Down and Dirty: Applied Loyalty to the Truth

Here, we discuss how and to what extent science has a claim to our assent to its findings. And here, Feynman explains the obligations of scientists if they want other scientists to assent – by extension, those obligations to not lie to oneself or to one’s peers also apply to how scientists ought to behave toward us civilians.

If current claims that ‘science has shown’ rely on other such claims – and they all do – then the current truth claims *require* that the previous truth claims must also be true. One can’t get the silk purse of a valid scientific claim if such claim is built on the sow’s ear of bad science. Feynman’s example is how a researcher did a rigorous study of how rats find things under experimental controls, showing exactly what precautions needed to be taken for any valid conclusions to be drawn from rat running experiments. What this experiment did was a) invalidate all prior rat running studies which failed to perform the rigorous controls (all of them!)  and b) establish a requirement of rigorous control for any future rat running.

For us laymen, this means that if we know that the proper rat running protocols were not followed, we owe no assent to claims based on rat running. (Of course, there are more damning philosophical issues with rat running claims, the most important of which is overreach – what compels us to accept claims about people based on what rats do? But the idea – rotten foundation, the building can’t stand – is what we’re getting at here.)

So, in the interest of science, let’s name names. Big names, with towering edifices built upon their finding – solid science, or house of cards? Here, I’ll give only the briefest outline of why they are not to be trusted and who their offspring are. NOTE: if anybody wants more detailed information, let me know in the comments and I’ll dig some stuff up. Here we go:  Continue reading “Down and Dirty: Applied Loyalty to the Truth”

Government is a Positive Good

The title of this post is an obvious truth that many Americans – very much including me – have a very hard time accepting. We see the corruption, the commandeering of the machinery of government for all kinds of evil purposes, the spying, the wars of distraction, the torture, the murder of civilians around the world, and have a hard time accepting that even a government such as ours, run by people such as our leaders, could still be a good thing – nay, a very good thing.  Yet:

13. For the sake of the Lord, accept the authority of every human institution: the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14. and the governors as commissioned by him to punish criminals and praise those who do good. 15. It is God’s will that by your good deeds you should silence the ignorant talk of fools. 16. You are slaves of no one except God, so behave like free people, and never use your freedom as a cover for wickedness. 17. Have respect for everyone and love for your fellow-believers; fear God and honour the emperor. 18. Slaves, you should obey your masters respectfully, not only those who are kind and reasonable but also those who are difficult to please. 19. You see, there is merit if, in awareness of God, you put up with the pains of undeserved punishment; 20. but what glory is there in putting up with a beating after you have done something wrong? The merit in the sight of God is in putting up with it patiently when you are punished for doing your duty. 21. This, in fact, is what you were called to do, because Christ suffered for you and left an example for you to follow in his steps. 22. He had done nothing wrong, and had spoken no deceit. 23. He was insulted and did not retaliate with insults; when he was suffering he made no threats but put his trust in the upright judge. 24. He was bearing our sins in his own body on the cross, so that we might die to our sins and live for uprightness; through his bruises you have been healed. 25. You had gone astray like sheep but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

St. PeterThis, written by a man who would soon enough be crucified upside down by the very empire he here says to accept and honor. The emperor he was telling his flock to honor was Nero, who makes even your least favorite American president look like a boy scout.


1. Everyone is to obey the governing authorities, because there is no authority except from God and so whatever authorities exist have been appointed by God. 2. So anyone who disobeys an authority is rebelling against God’s ordinance; and rebels must expect to receive the condemnation they deserve. 3. Magistrates bring fear not to those who do good, but to those who do evil. So if you want to live with no fear of authority, live honestly and you will have its approval; 4. it is there to serve God for you and for your good. But if you do wrong, then you may well be afraid; because it is not for nothing that the symbol of authority is the sword: it is there to serve God, too, as his avenger, to bring retribution to wrongdoers. 5. You must be obedient, therefore, not only because of this retribution, but also for conscience’s sake. 6. And this is why you should pay taxes, too, because the authorities are all serving God as his agents, even while they are busily occupied with that particular task. 7. Pay to each one what is due to each: taxes to the one to whom tax is due, tolls to the one to whom tolls are due, respect to the one to whom respect is due, honour to the one to whom honour is due.

