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It’s Not Enough to Render People Stupid

Posted by Joseph Moore on July 18, 2014

You must also convince them that they are the smartest people ever.  This is not easy, but much success has been achieved:

Media Ignorance Is Becoming A Serious Problem. Ya think? While I here on this blog tend to concentrate on how the media presents science (Science!) what this article is addressing is less subtle and perhaps more dangerous: people like Mr. Carter can become, at age 31,  a *Senior* Political Economy Reporter with a national audience without knowing anything about Political Economy, and not be at all ashamed or apologetic, let alone silenced, when this ignorance is brought to his attention.  Nor does he lose his job, which goes without saying.

This phenomenon is not limited to “journalists” and talking heads, unfortunately. I almost always stay out of any combox wars where it is instantly apparent that the interlocutors are are completely uninterested in any history or logic or science, which eliminates almost all of combox discussions above room temperature. We can include, therefore, at least a good percentage of combox warriors here.  And, unfortunately, that’s not the end of it by any means, insofar as anecdotal information can be extrapolated to the population as a whole: that combination of humility and curiosity that is the hallmark of real scholars and engaged civilians alike has all but vanished from the earth.

Chimpanzee in thought

So, this Wealth of Nations is, like, a book? Wow. Who reads books?

But how did we reach this sorry state? In the case of the Mr. Carters of the world, the option, when faced with their obvious ignorance would to recognize themselves as ignorant fools – and that’s not very appealing, especially when one is being well compensated to be a *senior* expert in exactly that field. The better response is to simply denigrate what you do not know and any foolish enough to bring it up. Easy-peasy.

In fifth grade, I won the Merit Pin: given to the best student as determined by the highest GPA each semester in each grade at St. Mary’s of the Assumption in Whittier. This would have been around 1968 – dark times! (I was then as I am now a terrible student – Mary Beth Hughes, who was an ideal student, always won it, but that semester she was evidently in a transitional phase out of little girl to not so little girl – whatever, she had an off semester right when I hit my academic peak. It’s not my fault!)  But that was about the beginning of the end of awarding excellence in school. Over the next few decades, we started in with awards both more plentiful and general, peaking in awards for just showing up or completing 4th grade. In the 70s, my youngest brother’s basketball team won some tournament – each kid on the team got a trophy. Not that any team I was on ever won anything (we will presumptively dismiss discussions, no matter how well-founded, on any causal relationships here), but teams that did win tended to get *a* trophy *for the team*, which the school put into a display case. Well, at least my brother’s team did actually win, and the other teams in the tournament didn’t get trophies for having lost – clearly, the event was run by barbarians!

Now? I’d be shocked if grade school tournaments don’t give something to everybody. Better, just stop keeping score – winning and losing is just so arbitrary anyway.  That kids, especially boys, actually like to compete, is only a sign of their unevolved consciousnesses. Or something.

About 20 years ago, a story came out about a high school basketball player who was impenetrably convinced that he should be playing in the NBA (that’s the highest level of professional basketball for those of you lacking the sports gene). So, he declared for the NBA draft (meaning, he threw his name in the hat to be claimed by NBA teams – at the time, doing so meant surrendering your eligibility for a college sports scholarship). No matter how many people told him he wasn’t remotely good enough and no NBA team was ever going to select him – he wasn’t even the best player on his high school team – he refused to listen.

His self-esteem was very high.

Today, that poor kid’s name is Legion. The only problem for the rest of us is that, in certain professions, there’s no winnowing process based on anything objective. Thus, Carter above could land a job without knowing anything deeper than a coat of paint about the field in which he’s supposed to be an expert.  We better be careful – the way things are going, we could end up with somebody like that running the country, surrounded by people who, like every teacher and coach he’s ever had, keep telling him how wonderful he is, until no mere fact is allowed past the armor plating of self esteem.

That could be bad.

The hard part is telling where the smug ignorance ends and the willful deceit begins. Sure, reporters, not, in general, being the sharpest cutlery in the kitchen, may almost as a group be innocent of any active deceit – they really do believe they are, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. This leads them to consider anything they don’t know as ipso facto unimportant, any views they don’t hold as necessarily the result of ignorance and superstition. That this represents the death of reporting – you will never see anything that can’t exist in your world – seems to likewise be lost on them.*

I wish it were hard to believe a Rachel Maddow, who I know only by reputation and a couple brief things she’s written, could be just a mindless sycophant, given her elite education and obvious native wit – but she seems to be. A Maureen Dowd, on the other hand, shows no evidence of ever having had a thought (I read her regularly a few years ago, back when the NYT was free (almost worth the price) and my main source of news). Maybe she had one since the Times started charging, who knows.

