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 Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Monday, January 11, 2016

de Tocqueville on the American approach to intellectual questions

Volume 2 is all about American culture.  I expect to be blogging far more about Volume 2 than I did about Volume 1.  Indeed, Part 1 of the volume is titled "The influence of democracy upon the intellectual movement in the United States."  Chapter 1 is titled "The Americans' philosophic method".

de Tocqueville's basic point is that we are an unlettered and practical people, so the average American will approach an intellectual question based only on his own ideas and intuitions, rather than in reference to intellectual schools of thought.  An educated American will not say "Well, if we approach this question in the manner of [insert name here]..." but will simply give his own thoughts.  Obviously this is less true today than it was in the 1830's, especially due to the rise of great universities in America.  And obviously this is more true in the natural sciences than in the humanities or social sciences.

I don't think that I can fairly speak to a line of causation from the state of 1830's America to the modern academic zeitgeist that I so often lament on this blog. There are far too many widely-read scholars today for me to attempt a serious argument that American academia remains a refuge for the unlettered. What I can note, however, is a set of analogies between the things that de Tocqueville noted in the wider society and the problems that I see today in the zeitgeist of academic scientists in America.

For starters, when I read science education research written by natural scientists the trail of citations is often (but not always) very modern and technocratic, and focused on writings from and about the natural sciences, rather than a wider context of social science and culture.  I notice less of that in psychology papers.  Science education research in America seems to be stuck in a mode described on page 494 of Democracy in America:
Amid the continuous shifts which prevail in the heart of a democratic society, the bond which unites generations to each other becomes slack or breaks down; each person easily loses the trail of ideas coming from his forbears or hardly bothers himself about it.
A tempting response would be that science education research in the United States is a young field, but that seems inaccurate to me.  Perhaps the current approach to science education research in America is rather new, but the choices of questions and methods are inevitably informed by a cultural backdrop.  (Indeed, is that not the essence of the modern zeitgeist among the educated classes?)  American attitudes toward science and science education emerge from centuries-old cultural attitudes concerning "practical education", and assumptions about our "STEM Workforce" needs are fundamental assumptions about labor markets.  It just so happens that economists have been studying labor markets for longer than physicists have been administering the Force Concepts Inventory, and that government agencies have been making projections about our nation's "STEM Workforce" needs since at least Sputnik, if not earlier.  (If I ever get through the thick pile of books on my dining room table, I will add to my blogging projects Michael Teitelbaum's Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.  In the meantime, here's a good essay that he wrote on the matter.)

Also, much of the conversation about science education in the US is really a conversation about inequality (often explicitly so).  It is relevant that de Tocqueville wrote (again on page 494):
As for the effect which one man's intelligence can have upon another's, it is of necessity much curtailed in a country where  its citizens, having become almost like each other, scrutinize each other carefully and, perceiving in not a single person in their midst any signs of undeniable greatness or superiority, constantly return to their own rationality as to the most obvious and immediate source of truth.
Those of us who question the prevailing zeitgeist are often accused of being the ones who fall into that folly of privileging their own reason above the findings of others.  After all, the zeitgeist is supported by data!  Well, yes, by some data, but data rarely tells you as much as it would like you to, so it can only be interpreted in light of assumptions.   The person acting only on their own reasoning faculties suffers the disadvantage of being unrooted from the past (though they rarely perceive it as disadvantage) but suffers the advantage of not being sucked into the mistaken assumptions of their peers.

de Tocqueville's commentary about how little Americans know about the writers of the past is particularly interesting if read alongside Keynes' famous remark about ideology:
 “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
American intellectuals may style themselves to be people who simply follow the best evidence rather than people proceeding on the basis of assumptions and culture (even while simultaneously embracing a postmodern zeitgeist about how culturally biased we all are), but their lack of grounding in the writings of the past only makes it easier for them to sit in thrall to older currents.  I can't say that I'm free of influence from the past, but my reading projects of the past year (detailed on this blog) have made it somewhat easier for me to identify and articulate the influences that drive me and the influences that I recoil from.  The fact that I can identify both Catholic and Puritan influences on my mindset does not make me any less influenced by them, but at least it helps me explore ideas more carefully.

Finally, related to the issue of whether people who eschew the zeitgeist are eschewing evidence, something making the rounds right now is a statistical critique of "stereotype threat" research by Rutgers psychology professor Lee Jussim, whose book was previously blogged about here. Stereotype threat research is often cited as a key factor underpinning persistent inequality, and a reason why biases and stereotypes are so pervasive and overpowering. I lack the context and background to decide if Jussim's critique of that research is satisfactory or deficient, but I think it's compelling enough that one should not make that line of research an overly prominent piece of their world-view.

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