This, by a guy soon to be jailed, taken to Rome and beheaded by the authorities he’s telling us to obey and honor.

The Catechism chimes in:


1897 “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.”15

By “authority” one means the quality by virtue of which persons or institutions make laws and give orders to men and expect obedience from them.

1898 Every human community needs an authority to govern it.16 The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.

1899 The authority required by the moral order derives from God: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”17

1900 The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.

OK, we may say. But then Pope Francis, in his exercise of his normal magisterial duty, says, among other things:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

Which pretty clearly reflects the Catechism:


2402 In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits.187 The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.

2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goodsremains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.

2404 “In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.”188 The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.

2405 Goods of production – material or immaterial – such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor.

2406 Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.

Wait – I’m supposed to trust – to honor and obey, even – THIS government?  In its efforts to regulate the ownership of property for the sake of the common good? My head explodes: who gets to define ‘common good’? Who defines what is a legitimate exercise of the right to ownership? THESE clowns? (Not the lying bastards of your political party, of course – the lying bastards of the other political party.)  Pul-ease! It’s one thing to say a government has a right and duty to promote the common good – it’s another entirely to say that THIS government can exercise that right how it sees fit.  Sure, there are plenty of selfish rich people (virtually all Americans qualify as rich in the eyes of virtually all the world – and some of us are no doubt selfish), but if the alternative to letting them stay rich and selfish is to trust this government to do better – well, I’m chaffing, here.

Yet, Peter honored and obeyed Nero, and the Roman Empire that persecuted, tortured and executed his Christian brothers and sisters.  Oh, yea, there’s that.

So – lecturing the mirror, now – I suppose I have a duty to not deride, mock or otherwise dishonor even this government. I need, perhaps, to better engage in efforts to make it better, just as I need to better engage in efforts to make myself better.  I need to take a supportive view (until proven otherwise) of our government’s efforts to “regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good”. (And not add the reflexive ‘whatever the hell that means’.)

Yikes.  This looks suspiciously like it will require holiness on my part.

The Current State of Brain Science

Consider the following drawing:

This is a drawing of a suspected serial killer, based on the memories of a three eye witnesses. What kind of a guy does he look like? Kind of scary and intense, but could pass for a normal-ish guy?

No, wait – this is an artist’s idea of what a man, a truck driver and father of 2, would look like today, 18 months after he vanished after wandered out of a hospital where he was being treated for a brain injury. So, now what kind of a guy does he look like? Man, what a sad story!

OK, no really – this is a reconstruction based on analysis of the DNA found in some 7.000 year old bones recently found in a Spanish cave. The scientists concluded he had the gene for dark skin as well as the gene for blue eyes – the rest of the face is pretty much fantasy – in fact, given how genes work, ALL of the face is petty much fantasy.

The point of this little exercise, something I thought was pretty well understood: don’t prime the pump. People are at least as likely to opine based on what you’ve told them as on what they see or remember.

This comes up because of this story, about a brain researcher James Fallon, that I first heard about through Ye Olde Statistician’s blog. Seems Dr. Fallon has written a book now.  He was interviewed by the Atlantic. In that interview, he discusses the method he used to check if he really is a psychopath: he asked friends and family – am I a psychopath?

After discovering that he had the brain of a psychopath, Fallon delved into his family tree and spoke with experts, colleagues, relatives, and friends to see if his behavior matched up with the imaging in front of him. He not only learned that few people were surprised at the outcome, but that the boundary separating him from dangerous criminals was less determinate than he presumed. Fallon wrote about his research and findings in the book The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain, and we spoke about the idea of nature versus nurture, and what—if anything—can be done for people whose biology might betray their behavior.

This is, how you say? WRONG. That people were not surprised at the outcome means he told them what the “outcome” was. No, no and no. He primed the pump. He lead the witnesses. This is not science, it’s astrology, which works by telling people who they are and inviting them to agree.

So, here’s how a scientist would investigate:

1. In your base data – the brain scans of the known criminal psychopaths  – is the correlation, run through a standard double-blind process, 100%?  If not, do not pass go, do not collect $100 – you’re done. Because if you run a real double-blind analysis, AND include many scans of people who are not criminal psychopaths AND have some sort of defensible and objective definition of psychopath the does not in any way rely on the brain scans, THEN you could tentatively conclude that the pattern under discussion proves someone is a psychopath ONLY if 100% of the psychopaths display the patterns AND 100% of the non-psychopaths do not. If there are any psychopaths who do not exhibit the  brain scan pattern – any at all – then – follow carefully – the brain scan pattern is insufficient to show someone is a psychopath. Similarly, if there are any non-psychopaths that exhibit the pattern. then the pattern is not an indication of psychopathy.

