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 Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Based on a true story"

I recently saw "Molly's Game", a pretty entertaining movie that is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, a woman who got into big legal trouble for running high-stakes poker games.  After the movie I got into a discussion about the issues it raises, and I realized that I'd rather treat "based on a true story" as 100% fictional.  Some might attribute this entirely to concerns about accuracy, and certainly that's a factor.  But, honestly, I'd rather not let concerns about factual accuracy get in the way of lessons to be learned from a story.  I'm less interested in whether the real-life Bloom pleaded guilty for the reasons given in the movie, and more interested in the dilemmas faced by the character and the reasons why a person faced with the situation shown in the movie might make the choices that they made.  I'm less interested in whether real-life Bloom's father did everything that his movie counterpart did, and more interested in the timeless lessons of children and parents and pressures and disappointments.

We don't read great literature because we are interested in the real Scottish king who inspired Macbeth, or the details of life in Dickens-era London.  We read it because the slice of life captured has some resonance with us in the present.  We don't read the Epic of Gilgamesh in order to learn about Sumer, we read it to learn about people.  I doubt that events in space unfolded exactly as shown in Apollo 13, but I can enjoy the characters.  "Inherit the Wind" dramatizes a real and important trial, but the oratory raises points that would be of equal importance if the Scopes Trial had never happened.

At best, "inspired by a true story" means that there's a true story that I can go seek out information on if I want, but the movie itself should not be viewed with any goal of learning the story.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I just realized that I myself am a Special Programs guy

Somebody recently pissed me off by talking about some Special Program that they read about in an article on This One Professor at This One School who's doing great work.  And I got so very, very pissed.  When pressed by my colleagues, I realized why I hate Special Programs:

Because I run a Special Program.  I just don't call it that.

Let me explain.

I invest a massive amount of time in a local professional society, one that brings together a lot of scientists and engineers working in the private sector, in a field that is relevant to my scientific research interests.  I volunteer to help with their events, I've been an officer on the Board, and I take students to events every month.  I help students network, I make contact with hiring managers who want resumes from good students, I pass along resumes, and I even redesign some of my classes in responses to things I've learned from my private sector colleagues.  It's a lot of work, but it's paid off mightily:  I have tons of stories of physics students who got their first jobs via networking in this organization, and I bring them back to give presentations to my students.

I don't have a name for this Special Program, I don't have an office or staff or letterhead, and I don't get grants, but I do spend a lot of time working with students in pursuit of some theme or goal bigger than teaching my latest assigned class.  It's way above and beyond my assigned work, it doesn't fit neatly into any part of the university flow chart, but it is most definitely relevant to my work and the success of my students.

In many ways, it's not so different from some formally-named Special Program that take in students, give them lots of individual attention, and produce well-photographed anecdotes. What I do is less formal and smaller in scale, but it's the same idea.

And these things don't come free:  Either somebody gives money so that faculty can buy out their time and/or hire staff, or they volunteer their time.  I volunteer my time for this, and rationalize it as being in the spirit of the service components of my job.  Other people get grants and formally document their time as being part of the job.  Either way, that time comes at a cost that must be borne by somebody.

Anyway, a while back, somebody in my professional organization (somebody who is NOT in academia) said that more colleges need professors who get involved in this organization, so we can have more students involved.  It's a great idea, but he offered with a side helping of "So why doesn't somebody just..."  And the answer is simple:  It's a lot of work and time is scarce.  And, even worse, getting students to network with the private sector rarely lines up directly with the agendas of people who fund Special Programs at universities.  Research funding agencies want to see people go to graduate school and publish research, organizations oriented toward social agendas usually want to hear about graduation and retention rates more than post-college employment, and companies are happy to network with students but uninterested in helping students network with their competitors.  So this is very much a volunteer thing, and volunteer work has a personal cost.

So there's nothing worse than "Hey, I heard about this Amazing Special Program; why doesn't somebody just...."

I actually gained a bit of respect for Special Programs people when I came to this realization.  I might radically dissent from their agenda of churning more kids through PhD programs, but the basic point that students only succeed at something if people invest massive amounts of time working with them is true of any endeavor.  And there's nothing worse than "Why don't we just...."  Hence I hate articles on Special Programs, because they always act like there's this silver bullet.  There isn't.  It's a shitload of time, whether that time was volunteered or paid for.  There's no magic, no silver bullet.  It's just work.  But the arbiters of respectable opinion always dress up this work as some sort of magical Best Practice that can be replicated If Everyone Would Just [fill in the blank].

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Is "The Good Person of Szechwan" racist?

In November it was reported that Knox College, a private institution in Illinois, was canceling a production of "The Good Person of Szechwan", a play by Bertolt Brecht, on the grounds that the play (which is set in China) is offensive to Chinese people.  I decided that I should read this play, so I did.  Before I weigh in on the criticism, let me acknowledge three points:

1) The play was originally written in German, and I am reading it in English.  (Specifically, I am reading a 1962 translation by John Willett.)  I cannot assume that whatever I find/don't find in this English translation would also be present/absent in the original, or in other translations.

2) There are severe limits to what you can conclude about a play from just the text.  Everything about the staging, whether the actors' mannerisms and accents and gestures and other dramatic decisions, or the set, costumes, props, lights, make-up, etc., can help convey a message. These elements of the staging can accentuate or de-emphasize something that is present on the page.  Moreover, a play could be inoffensive on the page but be offensively staged, or even be problematic on the page but be staged in a way that wrestles with the problem rather than embracing and endorsing what is problematic.  Thus, there may be good reasons to oppose a staging of a play that is inoffensive on the page, and good reasons to stage a play that is problematic on the page.

3) When I read this play, I'm seeing it through the lenses of whatever stereotypes I hold about China and Chinese people.  Those may be different from the stereotypes that Brecht and the audiences of his time brought to the play.  They may also be different from the stereotypes that other audiences in the US would bring to the play (though I have to suspect that I have a reasonable understanding of the stereotypes that people at a college in the Midwest would bring, seeing as how I'm a college professor from the Midwest). A play could be perfectly innocuous in most settings, but happen to conjure up offensive stereotypes in some other setting. That, however, raises the interesting question of whether a play should be judged on the understandings of past audiences, as opposed to the words on the page, the intent of the playwright, the intent of the present director and other artists involved in the staging, the actual work presented by performers in the present, the interpretations of a modern audience to said performance, or the interpretations of people who declined to join the audience to avoid pain.  (Or all of the above.)

Finally, in the interests of disclosure, I haven't come across much description of Brecht's views on race and Asia, but I also haven't searched very thoroughly.  Brecht was an exile from Nazi Germany, and he wrote the play in 1938-1941, while in Sweden and the US.  He cleared the minimum moral threshold of not being a Nazi, for whatever that's worth.  So, while I can't assume Brecht to be free of racist contamination, I also can't use the Nazis and their views to make any inferences about Brecht.

With all that out of the way, let's analyze the play itself:

The play reads very much as a fable, one that could have been set in almost any society.  Of course, fables often work best when set very far away, to strip away the mundane and focus on the dramatic interplay of a few key elements.  China was clearly chosen as the setting because it is a distant land, not because Brecht wanted to explore China on its own terms.  Thus, the relevant question here is not whether China is portrayed accurately, but whether it is portrayed through the lens of offensive stereotypes. 

Honestly, the generic nature of the setting, the fact that it is a fable about general human dilemmas rather than a meditation on Chinese culture, weighs against any reading in terms of offensive stereotypes.  It could have been set in any distant city instead of Sichuan, and as long as the time was in the modern world the various mentions of modern amenities (e.g. airports) would not strike the audience as strange.  It is very clearly a fable of human nature.  Indeed, one could set it in another country without even changing many of the characters' names.  A few characters have Chinese names*, but the rest have names like "The Unemployed Man" or "Mother-in-Law."

I'm actually surprised that the students were offended by the racial aspects of the play rather than the gendered aspects.  Shen Teh, the prostitute and main character, often struggles to defend herself against people trying to take advantage of her kind nature and help themselves to her money, so she often puts on a mask to pose as her invented cousin Shui Ta. Shui Ta is able to stand up to people and even prosper in business. The fact that her simple disguise is so convincing clearly shows that the play is a fable, a contemplation of how people react to other people in different stations, rather than a dramatic portrayal of plausible events and actions, which reinforces my point about how this play is not attempting to dissect Chinese culture from a Eurocentric perspective.  However, in showing how she only gets respect when posing as a man (and sometimes takes actions as a man that she regrets when reverting to feminine presentation), this play definitely takes up the topic of gender.  I will leave it to people better-versed in feminist theory to take up the question of whether Brecht treats gender with proper sensitivity, but gender is surely more salient to this fable than anything specific to China and Chinese people.

