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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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Blank slates to the left of me, blank slates to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with truth

There's a nice essay on the concept of a "blank slate" in Quillette.

The basic idea of a blank slate is that all humans are equal in capacity.  It's a foolish notion, but it's a nice one, and it's usually a notion associated with the left:  The left recognizes that the world is not a place of equal opportunity, that people are saddled with all sorts of disadvantages by nurture rather than nature, and that all too often people try to wrongly shift the blame from the cruelty of man (nurture) to the cruelty of unequal genetic endowment (nature).  Some even go farther and (wrongly!) ascribe the disadvantages of entire groups not to the cruelty of man (nurture) but rather genes (nature).  Consequently, people on the left tend to be suspicious of genetic explanations of human behavior.  To the extent that this suspicion is merely skepticism of hypotheses that are difficult to prove and often wielded to evil ends, it is an intellectually healthy suspicion.  To the extent that it is a rejection of neurobiological inquiries into human behavior it is an unhealthy suspicion.

The author in Quillette points out that the right has its own version of a blank slate:  They argue that not only are people born equal in natural endowment, they remain equal in practical capacities even in the face of unequal nurturing, and hence unequal outcomes are primarily the consequence of bad choices, or moral failings.  It is as absurd as rejecting the idea that individuals' brains differ in part because of genetic variability among humans.  If the left is insisting that the slate was blank at birth, the right is insisting that the slate has NOT been vandalized even after years or decades of unequal conditions in a cruel world, or that the marks are at least easily erased.

Of course, the left has its own moral analysis as well:  While recognizing that it is absurd to expect the disadvantaged to simply shrug it all off and succeed equally, some do insist that college professors would obtain equal outcomes if we merely gave enough chances, and were enlightened enough in our evaluations.  If we just followed "best practices" then we would see gaps shrink substantially, and the persistence of gaps thus follows from our choice to abstain from "best practices."  It shifts the moral responsibility from the vandal who made the mark to the professor who was unable to erase it.

Like all seductive lies, it's partly true:  Some people will, if given a chance and some support, defy the odds and rise to the occasion.  To structure educational programs as Darwinian competitions with one chance and no more is both foolish and unethical.  (I will note that my grading formula rewards improvement and provides some forgiveness for initial failures.)  But it is important to recognize that working to remedy inequity in this way is costly and risky.  It won't always work, and it will cost more than simply giving one chance and moving on.  If you nonetheless value opportunity then you will accept costs and risks.  If you don't actually value opportunity then you will deny that it has a cost (because that which is without value is without cost) and insist that the only problem is a failure to identify the "right" criteria, the "right" measures.

I remark on this because, as I have noted before, our theories of success and failure can be double-edged swords.  A theory that success that success is rooted in "grit" or "growth mindset" is the key to success (rather than evil standardized tests) can be shiny and progressive if it is used to undermine evil standardized tests, but it can also be turned around and used to blame the poor and disadvantaged for lacking the moral virtues of grit and growth mindset.  A moral theory that says we are all equal in capacity can be used to blame a cruel world for failure, but it can also be used to blame failure on choices by people of presumably equal capacity.  The fact that the left and right go in such different directions from ostensibly similar assumptions means that there are additional embedded assumptions that people aren't always articulating openly.

For me, I will be disappointingly wishy-washy and say that EVERYTHING matters for success and failure.  Some kids really ARE born smarter than others.  Sorry, but it's true.  On the other hand, unequal conditions in life will ALSO leave their marks.  Some of those marks CAN be erased.  Others are much harder to erase.  Some people will surprise you and outperform expectations.  Some won't.  It's worth it to give people a chance.  It's ill-advised to keep pouring in resources as the returns diminish.  Some people really do fall on bad choices or rise on good choices.  Some people are stuck.  Abandoning personal responsibility in your moral calculus is ill-advised, but so is treating personal responsibility as the only variable.  It's complicated and we have to muddle through.

I wish I had some sort of magical solution, but I don't.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Re-examine privilege: Not the concept, the word. And its usage.

The concept of "privilege", the idea that some people don't have to deal with shit that other people have to deal with, is an important one with great relevance to many aspects of life.  As I have said before, if I were pulled over by the cops I'd rather be a poor white person than a rich black person.  I think we can pretty much take it as a given that--all else being equal--in America it's better to be white than non-white.

Many educated people use the word "privilege" to describe this relative advantage.  I've said before that I'm not much interested in telling sociologists what sort of jargon they should use when sociologizing.  If "privilege" is the technical term, so be it.  But this word has escaped beyond the confines of sociology and ethnic studies, and into the wider world of the scribbling classes, of think-pieces and op-eds and essays written and read by many educated and managerial professionals.  It's in the zeitgeist.  I doubt that your average swing voter in rural Ohio read the full catalog of privilege think-pieces at Slate, Huffpo, and Medium, but I suspect that many have been made at least somewhat aware that there's a cottage industry of educated desk-workers who think that lower-middle-class white men doing manual labor are "privileged" by dint of their gender and color.