What one is after logically is ‘necessary and sufficient’ evidence:  if someone can exhibit the brain pattern without being a psychopath, the brain scan pattern is not sufficient to prove one is a psychopath; If someone can be a psychopath without exhibiting the brain pattern, then the brain pattern is not necessary to prove psychopathy.

Was this done? None of the stuff I’ve seen suggests it was. If not, the science is over before it began.

The above should be clear. No one to whom it is not clear has any business being a scientist. I suggest they get into retain sales.

2. Clear evidence that step 1 was never done lies in the mere fact that Fallon has written a book on his own experiences. If the science of step 1 was done, and the answer was: yes, the psychopath brain scan pattern is necessary and sufficient proof that one is a psychopath, THEN there would be no place for Dr. Fallon’s surprise. The surprise comes from the discrepancy: clearly, Fallon is not a psychopath, at least not in any meaningful sense. So, what we do as scientists at this point is: throw out the theory. It has been destroyed by an ugly fact.

But let’s play along, and imagine what the investigation might look like if it were to be conducted scientifically:

I have identified an outlier, a data point that does not fit the theory: an individual who, despite showing necessary and sufficient brain scan proof  that he is a psychopath, does not exhibit psychopathic behaviors.* We have two propositions to test: 1 – our outlier has been misclassified, and is indeed a psychopath**; or 2 – our theory is wrong.

To be science at this point, we need an objective standard of what a psychopath is, as well as a double-blind mechanism so that a: the people gathering the inputs to make the classification are not looking for anything in particular; and b: we have a large enough set of people subjected to the classification to show that it works in general.

What this might look like, if we were to use something like the ‘ask friends and colleagues’ approach Fallon used:

– 1,000 people are recruited for this test;

– Everyone is classified using the objective non-scan based criteria as either a psychopath/not a psychopath;

– Everyone is classified using the brain scan pattern method.

– Those for whom there is a mismatch – classified as a psychopath under one method and as a non-psychopath under the other – are the persons of interest. Of course, there shouldn’t be any of these if the theory was properly tested as described in the base science above, but we are here testing the curious data point of Dr. Fallon, and can’t rule out the existence of other Dr. Fallons out in the wild.

– Each identifies friends and colleagues who will be interviewed;

– Fallon is just one person in the test as far as any of the testers know;

– The friends and colleagues are asked a set of general, non-leading questions about the kind of person the volunteer is, as well as the same questions about  other people they know, to be used as a control of sorts. These questions should be designed so the answers will permit the classification of the volunteers into psychopath/non-psychopath groups independently of the original classifications performed prior to the data collection;

– Another set of researchers, completely separate from the ones who did the interviews above, does the classification of the volunteers from the interview results without knowing the identities of the people being classified;

– The results are reviewed: do the initial classifications done in second step match the classification done immediately above? If yes, or if yes for everybody except Dr. Fallon and the other (very few) outliers, then  maybe we have something here.  If mis-matches are more common, it calls our assessment protocols into question – it does not let us conclude anything except that we need to refine or change our experimental method.

There’s only one outcome to the above that would give us a clear answer: all the initial assessments match all the final assessments, including Dr. Fallon’s. That would mean that the theory that brain scan pattern reveals psychopathy is FALSE, as Fallon has been revealed not to be a psychopath. Any other results could have a variety of causes, and would require reassessment of the experimental protocols. All this assumes, of course, that the 100% correlation between the brain pattern and psychopathy has been established before hand – if it hasn’t, this study would be pure nonsense.

And so on. I may have missed some steps – a sufficiently large grant would enable me to fix that (hint, hint!) Does this sound hard? It should – real science is hard. Does it sound like it is going to be difficult to get a definitive answer? Except for *disproof* of the theory, which such a test could provide, yes, it’s going to be difficult to get a clean answer. Did I mention science is hard?

