Fading Twilight of the Sunset of the West: Post Modern Education

In keeping with the last post, a report from the field. Anecdotes Ahead!

A friend was relating his granddaughter’s first experiences attending a large university:

- in a large lecture class of about 400 students, the professor starts by asking for a ‘click’ (modern equivalent of a show of hands – instant polling goes feral) by each student who is Christian, then Muslim,  then Hindu, with the results showing on a screen. He then announces that he will disabuse those students of their delusions over the course of the lecture series.

- A female professor deploys the F-bomb  9 times in the first minute of class.

Thus, the two key prongs of the progressive education program: teach kids to hold their culture in contempt, and make being an uncivilized bore appear cool and cutting edge.

Note in the first case the, what shall we call it? Power dynamic? between the professor, insulated by his position from any criticism of, let alone retaliation for, his manifest anti-intellectual bigotry, and the students, young, insecure, probably away from family and friends, and *desperate* to fit in. All they have to do is kiss this dude’s hind quarters in the appropriate manner at the appropriate times, and they get provisional membership in the cool kid’s club. They get to feel like they belong, while their better continue to sneer at them.

Students attending a lecture. Unfortunately, way cool technology may not be enough to free them.

There’s no way, within the lecture format, for any material disagreement, and the 12 years of education that lead up to this moment have certainly not prepared the students to disagree – rather, it has prepared them for going along, and in any event left them unarmed in any intellectual battle. There’s not only not any opportunity for disputing assertions – all successful cults know to always and continually defer any questions that might lead to open rejection – there’s is nobody there to dispute them.

And THIS – this charade and act of fraud – is what we call higher education.

In the second case, the professor is going way out of her way to destroy any expectations of civility and respect in the classroom. The reasonable civilized expectation is that adults do not swear in each others presence if such swearing may be offensive to anyone in the group – civilized adults simply refrain from swearing in any group where they don’t know everybody well enough to know how swearing will go over. Really civilized people just don’t use profanity except very rarely.

But the first order of business is to desensitize these tender young things to any mere conventions – and what is civilization but a set of arbitrary conventions? – so that the serious deprogramming can take place.

The climactic scenes in C S Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, where Ransom is told to desecrate his culture’s sacred symbols, show just such a process. It’s no coincidence that the perpetrators are college professors.

Two Ideas at War

The deep-revolving Mike Flynn has posted a wonderful series on the end of the Modern Age, starting here. Wonderful in the sense of making me wonder.

To sum up: We’re so doomed. Unless maybe we’re not.

Couple this with this year’s graduation speech by Cardinal O’Brien at Thomas Aquinas College:

In being formed by the unique education offered here at Thomas Aquinas College, you have been formed for a mission: and that mission is nothing less than the rescue of the civilizational project of the West. Some of you will do this in the beautiful microcosm of the family. Others of you will do this through a vocation to the priesthood or the consecrated religious life. All of you will do this, I pray, as citizens. It is a challenge that you have been uniquely equipped to meet, a task for which you are singularly well-formed. The challenge and the task are daunting, to be sure. But the challenge and the task are also exhilarating.

The whole thing is excellent, but raises the question: Are we commissioning our children to preserve something that is doomed, that is in fact already dead?

Flynn begins his analysis with the following quotation:

“We live in the ruins of a civilization, but the ruins are in our minds.” 

– John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age

As the West’s death spiral/probably unpleasant but not fatal altitude adjustment takes place – and it is taking place all around us – what do we try to save? As the ruins crumble around us, what in them is worthy of laying down our lives for? Conversely, what do we let slide?

The post modern mind is haunted, and deathly afraid of ghosts. Among the ruins in our minds are the ruins of the family – we are haunted by the ghosts of the faithful, loving mothers and fathers who never were. We see the ghosts of a living, heartfelt culture – of the traditions and street-level social support, last seen in immigrant neighborhoods, that the state can only replace with an empty, crushing shell. The intellectual ghosts of a common and bracing heritage, the true multiculturalism of men not just from different places but from different ages embracing each other in a battle of ideas. The ghosts of the vigor of that world still howls in the ruins, calling shame upon the small people of today.

