Monday, June 14, 2021

on Obama as terrible...

In response to someone asking why I would say President Obama was terrible (along with Bush II and Trump). The questioner also got semi-excited about the ACA and complained about GOP opposition...

...Beyond that, the "GOP opposition" angle is oversold. (He had full control for two years. And he had workable minorities after that. See: Bill Clinton with a militant GOP Congress, probably tied for second-best president in terms of policy back to Coolidge.) And "opposition" is mostly a tired partisan excuse. (E.g., Trump, the next terrible president, could easily say the same thing, yes?). Bigger picture: we need to call our politicians to something beyond partisanship and excuse-making, esp. these days. Consider the example of Reagan working with the Dems to accomplish a ton of stuff.

For Obama, I'd say it was a lack of significant accomplishments and a number of policy sins. Other than that, he was fine. (He is a polished speaker and a strong family man. He certainly seemed smart enough. And so on. My preferred thesis: it was his lack of experience as an executive that was the key here.)

Expanding on the sins of omission and commission, I'd offer three points. 1.) The ACA is probably his most significant legislative accomplishment. And because it dealt with symptoms instead of root causes, it could not be more than a band-aid on a gaping wound. Beyond that, there are other critiques, including yours. (But again, why make so many excuses for such a "smart" guy with majorities in the House and Senate?) When your signature achievement is mostly a hot and busy mess, that's a really bad sign. 2.) By any objective standards, by theory and the data, his damage to the macroeconomy/recovery was historically terrible. 3.) He was given a Nobel Peace Prize and proceeded to become the first president to have us at war for eight years. I know there are few people who are really "liberal" anymore, but that really bugs those of us who are.

We've had three, going on four, terrible presidents in a row-- and that's with a low bar. Hopefully, we'll do better in 2024. And thankfully, there can be much more to life than political hacks, partisan enablers, and power-mongering whores.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

ruminations on racism (and ironic accusations about Charles Murray)

This is an exchange with a friend about racism and his accusations of Murray as a racist (on the occasion of Murray releasing a book that talks about race). But my friend is unable (or somehow unwilling) to provide a definition of "racism". If a definition was forthcoming, I'd bet the ranch that it would be incoherent or would apply far more forcefully to people in my friend's camps. I've written about Murray's work on race quite a bit. (For those who want to read about-- and read excerpts from-- The Bell Curve, click here. For Sam Harris' excellent interview with Murray on this topic, click here.) In this response, I move beyond the definitional question to make other points-- about the nature of racism (in its various definitions)-- defending Murray against slander and striving for clarity on a sensitive but important topic.

______________________ It'd be funny/sad if Kendi doesn't provide a definition of it-- hard to believe, really. (But maybe that would explain a lot. Hmmm....) If I have time today, I'll try to read some of his book.

Let me try another angle, ignoring the vital definitional question. Any definition of "racism" requires an emphasis on race and implies a likely over-emphasis on race. As such, a "racist" will tend to draw strong inferences about individuals (or even "judge" them) in terms of their race-- e.g., all (or most) people in group X are Y or are not Z. So, a few things we can infer just from this:

-Murray is talking about population means/distributions, which leads to inferences about "some" or "more". But unless those means/distributions are *extremely* different (and they are not in any of the questions at issue here), this will not lead to inferences about "most" or "all".

-In the 2nd P you provided above, Murray is focused on individuals, not groups-- again, not something you hear from a racist.

-We know Murray is a Libertarian, so his political, social, and ontological lens is tilted (heavily) toward the individual, the human person, and personal freedom. (If one is fond of judging individuals by the groups they're in, then one must give him credit for this group membership, against the nasty accusation!) In marked contrast, many of his detractors are far-bigger fans of government-- putting a *far* greater onus on them to be (and to signal) that they're not going to indulge their worldview in onerous ways on others.

-In contrast, Kendi and identity-politickers are largely focused on race or other identity markers (esp. gender these days). At least in the broadest sense-- and in most/all cases, far beyond this broadest sense-- those focused on race are race-ists; those focused on gender are sex-ists.

-As an aside, few on the Left care much about "class" these days-- to the angst of Catherine Liu, Thomas Frank, etc. I share this general "Marxist" tilt with them-- the vital importance of class for many reasons-- and profoundly regret the Left's political retreat from / abandonment of the lower income classes to increase their support for cronyism, corporatism, and other unfortunate isms.

-The rub-- and maybe this is the link that you're missing-- is that "analysis" (such as it is) often focuses on one variable (e.g., race) and an over-confidence in statistical proxies about....wait for it...groups. (It also relies on anecdotes and extrapolation, as compelling or convenient, but that's a different sad "analysis" story.) And so we're reminded by innumerate journalists and various folks with troubling agendas (our old friend, rubes and demagogues) about "the gender pay gap" or the different rates of school discipline for blacks vs. whites in (systemically-racist?) govt schools-- as if these can be used to confidently (and correctly) infer an ism. Murray works this ground-- both because that's where the action is in the public sphere and because it has some value if done well-- but then...he moves purposefully to individuals. The identity-politickers start with their (favored) groups and their lousy statistics/analysis-- and *never* leave. "All/most whites are X; no/few Blacks are Z"? That's the language of racists-- which does not fit Murray, but ironically fits the IP racists to a tee.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Dems moving TO race/gender issues vs. moving FROM class issues

I've been thinking that Dem pols and the Left have been lured from class to race/gender issues. But maybe it's more about needing to move away from class, since they can't do anything about it with their policy preferences and cronyism.