But what you can’t do – it’s worse than even just anecdotal evidence – is go aroind asking your friends and family: “Am a a psychopath? My brain scans say I am.”  That is worse than bad science. It’s out and out anti-science.

BTW: No fair playing the ‘brain science is too complex to be understood with such a simple experiment’ card – if so, it’s also too complex to make sensational claims for, like how you can’t tell a salmon is dead – oops, I mean: how you can tell who is a psychopath based on a brain scan.

* Note that this is where having a good, solid, objective definition of what makes a person a psychopath comes in. Ideally, Dr. Fallon, BEFORE submitting his brain scan as a control, would have undergone exactly the same battery of testing used to determine who is and is not a psychopath in the original study done in step one – so we would already know the answer! That would good science, or at least non-stupid science.

** a result which throws the entire real science in theoretical step 1 into question – how did he slip through?

An Illustration of the Spirit Unfolding

From the indomitable Michael Flynn:

This illustrates any number of threads on this blog: from Politics to How Businessmen Think to Hegel. Specifically, the strong tendency to pat one’s self on the back for having done the Right Thing even if it doesn’t actually work, and to dismiss any who challenge this course of action based on how the means are unlikely to, or even demonstrably fail to, achieve the stated ends as reactionaries trying to turn back the clock.

So: poor people deserve our help – no issue there. This means that the government now has a duty to provide this help. (Ummmm….). And – here’s the kicker – we must keep providing this help even if it doesn’t, you know, help. And only a heartless meanie in the pay of Big Business would ever dream of pointing out that the Emperor is buck naked.

Obamacare seems to me the quintessence of this: no matter how badly the execution, no matter how much the little people suffer (not, of course, the people who have exempted themselves and their friends from its provisions) the end of universal healthcare is so holy that anyone who challenges Obamacare on any level is the enemy and pure evil. Everything from the Mathematical Challenge (the economic assumptions are pure fantasy) to the Procedural Challenge (pulling this off requires by far a higher level of competence on a larger scale than anything the government has ever pulled off) to the Legal Challenge (under what theory, exactly, can the federal government effectively seize 1/6th of the economy?) to the Opacity Challenge (we needed to pass it to see what’s in it) – these are not signs of a cooler head asking exactly the right questions *in light of the end to be achieved* – nope, it’s the sign of Evil Intent.

Returning to the War on Poverty – this chart also handily illustrates Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law.   Once you’ve got a nice big bureaucracy set up to fight the war on poverty, it behooves such a bureaucracy to make sure the war never ends – easy to do, especially if you get to define what poverty is. So that chart may largely represent the continual redefinition of poverty.  Has a non-trivial government agency ever performed its task well enough to put itself out of business? I’m not thinking of any off the top of my head.

So, our faith in the Spirit unfolding in History, or the Dialectic swinging our way in the material world, or merely our feeling that Progress is Magic we need to be On The Right Side of leads to a view that it is only our duty to pick the right end – the Spirit’s or the Dialectic’s or merely the one that feels the most like progress – and absolves us from any responsibility for the outcomes that actually happen. Failure is stone proof that Bad People have cast a counter-spell, after all, as otherwise Progress is magically inevitable.  We need to keep doing the same things until they work, because they will work eventually, evidence and collateral damage to the contrary notwithstanding.

West Coast Walk For Life 2014

I hate these sorts of events. There, I said it. However, I go anyway, with the family and others from out parish.

Builds character.

Thousands and thousands of people showed up:

Looked down Market Street one way…
…Looked back the other way…
…and looked down one side of the Civic Center Plaza.

And these pictures are only some fraction of the people there – you’d need a helicopter or something to get everybody in one picture.

Mass before the Walk was at St. Mary’s Cathedral, which was packed, with maybe as many people standing as filled the pews. Archbishop Cordeleone gave a wonderful homily in his usual plain-spoken style. There were I think 14 bishops and dozens and dozens of priest. Lots of college and high school students and young parents and kids. At 55, I was probably in the upper 15% age-wise. We got there only 15 minutes early, and so had to stand.

After the speakers spoke at the Civic Center, we unfurled our Queen of All Saints parish banner, and drew a small crowd – from St. Francis Parish. QAS was there someplace – the Knights of Columbus ran buses – but we never found them. It was a big crowd.

