Since this is a very long review – Short and sweet: Polanyi knows the answer. It doesn’t really matter much what the question is, as the answer he knows is the answer to everything. All the great erudition on display is just that – a display. He happens to know a great deal about English history over the 18th and 19th centuries, and a bit about an obscure set of pacific islanders, but by the end of the book, it’s obvious that this expertise is irrelevant to his thesis. He could start from basket weaving and wheat as a theme in Art Deco, and he’d end up at the same place: what the world needs now, what it has always needed, what History has been striving for, is Communism, sweet Communism.
In the Great Transformation, Polanyi describes the mechanism by which the commoditization of land, labor and currency and the implementation of the Gold Standard reveal the contradictory and self destructive nature of Capitalism and the impossibility of any free market being long maintained. He asserts that not only are free markets not natural in any sense, but they can only come into existence and continue by means of constant political and social intervention.
Using England’s industrialization as the case study, Polanyi argues that there’s nothing natural about free markets, that the very idea of free markets is a mythology used to justify the reduction of land, currency and people to commodities. A market in labor reduces people to mere human resources, something to be managed like any other resource and a cost to be controlled. Land will simply be consumed, not husbanded across generations. And currency, with which the book is mostly concerned, will be standardized across the world in order that international trade can take place. This standardization, under the rubric of the Gold Standard, is the engine driving political and social change, almost entirely for the worse.
The idea that people might take advantage of a market for labor by decommoditizing themselves – learning skills or moving someplace where their skills are in demand in order to better their prospects – is not considered. That people did not in fact stay illiterate laborers for very long once the market provided opportunities unavailable for rural laborers is not discussed. That the workers of the world today are vastly better off than the rural laborers prior to the industrial revolution is barely mentioned. Rather, Polanyi dwells on all the evil effects of the social displacement caused by industrialization and the political steps meant to mitigate them, and well as the steps taken to facilitate market creation and trade. He sees, not individual decisions both good and bad being made in an uncertain environment (i.e., the real world), but the forces of History working themselves out according to inevitable laws.
Similar filters are applied to the commoditization of land and currency. In 1944, when Polanyi published this tome, it was perhaps reasonable to believe that land was being recklessly consumed by industry – FDR did promise that the skies would soon again be ‘blackened by industry’ once the New Deal kicked in. (Of course, his cousin Teddy had begun the process of setting aside land from too much human use a generation earlier.) Subsequent small ‘h’ history has shown that free people with a little material security tend very much to want to keep the world tidy and clean – nobody wants to live in a dump. A continually better cared for world is not what theory predicts, even if it is what history seems to be showing.
Currency, by which Polanyi means international banking and the trade it facilitates, does tend strongly toward standardization, because international trade, like all trade, is built on trust. You pay me in standard Spanish pieces of eight or silver U.S. trade dollars, and I’m good, because everybody agrees on the value of such currency. We trust each other, at least that far. Once transactions become too large and too frequent for physical silver or gold to change hands, I need some other mechanism I can trust – the Bank of England, for example. Their notes are as good as gold! My trust is built on stability: the claim that our notes are worth X amount of gold or silver, which you can trade your note in for if you want, is good as long as you back it up. Floating fiat currencies require a level of trust that people who knew their history were not able to muster, in past eras.
This view, which is based on the logical and historical playing out of personal trust between trading partners and banks, is built on the observation that our world is uncertain and involves many discrete and often unpredictable human decisions. Polanyi wants vast forces to push History to an end already known, and so must reject what people actually do as a basis for reality.
Or a Thomist, certainly. Somebody who could help me out with some basic philosophy.
Woke up thinking about a certain epistemological issue, thought the readers of this blog might find this entertaining.
Background: a few months ago, at our Chesterton Society Reading group meeting, there was a fun discussion with two people who had dropped in to visit, (incidentally, the son and grandson of a famous economist) about the importance of Aristotle.
My boy Aristotle was being dissed. The claim was that he had been superseded, and the example given was that he totally got inertia wrong.
I was stunned into silence (doesn’t happen often, but it did this once.) I felt a little like the man Chesterton described, asked to explain why he prefers civilization – where do you even start, if it’s not obvious already?
Now, upon reflection, I should not have been surprised. That these gentlemen knew enough Aristotle to even know what he says about inertia shows a very much higher degree of knowledge of Aristotle than is typical. They knew enough modern science to draw the obvious conclusion that Aristotle was ‘wrong’. Because he’s ‘wrong’ about basic science, he’s been superseded, and one would do better studying somebody who got it right – a completely reasonable position, if one assumes Aristotle is primarily a scientist in the modern sense, or that philosophy depends for its validation upon such science (the position of the Analytic philosophy taught in universities today), or both.
