Friday, October 28, 2011

Happy Hollow Weenie

Field of Skulls

By Mary Karr (b. 1955)

Stare hard enough at the fabric of night,
and if you're predisposed to dark—let’s say
the window you’ve picked is a black
postage stamp you spend hours at,
sleepless, drinking gin after the I Love
Lucy reruns have gone off—stare

like your eyes have force, and behind
any night’s taut scrim will come the forms
you expect pressing from the other side.
For you: a field of skulls, angled jaws
and eye-sockets, a zillion scooped-out crania.
They’re plain once you think to look.

You know such fields exist, for criminals
roam your very block, and even history lists
monsters like Adolf and Uncle Joe
who stalk the earth’s orb, plus minor baby-eaters
unidentified, probably in your very midst. Perhaps
that disgruntled mail clerk from your job

has already scratched your name on a bullet—that’s him
rustling in the azaleas. You caress the thought,
for it proves there’s no better spot for you
than here, your square-yard of chintz sofa, hearing
the bad news piped steady from your head. The night
is black. You stare and furious stare,

confident there are no gods out there. In this way,
you’re blind to your own eye’s intricate machine
and to the light it sees by, to the luck of birth and all
your remembered loves. If the skulls are there—
let’s say they do press toward you
against night’s scrim—could they not stare
with slack jawed envy at the fine flesh
that covers your scalp, the numbered hairs,
at the force your hands hold?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rational anti-Science

Do fundamentalist Christians like James Dobson irrationally reject scientific truths or scientific consensus?

In general, it’s rational be skeptical of people who cite a “scientific consensus”, especially those advocating behavior or right-belief. Those people often use “scientists” interchangeably with “appeal to authority” arguments and misuse scientific terms to give unmerited weight to mere guesses. Most people understand “scientific truths” on faith alone, never honoring the distinction between empirical evidence and speculative inference. They often use faith-based claims of scientific truth as rhetorical cudgels to prod behavior and belief, to confirm biases, or to advance “greater truths;” Al Gore famously did that in his movie, admitting that its lies advanced the more important cause.

Besides that, though, its rational to be skeptical of science because science is untrustworthy.

1. What is a scientific truth? This isn't engineering or medicine (or parenting) where “it works” is the gold standard. Science offers hypotheses (an explanation) and theories (an internally logical and consistent explanation that has at least some empirical evidence in favor and none opposed). Theories can be strong or speculative. Do you trust a consensus built on such flimsy stuff?

I've been told that Karl Popper narrowed the definition even more, requiring that a scientific theory must be falsifiable. By that definition, most of psychology, climatology, economics, natural selection (not the same as evolution) etc. aren’t science because you can’t examine the counter-factual.

2. How reliable is scientific consensus? Historically, never. Scientific consensus is constantly disproved by new scientists. In our lifetime, the scientific consensus on viral cancer, global cooling, homosexuality & female hysteria (both mental illnesses in the DSM), origin of humans (many eves to one eve), interbreeding of Neanderthals, etc. have all fallen. National nutritional guidelines have changed dozens of times. Delusions of Gender listed lots of scientific consensus about female infirmities (their brain size, fingers, genitalia!) that have all fallen; the last one, distributional math & science results, isn’t reproduced in other countries and falling.

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine you tell James Dobson that species evolve under pressure from their environment and he says that’s false. Dobson, not you, stands with the consensus scientific theory of Natural Selection. Genes, not species, drive Natural Selection. Or, the environment changes under pressure from species. Or, certain features are just random or biologically necessary. Frankly I'm not sure where Natural Selection applies, but that theory might change in 10 years.

3. Current science is more holey than people think. Quantum Man describes time wasted on string theory to establish how gravity works. Do particles exchange, like EM? No one knows. Neuroscience is the worst. They build a mountain of inferences on an MRI, which is the image made by software to represent the following: a radio frequency pulse is directed at hydrogen nuclei in the brains of paid subjects half-assing through some contrived task, that pulse causes the hydrogen nuclei to tip its longitudal magnetization (maybe, this is after all quantum physics), which releases energy collected by a coil. That's a magnetic resonance image, an MRI. A series of these detections, and proper interpretation, might show a local increase in the ratio of oxygenated to deoxygenated hemoglobin in the brain, which the software converts into "lighting up" that local area of the brain. That’s it, everything else is guesswork. God speed to those neuroscientists but I trust them as much as my personal phrenologist in dissecting behavior or beliefs.