The St. Francis contingent, mostly Filipino women who recognized us from Simbang Gabi, wanted me to lead a rosary – I’m tall and kinda grizzled looking, I suppose, making me the obvious choice? I dunno.

So I did, amidst the crowd noise, occasional band or heckler (very few of those) and other people singing songs. I tend to keep my eyes on the ground on these walks, for the dual purpose of not having to see what the fine citizens of San Francisco will do to offend us this year and not stepping on a streetcar rail or subway grate and breaking my ankle.

It was intense. Over and over we intoned ‘fruit of thy womb’ and ‘hour of our death’ – while marching to end abortion. Catholic repetative prayer for the win! (Hi, Renee!)

Back home now, headed out to a fund-raising dinner for the annual Mexico trip to build homes for people living in cardboard boxes and tarps.  I need to sit down.

The Catholic Nature of True Study

Thomas Aquinas College in California. A real college. While it is common for fake colleges to have nice chapels left over from 100 years or more ago, it’s very rare for real colleges not to have them.

This is a still-rough idea, throwing it out there to see what kind of form I can put it into, to see if there’s anything there.

Mark Shea linked to this morning’s contribution to the burgeoning field of higher education criticism. What are colleges and universities for? Why do they teach, or at least offer classes in, the things they do? Money. Tenure. We’re spared, in this essay at least, discussion of how unprepared the students are, how invasive the parents are, and how much crushing debt they have. Those are, it seems, just ironic icing on the cake, or the swill-puddle at end of the long, greased slide of modern education.

In Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, the author traces part of the history American Universities as they relate to the chief characters of the story. One clear thread: when Harvard, the flagship and type of American university, was founded, it was a Puritan school, training many Puritan ministers.  The structure and approach were inherited from Cambridge, where many of Harvard’s founders and early supporters had gone to school, and where heavily Calvinist Puritans were a strong force on the faculty.

The fundamental logical constraint on Calvinistic Puritanism is, as Chesterton put it, that it must operate within  ‘the prison of a single idea’.  Puritans didn’t leave England and the Netherlands for America because of religious persecution – they left because saner heads wouldn’t put them in charge of everything, which they passionately believed was the right thing to do, since they had figured out everything by applying the blunt instrument of their one idea. They knew whose heads needed to be cracked. So they come to America, and put themselves in charge of everything, including the colonial government that founded Harvard, and Harvard itself.

Problem is, Calvinism, with its predestination and depravity and irresistible grace, is a bit of a soap bubble, idea wise – the slightest crack reduces the structure to a few damp spots on the ground. When it cracked toward the end of the 18th century, the result wasn’t a kinder, gentler – and less intellectually insane – version of Calvinism. It was Unitarianism, which combines a mystic certainty in the individual’s ability to find his own way and save his own soul with the bedrock practical certainty that nobody knows anything, when push comes to shove.

There’s a certain obvious tension between these two idea, between the sacredness of each individual’s path and the unknowable nature of dogma. This parallels, in a strange way, the tension ever present in Calvinism between the knowledge of our own helpless depravity and faith in a God one of whose chief actions in all of Scripture is to *call* us to repentance. Just like the main intellectual current in Islam since the sacking of Baghdad, where it is sacrilege against the omnipotence of God to even contemplate secondary causes, a Calvinist’s intellectual task is always, ultimately, to understand how creation is and can only be as it is as the direct intention of God, to explain away all biblical calls to action as deceptive illusions, like the apparent flatness of the earth.  The kind of God who can make the world appear flat while being round is the sort of God who can make our actions seem free while being utterly predestined. He is the God not of medieval science, but the God of modern science par excellence.

St. John's
St. John’s College, Santa Fe. An example of a real college without a chapel (but with a remarkably chapel-like admin building). I love this school, but can’t shake the feeling that it’s circling the drain, sucked in by the vortex at the center of which is Harvard and Protestantism. Sign of the Apocalypse: St. John’s made the list of the 5 most expensive US private colleges. There’s nothing about studying the Great Books that should cost almost $50K/year. Also, a few politically correct authors have been added. Doomed?

Unitarianism inherited this one foundational intellectual idea of Puritanism – things are not what they seem – saw the clear reflection of that idea in the science emerging at that time, and embraced it. And made it the foundation of the American University.