Background 2: I am a pathetic poser when it comes to Aristotle. I only really studied the Physics, dabbled in everything else. One can’t just read Aristotle – one would be lost within a page or even paragraph. Dense doesn’t do it justice, not bafflegab dense like Hegel (1), but dense because each phrase has been formulated down to its rock-hard minimum, and builds carefully on the last. Each sentence and phrase needs to be understood before moving on, or it quickly becomes a mish-mash.
I breezed through a bunch of Aristotle, which has left me muddleheaded. More muddleheaded, I mean. There may well be people – Thomas, I suppose – who could just read Aristotle like a novel and get the gist. I am not one of those people. Which is why I’m pondering here.
So, on to the issue. Richard Feynman tells this story:
He (Feynman’s father) had taught me to notice things and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it for children to play with that they can pull around. It had a ball in it—I remember this—it had a ball in it, and I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved, so I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull the wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon,” and I says, “why is that?” And he said, “That nobody knows,” he said. “The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now that’s a deep understanding—he doesn’t give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something, which I learnt very early.
Having a name by which to discuss a thing is a powerful aid and channel for thought. (This issue of how having names reflects and influences thought has been laid out very ably by Mike Flynn on his blog, most recently here – check it out.) It’s tempting to say that one cannot even think about something without first naming it, but, as a musician – I have musical ideas – I know that’s not quite right. There’s a lot of brilliant thinking going on in a Bach fuge, but the words come well after the thought has been completed.
But I digress.
Aristotle didn’t have a name for inertia, and we do. Aristotle had a name for horses, and we do, too. I will now fumble around trying to spell out the differences between the class of things such as inertia, and the class of things such as horses.
Aristotle has the concept of a thing that, by its nature, separates itself out from the background, a thing that presents itself to our understanding, a ‘this’ as in the case of ‘this horse’. A horse is full of life and meaning, and is not at all blurry around the edges. (2) Any individual horse will yield a whole bunch of information to the senses and understanding without us having to do much of anything except observe and think. Studying several horses quickly yield an understanding of horseyness in general. Horses have a nature, in other words, and we bring our understanding to that nature, which will always be greater than our understanding – there will always be things about horses which any horse embodies yet remain outside or even beyond our understanding.
Natural objects are like that. They have natures, intelligible forms, to which our minds are suited and directed, but which are not necessarily things our minds can completely grasp. We don’t really directly study Nature in any sense beyond studying natures. It’s definitional – a ‘this’ is something with a nature that can be understood at least to some extent, otherwise it would lack that ineffable something that makes it a ‘this’.
Inertia is not a ‘this’. We never say except in jest ‘See that inertia over there?’ Feynman’s dad was indeed a deep thinker, recognizing that having named inertia was not the same as knowing what it is. In some sense, inertia does not leap out of the background like a prancing horse, presenting itself to our senses and understanding. Instead, we see, if we are paying very close attention, some things which happen consistently over a wide range of experiences: the ball keeps rolling, the stone block doesn’t want to move, I am thrown from the horse if it pulls up too sharply.
It is indeed an act of human brilliance to find the common thread, and to name that thread ‘inertia’ and then to come up with rules and math that describes how inertia ‘behaves’ in useful ways. Newton is the man! But he is a man standing on the shoulders of very many more men all the way back to Aristotle, who laid the groundwork.
So, do I have that right? Epistemologically speaking, I guess I’m claiming that inertia is not knowable in the same way as horses, to stick with the example. One might argue that, as a mental abstraction best described by math, inertia is *more* completely knowable than horses, which, because their nature is not a mental abstraction, will never be understood as completely as inertia. Or it might be argued that inertia is not real, that it is only the name we give to a bunch observations, a handy receptacle for all our useful math. (I’m not arguing that, because that seems a path to insanity. Hasn’t stopped others from going there.) I’m a moderate realist (I think), so there’s *something* to the notion that inertia is real insofar as it is a characteristic of real things – of ‘this’ or ‘that’ thing – and thus as real as they are. It’s just not a ‘this’ in itself…
Getting over (well, more over) my head. What bugs me is that I’m certain Aristotle talks this issue through somewhere in great detail, and I’m not remembering where.
Anyway, back to that Chesterton meeting. I tried to point out that it’s Aristotle’s logic and method that have never been superseded, that all science today (excluding, of course, Science!) is built upon them. Didn’t remember the Feynman story fast enough. Left it in an unsatisfactory state.