What do you do if you deny the existence of what terrifies you? You must shout down – or worse – the tellers of the ghost stories. You must ‘suppress’ any followers of the ghosts. And you must attack even the ruins, in the light of day, with your horde about you, shouting down the bodiless voices with it matters not what battle cry – as long as its loud.

So, again, what do we save? What do I tell my children, believers in ghosts who have the gall not to be afraid, to do, knowing that if they do anything but conform, the haunted may go after them with fury born of terror?

Do we want some things to be preserved as monuments to us, gravestone with our birth, death and a witty saying? Or do we save the seedcorn?

The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, founded 635 A.D. “The small community lived quietly on Holy Island until the suppression of the monastery in 1537.” Suppression doesn’t sound so bad! Just pushing it down a little. Wonder how many monks died of suppression? Almost 500 years later, are the British still haunted by these places, and what was willfully done to them?

Unintended Consequences: Case Study

Gripping stuff from the dismal science here – but you might want to understand it, if you, for example, vote. Or it may cure insomnia. Even I get drowsy thinking of it:

Arbitrage: Buying and selling the same thing at the same time in two different markets at two different prices. Say I have a buyer for something – pork bellies, crude oil, default risk on a consumer mortgage portfolio, whatever. I don’t own what the buyer wants to buy, but I know how to get it. I shop for a price that’s lower than the buyer will pay. I execute the purchase from the seller at the same moment I sell to the buyer. I never see the pork bellies or crude oil – the seller and buyer make whatever arrangements they want. The difference is profit. I earn the profit by being more aware of the markets for the goods I’m arbitraging than the buyer or seller are. The buyer could, in theory, shop for himself and maybe uncover the same deal I found. But this is often difficult in practice.

The market* (there’s that market, again) is strongly inclined to eliminate arbitrage. When arbitragers report huge profits, the buyers tend to want to keep that profit, which, after all, came out of their pockets (or out of the pockets of the sellers who clearly undercharged – right? Whose bull got gored, and all that). Sometimes, the arbitrage is just too ingenious, involving buying bundles of things where the parts are sold to people uninterested in the bundle as a whole, and bought from people uninterested in breaking up the bundle. There are people who while away their lives watching, for example, index funds versus the stocks supposedly in them, to make sure it all adds up *perfectly*. If not, there may be an angle. When the knowledge of the buyers and sellers is both good and widely know, arbitrage doesn’t happen.

Hold this thought.  Continue reading

On Method

Following up on the post On Data, with another point. Again, I’m mostly thinking out loud here, trying to give some vaguish ideas more solid form.

Sometimes, using science, we want to know something that can be addressed directly: how tall somebody is, what is the melting point of water ice under normal conditions, how much volume a pound of pure iron occupies at room temperature, and so on.* In such cases, we pull out the tape measures, the thermometers and the displacement tanks, and have at it.**

But this is often not the case, for practical and moral reasons. How far away are the Pleiades? We can’t just take out our 100 light year tape measure; we can’t even take out our surveying equipment and triangulate (at least not very simply, although in the end, that is pretty much what we do). How long can an unprotected man survive in the vacuum of space? We don’t just throw a few dozen naked guys out the ISS airlocks and grab a stopwatch. Apart from the logistics, it isn’t morally permissible (although the speed at which the moral basis for such restrictions is being cast aside is truly breathtaking).

In these more complex cases, we need to get more fancy in our methods to work around the difficulties in a direct approach, not do anything immoral, or both. Two points, from my ‘educated layman’ approach to assessing the claims of science:

  1. Complex approaches almost invariably add uncertainty beyond that in the theoretical simple approach – the results of a multi-step method is unlikely to be as certain as the results of a more direct method.
  2. No matter how convoluted the approach to getting an answer may become, it is essential to keep in mind what the direct approach to the question would look like, to make sure that the logic of the direct approach that the complexity is trying to stand in for doesn’t get lost.