One criticism of the play, according to the article linked above, is that the main character is a prostitute, and thus the play is portraying Asian women negatively.  Honestly, though, just about everyone in the play is terrible and greedy and takes advantage of poor Shen Teh. It's hard to read the play as portraying Asian women, en masse, as being of loose** sexual morals.  Indeed, Shen Teh actually quits prostitution when she has the financial means to do so.  She's one of the few characters to try to adhere to a standard of morality that involves helping everyone no matter how outrageous their demands and how little they do to help themselves.  Were it not for the fact that Brecht was anti-capitalist (even going so far as to voluntarily live in East Germany after the war) I would read it as an allegory about the unworkability of socialism.  Instead, given that the Gods appear as a trio, I assume it's a critique of Christianity's proffered foundation for a compassionate society.  The play acknowledges the challenges of being good (according to a particular moral compass) while living in this world; if one wanted to reconcile this play with socialist sympathies I suppose the answer would be (1) even (especially?) good things can be hard to achieve in this world and (2) socialism would require a system with enforcement mechanisms rather than reliance on individual adherence to Christian ethics.

Anyway, having only read the play once, and mostly with an eye searching for racial/ethnic factors rather than matters of gender or socialism, I am loathe to delve much farther into those topics.  What I will say is that it's really hard for me to read this as anything but a fable set "far, far away" rather than some sort of attempt at portraying Chinese society as such.  I suppose that one could take offense at that indifference to setting, but then it still strikes me more as a literary device with strengths and weaknesses to be weighed, not as anything over which a reasonable person might experience pain.  Yes, the staging could still make or break this play, but isn't that in the nature of all plays?  As it stands, what's on the page is hardly worth taking offense over (at least in regards to matters of race and ethnicity).

The kids at Knox College should lighten up.

*I cannot judge whether the names are commonplace, inoffensive Chinese names, but I know a lot of Chinese people and these names don't seem terribly unusual.

**To the extent that one chooses to view this as a bad thing.  Sex work is a complicated topic, and those who have thought deeply about gender issues have come to a variety of complex conclusions on the matter.  I offer no negative judgment on Shen Teh for having worked as a prostitute, but I see why it is a delicate matter, and why some might prefer that the play not focus on a prostitute as the representative of Asian women.  However, Shen Teh does not spend most of the story as a prostitute, and there's nothing to suggest that she is offered specifically as a representative of Asian women as opposed to simply women in general.  Or, more accurately, women trying to adhere to a particular type of moral code that is very much the subject of the play's exploration.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A great one has departed, and the system will resist any who try to fill her shoes

Today my wife and I went to a memorial for Dean Joan Schaefer, an old mentor of mine.  By the time I was in college Dean Joan was formally retired, but that which is formally true on paper is rarely a reflection of practice (to return to one of the constant themes of this blog).  As a Dean Emerita she was, officially, still involved in a scholarship fund (which I benefited from), a study-abroad summer program at the University of Cambridge (which I also participated in), and a few other programs. Unofficially, she was a confidante, friend, advisor, mentor, sounding board, and protector for countless students who sought her out or were noticed by her. She was certainly important to me, and in tough times I drew strength from her. Dean Joan remained in those roles formally until 2006, and still went to campus frequently to talk to students for a few more years after that.  Before her retirement, her job title was "Dean of Women", but she transcended that title very quickly, and for essentially her entire career she had an open door for any student who needed her.  She was the mother and grandmother of the Trojan Family.

We still have people like her in lower-level roles, and officially we have people with similar titles (though nowadays they are the Dean of Student Affairs rather than Dean of Students, and certainly not Dean of Women or Dean of Men).  On the official level, the biggest difference between Dean Joan and a Dean of Student Affairs is that a Dean of Student Affairs oversees people who actually have in-depth interaction with students, promulgating policies and managing budgets and mitigating risks.  They might interact with a few students (especially student leaders) but most mentoring is delegated.

In the lower levels, we have many people who have taken on a wide portfolio of mentoring and counseling that goes beyond their official job titles, and we had them even back in the day of Dean Joan.  The difference is that back in the days of Dean Joan we had one person who not only had an open-ended mentoring portfolio, we had her sitting at the same table as many other high-ranking administrators.  Nowadays, the professor or mid-tier Student Affairs administrator or coach or whatever who takes on such a broad portfolio will never sit at the high table.  Nobody who sits at the same table as the upper administrators will have much ground-level interaction with students.  The ground-level stuff is done by people who report to people who report to high-level administrators and explain how their one-on-one interactions are advancing the goals outlined in the latest Five Year Plan Strategic Plan.

At my institution, the closest we get to people who combine a broad ground-level mentoring portfolio with reasonably high-level access (more because of political significance than official flowcharts) are people who run Special Programs, usually aimed at students with identifiable disadvantages, and generally with the goal of helping some identifiable segment succeed in some set of majors.  It's all highly specialized.  This is a poor substitute for a Dean Joan whose official brief is 50% of the student body, and who has a sufficiently expansive role in Student Affairs to concern herself with 100% of the student body, while also reporting at a high level.

At this point you're probably thinking that my objection is something along the lines of "All Students Matter" or "Why do only _they_ get a special program?"  No.  I wholly agree that some people have it harder than others, so while all need attention some need even more.  By all means, have Cultural Centers and Resource Centers and whatever else.

Rather, what I object to is that the personal touch is only valued as a Solution To A Problem.  There's a statistically significant gap, an identifiable disadvantage, so the person who provides the personal touch is valued...provided that they can help improve the numbers, or at least help with PR.  There's no baseline of "College students are people being brought in for a formative experience as they prepare to join the professional classes, so we value those who provide attention, and if some need even more then provide even more."  Rather, they only value those who can provide the attention needed to plug the gaps that cause embarassment; all of the other personal attention is at best taken for granted and at worst treated as inefficiency.  Every valued attention provider is a specialist aimed at a segment, and the greatest value goes to those who help plug a noticeable gap that looks bad for somebody in charge.

I suspect that most (not all) of those whom Dean Joan helped still would have done fine without her, but she helped most to do even more and a few to succeed at all.  We have people who provide similar attention today, but they do it only because they value it, not because the system values it.

What I'm ultimately talking about here is valuing the human connection as such, not just as a fix for embarassing numbers, and valuing it at the highest levels of the academy.  Alas, the technocrats have moved us beyond that.  I don't think it's a coincidence that Dean Joan, concerned with the individual touch at the highest levels, was also such a staunch advocate for the arts and humanities, the areas of study most directly concerned with the problems of the human condition.  What she provided transcended any faddish Best Practice, and USC was blessed to have her sitting at the highest tables.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NYT gonna NYT

This article in the NYT a few weeks ago started off so promising, skewering many of the "STEM Shortage" narratives.  But then they started talking about how hot and promising "data science" is.  It used to be that I heard stories of people getting hired into "data science" jobs with no prior training specific to the field, just a decent background from a PhD in some data-heavy science or engineering field.  Then I started hearing of various "boot camps" to prepare data scientists, because employers didn't want to train people.  Lately I've seen ads for "data science" MS programs.  And now a NYT article saying how hot it is.

Data Science is about to be saturated.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The purest distillation of the modern zeitgeist

Not much time, but I must memorialize this post by Kevin Drum:
Hillary Clinton describing her typical day in What Happened:
Six a.m.: I wake up, sometimes hitting the snooze button to steal a few more minutes. Snoozing leaves you more tired—there are studies on this—but in that moment, it seems like such a great idea.
Of course there are studies on this. And of course she knows about them. This is Hillary Clinton in a nutshell.
There's nothing wrong with paying attention to studies and following the tips.  But it just figures that that's how a member of the technocratic establishment would describe her mornings--in terms of studies and Best Practices.

Just try being human.  Climb down from Mount Olympus and be human.  Don't descend too far--you'll wind up being sub-human like Trump--but descend a few steps and see what humanity is like.

On a related note, Bladerunner 2049 was amazing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Eulogy For My Mother

I don't normally use this blog for such personal stuff, but I want a place to keep this, where it's easy to share.  So here's the eulogy that I gave for my mother, Ann Marie Sicilia Thompson, who passed away on September 13, 2017.

First and foremost, my mother was a mother.  She devoted all of her energy to it.  The stress and sleep loss are probably part of why she was so often sick.  She made sacrifices so that my brother and I could go to Catholic grade school.  She worked full-time, raised us by herself, and went back to college to finish her degree, because that's what was necessary.  She missed a lot of sleep for us.  In return, she expected the absolute best of us.  I knew that I could not come home with a bad grade or a report of getting in trouble at school.  It was simply not an option.

When my brother and I got older and moved away from home, it seemed like the highlight of her life was to fly out to visit us.  Whether it was flying to Europe when my brother studied in Spain or worked in Romania, or flying to California to visit me and my wife, it was what she lived for.  And she loved my wife as much as me.  In some families there are rueful jokes about mothers-in-law, but my mother would have sided with my wife if she and I had had a dispute.  My mother expected the best of me, and if I was on bad terms with my wife my mother would demand that I do better.

