Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

August 18, 2008

Susan Jacoby: How Anti-Intellectualism Is Destroying America

Filed under: culture — Tags: — codesmithy @ 11:29 am

Terrence McNally has an interview with Susan Jacoby, author of the book The Age of American Unreason.  Ultimately, I think I’ll pass on her book.  Nick Gillespie had another excellent interview with her for Book TV which is now on youtube (part 1 of 7).  Bemoaning the state of the world is a favorite long-standing tradition of intellectuals, cynics and curmudgeons.  As H. L. Mencken put it: Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.  Given that Mencken died in 1956, Jacoby’s observations are hardly new.

At the heart, Jacoby’s assertion is that the various statistics that she quotes represents a decline in critical thought.  The problem is that every statistic is a non-sequitur.  At the heart, what one would have to do to prove a dumbed down culture is show that people have a reduced capacity for logical thought over time.  It is telling Jacoby doesn’t seem to quote the one statistic that would prove her point: do people have a better or reduced capacity for identifying validity of an argument over time?  It may be true that “American 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 countries in math literacy” but is that because the American education system got worse, or because other countries got better?

There are other arguments you can make, such as critical thought is more important today than it was in the past because population continues to grow.  Population growth means we would have to have to be more efficient with our finite resources to maintain basic human dignity, the foundation of democracy.  Isaac Asimov used the bathroom metaphor to demonstrate the argument:

The dignity of the human species] will be completely destroyed [if the population growth continues at its present rate]. I use what I call the bathroom metaphor: if two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want to stay as long as you like for whatever you need. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person; you have to bang on the door, “Aren’t you done yet?” In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive. Convenience and decency can’t survive. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one person matters

Jacoby bemoans the death of print, and complains about the quick hits of information we get online when we are seeking particular facts instead of long treastises on particular topics.  However, this is merely a fact in search of a problem.   If one doesn’t prove the underlying premise: critical thought has provably gone down in absolute terms i.e. more people are unable to determine the validity of the following argument:

  1. All men are mortal
  2. Socrates is a man
  3. Socrates is mortal

Or, cannot answer the following question.

There are a set of cards with numbers on the front and letters on the back.  Given the statement: if a card has an even number, then its letter is a vowel, what is the minimum number of cards one would have to turn over to prove/disprove the validity of the statement if one sees: 5 6 B E?

Then the statistics aren’t relevant to the argument.  Again, as far as I can tell, Jacoby never references a direct measure of this type.  If she doesn’t, Jacoby is paradoxically employing faulty logic in order to convince us that we lack critical thinking capacity.  I don’t think I could stand the irony of such a book.

August 3, 2008

In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

Filed under: capitalism, culture — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:07 am

Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called “In Praise of Idleness.”  Maybe it is a tad presumptuous to claim there  are threads of anarcho-syndicalist thought in it, but it certainly fits into the critique that Russell prescribed.   The Internet and computers have dramatically changed the landscape in terms of the manufacture of physical things.  Do we really need to manufacture books, CDs, DVDs, newspapers?  Do we really need to build movie theatres?  Do we really need the broadcast towers, the telephones, the bulk of mail delivery?

The Internet also presents the potential for immense benefits hardly imaginable in Russell’s time.  Leisure time can be used to make artifacts that are available the world over at virtually no charge.  The information age is revolutionizing industries.  The question is simple, do we split the world into haves and have-nots?  Do some people get to tenuously keep their jobs as another segment of society struggles to get by, while the capitalists see the bulk of the benefit?  Or do we split, and give all people more leisure?

There is no good reason why the arduous tasks are left to a certain class of people.  It isn’t about the whole society going idle, but rather, redistributing the work between those currently with, and without jobs in addition to ensuring the labor surplus is used for the benefit of the society as a whole instead of into the pockets of the capitalist.  If we really think about the resources that are just wasted (for example building nuclear weapons that should never be used), imagine what the nation would look like if those resources were used to improve the well-being of the members in society, including a shorter working day for arduous tasks.