Let’s take measuring the distance of stars. The simplest, most direct way to determine the distance to something you can see far off is by measuring parallax – the apparent movement of the stars when viewed from different locations.

Betelgeuse is to the upper left, 640 light years, or 196 parsecs distant from earth. Han Solo could make the Kessel Run over 16 times in that much, um, time?

Turns out the most direct practical approach to determining distances to stars is not very easy. It’s only in fairly modern times (1838, by Friedrich Bessel)  that it was successfully done. For all but the closest stars, up to about 1,000 light years away, this approach doesn’t work – the tiny amount of parallax falls below the accuracy of the instruments. But the Milky Way is about 100,000 light years across, meaning distances to only the comparatively microscopic number of stars very ‘near’ us can be measured with parallax. The vast majority of stars in the Milky Way are tremendously out of range for parallax, not to mention any objects outside our galaxy which are way, way, WAY farther (technically speaking) than stars in our own galaxy.

So, how do we (there’s that ‘we’ again!) figure out how far away something like, say, Andromeda, is? We start with what we know pretty well: the distances of nearby stars determined by parallax. Then it starts getting fun. To finish this post in my lifetime, we’ll just talk about the method used for the next closest objects: standard candles.

Turns out if you know the absolute brightness of something, say, a certain type of star, then you can tell how far one of them is by simply observing the apparent brightness and applying the inverse square law. If a star of a certain class has an absolute brightness of 1 at 1 parsec distance, and a star of that class is observed to have an apparent brightness of .25, then, by the magic of math, we know it is 2 parsecs distant.

At least we strongly suspect it is, so strongly we take it for granted, unless somebody can come up with a good reason not to. What is important to note here is that the usefulness of standard candles is the result of 1) getting accurate distances to some of them that lie within 1,000 light years of us using parallax; 2) measuring their luminosity correctly; and, most of all, 3) making sure that the class to which they belong is clearly defined so that we can say for sure whether an observed star is or isn’t in the class.

To sum up: we try to measure the distances of stars as directly as we can. Then we devise a surrogate method using standard candles that allow us to estimate the distances to stars and other objects we cannot measure directly. (And from there, we develop a bucket of other surrogate measures for even more tricky/farther away object.)

The point here: I think it is critically important to keep in mind what it is we are trying to measure, and be aware of when we are measuring directly and when we are using surrogates. Some surrogate methods are logically very tight, such as standard candles, where the assumptions and steps stand up to intense scrutiny very well (although there is this – eternal vigilance!).  Others, such as asserting we are measuring something about the human population at large by studying a group of WEIRDs, couldn’t stand up to the lightest breeze.

Finally, I like to state the method of approaching a science question assuming the most direct possible measurements can be made – that way, I can be more sure to see when we’re not using them. It is ubiquitous in the soft sciences to pull a switcheroo – claim to be measuring one thing (bias, racism, and so on) using surrogate measures that cannot be made to yield such information. But even in more firm sciences, the temptation to try to get statistical blood from a data set of turnips is a constant and ill-resisted temptation.

* in a comment on the last post, TOF points out that even such seemingly straight ahead cases tend to get messy – instruments and methods in the real world refuse to behave as cleanly as theory wishes they would. Our level of certainty in any given measurement is never 100% – truth and accuracy are not really the same thing.

** and, after a few dozen or thousand measurements and maybe some fancy ‘sum of least-squares’ analysis I may have understood years ago, we come up with a value we can live with – everything in science is done to a ‘close enough’ standard – because there isn’t any other in a contingent world.

Book Review: Judge of Ages

Just finished the Judge of Ages, the third of 6 books in John C. Wright’s epic Count to a Trillion space opera.

Short form: This book ends well, but, even though the pages kept turning, was less satisfying in the middle sections. Still, there’s enough momentum to keep me eager for book 4. 

When we last left our intrepid hero Menelaus Montrose, he is witnessing the destruction of one of his carefully guarded cryogenic tombs, in which are stored members of each of the races of men that have inhabited the earth over the past 8,000 years. Everything seems wrong – all the elaborate defenses, both machine and human, that have guarded his tombs for millennia are failing. Worse, his careful interventions in human history, in which he counters every move of Blackie del Azarchel and his henchmen, seem to have  failed and left a dead, frozen world.