It took a century or so for this idea to take complete hold, and it went through several stages.  The first, as detailed in the Metaphysical Club, was the early stages of what is always called the conflict between Science and Religion. More truly, it should be called the conflict between Science and Biblical Protestantism. Calvinism starts with the one idea of the Omnipotent God, Whose omnipotency does not include the power to grant freedom to those He made in His image, and reads the Bible through that lens. Applied with any consistency, this requires ignoring or mangling the majority of Scripture – but not the bedrock belief in its literal infallibility.  So when science started to show that many biblical statements and assumptions don’t jibe with the observable world, the Puritans of Boston were left with an array of choices: abandon the literal interpretation of Scripture, or abandon science, or bifurcate truth into mutually exclusive buckets, or abandon any claim for consistency – or some combination.

At Harvard in 1780, Rev. Samuel Langdon, one of a long line of Puritan ministers to serve as Harvard’s President, was forced to resign:

But his words and deeds soon irritated students no end, what with scriptural harangues stretching to 90 minutes at the expense of Sunday-evening singing.

Continue reading “The Catholic Nature of True Study”

500th Post, Malta, Thanks, Recap

A well-weathered fence post
The number of this post is unknown.
© Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

So, almost 4 years since I started, here is my 500th post.

Heartfelt thanks to any and all who have stopped by and read any of my scribblings. I hope you found them informative, or at least entertaining.

Recap: There have been about 30,000 views, almost all of which occurred in the last 2 years – didn’t write much the first 2. I’ve done nothing to publicize this blog apart from linking back to it in the profiles I use to comment on other blogs. A couple much better bloggers have linked back to here – Mike Flynn, Jen Fulweiler, John C. Wright and Renee Lin (hope I’m not forgetting anybody!) which has driven traffic my way – thanks!

The most common things people come here for are, evidently, information on Christian iconography and John Donne’s Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day.  Which is cool, but a descent library would serve them better. (In fact, I stopped writing about iconography once I reached the point where I was simply regurgitating stuff I’d read, with nothing to add – seemed I should provide a bibliography at that point and be done with it. On Donne, I took a seminar on that poem decades ago, got infatuated with it, memorized it, and just kept collecting information on it. So, maybe I am the go-to guy on that. A scary thought.)

I’ve evidently got a reader in Malta – I get a single hit from there regularly. Which is cool, because Malta is one place I’d love to visit.  So, hi, whoever you are.

Almost filled the card on Country Bingo – the only major place lacking is China. Wonder why that is? Otherwise, it’s central African countries, a couple holdouts in South America, Greenland, a couple Stans – that sort of thing.

So, here’s to the next 500. Heck, if I’d just finish all the drafts I’ve piled up so far, I’d have big head start! Of course, the dark side of the economic recovery (such as it is) is that I’m so busy I don’t have the energy to write very often. Yea, yea, cry me river…

Shoot, all this means I may have *3* regular readers by now!   Thanks again, team!

The Must Read Science Essay – Feynman, of Course

I love Feynman so much, I’m even going to give him a pass on his opening gratuitous slur of the Middle Ages (Very little greater love has man than this…). Not just the ravings of some guy, but the wisdom of Feynman!

This essay is all over the internets. I found it here.  This says what I was trying to say much better, but from the scientist side of the issue.

Cargo Cult Science

Richard Feynman

From a Caltech commencement address given in 1974
Also in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas–which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked–or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO’s, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I’m overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism and mystic experiences. I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it’s a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn’t realize how MUCH there was.

Continue reading “The Must Read Science Essay – Feynman, of Course”

Loyalty to the Truth and Science

PythagoreanTheorem1. Euclid, Process & Logic.

Many St. John’s College students find studying Euclid to be a life-changing experience, and for good reason. For many of us – nearly all of us, I’d guess – it’s the first time we’d experienced the power of a tight logical argument. It’s the first time we’ve had to face the possibility that one could intellectually KNOW something was true. Bracing, and disorienting.

After 12 years of schooling, during which regurgitation of spoon-fed ideas was the key to getting good grades and staying out of trouble, we meet some old Greek dude who doesn’t aim to get us to parrot what he says, but rather seems to think that we can be brought to see the truth in what he proposes.

And that’s not the half of it. Euclid also shows how we need to be clear on our assumptions and definitions in order to understand and enjoy the proofs. Further, he shows how we can take what we know, use it to examine what we don’t know, and ferret out the yet more truth.

