Saturday, March 12, 2011

Historically Speaking: Argument and Evidence

Recently, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris wrote a 5 part essay on Kuhn's notion of incommensurable, philosophy of language, and historical evidence versus myth making.  In the first post, he told a story in which Kuhn forbade him going to Kripke's lectures and accused, with no evidence, Kuhn of throwing an ashtray at his head. In part three, Morris wrote about the evidence for Hipasus's murder/death/suicide and shows that there really isn't any. It's fine little discussion and would work in an freshman seminar on facts, evidence, argument and so forth.  What struck me was the, I think, intentional irony of making an unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable claim about an act of violence in an essay at least one part of which was dedicated to the slipperiness of those kinds of claims.

In a brief comment, someone who claims to have read and commented on an early version of Morris' essay makes to unsubstantiated claims about Morris:
We have no reason to believe that Tom Kuhn threw an ashtray at Errol Morris other than Morris's claim. I didn't know Kuhn very well, but I've asked several who did know Kuhn in the relevant period at Princeton, both students and colleagues, and no one thinks this story at all believable. I've asked someone who professionally knows Morris's work as a filmmaker, and that person said that confabulation was not foreign to Morris's m.o.
I say that the first statement is meaningless.  How many times have colleagues been shocked to discover that person X always so pleasant and etc was really some sort of a monster in human form? But I agree that we have no evidence; it's just that I think Morris' is being intentionally funny. On the second question, watch the Thin Blue Line. On the meta-question, what do we make of someone decrying unsubstantiated attacks making a series of unsubstantiated attacks at least one of which flies in the face of Morris' work?

If you're the sort of person given to privileging evidence and argument, you might find the attack evidence of a flawed argument.  If you're the sort of person who doesn't much care about evidence and given to kowtowing to figures of authority, you might find it persuasive.

As to the whole sub-controversy about Kuhn and the Post Modern paradigm shiftery, this view, that Kuhn misunderstood scientific progress and accidentally did real damage to the notion of scientific truth, is -- I think -- that right one. Not, of course, that Kuhn intended that but intentions like cups, liquids, and lips stain many a vest.

Narcissism Defined

I used to think that the various folks who use the bike path as if no one else could possibly use it were the paradigmatic examples of narcissism. Then I sometimes thought that motorists who parked across crosswalks were the Platonic ideal of the late lamented Greek.  Today, I say the actual embodiment of narcissism. There are approximately elventybillion, umpteenth hundreds of thousands, of many, many people an tractors down to the Capitol expressing their contempt for Walker and Co with polite wit and restrained rage. Walking round the the Square is a pleasant but slow. The actual embodiment? I saw three joggers, two trying to run two abreast, try to job through the crowd.  Bizarre behavior.

The best sign today was one of two with a Wizard of Oz theme, both very well done graphically, which said: Scott Walkers Yellow Brick Road leads to the Wicked Rich. Dogs are increasingly being pressed into service one had Union Thug sign and another had a Animals for the Ethical Treatment of People sign.

Here in Wisconsin: God Help Us Edition

Via we learn that Scott Walker is an authoritarian nut job:
"What we're doing here, I think, is progressive. It's innovative. It's reform that leads the country, and we're showing there's a better way by sharing in that sacrifice with all of us in government," he said.
Because nothing says shared sacrifice like union busting and pay cuts to the workers of the world while extending tax cuts to the Galtian job creators toward whom we ought all of us be more reverential.

His notion of leadership seems a bit, let's call it, flawed:
"People, I believe, in times of crisis want leadership," he said. "They want leaders who identify the problem, identify a solution and then act on it. That's what we did." 
Personally, I think people in times of crisis or non-crisis want leaders who work to find a correct solution to a problem, as opposed to a flawed, false, and dangerous putting-out-the-fire-with-gasoline nonsense like this.
What Walker and Co are doing -- if you think about it -- amounts to punishing the innocent victims of the Wall Street crooks for the economic damage done by the Wall Street crooks twice, first by baling out the banks and then by destroying their livelihoods because bailing everybody out after years of tax cuts left us "broke."