July 31, 2008

Re: Orson Scott Card – State job is not to redefine marriage

Filed under: culture, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:14 am

Orson Scott Card has a post on gay marriage claiming it represents “the end of democracy in America.”  Further claiming that

These judges are making new law without any democratic process; in fact, their decisions are striking down laws enacted by majority vote.

I think Mr. Card needs a little bit of a civics lesson.  We have this thing called a constitution that is the supreme law.  Occasionally, legislatures pass laws that are in contradiction with the constitution.  If the judiciary finds this to be the case, then the constitution wins and the law is struck down.  This usually doesn’t spell the end to democracy however, because there are still avenues to change the constitution itself.

As for the end of democracy in America, in the cases of California and Massachusetts, these are state decisions.  The relevant laws are state laws, constitutions and precedents, not federal.  Maybe it is a disturbing trend in Card’s eyes, but nevertheless it is limited to two states, forty-eight others are fine.

Further on Card states:

The pretext is that state constitutions require it — but it is absurd to claim that these constitutions require marriage to be defined in ways that were unthinkable through all of human history until the past 15 years. And it is offensive to expect us to believe this obvious fiction.

Did he read the California decision?  Here is the copy.

In considering this question, we note at the outset that the constitutional issue before us differs in a significant respect from the constitutional issue that has been addressed by a number of other state supreme courts and intermediate appellate courts that recently have had occasion, in interpreting the applicable provisions of their respective state constitutions, to determine the validity of statutory provisions or common law rules limiting marriage to a union of a man and a woman. These courts, often by a one-vote margin, have ruled upon the validity of statutory schemes that contrast with that of California, which in recent years has enacted
comprehensive domestic partnership legislation under which a same-sex couple may enter into a legal relationship that affords the couple virtually all of the same substantive legal benefits and privileges, and imposes upon the couple virtually all of the same legal obligations and duties, that California law affords to and imposes upon a married couple.  Past California cases explain that the constitutional validity of a challenged statute or statutes must be evaluated by taking into consideration all of the relevant statutory provisions that bear upon how the state treats the affected persons with regard to the subject at issue.  Accordingly, the legal issue we must resolve is not whether it would be constitutionally permissible under the California Constitution for the state to limit marriage only to opposite-sex couples while denying same-sex couples any opportunity to enter into an official relationship with all or virtually all of the same substantive attributes, but rather whether our state Constitution prohibits the state from establishing a statutory scheme in which both opposite-sex and same-sex couples are granted the right to enter into an officially recognized family relationship that affords all of the significant legal rights and obligations traditionally associated under state law with the institution of marriage, but under which the union of an opposite-sex couple is officially designated a “marriage” whereas the union of a same-sex couple is officially designated a “domestic partnership.” The question we must address is whether, under these circumstances, the failure to designate the official relationship of same-sex couples as marriage violates the California Constitution.

Marriage wasn’t redefined.  California already had a comprehensive domestic partnership law in which all the same rights were basically conferred.  That domestic partnership law was something passed in the last 15 years (1999 to be exact (source)).  The California Supreme Court found this duality unconstitutional, and the ruling makes numerous references to relevant information if Card were so interested.  If the pretext is so patently absurd as Card suggests, he should have no problem pinpointing a California law that clearly demonstrates an error.  However, Card cites no California law, relevant sections of the California constitution, or precedents.  However, he would have us believe that he is more an expert on California law than the majority of justices on the California Supreme Court.

Card later bemoans being labeled a homophobe.  He claims he is a victim of this labeling by opposing the gay-rights activists.  Maybe it is because of his rampant paranoia in the paragraphs above and below.

Already in several states, there are textbooks for children in the earliest grades that show “gay marriages” as normal. How long do you think it will be before such textbooks become mandatory — and parents have no way to opt out of having their children taught from them?

There is this little thing called transparency, and this whole paragraph is terribly opaque. Which states?  Which textbooks?  Can he give an example?  Or is Card talking about “Heather Has Two Mommies?”