Through enhanced human and computer intelligence, and the bioengineering and gadgets such genius produces, Blackie is trying to manipulate mankind into becoming perfect slaves for the alien from Hyades, who are due to arrive in 400 years. Menelaus wants men to be free, and wants to fight the Hyades. And he wants to survive the 60K+ years it will take to get his wife back, the wife Blackie thinks he stole from him.

The book opens with Menelaus, captured, being  lead down into the tombs. in the hands of Moreaus, enhanced dog-based near human guards. Can he somehow get free, defeat the tomb robbers, and face Blackie in the gun duel for all the marbles?

In the Hermetic Millennia, we got the back stories on all the races created by Blackie’s henchmen, which were interesting and inventive. However, in this book, a hundred plus pages are spent in a fight scene that read like I imagine the climax of a really huge and imaginative RPG would come down. I myself have never played, but my kids do, and I’ve heard them in their sometimes hours long set up, where characters and powers and weapons and vulnerabilities are chosen, a setting is created – and then, eventually, a battle takes place where a skillful dungeon master uses all the set up to create as epic a battle as possible, wherein the players get to use all that cool stuff. Maybe that';s totally wrong, but that’s how both RPGs and huge part of this book appear to me.

It was interesting enough that I read right through it, but I was less than fascinated or thrilled. From a moving the story forward perspective, it could have 1/10th as long. Then comes some very dramatic plot twists – and another 50 pages of people standing around talking, then we get more plot twists and another cliff hanger.

Now, I *like* the philosophical digressions and reveals. I liked all the back story stuff in Hermetic Millennia.  But here, riding on the heels of the long battle scenes, it was a bit much.

None the less, by the end, Wright had recaptured the sense of wonder and surprise that is so much on display in this series. He has a wonderful talent for leaving enough clues that the reader can figure out some of what’s coming next, yet he always adds a twist or 6 – fun.

Conclusion: worth reading, and didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the next book, but not as good as the previous 2 installments.

Speaking of Science!

1. I’m not even linking to this click bait from National Geographic: Are Mites Having Sex on My Face?  But I got give ‘em credit for trying.

2. The “we are so doomed” news of the day, again from International People’s Geographic, with my comments in Lysenko Red:

A movement to fight climate change has real people power.

The most surprising development of the summit didn’t unfold in the halls of the UN. It happened two days before the summit, when an upstart environmental group, 350.org, organized a march through Manhattan that attracted thousands of people (official crowd estimates for such marches are notoriously unreliable). Hundreds of smaller demonstrations were staged around the globe. The turnout, especially for the New York march, was far greater than anyone, even organizers, expected. (but how many of us expected the turnout to be far greater than the organizers expected? Did we expect a ‘far fewer people showed up that we hoped’ announcement? In this space-time continuum?)

“Our citizens keep marching,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in his Tuesday address, acknowledging the protest. “We cannot pretend we do not hear them. (I dunno. Pretending to not hear people seems right in the President’s wheelhouse. Fore!) We have to answer the call.” (but you don’t have to buy what they’re selling. Just a friendly tip.) 

Asked this week how the summit would impact ongoing negotiations, the U.S. Department of State’s special envoy for climate change (When the history of all this is written by a saner age, this title will go down with The Committee for Public Safety as one of the great verbal triumph of statism), Todd Stern, started talking about the impact of the march instead, calling it the biggest climate demonstration ever. (Can’t one consider a million Californians hitting the beach on a summer weekend a ‘climate demonstration’? No?)

“You had 400,000 people on the streets of Manhattan,” Stern told reporters at the summit’s conclusion. “You have to say that that matters.” (Not really. You have at least twice that insanely inflated number marching in Washington every year for Life – and, no, the special envoy for Life (there’s one of those, too, right? based on the logic here?) hasn’t issued a statement that I know of.) 