4. How has science performed in organizing society and families? Utilitarians, Communists, National Socialists, Eugenicists, etc all tried to make politics and family life scientific but obviously failed. The Harvard economics department, Nobelist Paul Samuelson, among others taught that communism was functioning, legitimate alternative to capitalism. How could they be so wrong? They theorized that humans could be conscripted into the efficient production of desirable social outcomes, as easy as a radio frequency pulse can alter a nuclei’s magnetic spin. Oops!

5. Scientific regimes failed to understand or value human nature. People resisted, they wouldn’t relinquish personal objectives to serve a theoretical social utility as required by the theory (have you given all your money and comfort to poor Guatemalan children? Of course not). You know who doesn’t make these errors? Who calls each individual to account for the individual’s deed? Who asks them, not tells them, to follow their better natures? Today’s religions. And yesterdays-- fundamentalist delivered abolition, public schooling, public hospitals and, er, prohibition.

6. Finally, progressives oppose scientific consensus (whether rationally or not is up to you). Progressives prominently disagree with the scientific consensus on vaccines, animal research, nuclear power, bioengineered food, etc. The President Obama himself denied scientific consensus in 2008: "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it. He chose as an economic advisor a prominent advocate of the false “population bomb”. Good for them, they've found common ground with James Dobson.

Now, if science just means process and skepticism, not the assertions produced, well I'm all for it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sayings Part II.

If no one should take charge of maintaining social order, won't you invite anarchy, every man for himself, golden rule etc? Or do we have an organic order? Some say no:

If there ever were significant numbers of Homo sapiens individuals with cognitive limitations on their capacity for behavioral variability, natural selection by intraspecific competition and predation would have quickly and ruthlessly winnowed them out. In the unforgiving Pleistocene environments in which our species evolved, reproductive isolation was the penalty for stupidity, and lions and wolves were its cure. In other words: No villages, no village idiots.

- John J. Shea, “Refuting a Myth About Human Origins” American Scientist

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.
- Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man

The economic problem of society is …the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality… there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.
If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them.
Fundamentally, in a system in which the knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coördinate the separate actions of different people in the same way as subjective values help the individual to coördinate the parts of his plan.
- Friedrich A. Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society

The point is that [the agent] is identified with his actions as flowing from projects or attitudes which… he takes seriously at the deepest level, as what his life is about… It is absurd to demand of such a man, when the sums come in from the utility network which the projects of others have in part determined, that he should just step aside from his own project and decision and acknowledge the decision which utilitarian calculation requires. It is to alienate him in a real sense from his actions and the source of his action in his own convictions. It is to make him into a channel between the input of everyone's projects, including his own, and an output of optimific decision; but this is to neglect the extent to which his projects and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified. It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity.

… Such dispositions and commitments will characteristically be what gives one's life some meaning, and gives one some reason for living it… there is simply no conceivable exercise that consists in stepping completely outside myself and from that point of view evaluating in toto the dispositions, projects, and affections that constitute the substance of my own life… It cannot be a reasonable aim that I or any other particular person should take as the ideal view of the world… a view from no point of view at all.
- Bernard Williams, quoted from the invaluable Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The first thing to ask about an 'organic' ideology that, however unexpectedly, succeeds in organizing substantial sections of the masses and mobilizing them for political action, is not what is false about it but what is true....
- Stuart Hall, The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism Among the Theorists, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (contrasting the question, “What is true about organic society”, with the “highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie.”)