That is so stupid that it verges on being a hanging offense.  In colloquial usage, "privileged" is a word for kids whose parents have money and/or connections.  The white kid whose father lost his job at the steel mill and now works at Wal-Mart is NOT privileged in the conventional usage of the term.  Yes, yes, that kid is privileged in the sense of sociological jargon, but who the fuck gave you the idea that ordinary conversation should be conducted in sociological jargon?  What made you think that the jargon of a social science field would work constructively in the wider political arena?

If the chattering classes describe enough lower-middle-class whites with a word for rich kids, eventually word is going to get out and there will be a backlash.  I believe that the timing of that backlash can be pinpointed to November 8, 2016.

And my complaint here is about more than just connotations and jargon.  Describing the same concept with some word less hackle-raising than "privileged" would be an improvement, but not by much.  Why are liberals spending so much time talking about the advantages of the lower-middle class?  On what planet does that make sense?  It makes sense for conservatives to say "See, the lower-middle class doesn't have it so bad" when arguing against redistribution, but on what planet does it make sense for liberals to talk about the advantages of the lower-middle class?

Finally, even if liberals stopped using the word privilege, and stopped dissecting the alleged advantages of lower-middle-class white people, there's an additional problem with all of the discussion about lower-middle-class Trump voters:  The fact that everyone trying to understand "what went wrong" is mostly talking about lower-middle-class Trump voters.  The lower-middle-class wasn't the only group that voted for Trump--in fact, Trump's strongest support was in the upper-middle class (although I suspect that numbers would look very different if I could find exit polls disaggregated by race and income).  Nonetheless, regardless of how things would look on a finer-grained scale, the undeniable fact is that Trump got support from many different sectors of American society, yet almost all of the post-election analysis has been focused on either blaming or excusing the lower-middle class.  The clear message is that the lower-middle class is some mixture of culpable for what went wrong and pitiable victims who made excusable errors.  Not much dignity in that picture.  People higher on the socioeconomic ladder are spared the indignity of post-election dissection.

I never thought I'd say this, but I kind of want the Marxists back.  I mean, say what you want about the tenets of revolutionary socialism, dude; at least they don't describe unemployed factory workers as "privileged."  In light of everything that's happening right now, I'd give anything for academics to abandon their tedious dissection of intersections of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc., and go back to tedious dissections of class.  A left that cares about class can build solidarity between lower-middle-class whites and the rest of their coalition; a left that cares about identity will splinter.  (I should emphasize that I'm not much of a leftist, but I'm even less of a Trumpista.)

There's a lot of blame to go around here, but certainly much of it belongs in academia. We need to ask ourselves what our implicit assumptions are when socioeconomic diversity gets far less attention than race, gender, etc.

Social vs. Natural Science: The cumulative difference

I've been reading other things, things that I simply haven't had the inclination to blog, but whilst reading about some controversies in social science I realized that one of the things that Snow used to demarcate the line between science and humanities can also demarcate a line between social and natural science:  The cumulative nature of knowledge.

I should state at the outset that I do, in fact, acknowledge that social scientists have cumulative knowledge, that they do, over time, develop and refine a body of generalizable knowledge about human beings.  That's not to say that every theory or every finding turns out to have wide applicability (or even replicability), but the process of social science can indeed select, filter, and refine the body of knowledge, just as natural scientists do.

In the sense that social science can produce a refined, tested body of cumulative knowledge, social science is akin to natural science, and distinct from arts and humanities in the sense that Snow articulated.

On the other hand, because social scientists study humans they have to confront human prejudices and cultural inertia, and thus they have to re-fight certain battles in every generation. Topics like, say, gender differences, get re-fought in each generation, and the cumulative weight of data will not dampen the appeal of gender essentialism as a way of legitimizing inequality. (One could easily come up with other perennial battles; I simply picked that one for the sake of easy illustration.) In that sense, there is a human limit on the extent to which social sciences can, in practice, be as cumulative as natural science, or at least a limit to the rate of accumulation, because of the need to re-fight battles in each generation.  There is much less of that in natural science.  OK, evolutionary biologists have to re-fight battles in the public sphere, but not within academia.  And biologists studying development, cognition, and gender will have to join social scientists in re-fighting gender battles in each generation, but that reflects their position at the intersection of natural and social science.  Closer to (my) home, we physicists have to help each cohort of freshmen overcome Aristotelian intuitions about motion, but that battle really only takes a semester.  By the end of the semester they know that they ought to be Newtonians; they might still have Aristotelian impulses, but they know that they're supposed to check those impulses.

So, if we take the cumulative nature of natural science as a line of demarcation between Snow's "Two Cultures" then I think a tri-partite division of liberal arts is appropriate:  The humanists can generate new works of art and inspiration and analysis in each generation of a changing world, without the constraints of the past, the natural scientists develop a cumulative understanding of nature, and the social scientists seek to build a cumulative understanding of people but do so while re-fighting perennial battles of human culture and prejudice.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

C. P. Snow: Goldmine

The C. P. Snow anthology that I'm reading includes a long 1970 essay titled "The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case."  The first third of it is about some sort of interpersonal literary dispute that isn't worth parsing.  However, after that he starts discussing the English educational system, and he quickly gets into pay-dirt.  I do not know if his assertions are factually correct, but his analysis and attitude are interesting.