Think about the biggest class issues in Dem terms:
-K-12 cronyism is far more important than educational choice
-won't address welfare policies that harm family stability/structure
-happy to keep FICA taxes on the working poor and middle class ($3K/yr from the WP and $10K/yr from the MC)

All they have on class issues these days:
-a half-hearted tepid/gradual increase in the minimum wage (which is more for unions than the WP anyway)
-trying to buy votes with ill-targeted, temporary "stimulus/relief"
-Medicare for All (really, Medicaid for Some), but I don't see much energy on this follow-up to the ACA band-aid attempt on a gaping wound.

Seriously, what else can the Dems conceivably do to address class issues? Maybe they must move to race/gender, since the ground under their class positions has eroded so badly. Thoughts?

Friday, March 19, 2021

more on Revolutionary Road and the 1950s

Here's another resource on a influential book about the 1950s...This is a topic where I've had some success in publishing. Here's my review of Yates' book and a link to other articles I've had about data about the 1950s

In First Things, Peter Tonguette takes another angle to the usual interpretation of Yates' work: 

On the surface, Revolutionary Road does indeed read as a brief against the suburbs...[But] “The book was widely read as an antisuburban novel, and that disappointed me,” Yates said in a 1972 interview in Ploughshares. “The Wheelers may have thought the suburbs were to blame for all their problems, but I meant it to be implicit in the text that that was their delusion, their problem.”

Two other paragraphs to share:

Thus begins one of the most harrowing stretches in any twentieth-century novel, and Revolutionary Road’s true theme comes into focus. In the interview in Ploughshares, Yates recalled being asked about the subject of his new novel and responding that it was about abortion. “And the guy said what do you mean by that?” said Yates (who seems to have been a conventional liberal and at one point wrote speeches for Robert F. Kennedy). “And I said, it’s going to be built on a series of abortions, of all kinds—an aborted play, several aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and aborted dreams—all leading up to a real, physical abortion, and a death at the end.”

...At last the remaining ­Wheelers depart their ­complacent suburban ­neighborhood, but no ­intelligent reader will assign blame to their address. Two lives have been sacrificed on the altar of wishing to be ­perceived as smarter, more ­stylish, and more cultured than the neighbors.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

review of Scott Turner's "Purpose and Desire"

I heard a talk by Scott Turner through Heterodox Academy that pointed me to his book, Purpose and Desire. (I can’t find the podcast now, but it was really good: two guys who asked him questions and were worried/skeptical about the implications of his work. Here’s Turner’s website.) After hearing Turner interviewed, I bought a copy and read it. (I had already heard about the book somewhere, bought a copy, and stuck it on one of my bookshelves at school. I just ran across it the other day!)

The explanation for the title doesn’t come until the end—as a “counterfoil” to Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity—a “luminous, influential… beautiful, deep” book, the thesis of which “rests upon what I have come to believe is a distorted picture of the history and philosophy of the science of life.” (300)

The problem? In the early-20th century, “biology sold its soul, so to speak, committing the practitioners of the science of life wholesale to the essentially philosophical premises of mechanism and materialism.” (xi) It seemed sensible at the time—and an opportunity to be viewed as a harder/real science (what he calls “physics envy” [47]). It has also yielded valuable insights into science and its applications. But how broadly is it true?

This is a common and generally fruitful approach within science: simplifying the world through models and statistics, as we try to understand a simplified (but not simplistic) version of an immensely complex reality. The questions are always whether the stats and models are good simplifications, the extent to which the inferences derived from those simplifications are accurate, and so on.

But one should always remember that the models are simplifications, not the reality themselves—and that models always fall short, sometimes in vital ways. Sadly, this is often overlooked. Along these lines, Turner describes himself as a “recovering reductionist.” (301) And it’s this sort of reductionism (whether literalism, fundamentalism, or an overly-fervent adherence to other isms) that often causes so much blindness, dogmatism, pride, and error.

One part of Turner’s thesis (and the subtitle of the book) is that science has failed in this regard—with respect to what constitutes “life”. His opening example is to ask whether a cauliflower and a cumulus cloud are “alive”—and why. What seems obvious (cauliflower: yes/maybe; cloud: no) is not all that clear when one digs deeper and tries to use coherent definitions. When he teases it out, “there are really distinctions only in order and not in kind.” (xiii) Cauliflowers have genes and “hereditary memory”, but clouds have a type of this as well—defined as “some means of shaping the future as a reflection of the past.” (xiii)

In a word, “we don’t have a good Darwinian explanation for the origin of life. Part of the reason for this is that we don’t have a good Darwinian explanation for what life is in the first place. Nor do we have a good explanation for the origin and evolution of the cornerstone of the edifice of modern Darwinism, the gene. If that weren’t enough, Darwinism is also have a rather hard time explaining what an organism is…The problem for modern Darwinism is, I argue, that we lack a coherent theory of the core Darwinian concept of adaptation.” (7)

Turner looks at all of this differently as a physiologist (the study of “how living things work” [12]), rather than a biologist (“the study of life”). Along the way, Turner provides brief biographical sketches of key players in the history of physiology—most notably, Claude Bernard. And in one of his presentations, he provides a wonderful diagram on the philosophical priors that each field finds attractive. (I have pasted it at the bottom.)