This whole process was mind-boggling to us back in 1976, when we, the younger siblings of the hippies, the heirs to some supposed (anti?) intellectual freedom won by the flower children, were handed a 2500 year old text with claims to TRVTH. The nervous dizziness of this state is intoxicating; I can only imagine what it looks like to students today, the grandchildren of hippies, the children of the Greed is Good crowd, products of institutions untethered from the traditions that formed intellects since the Athenians argued in the streets. Does it even get through at all? Hope is a virtue.

Here, at last, was a template of how to investigate the world that was more than simple indoctrination. Here was a template that could be used to *challenge* that indoctrination!


Around the same time we were learning Euclid, we were reading some Aristotle in which he uses an approach fundamentally the same as Euclid’s. Aristotle also cautions against expecting more intellectual certainty than the subject matter admits, adding that great note of prudence and humility – once you leave the pure realm of mathematical ideas and muck around it the messy material world, it’s never going to be quite so tidy, and the conclusions never quite so tight.

But, alas! 18 year olds, schooled as we’d been schooled, found Socrates’ claim to only know that he did not know much more appealing, much less jarring, than Aristotle’s insatiable curiosity about what knowledge could be teased out of the world. It’s a lot easier to feign humility that it is to learn Aristotle. While St. John’s underclassman in my day included many enthusiastic fans of Euclid, few devoted Aristotelians could be found. I certainly wasn’t one. Perhaps others had a different experience.

What Euclid taught us, among other things, was the format of a method for attaining human knowledge, the way one asserts something one expects others to acknowledge: given these assumptions and these definitions, and following these logical steps, THIS IS TRUE.  Presented in this way, the only honorable and reasonable escape is to challenge the assumptions or the logic. For a serious person, this is a serious endeavor. If you love truth, this is where the rubber hits the road.

1500 years after Euclid and Aristotle, and after Empires had come and gone and peoples had supplanted peoples who had supplanted people, Aristotle and Euclid met the Gospel of John and the 19th Psalm.* The Truth is a person, Who created the heavens and the earth, which proclaim His glory. The cool logic of Euclid and the insatiable curiosity of Aristotle were reborn within an insatiable yearning for the Love of God, in Whom we and all of creation live and move and have our being. Now, instead of a few Greeks studying the world as a hobby, we have universities full of thousands upon thousands of Aristotelian logicians studying the world in order to understand God, with the blessing and support of the Church.**

2. The Legitimate Demands of Science on Our Loyalty and Assent

Science, insofar as it has any meaning at all, makes claims on our consent to its propositions based on our presumed loyalty to the truth. Loyalty to the truth can show up in surprising places. To admit that a beautiful theory can be destroyed by an ugly fact shows a noble humility before the truth – especially if it’s your theory that’s getting destroyed. Similarly, the treachery of denying the truth can pop up unexpectedly, especially where money, fame and career are involved. The challenge for us, presumed lovers of truth, is how do we sort them out?  How do we know to which claims and to what degree we owe allegiance?

Continue reading “Loyalty to the Truth and Science”

Education: Another Teacher Becomes Dimly Aware

William Briggs comments on a letter from a teacher, wherein she comes to grips with the reality of schooling.

Mr. Briggs has good things to say. The letter itself is the same sad story. Here’s a snippet:

To pursue this calling, I worked hard to earn the title of “classroom teacher,” but I became quickly disillusioned when my title of teacher did not in any way reflect my actual job. I realized that I am not permitted to really teach students anything. When I was in middle school, I studied Shakespeare, Chaucer, Poe, Twain, O. Henry, the founding fathers, if you will, of modern literary culture. Now, I was called to drag them through shallow activities that measured meaningless but “measurable” objectives.

If the purpose and end of schooling was learning, is it not unimaginable that such a state would prevail? We can see what kind of teacher gives up – it is terrible to contemplate the kind of teacher who survives, thrives, even, in such an environment.

One of the sad, if ironic, things about teachers: they are every bit as much selected, groomed and standardized by schooling as the kids are. Schooling is intended to destroy them every bit as much as it is intended to destroy any real learning in the kids.

File:Trip-hammer forge.jpg
A task-designed machine. You can see what it does by seeing how it is designed, and by seeing what it produces.