The other thing that my mother took seriously was nursing.  She absolutely loved it.  Partly out of compassion for the sick, partly because of the intellectual challenge, and partly because she was proud to follow in the footsteps of my grandmother, who is also a nurse.  My brother and I would go to our grandparents' house after school, and when my mother got done with work she would come to pick us up, and before leaving she would sit at the kitchen table and talk about patients and cases with my grandmother.  I learned a lot of science listening to those conversations.

No matter what else was happening in the family, my mother was the family health caseworker.  If I had to see a doctor for something, she could tell me exactly what the doctor would need to know about family medical history, out to second cousins and great-grandparents.  If my grandparents were in the hospital my mother was there watching them like a hawk.  My brother is still alive and with us because of the way my mother watched over him when he needed surgery several years ago.

And it wasn't just the family who was impressed by her nursing skills.  I'd like to read a tribute from a former co-worker of hers:
You Mom was such a caring person. It didn't matter where the person came from, why they were there, if they were injured, sick, or came up with something just to have attention. She treated all her patients with the same quiet, straightforward, caring.  
When I was in nursing school she mentored me. There are so many things that she taught me, that I still use 20+ years later.
 I also want you to know that your mom lives on in spirit through the many lives she touched. I am just blessed that one of them was mine.

She was such a blessing, so devoted, and I have much that I need to learn so that I can make it through life without her.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Statistics and Standardized Tests

I have posted a paper on the arXiv (a website for physics articles) addressing statistical issues in interpreting standardized tests.  This is a volatile topic, and my argument is long and nuanced, so I don't want to retype the entire thing in a blog post.  The short version is that a couple years ago somebody noticed that there are many successful scientists who did poorly on the GRE.  One possible interpretation is that the GRE has no predictive power for performance in a PhD program.  Another possibility is that performance is predicted by a combination of several variables, and a low score on any one of them might easily be compensated for by a high score on another.  Moreover, admissions processes typically enforce such a condition, so the only people getting in with low GRE scores probably did well by some other measure (e.g. research experience, relevant work experience, lab skills, etc.), while people who did poorly by some other measure must have had something to compensate (e.g. the GRE).  Consequently, when you compare people with high and low GRE scores, you aren't actually holding everything constant.  I use computer simulations to illustrate these points.

I also include a digression on "ought" vs. "is" statements, illustrated with two characters (Helena and Cosima) from Orphan Black, my current favorite science fiction show.  It may be that Helena is less likely to succeed in graduate school than Cosima is, but if Helena had a disadvantaged upbringing (and believe me, she did) then we ought to give her a chance to exceed our expectations.  This is an important point, given the diversity implications of standardized tests.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

They were normal by the lights of their society

There's been much discussion of this picture of Auschwitz guards, taking some time off from their busy schedule of extermination to enjoy a little rest and relaxation.  The discussion has been of how normal they look, and I agree, they do look normal.

But I'll go one step farther:  Unlike today's neo-Nazis they do not look like members of a fringe group.  They look like cheerful, well-assimilated members of their society, people who are wholly in-tune with the widespread assumptions shared by all Right-Thinking members of their society.  Were they alive today they'd be popular people, sharing this photo on Instagram and getting "likes."  They'd be respectable people who don't question conventional wisdom.

I don't fear that Nazis, as such, will ever return to power.  There are indeed neo-Nazis in our society, and they can do a lot of dangerous things, but they will never consolidate power again.  Not in that form.  Yes, there's a neo-Nazi sympathizer in the White House, but his impeachment and removal is an inevitability at this point.  He will soon enough be toppled.  His followers might riot, they might do a lot of damage, they might kill innocents in retaliation, but as long as they carry Nazi flags they will never again gain true power.  That might seem like small consolation, given the harm they could nonetheless do, but it's an important consolation when one considers the power that they'd have if they controlled the resources of a modern nation-state.

That's not to say that the bad guys will never again hold power.  Of course they will.  By some lights the very definition of a "bad guy" is "a person in power."  But the neo-Nazis of today are fringe losers, and their label is far too toxic for mainstream acceptance.

No, the type of evil that the Nazis represented will only return to power by adopting a form that is not so frightening to the well-adjusted majority.  Now that the swastika has (accurately) been emblazoned on our cultural memory as a symbol of purest evil, no successful movement will ever again use it.  The next time an evil that great gains power, they will use some other symbol, a symbol that a decent person who desires social acceptability might come to embrace.  The bad guys might start off with mostly just fringe losers in their camp, but they will go mainstream in order to win, and then they will purge the losers.  Hitler did exactly that.  He rose to power on the backs of fanatical street-fighting men, creepy losers, then he got wider popularity, gained power, and purged many of the creepy losers.  That's what made him dangerous:  Once he had power he availed himself of the sorts of mainstream people who know how to make trains run on time, run munitions factories, raise and organize armies, and keep the economy humming to support the construction of that deadly war machine.

I want every Right-Thinking Person to reflect seriously on this.  The original Nazis, the ones who helped Hitler when he was small potatoes, they looked nothing like the people in that picture.  But once Hitler had power he was able to make use of normal, socially well-adjusted people who could fit in and conform to the society around them.  The sorts of people who could get out of bed on time, show up to work, make things happen, feel secure in the knowledge that they are in harmony with all of the other respectable people around them, and then at the end of a long week of mass murder go blow off some steam with other well-adjusted members of their society, taking group photos of smiling people at a party.

Question authority.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

All of this has happened before and will happen again

Since one of the themes of this blog is that all of this has happened before and will happen again, I present this amazing cartoon:

Monday, September 4, 2017

Higher Superstition, Chapters 6-9

I paid less attention in these chapters.  I think Gross and Levitt started off with a fair point in chapter 6, on environmentalism:  Romanticizing non-Western cultures or ancient civilizations is a really bad idea.  Rejecting science while searching for solutions to environmental problems is just plain dumb.  To the extent that environmentalism is pursued as an ideological project, as opposed to applied science that takes into account human factors (and ideologies pretty much always over-simplify human factors wrong), such anti-scientific perspectives are just plain dumb.

Gross and Levitt go too far, however, when they go after scientists who take alarmist stances.  If this were a book on strategies for communication, I would probably agree with most of what they say against alarmism.  However, this is a book on anti-scientific attitudes, not un-scientific attitudes.  A scientist who exaggerates his or her findings is not doing good science, but they certainly aren't acting with animus toward science.  If anything, they are making the pedestal too high, not toppling it.  There are any number of valid criticisms to make against alarmists, but the alarmist is NOT rejecting scientific data.  There's a difference between rejecting science and abusing it with fanatical excess.  Environmental alarmism by scientists does not belong in a book on postmodernist and sociological critiques of science.  Alarmists are NOT saying "Science is just, like, your opinion, man."  Quite the opposite.

Also, the Gaia types lost.  Public pitches for environmentalism in America today are overwhelmingly dominated by appeals to science.  Somebody somewhere might be saying "Technological society is just a damaging Western construct based on scientific knowledge that poses as objective while in fact being a produce of heteropatriarchy..." but that person has no influence outside of their book club.

Chapter 7 covers a number of miscellaneous topics, among them AIDS and Afro-centric science.  I won't defend every statement made by every AIDS activist ever, but to my knowledge most of them criticized science from a place of frustration with the slow pace of good science, not from a place of rejecting scientific knowledge.  Even if some individuals adopted some anti-science rhetoric, it clearly was coming from a desire to speed up science, not replace it.  I would not have placed them alongside the postmodernists or the gender essentialists.

Afro-centric curricular with false historical claims about the scientific feats of African civilizations are a different matter, and tend to also blend in much of the same cultural relativism ("Science is just a Western way of looking at the world...") as many of the other targets of Gross and Levitt, albeit with appeals to different texts.  Gross and Levitt were fair here, and perhaps the best evidence that they were fair is that they also singled out a place where Afrocentric curricula are correct:  The first known example of steel production was in Tanzania 2,000 years ago.  It's worth noting the paradox of asserting, on the one hand, that ancient civilizations accomplished amazing innovations in science and technology, and on the other hand that science and technology are just arbitrary Western constructs.

Chapters 8 is on why people believed in the various sociological and philosophical critiques of science.  The basic conclusion of Gross and Levitt is restlessness with a Western society that failed to fix the problems people hoped it would fix.  I think that restlessness is indeed at work, and is also the source of many edufads.   People want a fix, and they want to rebel against whatever isn't delivering it.

