I've written curmudgeonly articles on eschewing buzzwords and catch-phrases, so I'm fine with doing so, but I also choose not to chase large sums of money.  Advocacy groups advocating for large federal research budgets will not make my choice.  At best they will cloak their choices in seemly appearances.

Finally, remember that the physics community engages in hero worship of people who built nuclear bombs.  Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that using a new President's catch-phrase is the worst thing we've ever done.  Moral outrage over pure appearances is shallow.