Thursday, July 31, 2008

Away for Awhile

Those of you who come here regularly have undoubtedly noticed the rate of posting has slowed to a crawl. I will teach a class on globalization at a university in Taiwan in the fall, and preparing for that has occupied most of my time. Posting will not be substantial again until early September. I appreciate your interest, though.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Government by Google

Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, has a short piece there called, ambitiously, “The End of Theory.” (Hat tip: On the Media.) It argues that the traditional way of doing science – construct a hypothesis, collect data to see if the hypothesis is falsified, repeat as necessary until the hypothesis becomes a generally accepted “theory” – is about to be made obsolete by the Google way:

But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. Consider physics: Newtonian models were crude approximations of the truth (wrong at the atomic level, but still useful). A hundred years ago, statistically based quantum mechanics offered a better picture — but quantum mechanics is yet another model, and as such it, too, is flawed, no doubt a caricature of a more complex underlying reality. The reason physics has drifted into theoretical speculation about n-dimensional grand unified models over the past few decades (the "beautiful story" phase of a discipline starved of data) is that we don't know how to run the experiments that would falsify the hypotheses — the energies are too high, the accelerators too expensive, and so on.

Now biology is heading in the same direction. The models we were taught in school about "dominant" and "recessive" genes steering a strictly Mendelian process have turned out to be an even greater simplification of reality than Newton's laws. The discovery of gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic impossibility.

In short, the more we learn about biology, the further we find ourselves from a model that can explain it.

Just as Google ranks web pages’ importance in a given search not by their content but by the degree to which other web pages refer to them, science may, instead of starting with a story and then seeing whether it plays well out amongst the data, be shifting to a model where scientists look at the data first and use the correlations themselves as the finding of interest.

Now, one has to be cautious about such revolutionary proclamations; several years ago similar things were said about Gary Wolfram’s arguments about the relation between computation and science. But, like Mr. Wolfram, Mr. Anderson is a very smart man. His most recent book, The Long Tail, arguing that the digitization of knowledge opens up access to small-market cultural forms that were previously unprofitable to distribute, decisively changed the way I thought about globalization and culture in The Rise of the Anti-Corporate Movement.

But whether science is about to change or not, translated into moral/political philosophy the Google approach is disastrous. Governments – particularly the American one – start from philosophical premises and then design the government accordingly. It is unacceptable in the traditional American way of thinking to start with desired results, perhaps driven themselves by a crude utilitarianism, and then to increase government power accordingly. There are both philosophical and practical/utilitarian reasons to be concerned.

Suppose, for example, that someone discovers a high rate of correlation between legal gun sales and violent crime, thus leading to the conclusion that ending the sales drives down the crime. The first objection is philosophical – there is a right to self-defense that morally precedes the right of the state to limit gun trafficking in its assertion of the public interest. The second objection is that the political process needs a hypothesis, and may get it wrong – legal gun sales may be high precisely because crime was already high. So could we trust the political process to make use of the available information in the most socially responsible way? Unlikely. Government scientists, and the legislators enabled by their findings, will naturally tend toward explanations that lead to more control and regulation – to, at best, try and solve the problems that we can see, heedless of the ones we can’t see and the ones we create out of our solutions. At worst, the exploration for correlation is used simply to enhance the ability of the state to control us. (I leave it to the reader to decide whether the NASA scientist James Hansen’s hysterical assertion that oil company executives should be put on trial for crimes against humanity is an example of the former or the latter.)

Al Gore once told The New Yorker that he saw the U.S. as a giant parallel computing machine, where ordinary people identified problems through their scientific work, political activity, etc., and then funneled the results up to Washington, which magically solved the problems discovered. This kind of thinking, presumably, is how he assumes that we can (or doesn't care that we can't) with relative ease and little corruption or loss of freedom shift the entire electricity grid to non-carbon sources in ten years. Google famously claims that its technology is profitable without “doing evil.” Government by Google, alas, would not end nearly as well.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Boutique Enrivonmentalism

Earlier today I purchased lunch at the campus restaurant. I got two salad containers, one for vegetables and one for fruit. In the course of putting the fruit in the smaller container, I spilled some of it. Being a civic-minded sort of person, I immediately went in search of napkins to clean it up, which would necessitate a trash can into which to throw the napkins. Finding them, particularly the trash can, was astonishingly difficult. In the end, having retrieved the napkins and cleaned the mess up, I had to actually exit the restaurant and walk down the hall of the building in which it is located to find a trash can, and then to search among the three possibilities for the one that is not for plastic and not for newspapers.