Chapter 9 is on whether any of thtis matters.  They believed that it did.  They contended that it would lead to a schism between STEM and humanities (with social science probably being torn in two), with the revolt being led by STEM faculty.  That's not what happened, however.  Administrators put STEM on the pedestal because of grant money, but also pushed on us to deliver it (making many tenure-track jobs effectively into grant-writing jobs) and to take in more students rather than weeding out students.  We didn't tell the humanities faculty to shove it, the administrators did.  And they didn't do it in response to the postmodernists.  They would have just as easily pushed aside conservative defenders of the traditional Western Canon, and probably faster (in the name of diversity).

They argued that this will lead to the debasement of science education, but the people who have done the most to weaken science education are the people pushing edufads at the highest levels, and the people who have declared it a political imperative to get every available warm body into STEM.  Keynes was right about practical men being slaves of defunct intellectuals, but it doesn't follow that every defunct intellectual will enslave a generation of practical men.

They argued that it will debase public discourse, but ultimately it's not the left that did the most to weaken science in public discourse.  The left has much to answer for in the politics of the outside world, including misunderstanding and misusing science in certain cases, but the left has NOT tried to dethrone science.  If anything, lefty technocrats have elevated science above its station, ignoring the is/ought distinction.

Why were they wrong?  I think they were wrong because they over-estimated the power that humanities professors have over the next generation.  As I said above, one must not over-state Keynes' observation on the power of intellectuals.  Dethroning science was never an interesting project for Gen X, coming of age as the internet did.  Science kept improving things for us; why would we take up torches and pitchforks at the behest of our comparative lit profs?  Instead, we made the mistake of listening to the other idea-pushers, the ones insisting that we'd soon face a STEM shortage.  And the final result of that was to make traditionalists like me so pissed off that I've spent two and a half years reading and blogging about humanities and social science.

The real enemy we face now is a technocratic class that somehow rejects meritocracy.  Hey, I don't get it either.  But they see stubborn social problems and believe that we can fix it by defining away merit in STEM education.

Strange times.

Higher Superstition, chapter 5: Gender

Chapter 5 is about feminist critiques of science.  To the extent that feminists critique the culture of scientific workplaces I freely agree that there is much that is worthy of criticism, much to work on, and much more to be done.

To the extent that feminist critics have gone after scientific knowledge, I would say the following:
1) When people like Sandra Harding offer up essentialist arguments for why some particular idea in the basic sciences is more "masculine" or more "feminine", I think they are not only wrong but dangerous.  There's no distinct female perspective on chemical bonding or thermodynamics or electromagnetic waves.  To argue that there is risks bringing in the idea that women and men have different comparative advantages in the basic sciences.  That idea is not only devoid of empirical support, it is also an open door to justifying gaps and discrimination.  Many feminists have thus rejected essentialist arguments, and justifiably so.

2) When feminist critics raise concerns about the topics chosen by applied scientists, I think they have a better argument, at least in some fields.  There's no distinctly feminine viewpoint on quality control in chemical synthesis or optimizing the design of fiber-optic networks, but perhaps if there had been more women in biomedical research sooner then it wouldn't have taken so long for the medical community to recognize that heart attack symptoms in women are often (not always) different from those that are most common in men.  It's not about whether women or men are more qualified to analyze the data or perform the medical procedures (it's obvious that women and men are equally qualified to work in medical research), it's that much research begins with an anecdote (since every hypothesis lacks proper support before it's tested) and female clinical researchers might notice certain patterns in anecdotes from patients.  (Just as male clinical researchers might notice certain patterns in anecdotes.)

Similar things could be said about other areas of medical and behavioral research.  Female engineers working on consumer products might pay a bit more attention to, say, differences in average body size, differences in typical user experiences, etc.

A harder issue is the tendency to favor the use of male mice in biomedical research.  I've heard many female biomedical researchers defend this practice, on the grounds that the reproductive cycle in female mice lasts only 4 days, so there's much more variability in their physiology over the course of a study.  If one takes seriously the notion that female physiology matters, then it matters that female mice are more variable so the data will be noisier.  With resources being finite (raising and handling mice takes time and money, as does tracking their reproductive cycles so the data can be properly analyzed) it makes sense that many studies should be done first with male mice to get some preliminary data.  But if you really want to generalize to humans, and you aren't studying a male-specific question, then at some point you need to study female mice.  There's a difference between justifying greater use of male mice and justifying exclusive use of male mice.

But, of course, this is something where the funding agencies need to get more blame than the people working in the trenches with limited budgets.

So my take on this chapter is that Gross and Levitt start off strong but go too far in rejecting feminist critiques.  They need to keep in mind the distinction between pure and applied research.  There's no distinct feminine perspective on arterial plaque, or even a female perspective on molecular mechanisms of cervical cancer, but life experiences will matter when evaluating clinical anecdotes that might lead to the formulation of working hypotheses, and certainly the technology used in cervical cancer treatment should be designed with input from women who actually undergo such procedures.

Similar things can be said about race.  There's no distinct ethnic/racial perspective on statistical analysis in a clinical study, but one's experiences might affect whether one notices certain lifestyle patterns in different racial/ethnic/economic groups, and that matters when formulating hypotheses.  Ethnic diversity surely matters on an engineering team working on facial recognition software, as shown by some unfortunate examples with consumer products.

Mind you, there's a difference between research and practice.  I've been examined by competent female health professionals for some male-specific problems, and if I had a skin disease I'd be happy to go to a dermatologist of any ethnic/racial background.  Race and gender need not affect a conscientious professional's competence to apply existing knowledge in practice, but life experiences might affect the hypotheses that one frames in research. The testing of hypotheses is or ought to be an objective matter, but the choice of a hypothesis is highly subjective, and perspective matters.

Higher superstition: Chapters 3 and 4

I've finished the book, but the thoughts I offered when I started haven't really changed.  I basically agree with everything Gross and Levitt wrote about how silly the PoMo critiques of science (and related arguments) are, though I might dissent on a few particulars.  However, this is not the threat that materialized, in the end.  In this and the next post, I will go through a few specific points from the book.

Chapter 3 is about sociological critiques of science.  It's worth noting that, as I also encountered in college, some of the PoMo critics cited by Gross and Levitt were sympathetic to relativity, quantum mechanics, Godel's Theorem, and other 20th century developments that called into question absolutes and guarantees.  Taken on the surface, this is selective endorsement of science and math, though their limited comprehension of the topics calls into question whether their statements can constitute an endorsement.  Still, I'm glad that they concur that this stuff was "in the air" in the 90's, that it wasn't  just a few idiots that I encountered on one campus.

They spend a lot of time on sociologist Stanley Aronowitz.  I won't defend every dumb thing to come out of Aronowitz's mouth, pen, or keyboard, but I am intrigued by his claim that quantum mechanics was shaped by social pressure to abandon the concept of determinism in response to the despondent philosophical mood in Weimar Germany.  I've seen historian Paul Forman make similar claims, and the article was recommended to me by a serious theoretical physicist who respects Forman's work.  So, while I can't state with complete confidence that this claim is correct (I haven't examined enough of the relevant primary sources to pass judgment), it is not a claim to be dismissed.  Yes, the ultimate reason why physicists formulated a non-deterministic theory is that the experimental evidence supported such a theory, but there was clear social pressure on them to go that route, and the after-effects of that cultural moment may partly explain why alternative interpretations (e.g. de Broglie-Bohm) have never gained as much support.  The interpretations offered up in the 1920's were not only non-deterministic, they were sharp rejections of determinism, without a lot of "as far as we can tell..." and "not predicted by any variables known to matter in measurements that we've been able to do..." caveats.

I like how they note that, despite much effort to link Newton to the hegemonic class or culture, he was in fact from a very modest background, and had to rely on the 17th century equivalents of financial aid and work-study at Cambridge.

Chapter 4, on post-modernism, actually made me slightly (ever so slightly) more sympathetic to post-modernism rather than even less sympathetic.  They describe it as a rhetorical game used to tear everything down as a product of a power structure...and I'm kind of OK with the principle (if not always the practice).  I've spent enough time tilting at a technocratic consensus to kind of sympathize.  They describe it as a game for the well-read and verbally adept...and, yeah, I'm good with that :)

But, in all seriousness, while I'm fine with using rhetorical tools to analyze rhetoric and tear down power structures in human affairs, I recognize that "is" statements about the natural world are very different from value-laden "ought" statements about human affairs.  Technocrats deserve some PoMo criticism.  In fact, they deserve a lot of it.  I'm not sure that any student deserves to have a full-length book by Foucault pushed on them as an enforced reading assignment (it would give a double meaning to the title of his book Discipline and Punish) but technocrats certainly deserve to be taken down in essays laden with some PoMo jargon, until they feel properly chastised.  (The modern technocratic classes are very sensitive to having their privilege and hegemony called out.)