Card then goes on to state that: “when gay rights were being enforced by the courts back in the ’70s and ’80s, we were repeatedly told by all the proponents of gay rights that they would never attempt to legalize gay marriage.”  That is highly dubious.  Individuals have their own agendas.  In addition, there is a whole new generation of gay people, why should they be bound by the promises made by gay people before them.  It isn’t like they were their parents.

Then Card goes off the deep end.

Here’s the irony: There is no branch of government with the authority to redefine marriage. Marriage is older than government.

This is an absurd argument.  It is like saying no branch of the government has the authority to ban slavery because slavery is older than the government.  Card then makes some confused points about the definition of marriage.  Maybe he can be forgiven, because there have been cases where people have tried to legislate Pi as exactly 3 (if only it were that easy).  The issue is not what men and women do together, but rather the special legal status that the partner has and whether that should be extended to same-sex couples.  Can a partner inherit your wealth the same way a widow does?  Can they make important decisions about the other partner’s medical care?  etc.  These are things the state can do.  It doesn’t alter the laws of the universe, but rather establishes some power over the welfare over another person of their choosing.  Card is right in that it is not the same thing.  It is equivalent to saying that two people are equal.  This is also obviously false, no two people are exactly equal.  What we mean when we say it, is that they are equal in the eyes of the law.  In the California case, the court ruled “domestic partnerships” and “marriage” had to be on this equal legal standing.

Card then goes on to make some points about cohabitation, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births.  I would agree with Card that out-of-wedlock births and divorce are problems.  However, I don’t see the direct connection to “gay-marriage.”  Just look at the divorce rates, Massachusetts is at 47 (under Utah which is at 23), and California is at 19 and the data is old.  Nevertheless, the top state is Nevada.  Shouldn’t what is going on in that state be the focus of the ire?  Isn’t that the state that is destroying marriage, much like Arkansas, Alabama, Wyoming, and Idaho?

I would agree with Card that there are things wrong in our culture.  However, I don’t think “gay-marriage” or the “gay agenda” is the driving force behind it.  And, if push comes to shove, I would rather kids have an accurate picture of gay people than be totally ignorant.  Just like I would like kids to have accurate information about contraception than not.  I don’t think people, in general, make better decisions with less information.  If they do, it is more luck than anything else and luck is not sound public policy.  It doesn’t mean one has to approve, just like there are some people who don’t approve of eating meat, but I don’t see who is being served by ignorance.

July 30, 2008

The Smoking Gun: NYPD Bruise

Filed under: culture — codesmithy @ 9:38 am

The Smoking Gun has video and subsequent police report of a NYPD officer knocking over a bicyclist.  In the incident report, the police officer presumably signed the following statement.

Deponent further states that upon instructing the defendant to cease the above-described conduct, the defendant steered the defendant’s bicycle in the direction of deponent and drove defendant’s bicycle directly into deponent’s body, causing deponent to fall to the ground and causing deponent to suffer lacerations on deponent’s forearms.

The important thing to note is not the basic facts, the officer might have indeed suffered lacerations on his forearms.  Rather, how the whole sequence of events was framed.  It was this entire framing that was misleading.

It is really hard to speak to the police officers motivations.  It could be that he thought he was going to get hit by the bicyclist.  For example, the bicyclist was possibly “acting like” he was going to hit the officer from the officer’s perspective.  Whether or not the bicyclist had that intention is questionable.  However, it could be the police officer had some stereotype in his mind about the nature of an activist.  Therefore, we would be equally guilty of projecting a stereotype if we thought the cop did this just to bust someone’s head and later lied about it.

In short, our societal conceptions of the nature of evil and violence are hampered by myths, myths about the motivations of perpetrators.  It is a basis of the cultural incongruity, the conceptual chasm, that exists between evil acts and pure motivations.  The officer could have had some legitimate concern for his own safety that caused him act the way he did.  This doesn’t make his actions any less distasteful, but painting caricatures or assuming the worse about perpetrators doesn’t help either.

July 29, 2008

Bertrand Russell: Face to Face Interview

Filed under: culture, math — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:12 am

Bertrand Russell was an anti-war activist, philosopher and mathematician.  I think he is correct in the conclusion that scientific man can not be at war with itself.  We are much too clever.  We wield great power, but haven’t the sense not to use, nor can we contemplate all the problems we are sure to create.