Were things ever any different? I don’t know. I’ve only known one newsman more than superficially – Marvin Arrowsmith, AP Washington Bureau chief during the 60s and 70s, may he rest in peace. He retired to Santa Fe when I lived there, and we attended the same Catholic church. Very nice man, high integrity. Was the reporting out of Washington better back then, with people like Marvin in charge? I’d like to think so.

*Once, years ago, I attended a party where I was one of only three people there not in the news media. It seemed I was one of only two people there who did not think Democrats were obviously smarter and more virtuous than Republicans. (Then as now, I tend to not vote party line when I vote, though its been a while since I’ve found a Democrat I could vote for. Back then, it happened often enough.) Struck up a conversation with a nice, if somewhat mousy, young woman reporter, wherein I asked her what she liked about her job. Casting down the mighty from their high places. Putting 2 and 2 together, which mighty are likely to get her attention?

I’ve been to better parties.

On the willful deceit side, we have the leaders who, for 150 years and more, have been working to get the schools to output just such intellectual ciphers. When Woodrow Wilson says that vast bulk of people must forego a liberal education and instead be fitted for particular manual jobs, what he and his buddies wanted at the time were docile factory workers. Since then, the needs have changed somewhat, but the methods – especially making sure people don’t get a liberal education – haven’t. We teach children in a million ways to despise the past, to believe that everything is better now in every way than it used to be, to believe in their hearts that all those old guys have been superseded and need not concern us any more. If a kid were able to go a few honest rounds with Plato, for example, his world would change – so, we can’t have that happen. Turns out to be more effective and less of a red flag if you work on the ‘honest’ part. Let them read Plato, in the unlikely event such a thing we ever occur to them. Just make sure they lack the intellectual tools to understand him.

It’s not just or even mostly the ignorance itself that is the chief and most evil output of our school, although it is bad enough. It’s the inoculation against thought. The right questions are in the study guide; the right answers are in the back of the book. And we’re all practically perfect in every way.

We live in a country where many people – not most, I don’t think, but many, and almost all you’re likely to read in the news or see on TV – have gotten their jobs by, as Fichte’s put it, being unable to think anything their betters don’t want them to think.

Once you don’t love the truth, you quickly become unable to love anything at all. What you call love becomes a kind of rage.


Posted in Culture, Modern Cluelessness, Politics | 4 Comments »

Science! Getting Close….

Posted by Joseph Moore on July 16, 2014

…to not one, but *two* much to be desired discoveries:

We’re ‘Very Close’ to Finding Life Beyond Earth: NASA. Not just close, very close. I’m holding out for very, *very* close, myself.


Researchers Close To Building Shape-Shifting, Self-Healing Robots

These headlines are a sort of logic test. In the first case, in the body of the article, scientists echo Sagan’s ‘terrible waste of space’ argument (if you can call it that): that there’s just too much empty space out there, too many stars and planets, for only earth to have life. Try putting that into a valid syllogism and its circularity becomes patent.

But the robots are more interesting: they could mean they’re ‘close’ in that all that remains in creating shape-shifting, self healing  robots is a better application of well-understood technology that already exists, in which case ‘close’ may be the right word. This is the sense in which we are close to wiping out world hunger and providing safe drinking water and state of the art sanitation to every person in the world. OR they may mean that we’re ‘close’ in that we’re only a couple more technological breakthroughs from having all the technology we’d need to build such machines – this is the sense in which we’re close to AI and commercial nuclear fusion power. (Although strong AI may be a metaphysical impossibility, while commercial fusion power is merely really, really hard.) In this second case, we’d be using ‘close’ in the same way in both headlines: we’re ‘close’ to having what we need, which happens to be proof of what we’re trying to prove. We’ll only be close once we have what we do not now have – claiming we’re close to having it is oracular, in that we don’t, you know, have it. The implied short time frame for the ‘close’ works as well for warp drive as it does for alien life or other undiscovered technological breakthroughs – how far out in time? We can only answer that once we’ve discovered it. ‘A million years’ and ‘never’ are, logically, every bit as much in play as ‘tomorrow’ or ‘within 20 years’.

So, I’m ready to be amazed and thrilled. How close I am to being amazed and thrilled is and will remain an open question until that undetermined time when it’s not.

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Ignatius Pew Missal

Posted by Joseph Moore on July 10, 2014

Not, as one might hope, an Ignatian Pew Missile, the shoulder-mounted Church Militant defensive system for the spiritual foot-soldiers, which opens a can of old-school Jebbie-style whoop-hiney on heretics in the Church – that’s still in development. BUT: we do have a much-improved missal:


It’s got lots of good things, go to the site for details. Most wonderfully, it has simple chant settings for the Mass propers – doing those FIRST, before simply picking 4 hymns, would certainly be a huge step in the right direction – the direction of making the Mass time out of time, transcendent, not just another episode in my me-centered life.