In particular, he is provoked by a vital concept in physiology: homeostasis—the body’s “steady state”. Is life a machine? Yes and no. “Yet striving and desire seem to occupy a lot of what life does.” (13) If so, it’s not just the how but the why that is important to consider and explore (14-15). A big question/distinction is whether the “intentionality” we all perceive is real or only apparent. If it’s real, a scientist can ignore it for a time (see above on models), but can’t ultimately ignore it—or certainly, dismiss it (viii-xi).

Turner uses the adaptation of lizards to the temperature of their environment as an example (68ff). And apparently there is some economics involved in the standard analysis: as the costs of adaptation increase, lizards will make fewer efforts to adapt. For example, if the likelihood of predators is higher, they will instead tolerate the costs of not adapting to the environment so much. Turner is quick to say this is not “thinking” but “intentionality” and homeostasis: “the reshaping of the real world…involves a kind of wanting, an actual desire to attain a particular state, and the ability to create that state.” (70)

Chapter 5 is good on “the rise of Darwinism” and the good it wrought (vs. the goods that were being achieved previously). He describes the contributions of Linnaeus, Lamarck, and Cuvier. (Other key players later: Weismann and Cope in chapter 6; Morgan, Driesch/Roux, and Fisher/Wright/Haldane in chapter 7.) He also details the efforts of Darwin on “pangenesis” (hypothesized through “gemmules” and published nine years after Origin of Species). And then a broader point (97): the tension between adaptation (the ability to change) and hereditary (“the opposite of change, that is, the legacy of the past imposing itself on the future”).

Turner turns to Margulis in chapter 8 in his discussion of “hereditary memory”, the metabolism and symbiosis of LECA (the “last eukaryotic common ancestor”), and the competing explanations for this (178-180). The options are natural selection as a tautology or using intentionality and cognition in their broadest senses. He provides his best example of the tautology later: “Why are there flying animals? The trivial answer is because animals have evolved to fly.” (284)

In chapter 9, Turner wrestles with “organism” vs. “individual”—with interesting examples: a swarm of bacteria, symbiotic organisms (e.g., lichen), and organisms on organisms (“my body is populated by ten times as many alien cells—bacteria, yeasts, and fungi—as ‘my’ own cells” [189]). “Quite a lot is at stake in this question, because an implied individuality sits at the heart of the Darwinian idea. It is individuals that compete with one another.” (190)

From there, he describes “the Hamilton rule” (198) to deal with altruism among social insects—except that it runs into big trouble with termites. (Much of Turner’s research has focused on termite communities. He has been impressed by their ability as a group despite their ineptitude as individuals—e.g., to repair damage to a colony.)

Chapter 10 is devoted to science’s inability to explain the origins of life. The “prebiotic chemistry” soup plus energy story requires that one “verge uncomfortably into miraculous thinking” (231). He discusses the famous Miller-Urey experiment which was successful. Of course, such success also—or only—points to “intelligent design”.

“Unfortunately, among the awful lot of things we have learned is how flimsy a foundation prebiotic chemistry is for building a theory of life’s origins. Worse, the more we have learned, the more daunting the problems have become.” (232) Some of the outstanding issues (232-234, 248): “yield” (what’s needed vs. the diverse stew that emerges from the experiments), “process” (a certain sequence with required environmental conditions), the “wild life” problem (as life arises in a lab vs. the real world), and “diffusion” (the things required to start life are routinely scattered as they come into existence).  

Scientists have their own “creation stories”—either through genes (what he calls “genism”) or through metabolism (what he calls “physism”). Turner says there’s no room for fundamentalism on this question: “Life has two attributes that demand explanation…the ability to store, transmit and implement hereditary memory; and the sustaining, order-producing phenomenon that is homeostasis…[At present], these two attributes are so tortuously intertwined that it is near impossible to imagine how one could have emerged spontaneously without the other being there first.” (229)

This takes Turner to “irreducible complexity”. (Turner notes that “the phrase has come to be fraught because of its use in ID theory [as made popular by Michael Behe]…[but] the phrase is nonetheless apt.”) To avoid ID, proponents “do so by blurring the distinction between heredity and metabolism” (235). In his chapter on the underlying philosophy of such things, he describes ID theory as “a rather harmless and benign resurgence of Neoplatonism” and its opponents as illiberal opponents of “academic freedom” (262) who have engaged in “shabby treatment” of “sympathizers” of ID theory (296).

Hopefully, Turner’s book will provoke thought among the blinkered and intellectually curious—and provide solace for free thinkers. Science is a wonderful thing when it’s practiced as Science rather than as counterfeit cousins based on flawed philosophical assumptions.