In The Systems Bible by John Gall, it states

Destiny is largely a set of unquestioned assumptions.

Gall gives this piece of wisdom with respect to problem avoidance.

If you’re not there, the accident can happen without you.

Avoiding catastrophe can be a lot easier than dealing with it.

July 20, 2008

Modern Science Writing

Filed under: books, culture, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:21 am

I finished reading The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins.  I can’t think of another book that I so enjoyed reading.  It is an anthology, and therefore suffers from uneven tone and style.  The upshot is that there are a few authors I would like to read more of, such as Lancelot Hogben, Lee Smolin, and of course Carl Sagan.  It also convinced me not to read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time of which there is a brief selection in the book.

I think the book is best enjoyed in small doses.  This sensibility comes from the fact that one should be thinking when reading it, not about the words on the page, but what it says about us, and the universe we live in.  What we are, what we are made of, the indifferent rules that govern us and what the implications are for the limited freedom we do enjoy.  As an thought experiment, try to imagine the life of an individual carbon atom, formed by a nuclear reaction in a star, which just so happened to find itself trapped in limestone on earth.  Imagine further that this atom somehow manages to enter into the carbon cycle where it might become part of you.  Part of your DNA, your hair, your brain.  But a carbon atom’s existence as literally part of you is just less than a blink of an eye in the grand-scale of its experience.  Every atom of your being has some extraordinary tale of natural history.  This is the mind-expanding world one enters as one reads the pages of Modern Science Writing.  How terribly parochial many of our conceptions of the world seem when placed on the canvas of the cosmos.

This is knowledge that deserves to shared, deserves to be contemplated by all mankind.  But when pondering this, there comes another crashing reality of natural history, how I came to read the book.  Perhaps I am guilty of projecting my particular aesthetic onto the rest of humanity, but nevertheless the book costs approximately $35.  The local county library has 1 copy, and there are two holds as I write this.  The point is that the high price of this book has a practical effect, it limits the knowledge to a specialized class.  Kate Muir points out that “the Victorians, with their public lectures and royal societies, gloried in debate and celebrated the thrills of fresh knowledge.”

I don’t think think it is quite fair to critique the popular culture of different eras.  Bemoaning the anti-intellectualism of the masses on one-side without considering how science is presented seems a tad disingenuous.  It is natural that science gets more specialized as it progresses.  A predictable consequence of this is that it may take work to make discoveries fit for mass consumption, as opposed to the Victorian era, where some new discovery could just be presented.

The danger that the discoveries of science become esoteric knowledge of a specialized class is real.  To guard against this, science must be communicated to the public, freely and openly.  Hence we find ourselves in contradiction, as to gain access to the knowledge is comparatively expensive and ignorance is free.  When should science pass into our shared cultural heritage, and should it take as long as some piece of fiction?  Is there some better way to compensate scientific authors for their work?

In closing, I don’t begrudge the money I did pay for the book.  It is extraordinary.  I enjoyed as much to think that it deserves to be integrated as part of our cultural heritage as quickly as possible.  But, this knowledge is constrained by the societal conditions in which it was produced.  Does science exist for the benefit of a specialized class, or is its purpose to enlighten humanity?  In the context of current economic conditions, it rests in the former more than the latter.

July 16, 2008

The Quick Fix

Filed under: culture, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:18 am

Naomi Klein was on Democracy Now! giving her insights on the current crises we are facing.  On the fuel crisis Naomi said the following:

So when you press people who are selling this drill in ANWR, more offshore oil drilling, also drilling into the shale in places like Montana, what they actually say is that the reason why it will lower prices at the pump, you know, soon, this summer, is because it will send a message to the stock market, it will send a message to the oil speculators that more supply is on the way. So, essentially, what they’re saying is, let’s play the market, let’s collectively play the market.