One comment on a curiosity in the hymns: included among the wonderful old-school tunes (of whatever vintage) are a set of about a dozen ‘contemporary’ tunes – Be Not Afraid, I Am the Bread of Life, Hail Mary Gentle Woman (yeech!), Eagle’s Wings and so on – a pretty good representative sample of the songs sung in parishes that all the 50+ year olds have heard since childhood. (Plus a big dose of Taise – which I don’t claim to get, exactly, but it’s usually not terrible. Neither here nor there.)

Why, one might ask, would those aiming to improve music in the liturgy include such musical and (usually) theological trivialities? First, they did choose (mostly – Carey Landry?!?) from among the more musically inoffensive end of the pool, and songs which are not (too) theologically suspect.  But I see a bit of subtle as serpents going on here: by including these warhorses of the Spirit of V-II crowd, the compilers neutralize a whole line of attack (‘everybody LOVES song X! We can’t use a missal that doesn’t have song X!) ; second, by putting such songs in the middle of many much better songs, those who have ears to hear – say, anyone under 40 – may, in fact, notice the difference. The aging hippies have sold their ears for an ideology – they just hear goodthink and badthink when they hear any song in church – but the younger crowd might actually like good songs that are not hard to sing (the tune and scansion are the same for each verse? They can DO that?) The usual snakes in the grass are probably too wise to fall for this, but they are losing traction with the people who actually, you know, go to Mass.

Anyway, it would have been interesting to be in on the meetings where the songs were chosen. I’m wistfully imaging a little maniacal cackling as they tucked the Prayer of St. Francis next to Regina Caeli. MUAHAHAH!

May God bless this effort, and all efforts to make our worship of Him as beautiful, good and true as possible.

H/T to the Curt Jester.

Posted in Catholicism, Music, Parish Life | Leave a Comment »

Disappearing Planets in the News: Cautionary Tale

Posted by Joseph Moore on July 8, 2014

With science, not to mention Science!, there’s finding stuff and then there’s finding stuff. For example, today we learn that a tiny hedgehog and a personal-size tapir lived in British Columbia millions of years ago. The researches discovered physical remains of the two creatures, although in the case of the hedgehog, they used CAT scans to construct a 3-D model of the jawbone while it was still embedded in rock – they didn’t think it could be safely removed. So, they had parts of the tapir skeleton in hand, and images of the tiny hedgehog jawbone that was too small to extract from the rock.

And that’s the kind of evidence we get for the existence of extinct animal species from paleontologists. From there, we usually descend rapidly into more or less baseless speculation about appearance (‘artist’s rendition’) or behavior (looks like a hedgehog; hedgehogs eat bugs; probably ate bugs) which is fine, as far as it goes, but we should always keep separate, in our minds, actual physical evidence from speculation, no matter how reasonable such speculation may seem.

Careful about those alien planets, especially if your fashion sense runs toward the more rosy end of the spectrum.

Today’s example: a few years ago, two ‘earth-like’ planets were ‘discovered’ orbiting a near-by star. Well, by discovered we mean: certain observed fluctuations in the star’s spectrum could be explained, under certain theories, by the presence of two rocky planets of certain masses orbiting a certain close distances. It’s all a bit messy: there’s a lot background noise when looking at spectra, and it’s all very far away, and we’ve got to filter out the mess without filtering out the data, and, even then, we have some theories and models that allow us to back into the existence of invisible planets, and to construct very broad models of what those planets might be like.

And there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact, it’s very proper and exciting. Only problem is when we switch from thinking ‘tantalizing evidence’ to thinking ‘almost certainly true’ to ‘established fact’ without actually establishing a fact.

So, today, we learn that those fluctuation in the stellar spectrum are more easily explained some other way – not as planets. The astronomers have refined their methods and theories, and concluded that when all the natural variations that could be expected from such a star were filtered out, the evidence for these two planets disappeared. So, oops.

But, the news is generally good: under the refined method, stronger evidence for the three other planets that are claimed to be orbiting that same star – outside the ‘Goldilocks zone’ so not as interesting to SETI fanboys – was obtained, strengthening the overall claims of this planet-hunting method. So, we lost a couple planets, but we gained a better approach to finding planets in the future.

Nonetheless – some snapshots would be nice, maybe of the surface. Until then, there’s always going to remain some uncertainty as an unavoidable feature of using surrogate measures in lieu of direct observation.


