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

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Back to book blogging: The Philosophy of John Dewey

I'm reading a collection of essays by John Dewey.  About 2/3 of the volume is on philosophy, and largely out of my depth, so I've just skimmed those parts.  But now I'm at a 1931 essay titled "Science and Society."  The editor of the volume indicates that this essay deviates somewhat from Dewey's usual views on the nature of knowledge--he treats science as impersonal, objective knowledge, whereas usually he stressed the contextual nature of knowledge and learning.  That is actually unsurprising to me, because the second half of this essay reads as technocratic, and technocrats have a soft spot for the opportunities offered by objective knowledge.  Of course, he spends the first half of the essay urging would-be technocrats to be less smug (and good for that!) but Dewey was neither the first nor last technocrat to think that if they just rethought the project they could totes make it work.

He starts by noting that the societal changes wrought by technology had not actually changed human nature:
In its effect upon men's external habits, dominant interests, the conditions under which they work and associate, whether in the family, the factory, the state, or internationally, science is by far the most potent social factor in the modern world. It operates, however, through its undesigned effects rather than as a transforming influence of men's thoughts and purposes. This contrast between outer and inner operation is the great contradiction in our lives. Habits of thought and desire remain in substance what they were before the rise of science, while the conditions under which they take effect have been radically altered by science.
Maybe that's because technology isn't actually new to human beings.  Indeed, we control the planet precisely because we are the best tool-users on the planet.  So a technology-reliant existence isn't a new existence for humans, it's actually all that humans have known for at least a few tens of thousands of years.  We fought off predators by using spears rather than superior muscles and speed, we survived the ice age with fire and blankets rather than fur and insulating fat, and we acquired food with tools rather than claws.  And while I freely concede that the pace of technological change today is greater than in ancient times, when I read the classics I do not notice any substantial differences in human nature.  The Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Greek philosophers, the scribes of ancient Egypt, they all show people who are remarkably similar to today's people.  The educated classes of today feel compelled to visibly celebrate diversity, but similarity is a much bigger fact of human existence.

Having just conceded that humans of 1931 are remarkably similar to those of the past, Dewey goes on to note that information technology has not transformed society:
No sooner do we begin to understand the meaning of one such change than another comes and displaces the former. Our minds are dulled by the sudden and repeated impacts. Externally, science through its applications is manufacturing the conditions of our institutions at such a speed that we are too bewildered to know what sort of civilization is in process of making.
Because of this confusion, we cannot even draw up a ledger account of social gains and losses due to the operation of science. But at least we know that the earlier optimism which thought that the advance of natural science was to dispel superstition, ignorance, and oppression, by placing reason on the throne, was unjustified. Some superstitions have given way, but the mechanical devices due to science have made it possible to spread new kinds of error and delusion among a larger multitude.
The airplane binds men at a distance in closer bonds of intercourse and understanding, or it rains missiles of death upon hapless populations.
Honestly, this reads like an account of the hopes and subsequent disappointments among those who envisioned the internet as transforming society and freeing people.  Yes, the internet has enabled great things, and spread information to be used for good, but it has also been used for dull entertainment and malignant propaganda.  Let us remember that Wikileaks was originally founded as a site for undermining totalitarian regimes via the cleansing light of truth, but in 2016 it was used to advance the political machinations of a Russian dictator and his billionaire puppet.

Also, if we were to change the dated term "mechanical devices due to science" to "information technologies enabled by science" we would have something that any reader in 2017 would think is a critique of the internet.  It's been noted before that the rise of cinema was accompanied by predictions of the demise of universities (classes would be delivered on film reels), as was the rise of television.  It seems that every new information technology elicits the exact same cycle of euphoria and frustration.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Beyond information technology, Dewey's basic point is not so different from Kentaro Toyama's Law of Amplification: Technology doesn't so much level or transform human society as allow us to do what we were doing before only moreso.  The advantaged can derive more advantages from technology (though they can also fall if they don't keep up with competitors), the disadvantaged can be left behind in the new economy as they were in the old (though some can also discover a new path forward), people who seek to do good with technology can do more good with new technology, and people who seek to do ill with technology can do the same.

Having noted the ways that science has enabled both good and evil, merely amplifying on human nature rather than transforming it, Dewey goes on to note a point that has my most enthusiastic agreement (though not his):
Shall we try to improve the hearts of men regard without to the new methods which science puts at our disposal? There are those, men in position in church and state, who urge this course. They trust to a transforming influence of a morals and religion which have not been affected by science to change human desire and purpose so that they will employ science and machine technology for beneficent social ends. The recent Encyclical of the Pope is a classic document in expression of a point of view which would rely wholly upon inner regeneration to protect society from the injurious uses to which science may be put. Quite apart from any ecclesiastical connection, there are many "intellectuals" who appeal to inner "spiritual" concepts, totally divorced from scientific intelligence, to effect the needed work.
Indeed, my own belief is that character matters in every age.  Dewey will go on to urge that we apply the methods of social science to solve the problems of human society.  However, the 20th century saw the formulation of theorems (e.g. Holmstrom's Theorem, Sen's Theorem) that demonstrated the limits of what can be accomplished via institutional designs.  There's no way to totally automate decision-making.  And central planning failed.  In my own job I am seeing more and more evidence that "best practices" only take you so far, and in the end you need to hire and retain people with character and values that drive them to do the job within a reasonable incentive structure; process only gets you so far.

Anyway, Dewey does name two areas where the application of science to social problems has been beneficial:  Insurance (where we use statistics to price and mitigate risk, so that people can take the risks that inevitably accompany attempts at great things) and the germ theory of disease/hygiene.  However, the first example involves something that people can choose to buy, and that can be priced without subjective value judgments, and the second ties quite closely to facts of the natural world.  Neither relies too much on the steering of behavior.

He goes on to consider education as an arena for the application of science to social problems.  Despite the exasperation I often display with educational fads, I actually have a lot of sympathy for the idea of applying science to educational problems.  However, I believe that the passions aroused by the cultural, ethical, and political dimensions of education often leak into educational studies, and people believe that their subjective choices about which question to ask shape the answers that they get and (more importantly) the ways in which those answers are applied.  For instance, it is only very recently that people looked at whether "reformed" physics classes were as good as "traditional" classes for improving student understanding of the topics and skills that get greater emphasis in "traditional" classes (since "reformed" classes often emphasis different aspects of the subject).  For decades, many researchers were emphasizing "conceptual understanding" over quantitative problem-solving, for a number of reasons.  I have argued before that this is in part because of the cultural baggage that gets attached to mathematical reasoning (at least in the US), but most of the people who study physics education in the US are natural scientists who have not done a lot of reading on American cultural history, so they are blind to their own assumptions.  It is interesting that the lead author in the study I linked here is a psychologist, not a physicist, and is probably better-trained at unpacking cultural baggage and accompanying assumptions than most physicists would be.

(Then again, Dewey was trained as a philosopher, a field that specializes in skewering assumptions since at least the days of Socrates, yet he also fell into the technocrats' trap.)

So, as far as my own views go, I'm a big fan of social science as science, but skeptical of social engineering.  It's the difference between pure and applied science.  As far as Dewey, I find it fascinating that he could start an essay by noting the ways in which the technological environment experienced by humans has failed to change thought and behavior, but then express great confidence that science can be used to shape social environments in such a way as to steer human behavior.  In that sense the essay falls flat.  On the other hand, I give him full marks for understanding the distinction between changes in the technological environment and changes in human nature.  He even managed to note ways in which the information technology of his era failed to live up to hype about transforming society.  Too bad he didn't carry that humility forward in thinking about social engineering.

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