The interesting question, to me, is why the PoMo criticisms of science lost momentum.  I think there were a few.  First, Postmodernism is something for humanities professors in tenure-track jobs where they have to publish.  The dismantling of humanities has hurt them.  More importantly, America has moved away from giving prestige to high discourse.  The left has become more and more concerned with credentialing the weakest students, and the right just elected a reality TV star. It's been a long time since the right cared much about the humanities.  Once upon a time there were people on the right exhaulting the Western canon, and while they never cared for PoMo I think they'd at least agree that reading dense essays by French intellectuals is better than reading airy think-pieces.

Also, maybe the ultimate target was never really scientific knowledge, but scientists.  It turns out that scientists are (for good reason) more willing to submit to critiques of the demographics of our profession, our lack of diversity, and our approach to disadvantaged students.  Liberal cultural critiques entered through that route, and that's a route that can be pushed with statistics.  Even if the statistics are bad, they're far more persuasive (at least on the surface) than some literary critic questioning whether chemical bonds are a metaphor for oppression or whatever.

Oh, and after the 1990's George W. Bush won an election and pushed back against environmental regulations.  That mattered.  (A bit more on that in the next post.)

Friday, September 1, 2017

Higher Superstition, first two chapters

The first chapter is an introduction to the general controversy that they're addressing.  I already outlined that in the previous post.  The second chapter is mostly a historical survey of politics and ideas relevant to their concerns.  I will not recap the whole thing.  Instead, I will just highlight a few particularly interesting tidbits from these chapters:

On page 3 they clarify that the "Academic Left", as they use the term, is not merely a group of people who happen to have day jobs in academia and happen to support policies pursued by the more liberal members of the Democratic Party.  Rather it is a collection of people pursuing a particular vision of cultural transformation, the overthrow of old categories and labels.  This is certainly in keeping with the diversity vision of today's STEM reformers; one could say that the critique shifted from scientific knowledge to scientists.

On page 4 they mention scientists having encounters with "literary critics waxing sentatious over the uncertainty principle or Godel's theorem."  It's almost as though they witnessed my freshman year of college!

On page 7 they issue a too-optimistic prophecy concerning education:
"We expect little early change in the teaching and learning of science on the basis of these politicized critiques (although proposals in that direction, including some from people who should know better, pop up now with regularity)."
Indeed.  Transformation of STEM education is now front-and-center in the agenda of technocrats, and they speak endlessly of identity issues when they promote their agenda.  It's rarely as simple as "This group learns this way, that group learns that way"; they are mostly too smart to say something that explicitly bigoted and factually incorrect.  But there is much "Your students are different from you, demographics are changing, science is more diverse, we must teach differently."  Certain links are never made explicit (since stating such things explicitly would be both unpopular and factually wrong, a rare instance of a grossly false idea being unpopular).  But diversity and identity are certainly close to everyone's minds, and are invoked to push people in warmer-and-fuzzier directions.

On page 19, they make the interesting observation that the Enlightenment is the ancestor both of free market ideas and Communist ones.  Though Communism obviously failed very badly at liberating or enlightening people, it came from a rejection of traditional authority, including feudalism.  Market capitalism has similar elements in common.  I note this not to make any sort of special plea for communism, but simply to note that the Enlightenment was prodigious with offspring.

On page 20 they attribute the rise of Romanticism to, among other things, the horrific failures of the French Revolution.  Romanticism, in my primitive understanding (supplemented with what little Gross and Levitt have to say), is an idea of things beyond reason mattering in human affairs, or even superseding reason in praiseworthy ways.  Truthfully, I'm not wholly unsympathetic, having remarked many times on the impossibility of deriving "ought" from "is."  Liberal technocrats always want to elide that point.  I don't know that it's a terribly Romantic point, since it doesn't celebrate any particular alternative to empiricism, nor does it even reject reason.  One could draw some "ought" postulates from non-empirical sources but then use those postulates, in combination with empirical evidence, to reason logically, e.g. "When spending money as the fiduciary of another person's interests I ought to spend thriftily, and Acme makes the cheapest widgets, therefore I will buy Acme widgets in this role."  So one can be suspicious of those who are excessive in their pretenses to logic and empiricism (because they never make their arbitrary "ought" postulates transparent) but still support logic and empiricism.

So I guess that one of my favorite topics here is hardly "Romantic."

On page 23 they note that while many illiberal ideas sprang up under the guise of science (e.g. social Darwinism, racial ideologies), the scientific notions that have stood the tests of time and experimentation have fortuitously been mostly friendly to egalitarian and emancipatory projects.

On page 24 they note that science has remained congenial to the project of scholarship as a liberating force because science pushes back on superstition, which I take to mean religion.  However, the study of humanities, which prepares one to interrogate texts in context, seems a more powerful force for inducing skepticism of the Bible than science class.  Miracles aren't the main point of the Bible.  Moral codes binding communities and bringing meaning to life are the main point of the Bible.  The study of humanities will prompt much more searching questions about that than anything a physics professor might say.

On page 25 they say that American academic leftists rebeled against science to signal rejection of the Enlightenment and its failure to make further progress on racism, poverty, etc.  They judge that it comes from restlessness and discontent with modern society.  I find it interesting that modern academic leftists share the same restlessness, but approach it with a renewed faith in technocracy.  "Studies have shown" that we are biased, irrational, etc., so if people can be persuaded of these points and induced to accept remedies then they will become more rational and (presumably) more supportive of projects for the liberation and betterment of humanity.

Or at least that seems to be the theory.

Finally, on page 33, we get to something that has most definitely carried forward:  The idea that the oppressed have unique epistemological standing, access to more knowledge than the advantaged.  However, whereas that was used to argue for rejecting the science espoused by the dominant power structures back in the "Science Wars", nowadays we have people seeking to do social science about microaggressions, biases clouding the minds of the privileged, etc.  Whether or not one has a favorable judgment of the soundness of such research, it is indisputably an attempt to use social science to prove the epistemological limitations of the privileged and epistemological standing of the under-privileged.  There is no romanticism here, it is thoroughly technocratic and accepting of science.  The scientific validity of these research programs can only be evaluated through empirical work, but from a cultural perspective it is clear that it is not an anti-science program.

Next book: Higher Superstition by Gross and Levitt

My next reading is Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, a 1994 book by biologist Paul Gross and mathematician Norman Levitt.  Their book was a response to the "Science Wars" of the 80's and 90's, when the zeitgeist of certain people in humanities (and to a lesser extent social science) was "Science is just, like, a Western patriarchal heteronormative yadda yadda construct of the people at the top of the power structure."  And, to be clear, their claim wasn't merely that the culture of researchers in the natural sciences was "just, like, a Western yadda yadda construct"; that claim is not entirely wrong, though surely the many non-Westerners who contribute quitie productively to the advancement of modern science would have a thing or two to say in response, as Arun Bala noted.  Some went further and claimed that the body of scientific knowledge is somehow a subjective thing that arises more from our own cultural biases than any sort of meaningful, objective engagement with something that has a reality independent of our understanding of it.

With the benefit of 23 years of hindsight, as well as two and a half years of reading and blogging about cultural factors that affect the modern academy, this book feels like it missed the point.  As I've said before, the modern academic left mostly does not question science.  Yeah, there are a few weirdos talking about "natural" medicine, and a lot of liberal academics deny research on the predictive validity of standardized tests, but those cases are remarkable for being unusual.  Most liberals, academic or otherwise, strongly support science.  They might not understand it as well as they think they do, and it's possible that if they understood certain results better they would reject them, but the "Science March" was very much a thing of the left.  Oh, there was probably some conservative somewhere in the audience, but it was understood as being primarily about liberal stances on environmental issues, health issues, etc., as well as opposition to the superstitions of religious conservatives (who are currently rallying around a twice-divorced casino owner and confessed sexual harasser or worse...).  So, outside the academy, science is widely regarded as a thing of the left.  This is probably to our detriment (I'd rather that my professional and intellectual passion be respected across the spectrum), but it is most definitely NOT what Gross and Levitt feared might come to pass.  The "post-modernist" critics of science did NOT win over the non-academic left to their cause.

On campus, I'm sure somebody somewhere is still banging on about Newtonian mechanics being an artefact of white male culture, but hardly anyone pays attention to them.  Administrators say "STEM!  STEM!  STEM!" all day long.  There are certainly some people in the humanities and social sciences who grumble about this STEM obsession, but they are, at worst, expressing a bit of (understandable)  jealousy, and more often are engaging in sincere defenses of things that are worth preserving.  They aren't questioning our knowledge claims.

What has happened is an obsession with inclusion in STEM, because STEM is on the pedestal, and some of this comes with demands to change the culture of how STEM professionals work, but not with insistence that our knowledge is some subjective product of an arbitrary and weird culture.  Nonetheless, some of the more damaging aspects of the push to transform STEM (mainly a demand that we reject meritocratic elitism in favor of getting every available warm body into The Pipeline) share roots with the Science Warriors of the 80's and 90's.  So it is worth studying this phenomenon of the past, in part to understand those roots, and in part to understand how those predictions failed. We can learn a lot about how we got to where we are if we understand how old predictions went astray.