Which leads us back to Walker's heart to heart with Koch:
I pulled out a, a picture of Ronald Regan and I said you know this may seem a little melodramatic but 30 years ago Ronald Regan whose 100th birthday we just celebrated the day before um had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers and uh I said to me that moment was more important than just for labor relations and or even the federal budget, that was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism because from that point forward the soviets and the communists knew that Ronald Regan wasn’t a pushover and uh, I said this may not have as broad a world implications but in Wisconsin’s history—little did I know how big it would be nationally, in Wisconsin’s history, I said, this is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history and this is why it’s so important that they were all there. I had a cabinet meeting this morning and I reminded them of that. I said for those who thought I was being melodramatic, you now know it was purely putting it in the right context.
Leaving aside the seriously deranged understanding of history, the obvious question is: who is Walker's enemy here?  Given what he has done and what he is planing on doing, the answer is workers and people in general. What's nice about this is at last the Neoliberal strategy is out of the bag.  We've known for some time that the Neoconservative policy was to bomb anything that looked like it might at some point look cross eyed at them.  Now we know that their domestic buddies the Neoliberals want to, metaphorically for now, bomb the working classes back into the  stone age.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Here in Wisconsin

I was at the Capitol earlier and it was pleasant; lots of clever signs carried by polite but engaged folks. I was watching the Assembly's special session just now and right in the middle of the debate moments after telling a Dem rep that there were 20 odd legislators waiting to speak, the Republicans called the vote, voted, passed the bill, and adjourned until the 15th. This is not what you might call a substantive or procedural democracy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Never Throw an Ashtray at Your Student

From Kieran Healy over to Crooked Timber we find that Errol Morris is thinking like a historian again. He offers, in 3 parts of a 5 part post, a discussion of Kuhn's notion of incommensurable as it relates to paradigm shifts in the history of science. The last time I read Morris thinking like a historian it was an equally long and equally interesting discussion of the charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War.  In both cases, he shows how to follow a well framed question to if not a conclusive conclusion at least a reasonable and persuasive one. It is, in other words, way better than cant about low-hanging fruit and 1848. It is somewhat ironic, however, that the post begins with an event that appears to have no evidence of it ever occurring.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Wrong People Run The World

Tom Vilsack was a govenor of Iowa and is currently sec of ag in the Obama administration.  This interview with Ezra Klein is a sign that he isn't fit to fill either role. Vilsack argues that, among other things, that as  44% of our military comes from rural areas we have to continue to subsidize corporate farming or
we would have fewer people. There’s a value system there. Service is important for rural folks. Country is important, patriotism is important. And people grow up with that. I wish I could give you all the examples over the last two years as secretary of agriculture, where I hear people in rural America constantly being criticized, without any expression of appreciation for what they do do. When’s the last time we thanked a farmer for the fact that only 6 or 7 percent of our paycheck goes to food? We talk about innovation and these guys have been extraordinarily innovative. We talk about trade deficits and agriculture has a surplus.
It is one of the oddest examples of pure bullshit, in the Frankfurt sense of bullshit, I've run across. Klein, who I find superficial and boring, actually makes a whole series of good points, although he misses the obvious point that corporate farms aren't rural Americans, that make Vilsack look even dopier. Rural values don't define America because they don't exist as a coherent doctrine of one hundred percent Americanism in large measure because urban values, which don't exists as a coherent doctrine, offer a counter weight to the nonexistent rural values.

Bad Teacher

Megan McArdle has long and misleading post up on why we have to fire teachers, in large numbers and immediately, and, among other things, makes the point that it's too hard firing bad teachers.  Well, here's a story about a teacher who has twice been fired for no good reason. She was once a porn star but there is no suggestion that she wasn't and isn't an effective teacher. This is why teachers require protection from being fired. And, I would add, why all workers need protection from being fired for no good reason.