And that’s why it’s significant that yesterday, in the face of Bush’s announcement—and it was a significant announcement, because it was a real indication of the seriousness of this administration to really make this their, you know, final push in office, and they could well win, because this media campaign is really bringing public opinion on side, and we know that the Democrats are pretty weak in the face of that public opinion, and the only thing that they could fight this with is with real commitment to green policies. And, you know, don’t hold your breath.

If one pay close attention to Bush at the press conference, one can see Klein’s analysis is correct.  The core argument of drilling proponents is that drilling would send the message that future supply is on the way, which would bring down gas prices.  No.  What would bring down gas prices would be a firm commitment to alternative fuels.  If speculators saw the U.S. was serious about getting off our collective addiction to oil, and/or the government launched a serious investigation into oil company profits and was serious about windfall taxes, then we would start seeing some relief at the pump.

For some reason, Bush Republicans only seem able to understand the supply side in economics, even then, not particularly well.  More concerning, the American public is falling for the delusion.  Is there any particular reason we are still listening to this president rather than sheer amusement.  How much credibility does he have about anything?  The truth of the matter is that people believe what the president says not because we rationally should, but rather because we want to.  In the end, if these policies pass with popular support, we must also blame ourselves for our own credulity.  There will always be snake-oil salesman, it doesn’t give us the right to check our brains at the door, or play the victim when the “miracle cure” doesn’t work.

July 14, 2008

The One-Sided Class War

Filed under: capitalism, culture, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 8:13 am

Ian Welsh has a post over at firedoglake called “There Was a Class War.  The Rich Won It.” The productivity and wages graph is the most significant.  If you read Milton Friedman that departure between productivity and wages is sort of puzzling.  Obviously, if someone is producing more wealth, they should share in the profits.  It is the sensibility that a rising tide lifts all ships.  Then, what the hell?  Why didn’t this rising tide lift all ships.

One isn’t going to find the answer out from Friedman.  One would need to look at a work like Capital by Karl Marx to find a decent explanation for why this occurs.  Don’t expect to hear it from the corporate owned media, or in the classroom.   But, let’s face it, having an anti-intellectual, functionally illiterate, easily distracted, indoctrinated majority does have its advantages.  In this scenario, why wouldn’t the rich do everything to wield the power of government to their advantage?  Why wouldn’t they engage in a propaganda war in order to convince the masses that everything is alright, and those who complain are just whiners?  It has all worked out for Reagan, Helms, Snow, Russert, etc.  Mission Accomplished.  The debt and the trade deficit, it isn’t their problem.  When are the working-classes going to wake up and realize they are holding the bag?

July 8, 2008

Follow-up: Hans Reiser Leads Police to Wife’s Body

Filed under: culture, random — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:00 am

Han Reiser led police to the remains of his wifeI have a post with a bit of background, and link to Wired’s spectacular article about the circumstances surrounding the case.

As it turns out, Sean Sturgeon was a bit of a red herring.

In the end, there really is no nerd defense.  If there was any bias in the Wired article, it was probably too sympathetic to Reiser.  After all, he is a prototypical American nerd, undeniably brilliant, socially awkward, a person who escapes to an alternate, violent, but structured fantasy.  Nevertheless, he murdered someone.  All the sympathy goes to the victim of his crime.

There are acts we cannot undo.  Acts that should have never been committed in the first place.  The only hope now is that he recognizes the horrible cost of his crime and may he spend the rest of his days humbly atoning for this sin.

June 30, 2008

On Angry, Arrogant Atheism

Filed under: culture, religion, science, Uncategorized — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 7:22 am

Recently, PZ Myers ripped Gordy Slack for “bad” articles on creationismGordy Slack’s reply is revealing in its own way.

It surprises me that PZ is so pissed off by my efforts to understand why so many Americans reject evolution. If you ask them, and I have bothered to ask hundreds or thousands over the past two years, many will tell you that more than anything else, it’s the arrogant zealotry of cocksure ideologues that turns them off to evolution. They see people calling their intuitions and worldviews retarded and corrupt, and they march the other way. That’s one reason why we evolutionists have done such an abysmal promotions job even though we’re armed with the most delightful and seductive and potent theory ever. If we can’t sell evolution, we must be doing something wrong. Right? I’m just saying that we might start by resisting the urge to spit bile in the face of potential buyers.