The UN’s Ban marched in the demonstration, gushing about the experience in his Tuesday speech. “Two days ago I was part of a massive people’s climate march in New York,” Ban said. “I was overwhelmed by the energy of the tens of thousands of people.”  (that ‘energy’ was probably just hemp.)

This is just like how, when a trial doesn’t go their way, the mob decides justice. This mob is deciding both science and government policy. Probably helps that the UN and our government just about wets their collective pants at the thought of the level of power needed to do anything about the climate. Woohee, that’s some power! And, since they themselves aren’t likely to have to eschew planes and imported delicacies and vacation homes and chauffeurs, it’s a win-win! The real risk is that people will notice things aren’t so bad the way they are, or, more sophisticated, will notice that nothing we can do will have any meaningful effect on the climate any time soon, if ever.

The only real solution? Mass slaughter. Get the human population down to about 500 million or less, and we can live on organic greens, huddle for warmth, and walk anywhere we need to go, without a carbon footprint any bigger than the world’s cetaceans, who should be our standard since who doesn’t love the whales?

Not enough. Old Scratch wants us all gone. A nice big world war would be more to his liking.

3. This is so cool! Indian spacecraft set to enter Mars orbit Having just read the Wreck of the River of Stars, I was feeling pretty melancholy – Flynn has all these solar sails traveling between the permanent settlements from low earth orbit out to Saturn – and has them doing this starting in about another 20 years. Ain’t gonna happen, I said to myself, we ain’t done nothing much in space for 40 years. What makes anybody think that’ll change?

India getting a satellite to Mars for $74 million, that’s what. Hell, NASA can’t remodel the men’s rooms at Ames for that kind of money. So, let’s get a bunch of cheap Edisons hacking away at this – maybe it will work.

Of course, nobody has yet demonstrated that the self-contained greenhouses proposed as space settlements even work, let alone that human beings could live in them indefinitely. But let’s not bicker about ‘o killed ‘o! This is a happy occasion!

AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi, File

All that gold foil is just the inside of recycled Mylar Valentine’s day balloons. Frugal! And you’re not sure I just made that up!

 

On Data

(Another half-baked attempt to see if I can understand something by writing it out. Riffing on a recurring theme in Mike Flynn’s blog in light of some current misunderstandings of what data can tell you. You’d be better off reading him, frankly.)

Mike Flynn has pointed out on several occasions (for the purposes of this post, here is a good one) that a ‘fact’ is, in its Latin root, a ‘thing made’. While things may BE simply, to be UNDERSTOOD they need to be, in a sense, made. The facts, in this sense, don’t speak for themselves – it would be more truthful to say that the facts confess under the duress of a theory.

What this means in practice is that one must understand the theory and practice under which the facts are made – or, in a word evocative of a harvest at the end of a season of work, ‘gathered’* – in order to understand what the facts *are*. Then, we next must understand the explanation (or theory or chain of causality) under which the facts ‘speak’. We’ll confine ourselves to the observational data and fact-making here.

This farmer is hoping that plentiful harvest of rice validates his theory. Otherwise, he’s just out standing in his field.

To take an egregious example from an alarmingly large pool of such examples: infant mortality. It might seem that the tragic death of a baby is a pretty eloquent fact in itself. But we are not here talking directly about infant death – we are talking about the subtly different concept of mortality, which is an impersonal rate of death over some time and (usually) place.

Often, the infant mortality rates of different countries are compared. Seems fair, but it relies on two assumptions that are far from certain:

- that infant death means the same thing always and everywhere;

- that the methods of gathering the data are the same, or at least give effectively the same results.

Neither of these assumptions hold in the real world.  In America, an anencephalous baby who dies minutes after birth is counted in the infant mortality statistics; in most other places, that child would be considered a still birth; in America, traditionally, heroic efforts are made to save even very premature babies, who, if those efforts fail, is counted in the infant mortality numbers; most places in the world do not make such heroic efforts, and would count the child as stillborn. American hospitals report each infant death separately and immediately; in much of the rest of the world, infant deaths are obtained not from hospitals, but from household survey data.