Missing The Point

Matthew Yglesias, as is his wont, finds an example of bad regulation and insists that it is evidence of regulatory capture, or rent seeking or the general perfidy of trade associations. He doesn't bother to point out that
[t]he Missouri Movers Association supports the bill. "It really is a very old system, and it's time for a change," Executive Director Ann Michael said. The price regulations, she added, "became a big paperwork nightmare and a distraction for business owners."
That is politicians are posed to rescind the advantage given to some businesses and the trade association agrees that the advantage ought to be rescinded.  It is evidence, in other words, that folks tend to repeal bad regulations and that the real worry is the deregulatory madness of Neoliberalism's market fundamentalism, which got us into the mess we are currently in.

Reasonably Emotional

David Brooks, in his endless pursuit of saying nothing pompously, tells us that because of a blinkered view of human nature that pits reason against emotion schools fail and bankers rob us blind. He also argues that
This has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.
It's not clear, to me in any event, how talking about these inarticulate processes will aid us in making new policies. Even if it is the case that we come to our desired policies through some deep emotion driven process the policies work or don't or fall somewhere in between, which is why we think about outcomes as opposed to ideologically driven policy preferences.

I would also like to say  that this paragraph seems filled with inaccuracies:
When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.
On the one hand, he runs together two or three separate things and on the other, at least in my experience, he ignores the fact that many, if not all, parent actually do try to induce their kiddiewinks into having better characters and so forth without considerations of SAT scores and grades. And, outside of robots and computers, lots of these kind of conversations deal with emotions in a fairly straightforward way.

As to the last sentence, yes it's true, for example, that lots of people worried about, say, global climate change and its attendant problems do want to use science to solve the problems using reason, fact, argument, and experiment instead of thinking about how it is that they came to value a discipline that relies on facts to improve predictability and control over nature. 

It might be that DB has fallen in love with the allegedly hidden emoticons of decision making because lots of his Conservative and Glibertarian friends would like to invoke the feeling and emotions of one hundred percent Americanism when dealing with any issue, including what kind of coffee to drink.

I'd also point out that his division and definition of the French and English enlightenments are total bullshit, in Frankfurterian sense of bullshit.


Rand Paul was on TDS and he was horrid.  Paine said the government that governs best governs least not Jefferson.  Paine is someone that Paul would most likely despise because he was a professional revolutionary and outside agitator.

More to the point, as Stewart was at pains to point out, the problems that regulations aimed at fixing all went away or, to be precise, got somewhat better because of state intervention. Paul would agree Paul's attempt to explain that we need a smaller government now because government has fixed all the problems of bad food and etc. is a nearly perfect example of what's wrong with Paine's claim in the first place. Go figure, a really smart guy from hundreds of years ago speculating on the advantages of limited government involvement in the market as part of a larger project designed to increased individual liberty insisted that freedom from constraint was always the best thing for humanity in a social and civil situation was wrong about something. It's not like we have to give up the important individual and human freedoms and liberties so corporations can befoul the world and cheat workers.


Chris Hedges, about whom I know nothing, is concerned about the future of journalism, particularly if that future is dominated by the Huffington Post. He argues that
The daily reporting and monitoring of city halls, courts, neighborhoods and government, along with investigations into corporate fraud and abuse, will be replaced by sensational garbage and Web packages that are made to look like news but contain little real news.
If only the local newspapers would have stuck to this model. The "Wisconsin State Journal," outside of the sports page, carries nearly no regular accounts of the nuts and bolts of everyday life in Madison and environs. Plus and also, it's badly written, uninformative, and disingenuous on those subjects it does deal with.  I neither like nor read The Huffington Post, for the reasons he outlines and the fact that Arianne Huffingtonpost is, I think, Beelzebub.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Missing Word? Box Wine? Too Dumb to Punditificate?

David Brooks' new blog promises to be a hot bed of highlarryatee:
They found that the number of searchers for pornography was much higher right after the 2010 election (a big G.O.P. year) than after 2006 (a big Democratic year). Conversely, people in blue states searched for porn at much higher rates after 2006 than after 2010. One explanation is this: After winning a vicarious status competition, people (predominantly men, I guess) tend to seek out pornography.
Which colored state isn't mentioned? Error? False reading? Or other?