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The Trolley Problem: Let’s Beat It Up a Little More

Posted by Joseph Moore on July 7, 2014

That this insipid piece of Pragmatist absurdity has not died, but has generated papers and books and endless pop references makes me suppose that perhaps it needs a stake driven through its black, black heart. Picking up where we left off:

You come across this every-day scene yet again: from a distance amazingly just sufficient to prevent you running up to the victims yet close enough so that all the implications are perfectly clear at a glance, you see 5 men bound and laid across a trolley track. Just before the trolley track reaches the men, there’s a spur off to the right into a blind alley inches wider that the trolley car. Wouldn’t you know it? Right then, at that very moment, an out of control trolley car – your excellent x-ray vision allows you to see that the conductor is not just bending over at the moment and so out of sight,  no, he’s not there at all – comes barreling down the tracks, AND you notice one guy who is working away in the blind alley. AND you just happen to be standing next to a lever that switches the track so that the trolley goes down the spur instead of over the 5 guys. The operation of this lever is instantly known to you.

Don’t you just hate it when this happens?

So, after .5 seconds of consideration, you conclude that 1) miraculously, you have  information certain about all the relevant parts: you know FOR SURE that the 5 guys will get run over and die if you don’t switch to the spur; you know FOR SURE that the dude in the blind alley will die if you do switch to the spur; 2) you have certain knowledge that no one else can do anything to stop the trolley, nor help the tied up men escape, nor alert the guy in the alley.

What evil Daemon has placed you in such predicament? So, what the hell, you pull the lever. Too bad for the guy in the alley, but saving 5 lives at the cost of one seems like the right thing to do.

Oh, the humanity!

Just then, a director jumps in to the scene yelling ‘CUT!’ and the five men, their bonds revealed to be simply props, stand up and various other members of the movie crew appear. ‘WHO THE HELL IS THAT JOKER WHO THREW THE SWITCH?!? GET HIM THE HELL OFF MY SET!’

And then the man in the alley is crushed to death by the now out of control trolley.

Moral: you will never have certain knowledge of outcomes. Moral decisions CANNOT be based on certain knowledge of outcomes, for the simple reason that in all cases that involve a true moral decision, outcomes are at best only more or less likely, given the limits of human understanding.*  Sometimes, as in the case given above, your clear conception of the ends is just plain wrong.  This is a core and inescapable feature of the reality within which moral decisions are made.

Pragmatism, once you cut through  Peirce’s thicket of obfuscatory circumlocutions, is just the theory that the ends justifies the means, and nothing more. Pragmatists want to pretend that what they understand as the ends are sufficiently well understood and desirable to justify crushing the occasional innocent man with a trolley. So to speak.

Thus, the lamentable Dewey, in his defense of Trosky, can give only what amounts to stylistic limits on what may be done to achieve an end.  There’s no hard and fast rules about how many innocent people may be slaughtered to achieve a sufficiently glorious end. As Trotsky said:

The struggle which is in the offing transcends by far the importance of individuals, factions and parties. It is the struggle for the future of all mankind.

Making an omelette, here. Concern for the eggs is misplaced. Just which and how many eggs get broken is up to the omelette maker, who cannot be criticized for his slaughter and lying, except insofar as said slaughter and deceit fail to achieve the glorious end.

Any supposed moral thought experiment wherein perfect knowledge is assumed is about as applicable to the real world as a thought experiment that begins with a unicorn eating green cheese on the moon.

* It also bears keeping in mind that the means chosen form the ends actually achieved. One is as unlikely to achieve peace, kittens and rainbows by indiscriminately killing innocent people as one is unlikely to harvest watermelons after planing corn, for example. Stalin’s and Mao’s failure to achieve the worker’s paradise was assured by their choice of means, even assuming the ends were otherwise obtainable.

Posted in Culture, History, Modern Cluelessness, Skepticism | Leave a Comment »

Pre-Fourth Up-roundings and Tidbits

Posted by Joseph Moore on July 3, 2014

1. What other willies-producing tricks are those creepy little 6-legged horrors up to these days? Glad you asked:

Bone House: Species Of Wasps Protects Its Home Using Bodies Of Dead Ants

Seems some wasps lay their eggs behind a wall of dead ants, to send a message much like nasty little mafiosi: mess with us, and it won’t be pretty.

I’m betting seeing piles of dead bodies from the moment of birth results in years of tiny nasty wasp therapy.

Bone House Wasps defending against predators. More or less.

2. Domesticated Tomato Plants Evidently Stone Deaf

How else would one explain how a few tomato hornworms can reduce a decent size plant to a bunch of green twigs, in light of this study? The claim here:

We found that feeding vibrations signal changes in the plant cells’ metabolism, creating more defensive chemicals that can repel attacks from caterpillars,” said Appel in a statement.