I do not know why it was so difficult to accomplish such a simple task, but I strongly suspect it has something to do with "sustainability." Our campus, like many, has a sustainability initiative, and a sustainability committee full of earnest people with sustainability on the brain working to make our campus, well, sustainable. Whether "sustainability" is even a meaningful empirical concept, and if so what exactly it means, are subjects for another day. But I was motivated to think about the increasing plague on civilization presented by what we might call the boutique environmentalist.

There are actually many different problems that fall under the rubric of "environmentalism." The solutions to some of them do not bother me much. It is obvious that we must have laws against polluting the air and the water, because to not have them would be to grant the right to damage the help of other people. While doctrinaire libertarians might object, I don't have much of a problem with the national-park system, or the public funding of the construction of bike paths in urban areas. So there are aspects of environmentalism that are perfectly reasonable in a free society.

But nowadays there is a certain sort of environmentalist who simply is at war with civilization itself, often from a perch on high of fairly substantial wealth (or, equally exclusively, of a personal, idiosyncratic lack of use for the things that modernity makes possible). He insists that oil drilling be kept out of ANWR even though he will never go there and even though for the rest of us, including but not limited to the people who would make a lot of money drilling for it in Alaska, the oil would be useful. He lazily conflates his own arbitrary views about how property should be used with obvious moral truths, and therefore has no problem demanding that the government enforce those views, no matter the consequences to other people. He believes that humanity (particularly its CO2 emissions) is generally a plague on otherwise unspoiled creation, even though he may himself regularly indulge in the fruits of civilization. (Indeed, he may even be Al Gore himself.) He is ignorant about the anger his shrill cries on behalf of "sustainability" and "carbon footprints" generate in developing countries, where people desperately want the opportunities that people in the West have long taken for granted, opportunities for which carbon emissions, and modern technology generally, are indispensable. Most of all, he wants to actively manage other people's lives -- to use environmental regulations to limit their ability to drive, to use electricity, into otherwise navigate their way through the modern world. He wants to do this even though most of the cost will be borne by other people.

Somewhere between Theodore Roosevelt's and Rachel Carson, environmentalism in the US and Europe went badly off track, and stopped being about heroic people protecting their families from poison, or preserving natural beauty for future generations. The trick in the next twenty years or so will be to keep the hands of the boutique environmentalists off the throat of civilization.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

America, the Ruthless Hammer of Individualism

Spengler has what is even by his rarefied standards an amazing essay at Asia Times on American exceptionalism:

Abraham Lincoln, the next best thing to an American prophet, called his countrymen "this almost chosen people". Most Americans still would agree with him. Americans may not love their country more than other peoples, but they love it in a different way. This love is visible at any small-town celebration of Independence Day, in the tearful eyes of older people. They have not forgotten the humiliations that drove their antecedents out of their countries of origin European states always have been the instruments of an elite; Americans believe their government, is there to defend them against the predation of the powerful.

For all its flaws and fecklessness, America remains in the eyes of its people an attempt to order a nation according to divine law rather than human custom, such that all who wish to live under divine law may abandon their ethnicity and make themselves Americans. The rights of Americans are held to be inalienable precisely because they are a grant from God, not the consensus of the sociologists or the shifting custom of a particular historical period. Ridiculous as this appears to the secular world, it is embraced by Americans as fervently as it was during the Founding. Even worse for the secularists, it has raised a following in the hundreds of millions in the Global South among people who also would rather be ruled by the divine law that holds their dignity to be sacred, than by the inherited tyranny of traditional society.

America the individualist annihilator, America the individualist redeemer. An American world in which the individual is king, and the group and its petty demands subservient to him. This is why we are so essential, yet so hated. Read the whole thing.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

On the American Birthday

On this day before America’s birthday, I am reminded of a terrific recent essay in Inside Higher Education by Thomas Lindsay of the National Endowment for the Humanities on how college fails to cultivate introspection about our land:

What does it mean to be an American citizen?
From all the heat generated of late over immigration, one might have supposed that some light would have been cast on this crucial question. Given the need to elevate our national dialogue over this issue, it is disheartening that this has yet to happen. It appears that the idea that is American citizenship is all but lost on America’s citizens themselves. Here our universities can be of invaluable assistance, through introducing their students to the perennial questions and issues that define American democratic theory and practice.