The gist here is that people naturally associate into social orders based on mutual interest, that we see these organic orders, and that we should examine what makes them work and not let super-smart organizers usurp them with grand theoretical architectures. Bernard Williams argues that an individual’s deep-seated dispositions and convictions lead these projects, not involuntary obedience to a greater good. Voluntary progressive and commercial coalitions funded and administered the first public hospitals, public education, public transportation in this country long before the Federal government jumped to the front and claimed all the credit. Voluntary organic groups also forced the government from enforcing slavery. (William’s observation that organic progress arises from individual conviction was shared by Adam Smith, who criticized slavery (among other reasons) as more costly than free labor because the owner still paid sustenance wages but did not benefit from the slave’s internal motivation to better his lot.)

Like progress in politics, a mass of individual decisions made with knowledge of “particular circumstances of time and place” produced economic progress, with prices as universal language communicating needs, wants, and unwelcome goods and services, according to Hayek. Smith made a moral case for free economies, noting that traders need to be tolerant and open minded, because there’s no profit in limiting your customer base.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


The notion that there must exist final objective answers to normative questions, truths that can be demonstrated or directly intuited, that it is in principle possible to discover a harmonious pattern in which all values are reconciled, and that it is towards this unique goal that we must make; that we can uncover some single central principle that shapes this vision, a principle which, once found, will govern our lives – this ancient and almost universal belief, on which so much traditional thought and action and philosophical doctrine rests, seems to me invalid, and at times to have led (and still to lead) to absurdities in theory and barbarous consequences in practice.
- Isaiah Berlin, “Introduction to ‘Five Essays on Liberty’ (1969)”

In “Utilitarianism: For and Against” (1973), Professor Williams showed how the theory depended on an impoverished idea of human action and motivation. By reducing people to little more than devices for the efficient production of desirable outcomes, utilitarianism ignores the value of integrity and the notions of personal responsibility and personal goals. Although it appears to provide a guide to life, it in fact robs human action of its point.
- Economist obit on death of Philosopher Bernard Williams.

While there may be evil, or greedy, or ignorant wealthy people, what reason do we have to believe that a government program, empowered to use coercion to seize and rearrange assets, which is immune from lawsuit, which has no incentive to generate economic gains because it’s paid whether or not it does a good job, which people cannot fire, and alternatives to which are not available— why should we believe that it will do a better job?
- [I forgot where Flye found this]

I know something worse than hate, abstract love.
- Albert Camus.

In the name of abstract love, in the name of God and Country, in the name of saving the youth from the drug, in the name of the proletariat, in the name of abstractions, our politicians and war policy makers have committed the most atrocious crimes on human beings, who are not abstractions, who are bones and flesh. That is what our country is living and suffering today: in the name of an abstract goodness, we are suffering the opposite: the horror of war and violence, of innocents dead, disappeared, and mutilated.
-Javier Sicilia

When men once get the habit of helping themselves to the property of others, they are not easily cured of it.
- New York Times, 1909

It stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there's someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.
Howard Roark

Do not the social planners realize that this principle, inherent in man's very nature, will follow them into their new orders, and that, once there, it will wreak more serious havoc than in our natural order, in which one individual's excessive claims and self-interest are at least held in bounds by the resistance of all the others? These writers always assume two inadmissible premises: that society, as they conceive it, will be led by infallible men completely immune to the motive of self-interest; and that the masses will allow such men to lead them.

Finally, our social planners do not seem in the least concerned about the implementation of their program. How will they gain acceptance for their systems? …To induce all men, simultaneously, to cast off, like an ill-fitting garment, the present social order in which mankind has evolved since its beginning and adopt, instead, a contrived system, becoming docile cogs in the new machine, only two means, it seems to me, are available: force or universal consent.
Frédéric Bastiat

The gist here is that grand designs for ordering human behavior (like utilitarianism which survives among economists as "maximizing social good") meet all the definitions of classic Greek tragedy: (1) hubris to assume that individual virtues (e.g., responsibility, charity, integrity, productivity) can be collectivized and maximized without also draining their potency and without collectivizing and maximizing individual vices (greed, dishonesty, waste, intemperance), (2) ate, or folly in granting to a few people a monopoly on violence and the duty to define and enforce morals, to arrange transfers between the needy and the greedy, to control the education of youth, and to basically erase each person's shame and pride, their obligations and motivations, and (3) nemesis, the destruction of organic voluntary social organizations (the subject of a future post) by involuntary, hypothetical organizations.