So, plants, hearing the sloppy eating sounds of caterpillars, produce chemicals that the caterpillars don’t like, thus driving them off. Why they don’t just produce those chemicals by default is not explained – no, they have to wait until one of their little buddies or they themselves start getting eaten, *then* they grab their little chemical Uzis and have at ‘em.

This tomato plant was evidently hard of hearing.

3. Investment advice explained:

Say you have developed and successfully tested a way to make a lot of money investing in stocks. Do you:

a. Spend your time making a lot of money investing in stock? or

b. Sell your expertise to other people so that they can make lots of money investing in stock?

4. Never cared about cars much until I was about 30, and working as a personal lines underwriting analyst, and had to look at a lot of car magazines as part of my job (no, really). Then my obsessive little mind started noticing all sorts of odd things.  One, which hit its apex a couple years ago, was what we called Sweeps:

a 100% Sweep compliant Hyundai Sonata

From humble beginnings back around 2009, this practice of using a fold in the side sheet metal as the unifying design theme of cars briefly took over the world. The idea is almost as old as cars, but here it is put to work unifying what are really disparate design features, giving the design a real sense of forward motion. The picture above show a perfect example: the sweep starts as part of the definition of the tail lights, moves through the door handles and points at the front wheels, then is picked up curves defining the fog lights and indeed the hood.

The sweep ties into the rear design nicely as well.

It’s surprisingly elegant and convincing, which means of course that car makers quickly overdid it in a series of abominations (e.g., designs with two contrasting sweeps, or sweeps that have a kink in them – unclear on the concept), and, then, as of this model year, it has largely disappeared. RIP, sweep – until it is rediscovered in 20 – 30 years.

Now, my attention has been drawn to colored – most often, red –  brake calipers:

We must make sure all the world knows we can stop if we want to.

Back in the day, something as mundane as brakes would not be made into a design feature. But then, a few years back, some sports cars – I think it was Ferrari – started painting the brake calipers red. This shows up nicely if you have spidery rims, which such ego-toys typically do. Now, you’ll see trucks, and subcompacts with 1.2 liter engines advertising their stopping capabilities.

Current hobby: seeing how lame an underpowered econobox is willing to sport look-at-me! brake calipers.

Chevy Sonic entry-level subcompact. With red calipers. And a spoiler. Woo. And, I might add, hoo.

Posted in Culture, Finance, Formerly Normal Guys, Science! | Leave a Comment »

Why Can’t We Be Reasonable?

Posted by Joseph Moore on July 2, 2014

Here I try, however imperfectly, to honor the Thomistic practice of putting one’s opponent’s argument as strongly as one is able, in order to make sure you are arguing legitimately and fairly, and not merely against a straw man:


Understanding Horses

True understanding must always take place in context. Thus, for a biologist, understanding horses, say, requires more than understanding how a horse works biochemically and biomechanically, but must include how he interacts with his environment and the herd. Further, a particular horse needs to be seen as representative of a species that has developed over time. So a biological understanding of horses must needs include the Big Picture: how horses fit into evolutionary history (so to speak), into its herd, into its lineage, and into its environment. Trying to understand horse without context would be like trying to understand horses by analysis of a chunk of horse meat. Ultimately, the best understanding of horses comes within the largest possible context – as parts of the whole of life over time.

In practice, everything we know about horses starts from particulars. As we add more context, the particulars don’t go away, but rather become seen in a new light. Sometimes, things we thought we were sure of turn out, in the larger context, to be wrong – and that’s a good thing, we’ve corrected an error based on better, more all encompassing knowledge.

With me so far? Now, with people this process becomes very interesting. All the things just said about horses apply to people as well, but, because we think about things in a way that animals don’t, yet further issues arise. What is the context for human thought?

It appears that progress over time is human thought’s defining characteristic. Certainly, if one looks around today, the physical products of human thought are much advanced from what we hear our ancestors used to have. And political and social thinking has improved as well, bringing us representative democracy and social services unknown in the past. So we would expect human thought to change over time – and to get better.

But we have yet to describe the context, the environment, of human thought. Let’s call it History. History is best understood as the record of advances in thought. Not necessarily smooth or consistent advances, but the overall trend seems to be moving from less insightful and sophisticated thinking to more.

When we look around us, we see we are at the apex of human thought, as evidenced by the huge advances made in the physical world, such that 7 billion people can be easily fed, housed and clothed, the majority of dreaded disease have been banished, and that countries in which these things originate are the most humane and civilized that have ever been. What kind of an environment would produce such appearances? An environment with a bias toward progress.

(Note: Hegel placed the source of that bias squarely on the Spirit, which is God except insofar as it’s not. Marx kept the bias, but removed any purposeful source for it. It is just the nature of things that things get better somehow. It is this latter belief that is central to virtually all modern thought.)