Cat Out of The Bag

We all know that reading and education are bad for you and unnecessary for the least amongst us. And we know that
[w]hile government and laws take care of the security and the well being of men in groups, the sciences, letters, and the arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people.  Need has raised thrones; the sciences and the arts have strengthened them. You earthly powers, cherish talents and protect those who nurture them (1).  Civilized people, cultivate them.  Happy slaves, to them you owe that refined and delicate taste you take pride in, that softness of character and that urbanity of habits which make dealings among you so sociable and easy, in a word, the appearance of all the virtues without the possession of any.

Matthew Yglesias has the solution for the next generation of cooks and gardeners:
[t]his is where I think education does get back into the picture. Most of these are jobs that require some skills. Personal services generally exist on a spectrum between “things a person might hire someone else to do because it’s a pain in the ass” and “things a person might hire someone else to do because it’s difficult to do it well.” You hire a maid because you don’t want to clean the toilet. You go to Komi because you can’t cook as well as Johnny Monis. There’s more money and prestige to be had as you move up the maid-Monis spectrum and there’s a need for some kind of mechanism to help people move up it. That sounds like “education” to me, though not necessarily the kind of education we’re handing out.
If we would just stop teaching people to read and write they could accept that they need to train themselves to take ever better care of the rich and the hive would be without grumbling.

Oh God

David Brooks has a blog and it's going to suck:
In my book, “The Social Animal,” I try to harvest and celebrate a lot of their work. But the knowledge just keeps on flowing. So I’m going to use this space to publicize, discuss and evaluate new work in the study of human nature. I hope to describe some odd or interesting piece of research or thinking. This blog won’t be about how to vote in the next election. It’ll be about who you are and why you do what you do.
I read the short version of from The New Yorker and PZ Meyers read the whole thing and characterizes it thusly:
So what is this book about? It's a bizarre chimera, an unholy grafting together of a novel, the story of Harold's and Erica's lives, and an ideological, psychological, neurological and pseudo-scientific collection of materialist explanations for their happy situation. Every chapter whipsaws the reader between a fictional narrative about some exemplary event in their history -- birth, education, being attractive and popular, careers, relationships, corporate revenues, morality, European vacations and other such universal concerns -- and a pedagogical and often facile digression into the supposed neural substrates that drive and reward decisions that will make these two happy and fulfilled. Neither part stands alone, and together ... I'm sure there were delusions of a soaring synergy that would drive deep insights, but instead it's a battle between two clashing fairy tales to see which one would bore us or infuriate us first.
Nothing good can come of Brooks' blog unless, of course, he is forced to quit making stuff up.


Tyler Cowen's argument about stagnation in kitchen innovation set off a enormously contentious discussion of kitchen utensils. The focus here is odd and as I argued economists have a long history of ignoring innovations when those innovations threaten deeply held ideological or, in Malthus' case theological, beliefs. In the first instance, it's not clear why new methods of cooking tell us anything about general levels innovation.  Here is a story about turning waste into energy that would seem to indicated no lack of innovation.  The constant and increasing reliance on robots and computers to replace workers is, it seems to me, evidence of yet even more innovation.

New sources of energy are evidence of good innovation while job destroying, absent some commitment to the equitable distribution of wealth, innovations are bad. The fight for the future is on implementation of innovation and distribution not innovation alone.


Joseph Steglitz discusses the art of the possible:
Suppose someone were to describe a small country that provided free education through university for all of its citizens, transportation for school children, and free health care – including heart surgery – for all. You might suspect that such a country is either phenomenally rich or on the fast track to fiscal crisis.
Oddly enough, the ideal future doesn't require wide-spread prostitution or bunion trimming.

White Collar Robots

Paul Krugman has two posts up about our post-human future or - more precisely - discussing how now computers are displacing white collar workers. Chris Bertram makes the obvious point the real issue is distribution of benefits; however, in the comments someone shows up to defend the idea that in the future we will all be service workers, except for those of us whose service work has been roboticized, and -- when called on the dystopia -- gets all mad because some elite or another has dared to insult service workers. It's like there's a set of talking  points defending a world that no sensible person wants to live in.