Gordy Slack’s original article, such as it was, painted creationism as a form of legitimate skepticism.  It conferred respect on creationism for its truly adversarial relationship to science, noting things that apparently creationists pointed out, and science eventually proved them right.  PZ Myers’ point was: no, scientists were saying the same things, and unlike the creationists, they found the hard evidence to prove it.

Creationism is fundamentally reactionary and denialist.  The line between honest skepticism and denialism can usually be discerned by asking a simple question.  Both the skeptic and the denialist will claim there is not enough evidence to support a particular claim, what differentiates the two is their answer as to what evidence would be necessary to change their belief.  The true skeptic will be able to produce a few pieces of evidence that would convince them.  A denialist will sometimes openly say no amount of evidence will convince them, or if they are more sophisticated, they will just leave it at an unspecific more.

The fact of the matter is that the theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the best and heavily supported scientific theories we have.  The rejection of evolution rests on a logical fallacy, the fear of its ramifications, not the lack of evidence.  The arrogance of the atheist, or the evolutionary scientist is the mere questioning of the unassailable church doctrine.  The thinking goes, if those atheists weren’t so arrogant and just accept the fact that the bible is unerringly correct, then there wouldn’t be a problem.

There are many that believe there is some way to reconcile the theory of evolution and religion.  I am not denying that there are ways to reconcile the two beliefs, but there are none that I find particularly intellectually satisfying.

What the creationists of the world seek from the scientists is simple: accommodation.  And this is what makes atheists so angry.  It sends the message that if one is petulant enough, stubborn enough, loud enough, irrational enough, that it is possible to get the most reasonable of institutions to cave.  Science, as an ideal, is imperfectly implemented by humans.  We try our best, and sometimes we fail, but the central tenet is that we try to succeed, and we are fundamentally honest.

I used to believe standing by a principle was easy.  Science was some forgone conclusion, why wouldn’t someone want to be rational?  Why wouldn’t someone want to know more about the physical world around them?  My upbringing was religious.  I saw going to church on Sunday as some sort of insurance policy.  I thought there was some ancient break where god was regularly intervening in the world and then he quit for some reason.  Later, I realized that the person who went to church on Sunday was the same on Monday.  The tales of great miracles occur regularly, but when examined closely they more closely resemble hoaxes or tales of the credulous, not divine intervention.  Finally, I was able to stitch together a coherent, rational view of natural history that exposes the very strange creatures that we are and what we believe.

I admit it.  I’m a little bit bitter about that.  I can only compare and contrast my own experience of confirmation with this statement from the Brights.

Hello, parents/guardians! Please read the following Brights’ Net’s “rules” for youngsters signing up to be counted in the constituency of Brights.

1) The decision to be a Bright must be the child’s. Any youngster who is told he or she must, or should, be a Bright can NOT be a Bright. [The Brights’ Net doesn’t wish to count children who are not taking the step for themselves.]

2) Children should know they can change their mind at a later time (as can any person).

3) A child must be able to independently sign onto the Brights’ Net site, read and understand the definition, conclude they are a Bright, and then locate and complete the sign-up form without assistance. (Parents should feel free to discuss likely implications of “being a Bright” with the child, but the child must be capable of abiding by the guidelines.)

Can you imagine a church adopting such a policy before we start labeling children Christian?

Religion is at war with the world.  At war with the truths we discover.  Has religion ever endorsed some new discovery and gone, wow, this is better than we thought?  The universe is far older, larger, grander, more complex and elegant than our prophets led us to believe.

This willful ignorance is something to be angry about.  Furthermore, I will not lie, mislead or deny the truth as I see it to accommodate those who want to wallow in a delusion.  If this makes me arrogant, so be it.  I ask nothing less than an intellectual revolution towards rationality, a new permanent enlightenment of our species to replace the decadent thinking of the here and now.  Thinkers unite!  You have nothing to lose but your superstitions and an undimmed view of universe to gain and explore.

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