Now History, which under our new understanding is the record of how this environmental bias toward progress has brought about advances in human thought over time, shows that there are fits and starts – progress is made when people become aware of and embrace new thinking. Certain people, perhaps gropingly at first, then more pointedly as the new thinking becomes more clear, are the heroes of this process, bringing new ideas into the world in such a way that more and more people become aware of them and embrace them. This is most clearly how progress is made.

Insofar as this new thinking is truly new, it may be impossible to understand under the older, less advanced thinking that holds the field while the new thinking is being promulgated. Progress, in this sense, is embracing the new thinking not because it is understandable within the context of old thinking, but precisely because such new thinking defies and defeats old thinking (or, if we’re more sophisticated Hegelians, subsumes and suspends the old and its contradiction in a new synthesis).  When that happens, those who cling to the old thinking are simply incapable of understanding the new thinking. It’s not that they are unreasonable, exactly, it’s that what they think of as reasonable is wrong, superseded and obviated by a new way of thinking.

This inability to reason with those stuck in old thinking is a key and unavoidable feature of the largest context within which all human thought takes place. Therefore, those of us who are enlightened properly refuse to spend any effort reasoning with those who are on the wrong side of history – what would be the point? Until they embrace the new understanding, we would merely be talking past them, with no hope of persuading them. Better to keep pushing the new thinking by whatever means are necessary – that is the only path to progress. It is not we who have discarded our opponents, after all, but History.

Well? Does that seem an accurate and fair exposition? How can I improve it?


Posted in Culture, Hegel, Philosophy, Thoughts | 2 Comments »

Any Science Content Here?

Posted by Joseph Moore on July 1, 2014

Ancient baby boom reveals dangers of overpopulation

Place where people used to live. Notice the lack of green? It’s a semi-desert, and prone to droughts, as any old timer New Mexican farmer can tell you.

In today’s Science! news: Ancient baby boom reveals dangers of overpopulation. This is an article based on a press release. The study itself does not seem to be available online.

Here’s the conclusion:

According to a report (the link is to the press release) from Washington State University, researchers have described one of the greatest baby booms in North American history – a centuries-long “growth blip” amongst southwestern Native Americans stretching from 500 to 1300 A.D.

At this point in North American history, the early features of civilization had matured to where birth rates likely “exceeded the highest in the world today,” the researchers note in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dire. Here’s the method, as best as can be gleaned from the press release:

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study looks at a century’s worth of data on thousands of human remains found at hundreds of sites across the Four Corners region of the Southwest. While many of the remains have been repatriated, the data let Kohler assemble a detailed chronology of the region’s Neolithic Demographic Transition, in which stone tools reflect an agricultural transition from cutting meat to pounding grain.

“It’s the first step towards all the trappings of civilization that we currently see,” said Kohler. Jean-Pierre Bocquet-Appel, a French expert on prehistoric populations and guest editor of the PNAS article, has called the transition “one of the fundamental processes of human history.

OK, methodological question: how does one get from studying data* on human remains collected over a century, from people who lived over a period of 800 years, from an area of a couple hundred thousand square miles, to conclusions about overpopulation? I mean, it could be possible in theory if some rather peculiar information could be gleaned from the data collected on the bones – precise time frames for lifespans, nutritional history, cause of death, what percentage of the entire population from any one time the remains from that time represent, and – here’s a hard one – how representative of the entire population the remains happen to be. Why suppose that the remains are not outliers? King Tuts, as it were?

It would be fascinating to learn how the scientists dealt with these issues to reach any conclusions at all, let alone the specific conclusions they did reach, but the press release is big on telling us how much we can learn from the story of a population boom and subsequent population collapse, and not big on giving us any reason to believe those conclusions are valid in the first place. Such is modern soft science.

Well, we have conclusions to draw and grant granters to appease, so let’s get to where we’re going:

Around 900 A.D., populations remained high but birth rates began to fluctuate. The mid-1100s saw one of the largest known droughts in the Southwest. The region likely hit its carrying capacity, with continued population growth and limited resources similar to what Thomas Malthus predicted for the industrial world in 1798.

From the mid-1000s to 1280—by which time all the farmers had left—conflicts raged across the northern Southwest but birth rates remained high.

“They didn’t slow down—birth rates were expanding right up to the depopulation,” said Kohler. “Why not limit growth? Maybe groups needed to be big to protect their villages and fields.”

“It was a trap,” said Kohler. “A Malthusian trap but also a violence trap.”

The northern Southwest had as many as 40,000 people in the mid-1200s, but within 30 years it was empty, leaving a mystery that has consumed several archaeological careers, including Kohler’s. Perhaps the population got too large to feed itself as climates deteriorated, but as people began to leave, it would have been hard to maintain the social unity needed for defense and new infrastructure, said Kohler.