A final note, before we get going:  As far as I can tell from examining the first two chapters and the index, Levitt and Gross missed/ignored the more technocratic rumblings of STEM reformers in the 90's.  Sheila Tobias wasn't in the index, though she wrote They're Not Dumb, They're Different in 1990.  I looked for some prominent education researchers but did not find them in the index.  The National Science Foundation is not mentioned.  This book really does seem to be focused, which is not a bad thing (all good books have a chosen scope) but does point to how they missed what actually happened.  Ultimately, I think they spent too much time thinking that the crazier ideas espoused by humanities professors would be able to take root in the wider public, and in exactly the form in which they were originally espoused.  But ideas don't work that way.

OK, let's go.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Some of this has happened before but will not happen again

A few months ago in a used book store I came across a copy of Max Planck's textbook on thermodynamics.  I am amused by this description on the inside cover:
"...meeting the needs of both students and research workers..."

The text is dense, terse, and requires effort of the reader.  I neither agree nor disagree with the idea that it can meet the needs of students, because the concept of a student's "needs" must be unpacked.  What are those "needs"?  By what criteria do we distinguish between what we might properly call a "need" and what might be better framed as a student's mere "desire" or "wish"?  Which wishes are reasonable for a textbook author to comply with?  And who are the students that we have in mind?

While I offer no firm conclusion on whether this textbook meets the needs of students as I might wish to frame the concept, I can say with great confidence that most of my colleagues would denounce this book as inappropriate for the needs of the modern student.  And so we see how the world has changed.

The Sacred Scrolls are not inerrant.  While some of the the textbooks of the past are similar to the present, it's clear that Planck's idea of appropriate pedagogy is not a good match to the modern understanding.  But don't worry:  While we might not uphold Planck's intellectual standards, we do allow trash TV stars to become President, and we do everything in our power to make college degrees more attainable.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Let's talk about Heritage

Every reader of this blog knows that one of my favorite books is Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  Another favorite book is Albion's Seed.  Both of them have a lot to say about the Puritans.  The Puritans were arguably the most intellectual of America's founding cultures.  Their clergy were educated at Oxbridge, and their sermons were transcribed and distributed publicly for discussion.  There were meaningful parallels with the Jewish tradition of reading the Bible, reading the commentaries, and then discussing and debating the primary text and the commentaries.s

They were also among the most egalitarian Western societies of their era, in terms of their laws on marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance.  They fell far short of our modern standards, but they were ahead of their time, and helped to enable the progress that has been made since.  They did own slaves, but they owned fewer than other American sub-cultures and abolished it well ahead of others.

Since America is currently debating whether Nazis and Klansmen are bad, let me note that some of the most ardent abolitionists were New Englanders of Puritan heritage.  They marched to Kansas with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, determined to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state.  Uncle Tom's Cabin, an abolitionist novel dripping with Biblical references, was written by a scion of the Puritans.  John Brown was of Puritan descent.  Though we typically think of New Englanders as less militaristic than Southerners, fire-breathing abolitionists of Puritan extraction eagerly matched the Confederate ardor for civil war.

So, you want to talk about Heritage?  Yeah, let's talk about Heritage.  Some of us trace our cultural influences to New England, and the people who crushed the Confederacy are our Heritage.  Some of us look at the Confederacy the way we look at Nazi Germany.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Moral Syndromes and the Two Cultures

Although it's not possible to map perfectly from the Two Cultures of C.P. Snow to the Two Syndromes of Jane Jacobs (if it were then Jacobs' book would have a lower Kolmogorov Complexity, being equivalent to a couple essays by C.P. Snow), I think there are a lot of parallels.  In particular, I am inclined to say that just as the STEM culture maps roughly to the Commercial Syndrome (a point I argued yesterday), the arts and humanities map more or less to the Guardian Syndrome.

At first glance that may seem absurd:  Artists are often great critics of political power, and are often pacifist critics of Guardian activities like war.  Moreover, artists love to defy tradition.  Besides, isn't art often put to Commercial ends, and without the corruption that we see when Guardian and Commercial activities are blended?

The answer to all of those questions is "Of course."  You can't fit all of life into a single, simple framework.  At best, a framework can generate insights to place alongside other analyses.  And though artists are often critics of the establishment, the arts are heavily reliant on patronage.  That needn't be seen as a flaw or indicator of hypocrisy; dissent can be a constructive element of a society, even while existing within it.  Moreover, while an artist of today may break from tradition in many ways, when a person in the future wishes to study that artist it will be necessary to look at the context of this time, to see the artist in the context of the society that he/she was breaking from or critiquing.  The study of the arts and humanities can illuminate the present but it also requires a look backward.  That is not a bad thing, it is actually a source of strength.  The study of arts and humanities is an attempt to learn from tradition, even while challenging it.  If one wishes to learn from the Greeks and Romans one can and should draw on contemporary sources, but one cannot escape the need for primary sources.  That need for connection with the past is a mark of how the arts and humanities fit more closely with the Guardian Syndrome than with the Commercial Syndrome.

At this point some ardent defender of the liberal arts will probably feel a need to say that many people study humanities in college but go on to have great careers in the private sector.  Indeed.  All of teaching, even in STEM, is a heavily Guardian-based activity.  And even armies rely on commercial products.  Identifying a field of study with one Syndrome does not mean that the rest of society must look askance at it.  A healthy society draws heavily upon the best of both Syndromes, and even individuals may have experience in both types of activities.  Simultaneous mixing of activities in one organization is different from partaking of both in the course of a well-lived life.

Now, one big difference between Two Cultures and Two Syndromes is that mixing two Syndromes in areas with very tangible stakes for money and power can result in monstrosities (e.g. Marxism and the Mafia).  Mixing Two Cultures in academia, if done properly, can be quite positive.  I respect historians of science, scientists using their tools to help archaeologists or art historians, computational methods applied to linguistics, etc.  Of course, it can also be done to dangerous effect, either through "interdisciplinary" work that lacks a rigorous foundation on either side or through the false ecumenicalism of STEAM.   But then again, academia is (properly) different from the rest of the world, which is not the same as saying that we're completely immune to problems that could plague the rest of the world.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Systems of Survival, mid-way thoughts

I'm half-way through Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.  She divides many activities into "Commercial" and "Guardian" activities, and the associated value systems into "Commercial" and "Guardian" moral syndromes.  (The word "syndrome" simply means "things that go together", not necessarily "illness.")  Commercial activities are fairly self-explanatory.  "Guardian" activities are not just the military and police actions of government, but many things in government, and many things reliant on patronage or largesse.  The arts and sports fall largely under "Guardian" values because traditionally they have enjoyed substantial patronage. Also, athletic competition was historically an activity of warrior castes biding time between wars. Yes, art has been made for commercial purposes, and yes, sports are an entertainment business, but the local Little League team usually relies on sponsorship from the community, and the revenue-generating college football teams subsidize the track team.

Now, Jacobs also notes that when people try to blend the syndromes bad things occur.  You get corruption when government and business mingle, you get inefficiency when government planners try to provide goods that the market could handle better, and you get the mafia when a family uses bonds of loyalty and threats of violence (Guardian traits) to take control of neighborhood businesses.  Interestingly, the mafia loves its ceremonies and symbolism as much as royalty does, and as much as armies love their dress uniforms and parades, while businesses tend to pay less attention to aesthetics (except in advertising and branding, or in response to specific consumer demands).  Moreover, the Mafia dispenses largesse to the poor and the Church, to bolster their image and command loyalty, just as governments do.

The problems of mixing Guardian and Commercial activities help us understand why sports teams (traditionally Guardian, though now Commercial) pressure city governments (Guardians) to build stadiums.  They help us understand why there's so much corruption in revenue-generating college sports.  Yes, yes, I'm sure that somewhere out there a Division III College Athletics Director is dealing with a pole-vault scandal, but it pales in comparison with the corruption in Division I football and basketball.  It also helps us understand why agricultural policy is always and everywhere a quagmire:  Agriculture is most efficient as a commercial enterprise but because it relies on control of land (historically a government activity) it is always entwined with politics in ways that go beyond ordinary corruption or misguided regulatory zeal:  The value and use of land goes to deep values of what it means to be a state.

Anyway, let's take this to the things that I care about: Science and academia.

Jacobs argues that science is largely in sync with the values of the Commercial Syndrome:  Honesty is the best policy (unlike the deception and secrecy required for many security functions, whether espionage or sting operations), innovation is more valuable than tradition, collaboration with outsiders is to be welcomed (scientists collaborate internationally, just as merchants have always done business across borders), at the same time competition is to be encouraged (hence we look for replication processes to weed out error), etc.  I agree with these points, but at first I disssented because basic science is so heavily subsidized.

