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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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.)