Whatever the reason, he said, the ancient Puebloans point up that, “population growth has its consequences.”

The chief consequence of population growth seems to be that there are more people. And it’s a bad idea to farm in a semi-desert environment when there is an extended drought. And violence can get, well, violent. And Malthus, who has never been proved right in broad daylight with people watching, was right all along – it’s just that we needed a pile of old bones and a (circular?) theory to explain them to prove that Malthus is right  but only when nobody’s watching.  Something like that.

So, there may be some science in among the Science! somewhere – but we’ll never know unless the paper makes it to the internet. I kind of doubt it. But that’s hardly the point – the proper boogeyman has been invoked, and we have all been warned – again – against having children, who are clearly the root of all evil.

* There’s a scene in the Foundation trilogy somewhere where scientists searching for proof that this mythical place called ‘Earth’ actually existed are described as doing no field work, but rather spending their time reviewing the data from earlier researchers. Some upstart suggests they, you know, *go* to the planets under consideration – which baffles the scientists, as the data has already been collected…

AFTERTHOUGHT: for those not from around here, the area under discussion is southeast Utah, northeast Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and southwest Colorado – huge area. If 40,000 people lived there as asserted, the population density would be far below 1 per square mile – closer to 0.1 per square mile. And this is where we’re looking for an ancient Malthusian collapse?  I wouldn’t be surprised if 40,000 people could survive on the squirrels and pinon nuts in that area. On the other hand, there are a couple large rivers in that area – the San Juan and the Rio Grande – that have nice fertile valleys, which, were early Americans to build there, might not have left a trace, what with floods and all. So, it could be that the populations for which we have evidence – mostly, those in desolate, dry areas like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde – might not even represent the dominant culture or bulk of the population. Just so, the early human remains our paleoanthropologists get to play with were (and still largely are) from dry, protected areas. A huge civilization built in, say, the jungles of southeast Asia, where wood was their common building material could, in 10,000 years, vanish without a trace – not so the Egyptians and Mesopotamian civilizations, that build at least some of their buildings in dry areas off the flood plains. So, again, easy to see the panic mongering here, hard to see the science.

Posted in Science! | Leave a Comment »

World-Historical Mob: Our Current Infestation

Posted by Joseph Moore on July 1, 2014

It’s Hegel channelling Luther again. Let’s go with the SparkNotes summary, which both seems about right and will save me hours of unremunerated toil:

Major historical events occur when there is a clash (on the part of an individual or a group) between these accepted abstract ideals and possible alternative ones. The emergence of such new concepts is “a moving force of the productive Idea,” the immediate instrument of Spirit in history. The individuals who introduce these world-impacting concepts are “world-historical individuals” like Caesar or Napoleon. The personal will and passions of such individuals coincide to some degree with the will of the World Spirit, and they aim, whether they know it or not, at “what the time intrinsically demands.” These “heroes” gain their personal passions in part “from a source whose content is hidden” rather than from tradition or the status quo.

These heroes are able to lead only because they articulate a passion that others recognize as their own (since it is an articulation of the next step in the universal Idea). Though the hero may not be conscious of it, he is bringing the “unconscious Spirit” to consciousness, and therefore to actualization. Hegel disputes any assumption that these individuals gain happiness from their actions, but he also discards the “psychological” view that would focus on their quirks and immoral passions; focusing on these only expresses “envy” of the heroes, and fails to recognize that they were being used for a higher purpose.

Man, unfolding the Spirit can just wear a guy down, especially when it takes *endless* wars of aggression and a French Revolution and the concomitant piles of corpses and goodness knows what else…

Does Ginsberg see herself as a little Napoleon, or is that just me?

This is what is meant by “being on the wrong side of History”: Clinging to “accepted abstract ideals” when Great Men – oops, Great Persons – come along  with passions and will, who Just Know they are “a moving force of the productive Idea”. We wrong side of history types keep coming up with *reasons* that the current little Napoleons might NOT be the Chosen Tool of the unconscious Spirit, but might rather be, well, Napoleons.  No, no, no – reason doesn’t figure into it.

Note the lack of any reason or logic words in the above quotation, and, indeed, in Hegel’s writing in general. This is not a bug, but a feature. Facts? Syllogisms? Structured argument of any kind? Our insistence on such things, which we quaintly call ‘being reasonable’ and ‘making sense’ are, in themselves conclusive proof that we are little men, local and ahistorical.

