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.

Word cloud

Word cloud

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.