And so on. Note that here I’m making no judgement about which method of counting is best, merely pointing out that the results make simply comparing one country’s reported infant mortality rate to another country’s meaningless.

The danger is when some number is taken as a data point – say, infant mortality rate in India in 1998 – and then thrown in the hopper with other numbers – say, the infant mortality rate in England in 2003 – and treated as if they are both the same sort of thing and, in fact, more real than the deaths and method of counting that underlie them. Then people try to say things about these numbers that the facts that underlie them cannot be made to say. Bad science. **

Because of these considerations alone, ANY comparison of statistics gathered from different places and times is immediately suspect. Anyone doing such a thing would need to begin his paper by addressing:

1. the definitions of what is being counted;

2. the methods under which whatever is being counted is counted;

3. how the following research allows for these differences.

Any research that doesn’t do that right out of the chute is Cargo Cult Science, full stop. Even if these steps are taken, it still remains for the reader to decide whether, in fact, the results can be relied upon to tell us anything. Remember, the best answer in science is most often: we don’t know.

And it gets worse: sometimes, the researcher themselves will change the definitions in mid-stream: ignoring what the data gatherers were gathering, they apply another definition, thereby completely obscuring whatever the true relationship between the underlying observations, facts and theory is.

Finally, there’s always a judgement call or 6 in any scientific observation. One example among many: In the physical sciences, great care needs to be taken to not intentionally or unintentionally exclude observations. The classic example is from Millikan’s famous efforts to measure the charge of an electron: when he got ‘bad’ results from any particular observation, he seems to have assumed he must have just screwed up that run and threw the results out. Perfectly understandable human behavior. Nope – too easy for confirmation bias to sneak in and start defining what a ‘bad’ observation is – any that don’t support my theory.

So, a baby’s tragic death, any particular observation of an oil drop in a magnetic field, any scientific observation or classification becomes a fact only by virtue of being defined by the method and theory under which the fact is considered. If one is to compare facts, those facts must have been made under the same theory and method, or, failing that, the commensurability of the methods and theories must be established.***

* It’s lovely to think of scientific facts as the fruits of a harvest. The ground is prepared so that the natural thing – or, more precisely, the nature of the natural thing – can reveal itself. Thus, the wheat and vine yield their grain and grapes as the actualization of their natures. Man does not create those natures, but rather creates the conditions under which they can reveal themselves. Similarly, we often say that researchers are teasing out the data – we build a supercollider to provide the right conditions for the subatomic particles to reveal their natures; we put telescopes in orbit so that the nature of the cosmos can reveal itself to us. But the farmer would not farm, nor the scientist experiment, if they did not already have a good working theory of the general nature of plants and scientific , respectively.

** Take these same definitional and reporting problems, spread it across all health issues – and now imagine how much valid information is contained in an across the board comparison of healthcare across countries.For example, healthcare in England is often held up as the ideal toward which American healthcare should strive. And, anecdotally, my sister gave birth in England twice to healthy babies, and has nothing but praise for the care she received. But reports are different for 70 year old smokers needing care. Even in America, people who can afford it go to nice state of the art research hospitals, not County General. Why? Is healthcare really fungible no matter what kind of care and regardless of where it is delivered?

Those heroic efforts to save premature babies – if it were your kid, it makes a huge difference to you that he be delivered in America and not somewhere else. Yet, because of this practice, Americans will spend much more money on care from preemies than other countries. The care is not fungible.

*** This is one of the reasons real science is such a great game, and why real scientists deserve the honor we give them. And why bad science, meaning science that doesn’t recognize and uphold these conditions, needs to be called out and held up for ridicule. The price of good science is eternal vigilance. In the hard sciences, my impression is that the policing is internal and vigorous, except in those cases where the practitioners step outside their expertise. It’s in those cases, and in the firm yet not *hard* hard sciences – medicine, biology and all their related fields – that we educated peons need to step up. The soft ‘sciences’ seem beyond hope, but at least we can point out the Hegelian nature of their methods and claims.