Thus, as any number of people have pointed out, enlightened Supreme Court opinions do not have to make sense. Penumbras? Or Ginsburg’s rage that feminism has been set back? That these are not rational opinions based in law is, again, a feature, not a bug. If you are a World Historical Individual, you are by definition moving beyond what can be understood within the accepted abstract Idea, which, after all, was the result of the last round of the dialectic – we’re moving ahead into the next synthesis, which contains and suspends the contradictions of the current thesis and antithesis.

The one thing I will give old Hegel – he was clear that we humans, by the nature of reality, could not predict the synthethis. In other words, because the Spirit is in the process of unfolding the new Idea, that idea cannot yet be clear to us (thus, the unconscious nature of the actions of World Historical Individuals). Cheerleading the upcoming synthesis as the concrete reality of our *current* dreams would have seemed to Hegel to be the height of foolishness and hubris.  There’s no predicting the future. It took Marx’s impatience with this drawback to lead him to assert that, no, we CAN see the future, we World Historical Individuals can see how the dialectic will resolve itself. Again, that there is no evidence that anything we do is tending in any way toward a resolution into a Worker’s Paradise isn’t a drawback – it doesn’t have to make sense, or, more accurately, it has to not make sense within the accepted abstract ideas.

Got it?

Note also the preemptive absolution of any personal failings. If you’re on the right side of History, you can go ahead and be morally repulsive – you got bigger fish to fry.

My only complaint is just how tiny the individuals in our current mob of World Historic Individuals are (which is why it takes so many of them, it seems). Ginsberg? Sandra Fluke? Obama? That’s the best the Spirit can do? I feel a little like Uncle Screwtape, complaining about insipid modern sinners, not like the old days when people dared sin big – we proponents of accepted abstract ideals are to suffer a death of a thousand cuts at the tiny, frail hands of a mob of intellectual and moral midgets.

Thus, we have an alternately screeching and mewling mob of self-identified World Historical Individuals, who see no point in making a logical argument or even addressing the concerns of those On The Wrong Side of History – what would be the point? Logic advances nothing; it is Will and Passion all the way down.

When the Will triumphs, people die.

Posted in Culture, Hegel, In the News, Philosophy, Politics, Ponderings | Leave a Comment »

Eucharistic Theology in the Liturgy

Posted by Joseph Moore on June 30, 2014

Writing this to expand on my response to a thoughtful comment by Edward Isaacs on my over-the-top criticisms of a piece of liturgical music in the last post.  The relevant portion of Mr. Isaac’s comment:

Can’t say I fully understand some of your complaints about liturgical songs like this one. Maybe it’s my age—I’m twenty-three in a week…

As far as I have been taught about the doctrine of the Real Presence, it’s precisely the fact that the signs of bread and wine are present that gives us the assurance that the Real Presence is there. Signification and analogy are important themes in Aquinas, too. So I’m not able to see why a song like this is “bad,” theologically speaking.

I mean, if there’s been a sort of overarching tendency in the post-Vatican II era to re-evaluate the Mass in exclusively “horizontal” rather than “vertical” terms, then I think that’s a bad thing. But surely you can’t really pin the blame for that on specific songs failing to be sufficiently “vertical” in every verse. It’s not as if the “horizontal” dimension of Christian worship is not a real part of Christianity, or that it doesn’t have its place in the Mass.

The particular song being criticized: See Us, Lord, About Your Altar. The focus of the criticism is verse 3:

Once were seen the blood and water:
Now are seen but bread and wine;
Once in human form he suffered,
Now his form is but a sign.

A commenter over at the Musica Sacra forum puts it succinctly (here): “This text is oddly confusing and can be taken several ways. It surely does seem to introduce confusion. I mean, you could regard it as saying that the bread and wine are mere visible signs of the real presence. But is that right? It’s always bugged me.”

While it is certainly possible to take the text to be making a completely orthodox point about accidents versus substance, it’s also possible to take this to mean that the Eucharist Itself is ‘but’ a sign.

So, are we splitting hairs? It may be that J Greally, SJ, to whom this text is attributed, was a fine old school Jesuit who dabbled in poetry and penned this work with nothing but the most orthodox intentions. In which case we doubt not his sincerity, but rather his skill as a poet and a reader of poetry. However, as I’ve pointed out on this blog many times over the last few years, modern publishers of catholic liturgical songs show a strong and unmistakable bias toward songs that DO NOT clearly convey orthodox theology, preferring everything from the incoherent to the out and out heretical, so long as the proper PC idols get their incense.

The very thing that concerns me here, the confusing way the theology has been expressed, has been shown, I believe, to be a *plus* in the eyes of the OCP, for example.  In other words, that it could be taken to mean what many of our Protestant brethren mean is not, in their eyes, a bad thing, but a good thing.

It is a bad thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Catholicism, Music, Theology | 2 Comments »


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