He starts by noting that admissions to the Oxbridge schools had become more meritocratic in the 20th century, but the earlier era had actually produced finer intellectual leading lights.  Whether or not we buy his declension narrative, his other observation is an interesting one:  In the less meritocratic era there were both finer intellects but also more dull-minded party boys of the elite classes.  I've made a similar point before about the effects of competition in simultaneously weeding out most of the dull-minded but also keeping people from showing their true distinction.  De Tocqueville has also offered similar observations; leisure matters for intellectual accomplishment.

That said, Snow does not uncritically embrace the cultivation of excellence; he fully spells out the dangers of educational inequality.  He cites the warnings of a state school official in a low-income area of England, and says that:
...there is no chance of human harmony in England until we pay whatever price we must (not only in money) to avoid the rancour of the educationally neglected.
It would be a mistake to read this solely as a call for access and credentials; below I will quote verbatim some of the fiery things that Snow had to say about excesses of egalitarianism.  But certainly we cannot afford to let an entire class feel neglected.  Indeed, I believe that America's white working class knows on some level that America's educational elites do not truly consider them to be diverse, no matter how poor they might be, and that this bears some connection to the recent election result.  Also, while conferring credentials is not the same as spreading knowledge, ignorance is dangerous; consider the words of The Ghost of Christmas Present:
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
Even more sobering, Snow (rightly!) admires the achievements of the Soviets in cultivating pockets of intellectual excellence.  One needn't be an apologist for Communism to appreciate Russian contributions to mathematics, theoretical physics, and other fields in the 20th century.  However, any advocate for excellence over access should pause and contemplate what it means that one of the most miserable totalitarian states in history chose to develop excellence over equality, and had the means to do it better than the West.

Regardless of where you come down on those issues, Snow is unsparing in identifying the dangers of egalitarianism in education:
Education cannot become an elaborate masquerade to disguise the fact that some are more gifted than others.  Social justice is not comfortably reconciled to intellectual excellence; as a harsh possibility, it may not be reconcilable at all.  Certainly the extreme of egalitarianism isn't.
I don't care what we call such places [for the very brightest to develop their full potential], nor where we put them.  But, unless we have them, we shall already, within a generation, have made ourselves more stupid than we need to be.
Social justice is a great value, and we shall be judged by how much of it we can achieve.  But we shall also be judged by what we add to the world's mental life: and that depends on what opportunities we can make for our gifted.
Personally, I would take at least as much care of them as we take of potential athletes.
Surely all academics can agree on the last point!

More great quotes:
You can abolish an elite only by not educating at all.
But for all our purposes, human and social as well as narrowly academic, we need a sprinkling of good intelligence to remind us what rigour is.  It would be very easy to become flabby.  Perhaps especially easy in the flux and confusion of the next ten or twenty years.

There are two other great observations in this essay.  First, Snow noted that university students in all subjects were (in the English system, which is more elitist than the American one) coming to college with improved median skills in math, which would equip them to grapple with the computers and statistics that would be integral to social decisions in the coming decades.  While one could debate the extent to which the educated layman's mathematical knowledge is either useful or adequate for grappling with those matters, his foresight concerning both statistics and information technology was interesting.  There's virtually no matter of human administration today that people don't seek to reduce (not always rightly) to a "data-driven" one.

Finally, Snow identifies a more interesting distinction between the Two Cultures than he had in previous writings:  Scientific culture is cumulative, while the arts and humanities are innovative.  A scientist needn't read much of the original literature from an earlier era to understand a subject; those parts that have survived into current literature will suffice in many ways.  There are, of course, insights to be gained from old literature, but in terms of mastering enough knowledge to work on the subject and contribute, the original literature is at the very least an inefficient path to productivity.

In the arts and humanities, on the other hand, the primary sources are the essence of the subject.  You cannot learn about the Trojan War without reading the Iliad.  Yes, you could read modern archaeological investigations to learn what is currently known about the possibility of an actual war in an actual city called Troy in the approximate time and place where Homer set it, but if you want to learn about the (real or imaginary) war that has captivated the imaginations of countless generations you must read the original.  Likewise, you could learn something about Romeo and Juliet from West Side Story, just as you could learn something about Pyramis and Thisbe from Romeo and Juliet, but in each case you get only an imperfect shadow; there is no substitute for the primary source if you want to learn the story.  Stories may carry influence, but each story is a work in its own right, and what is lost in a subsequent work is not objectively an improvement but simply a case of subjective decisions on what to carry and what to omit.

The cumulative nature of science, the fact that what we carry forward has (hopefully) passed the test of time, is part of its strength.  But if the cumulative development of science is a testament to one aspect of human ingenuity, surely the endless emergence of new artistic and literary works is in its own way a testament to the endless bounty of the human mind.  I am unconvinced that the two cultures need each other for their own advancement (too often that point is made as a form of mushy ecumenicalism) but I am fully convinced that the human mind needs both in order to realize its full potential.

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.