However, I think I can nonetheless endorse her equating of science with the Commercial Syndrome for three reasons:
1) No analogy is perfect.  Yes, the funding source is more than just a tiny flaw in the analogy, but we shouldn't just ignore the fact that in a great many ways the values of science fall much better under the Commercial Syndrome than the Guardian Syndrome.

2) Plenty of science happens outside of state-subsidized labs.  To the extent that science happens under state subsidy the rationale is generally some mix of long-term benefits (states can afford risk-reward ratios that competitive businesses can't), the value of knowledge and education (Guardian-provided activities) or national security (Guardian activity).  This doesn't change the fact that most science graduates go out and work in the Commercial realm.

3) Education fads, which drive me up the wall, have been pushed into the scientific community in large part through the efforts of the National Science Foundation and its "Broader Impact" criterion for grants.  The purpose of Broader Impact is service to the wider society, not the efficient advancement of the specific project in play.  It is the yoking of a community adhering (mostly) to Commercial values into Guardian endeavors.  And it sucks, just as the mixing of the two Syndromes so often sucks.

Yes, yes, edufads get some scientific respectability lacquered onto them, but it's mostly BS.  Education, with its focus on tradition and respect for the authority figure, is Guardian all the way.  Universities have always been subsidized by largesse.  Education is as Guardian as it gets. It's practically a priesthood, and it's about inculcation of social values as much as the sharing of knowledge.  And that's great, within its proper scope and place.  The practice of science should be Commercial and the education of people should be Guardian.  Hence we make teaching and research separate criteria for performance evaluation, and hence we have separate physical space, separate funds, etc. for those activities.  Indeed, graduate school is about transitioning from one to the other.  To the extent that it's inefficient, well, what did you expect when you transition between realms?

And the priorities and motives driving edufads and Broader Impact are all about national competitiveness and the moral legitimacy of the social order.  That is a thoroughly Guardian pair of priorities.  Eminently defensible priorities, but a poor match for Commercial activity.

Academic scientists are not the only people who have to straddle worlds, and to the extent that we are attempting a hybrid activity we should expect scandal and inefficiency.  But not all Syndrome-straddling activities are like the Mafia.  Jacobs notes that lawyers have to straddle the Syndromes, working in private firms and generally in support of commercial interests (law is far more about property and contracts than it is about criminal trials) but interacting with the government.  To the extent that they do it well it is by clearly understanding which duties apply to which parts of the job and to what types of activities.  We would do well in academia to think about which duties apply to which parts of the job.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


I don't have much to say about it, but this post from education policy blogger Robert Kelchen is well worth reading.  As long as education policy discussions are dominated by people who treat college as a given and state flagships as "backup" schools, we're doomed to insanity.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Next book: Systems of Survival

I couldn't bring myself to finish Hayek's Counter-Revolution in Science.  I got his point dozens pages ago, and he mostly went into tedious intellectual history after that.  Mind you, intellectual history can be fun, but he was zeroing in on individuals without saying anything terribly interesting or revealing.

After that I read some fiction and wrote some fiction.  Some of the fiction writing is still ongoing, but one story was submitted.  We'll see what happens.

The next non-fiction book that I'll blog here is Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.  I actually read it several years ago, but it's worth re-reading.  She wrote it as a dialogue between several characters discussing the ethical ideas underpinning societal structures.  She contrasts commercial endeavors with "Guardian" institutions.  Obviously police and the military are guardian institutions, but so are all other government offices, as well as educational and artistic institutions dependent on patronage.  The concept of duty comes up a lot, and since I believe that a dilution of the concept of duty is one of the problems with American higher education, I think this book is worth re-reading.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

This article is so on fire that the nuclei in the screen displaying it are being fused to release more energy

Oh, snap!
Many teachers, educational administrators, and politicians/policy makers believe in the existence of yeti-like creatures populating present day schools namely digital natives and human multitaskers. As in the case of many fictional creatures, though there is no credible evidence supporting their existence, the myth of the digital native (also called homo zappiëns) and the myth of the multitasker are accepted and propagated by educational gurus, closely followed and reported on by the media (both traditional mass-media, Internet sites, and social media) and dutifully parroted by educational policy makers at all levels. But while the myth of the existence of a yeti or other creature is fairly innocuous, the myth of their digital variants is extremely deleterious to our educational system, our children, and teaching/learning in general.
The article is titled "The myths of the digital native and the multitasker."  And it's on fire.

The lead author is a heretic whom I've cited before.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Speed matters

An idea that's gotten a lot of attention lately is "competency-based education", essentially the idea that instead of having courses of fixed time (e.g. a 15 week semester or 10 week quarter) you have shorter modules that students take and retake as needed, and they move on when they've achieved competence in whatever topic/skill/idea/etc. they are pursuing as part of their educational program.  For a professional program like business or engineering it is probably pretty clear what it means to achieve competence at some particular skill.  For many of the more skill-based aspects of science I think it also  makes sense.  For humanities, I assume that once somebody has, say, successfully read some list of writers and produced critiques that analyze specified aspects of the work in light of specified concepts, one would also achieve competence, and then move on to some other list of works and ideas.

It's not a bad concept.  It's not entirely objectionable.  But to the extent that the idea is based on a critique of a traditional course, I want to defend traditional courses from the critique.

The critique seems to be that in a traditional course a grade of (say) B means that you got most of it and did pretty well but didn't get all the way, which is fine, but you never know what the student was strong on and what the student was weak on.  To the extent that the critique is rooted in "you never know..." my question is "Who?"  Presumably the answer is "The person reading the transcript."  Fine.  In response, my next questions are "Who reads the transcript and what do they want to know?"

I've spent a lot of time interacting with people who hire physics graduates.  To a large extent they don't read transcripts at all, and maybe that should give us some humility about our enterprise.  But before we conclude that our transcripts thus need to be more information-dense in order to be more useful, let me observe something else:

The employers that I've interacted with seem to care (at most) about whether students took a lot of lab classes and used a few specific tools in those classes.  Beyond that, they just assume that students will need to be trained.

And that should not be surprising in science and technology.  Everything is highly specialized and rapidly changing. And every employer is working in a different niche, and hence needs people for a different niche.  Knowing that a person is smart and capable of learning seems to matter more than the specifics because of how steep the on-the-job learning curve is, even under ideal circumstances.

Given that, knowing very specific things is less important than knowing that the student has done lab work and can learn quickly.  In that case, the person who learned a whole lot in 15 weeks really is more valuable than the person who would need substantially more time to learn the same amount (which competency-based education would allow for).

So what a grade in a traditional class really tells is what  happens when you throw a lot of challenges at a person in 15 weeks.  The real question is whether the ability to surmount those challenges is predictive of ability to learn on the job.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On political correctness

No time for detailed comment, but I like this article from the National Post about political correctness and Twitter mobs.  The opening is priceless:
A journalist friend of mine recently attended his four-year-old daughter’s year-end dance recital here in Toronto. “Every dance was in some way about Canada,” he told me. “My daughter’s dance was Canada Geese. Another was Aurora Borealis. One dance was Our Aboriginal Peoples. And I’m like, ‘Oh, God, no.’” 
“It’s one of the youngest classes — very basic. No real theme, just introductory dance moves. The costumes are evocative of animal skins. The hair buns have little feathers. The theme was ‘Honouring the first people of North America.’ And I was freaked out. It was objectively innocent, benign, cute and even touching — and it was absolutely well-intended. But I’ve spent so much time in Stupid Twitter-Land that I expected the parents to stand up and start booing and hissing and calling for the studio owner’s head.” 
“No one did that, of course,” my friend added. “Normal people don’t do those things.”
My only criticism is that as the essay goes on he spends too much time talking about the precarious positions of the obscure Twitter users who police the norms of political correctness and not enough time dissecting why the respectable managerial classes care about those scoldings in the first place.  I get the interest in why someone administers those scoldings, but surely one reason why they keep doing it is that it works.  And the question is why does it work?  Why do editors of major publications and managers at high levels care so much about being scolded over such trivial things?

There's at least some acknowledgment that political correctness is a thing because people in the right positions care about these scoldings over things that ordinary people neither know about nor care about.  That's progress.  But I'd like to really unpack why the Right-Thinking educated and managerial classes care so much about avoiding these scoldings.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Hayek, Chapter 10

All I have to say is that Hayek knows precious little about engineers.  Yes, they can be somewhat obtuse about things outside their technical interests, but generally their jobs require them to pay attention (even if more attention than they would like) to human factors, costs, uncertainties, etc. Rarely is the task as well-specified as he thinks, and rarely is the entire design under one person's control. I share his dislike of social engineering, but engineering is not what he thinks it is.

On the other hand, chapter 11 opens with a sentence that I can appreciate:

"Never will a man penetrate deeper into error than when he is continuing on a road which has led him to great success."

I look forward to reading the rest of it.