Any attempt to perform this task ought to begin at the beginning, with the very justification for our existence as a country—the Declaration of Independence. Its claims are meant to be universal, addressed not only to King George III, but to a “candid world.” The Declaration argues that, in the new American order, blood, creed, and national origin—the constituents of citizenship throughout history—have been dethroned. Instead, U.S. citizenship entails adherence to moral and political principles the truth of which, says the Declaration, is “self-evident” to those who reason rightly. These principles, which form what can be called the “American theory of justice,” argue for human equality; for the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; for government established by popular consent; and for the right of the people to rebel should government cease to fulfill the purposes for which it was instituted. On this basis, the United States is more than a mere address, more than its history, and more than its demographics. It is, in its essence, an idea.

Yet how many of us today, native-born no less than newly arrived immigrants, can recount the Declaration’s four self-evident truths? More crucial, how many of us have even a rudimentary grasp of the moral and intellectual foundations of the “American theory of justice”?

He goes on to recommend a core course for all undergraduates in which primary documents such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Seneca Falls declaration and others are read and given the attention they deserve.

Strikingly, I cannot detect much in the way of political ax-grinding in Mr. Lindsay’s proposal. (Unless one's politics requires one to detest America itself.) This is not the disguised big-government advocacy of the civic engagement fad, but a call to make young Americans aware of what they have inherited. I see a project that I, and I suspect many faculty with whom I disagree about the nature (but not the worth) of the American experiment, could get behind. Higher-ed rent-seeking being what it is, it will never happen at my university, or most. But even the non-academic may find the essay of use. Self-government is a tree constantly in need of nourishment, and increasingly our seedlings are left to die.


Culture - Yours, Mine and Ours

The Washington Post has a story about the College Board wanting to eliminate the Italian advanced placement test:

The prospect that AP Italian might be eliminated has set off a reaction that might seem surprising, considering that 2,000 students took the Italian AP exam this year. Prominent Italian American groups and Matilda Cuomo, wife of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, have mobilized to save the course. Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta has also weighed in with the nonprofit organization that oversees the AP program.

"We cannot have the Italian program eliminated. It is too important to us," said Maria Wilmeth, co-director of the Italian Cultural Society of Washington.

It is always fascinating in America to watch what Americans one or more generations removed from the ancestral culture do with that culture. Two patterns seem common.

The first is the freeze-drying of that culture. Go to Hawaii or Little Tokyo and you will see lots of the old-style Chinese characters that the Japanese government reworked after the war. (Ditto with Chinatowns all over America.) The dress worn on symbolic occasions too looks as if it came from a time capsule. This is testimony to cultural evolution – Japan and China and Italy, left to their own devices, changed over time, while Americans from those places eager to maintain ties to their roots had nothing to be tied to other than the culture that prevailed there when they arrived here. (A third-generation Italian-American of my acquaintance wrote a book on going to Italy for the first time to live for several months, and finding it now bore no resemblance to the Italy his parents and grandparents celebrated.) This often does not end well; Irish-Americans, for example, were often far more militant about Northern Ireland than most of the Irish on both sides of the border themselves, and Jewish, Arab, Pakistani, Indian and other Americans now seek to tilt American foreign policy in ways that benefit their genetic/geographic comrades.

This is an important phenomenon because it suggests that attempts to preserve a culture are really attempts to preserve it in a particular time and place, and are doomed to fail. Italians used to eat minestrone (apparently a poor person’s food even then), now they don’t. Hindus used to not live in the neighborhood, now they do. Homosexuality used to be unacceptable, now it’s not. That is life in a dynamic society, and there is no avoiding it.

The second thing I notice is the ease with which people assume that other people’s property, lives and activities are really there to serve them. The AP Italian test is not there on account of its importance to the Italian Cultural Society of Washington. It is there to serve (or not) colleges and their applicants. And the College Board has decided that, relative to the alternatives, it does not. And so the usual suspects gear up to, in the article’s words, “lobby” the College Board as if it were a government, in order to subsidize their particular culture. Even the Italian ambassador has apparently met with CB officials.

I observe with some relief that at least the College Board is a private organization, and the ambassador and Ms Cuomo are not lobbying to have American public schools subsidize their own cultural capital. But this is exactly what advocates of bilingual instruction, e.g., are doing when they lobby government officials with say over what gets taught in those schools. The state should subsidize only that which unites us, and leave it to individuals to produce the things whose benefits accrue mainly to them. If not, you get Belgium or Canada, where cultural strife (and intervention by foreign officials, those of France in these two cases) are permanent features of life.