Hayek, Chapter 9

Having talked about the difficulty in getting people to see emergent order in chapter 8, in chapter 9 he talks about the belief in the superiority of planning over emergent order.  This is definitely a thing, especially among the educated classes.  I find it funny that technocratic liberals also tend to like "natural" food.  It's generally believed that if there is emergent order in an institution then there must be missed opportunities, because resources are not being directed.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how modern this is.  Central authorities have always banged their heads against emergent orders, determined to rule rather than go with the flow.  I doubt that they put it in the same technocratic language as their modern counterparts, but the ability to let go and steer on the margins has never been a strong suit of rulers.

Sadly, this chapter is somewhat jumbled (he took the opposition to planning a bit too literally), and not always well-argued.  Steps and connections are left out.  I did manage to parse out, eventually, what he meant when he talked about people trying to plan the progress of the human mind:  I don't think he was talking about engineering the human mind like geneticists in Orphan Black, but rather plans for scientific discoveries, technological progress, and the progression of ideas in other scholarly endeavors.  The problem is that you can't plan where you will go when you engage with the unknown.  Things almost always turn out to be harder than you planned, and sometimes serendipity happens.  Hayek's point was that if we knew what we could/would discover next then we would have already made the discovery, so there's a logical impossibility.  I just wish he had organized his thoughts more clearly.

After arguing that, Hayek quickly leaps to arguing against the idea that truth is not determined by deduction from observations, but from hidden causes which have determined the thinker's conclusions, and thus truth or falsehood can depend on the social position (race, class, etc.) of the person making the argument. It seems that he's arguing against ideas of implicit bias, but I don't really see how he got there from his previous point, unless he's making a very subtle argument against the idea that all of our knowledge is already in our minds (hence the possibility of planning) but some of it is fake (hence the possibility of bias or distortion).  It's a big leap of the argument.

Also, while I have no doubt that modern political correctness has plenty of antecedents (remember, one of the main themes of this blog is that all of this has happened before and will happen again), I'm mildly surprised that 1952 had substantial numbers of people arguing that implicit bias is a huge thing, or that the privileged cannot know certain things.  I suppose it's possible that the Marxists might have made the second point (I don't know, I'm just speculating) but that's the sort of argument that could easily be wielded by peasants against planners.  (Unless he's arguing against the idea that only the top of the ladder has the proper perspective.)

Near the end of this chapter, Hayek does offer one point that I like very, very much:  It is dangerous when people abandon religion but see no reason to submit to anything that they do not rationally understand. If people respect neither God nor arbitrary moral codes (and ultimately all "ought" statements are rooted in assertions rather than logic, a point that I spent this afternoon making to a colleague) then they could engage in great hubris.  If this comes at the same point in historical evolution as the rise of great technological capabilities (e.g. nuclear weapons) and a belief in the superiority of planning over emergent order then the unguided might create upheavals that lead to disaster.

I think we have the nuclear genie more-or-less controlled (arguably less, right now, with North Korea rattling the saber) but in higher ed I think we have undermined too many principles, leaving only short-term thought about individual selfishness.  Hayek might be greatly sympathetic to the good that can emerge from selfishness in market economies (and I am, as well) but institutions need rules (even for-profit companies require a certain amount of coordinated sacrifice for greater benefit down the road--it's the whole concept of investment in a project that involves more than one person!), and non-profit educational institutions supposedly offer a chance be supported while indulging one's passions via creative pursuits, in exchange for work that benefits students.  However, when the concept of duty collapses, when the quasi-monastic sacrifice inherent in academic work is regarded as an oppressive norm feasible only for men of a certain class and era, when pervasive and unfair bias is seen as driving every decision, then what is left but short-term selfishness?

Hayek, as a man of ideas, is less of a capitalist than he'd ever admit.  He wanted people to submit to duty and purpose without a clear answer to "Why do I have to listen and what is in it for me?"

Hayek, Chapters 6-8

To be honest, Hayek could trim a lot of his prose.  (OK, I could too, but a blog is basically a rough draft.)  That said, a few observations:
1) In chapter 6, I think Hayek is to some extent right to critique technocrats for treating social organization as a variable to play with for the purposes of optimizing some other measure, e.g. optimize productivity or learning or whatever.  What if people want to use their land for something other than the most profitable function?  What if people want to organize their region into small suburbs instead of subjecting their infrastructure to region-wide governance?

I can think of good reasons to optimize many things and ask people to re-organize in many cases, but are my reasons "good enough"?  That's a value judgment, and different people will reach different conclusions in different cases.  Technocrats treat people and their interactions as means rather than ends unto themselves.

2) In chapter 7, Hayek gets into the social scientist's assumption that outside observation is at least as good as inside knowledge.  I think that when it comes to operational details of a business, Hayek has a very valuable point.  That said, the detached view also has value, and you probably learn the most from a combination of perspectives.

However, I find it rather amusing to see a defense of local knowledge against detached outsider scientists coming from the right flank of the economic/political spectrum, because it comes quite close to "Westerners could never understand a non-Western society" arguments that you get more from the cultural left.  In fairness, honest libertarians have always combined economic views from the right with socially liberal views and respect for self-determination.  Hayek does not lack for self-consistency, but it's still funny to see a social justice argument from him.

I should add that in some ways Hayek and the social justice arguments for marginalized groups are the opposite of post-modernism.  PoMo types tend to (maddeningly) argue "You can see nothing because you are stuck inside the power structures that color your perspective", leaving unanswered "OK, but you're also spouting off while standing inside the power structures, so how do you know anything?"

I think the better PoMos have answers, but not the typical dilettante spouting off to be contrarian.

3) In chapter 8, Hayek talks about the possibility of an institution serving a purpose for which it was not designed.  I find this to be one of the hardest points to make in talks with colleagues.  As long as, say, the latest idiotic "Strategic Planning" or "Assessment" exercise has some ostensibly good justification, I'm supposed to focus on that rather than the fact that it never works but does serve the self-interests of bureaucrats disconnected from the stated mission of the university.  If people could better understand how patterns of action (or inaction) can be self-sustaining while running counter to earnestly-stated (and even honestly-believed) proclamations then maybe we could do a better job of fixing things.

Or maybe it would all devolve into cynical looting when people allowed themselves to discuss how things actually work.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Chapters 1-2 of _The Counter-Revolution in Science_

Hayek spends much of the first chapter arguing that bringing science to social questions has done little to bring insight.  I already gave my general critique of Hayek as an ideologue in the previous post; here I want to focus on the nature of social science, and what I think Hayek gets right and wrong.

The biggest difference between natural science and social science is that natural science is more about discovery while social science is more about testing.  Yes, natural and social scientists both make discoveries and they both test hypotheses, but human experience provides us plenty of ideas about social issues, and in some sense most social ideas are right within a certain domain of applicability.  You don't need a double-blinded, properly-controlled, statistically rigorous study to know that standardized tests cannot tell you the entirety of a person's abilities, that humans have biases, that people often manage to rise above their prejudices, that people also fall short of their ideals, and that small changes in policy can have large or small effects in difference circumstances.  As basic ideas, I think that casual observation of the world is sufficient support for all of them.

What social science can do at its best is answer questions like "When? Under what circumstances?"  Social science can take us from "People have many biases, but they don't always control our behavior" to "Unconscious biases measured by this instrument have demonstrable effects in these settings but not those other settings."  Social science can take us from "Sometimes policy changes matter, sometimes they don't" to "Raising the minimum wage by $0.25/hour from a baseline of $10/hour will have little effect on unemployment in a city with a high cost of living, but raising it by $2/hour in a locale with a low cost of living could have measurable effects on unemployment."  Social science can take us from "Standardized tests don't tell you everything" to "Due to the narrow range of scores, the quantitative section of the GRE has little predictive power for PhD students in such-and-such field, but the relevant subject test explains X% of the variance in outcomes as measured by the following instrument."

So social science does not necessarily tell us much that we don't know on SOME level, but it tells us much about when our intuitions are valid and what their limitations are.  Hayek, being interested in grand social questions and large "Ought" issues missed that, on some level.  Ironically, though, Hayek's grandest hypothesis was falsifiable by casual observations (Western Europe is not a hellhole) without fancy statistical methods.  He railed against a harder enemy than he was actually taken down by.

Natural science operates in domains where we have much less intuition, and much less prior experience from which to develop ideas.  By the time we know enough to even frame a precise hypothesis about certain topics, we're often on our way to testing it.  That's not to say that wrong ideas never take off, and that there's never a contest of hypotheses, but we're definitely operating in realms where we have (comparatively) fewer preconceptions to cling to.

Ironically, the people who most abuse social science are probably closest in practice to Hayek's approach to social questions.  They run with a few findings that flatter their preconceptions and ignore contrary findings.  They love "ought" more than "is."  The only difference is that they flatter themselves with a pretense of empiricism, whereas he is openly critical of the excesses of empiricism.