Aristotle’s examples are of the essence of his philosophy and method. They are simple and direct. Hegel’s examples, when he deigns to give them, are complex and generally fail to make his point, rather, they assume his point. Thus, Aristotle will talk about how ‘white’ is always in another thing and never present by itself, and give the example of a white horse; Hegel will give Art History (as understood by Hegel) as an example of the Spirit unfolding through History. If you don’t already believe that the Spirit unfolds itself through History, the supposed upward progress of art through stages of spiritual enlightenment will, alas, not be visible to you.
The story about how Cortez’s horsemen were at first thought chimeras by the Aztecs notwithstanding.
Seems AI is on a lot of people’s minds these days. I, along with many, have my doubts:
My opinion: there are a lot of physical processes well suited to the very fancy automation that today is called AI. Such AI could put most underwriters, investment analysts, and hardware designers out of a job, like telegraph agents and buggy whip makers before them. I also think there’s an awful lot of the ‘we’re almost there!’ noise surrounding AI that has surrounded commercial nuclear fusion for my entire life – it’s always just around the corner, it’s always just a few technical details that need working out.
But it’s still not here. Both commercial nuclear fusion and AI, in the manner I am talking about, may come, and may even come soon. But I’m not holding my breath.
And this is not the sort of strong AI – you know, the Commander Data kind of AI – that gets human rights for robots discussions going. For philosophical reasons, I have my doubts human beings can create intellect (other than in the old fashioned baby-making way), no matter how much emergent properties handwavium is applied. Onward:
Here is the esteemed William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars, taking a shot at the “burgeoning digital afterlife industry”. Some geniuses have decided to one-up the standard Las Vegas psychic lounge routine, where by a combination of research (“hot readings”) and clever dialogue (“cold readings”), a performer can give the gullible the impression he is a mind reader, by training computers to do it.
Hot readings are cheating. Cons peek in wallets, purses, and now on the Internet, and note relevant facts, such as addresses, birthdays, and various other bits of personal information. Cold readings are when the con probes the mark, trying many different lines of inquiry—“I see the letter ‘M’”—which rely on the mark providing relevant feedback. “I had a pet duck when I was four named Missy?” “That’s it! Missy misses you from Duck Heaven.” “You can see!”
You might not believe it, but cold reading is shockingly effective. I have used it many times in practicing mentalism (mental magic), all under the guise of “scientific psychological theory.” People want to believe in psychics, and they want to believe in science maybe even more.
In Machine Learning Disability, esteemed writer and theologian Brian Niemeier recounts, first, a story much like I reference in my tweet pasted in above: how a algorithm trained to do one thing – identify hit songs across many media in near real time – generates an hilarious false positive when an old pirated and memed clip goes viral.
Then it gets all serious. All this Big Data science you’ve been hearing of, and upon which the Google, Facebook and Amazon fortunes are built, is very, very iffy, no better than the Billboard algorithms that generated the false positive. Less obvious are people now using Big Data science to prove all sorts of things. In my gimlet-eyed take, doing research on giant datasets is a great way to bury your assumptions and biases so that they’re very hard to find. This, on top of the errors built in to the sampling, the methodology and algorithms themselves – errors upon errors upon errors.
As Niemeier points out, just having huge amounts of data is no guarantee you are doing good science, in in fact multiplies to opportunity to get it wrong. Briggs points out in his essay how easily people are fooled, and how doggedly they’ll stick to their beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence. You put these things together, and it’s pretty scary out there.
I’m always amazed that people who have worked around computers fall for any of this. Every geek with a shred of self-awareness (not a given by any means) has multiple stories about programs and hardware doing stupid things, how no one could have possibly imagined a user doing X, and so (best case) X crashes the system or (worse case) X propagates and goes unnoticed for years until the error is subtle, ingrained and permanent. Depending on the error, this could be bad. Big Data is a perfect environment for this latter result.
John C. Wright also gets in on the AI kerfuffle, referencing the Briggs post and adding his own inimitable comments.
Finally, Dust, a Youtube channel featuring science fiction short films, recently had an “AI Week” where the shorts were all based on AI themes. One film took a machine learning tool, fed it a bunch of Sci Fi classics and not so classics, and had it write a script, following the procedure used by short film competitions. And then shot the film. The results are always painful, but occasionally painfully funny. The actors should get Oscar nominations in the new Lucas Memorial Best Straight Faces When Saying Really Stupid Dialogue category:
LECTURE III. January 21st, 1893. OPPOSITION BETWEEN PESTALOZZI AND HERBART AS EDUCATIONAL LEADERS. (found here. Lecture I review here, Lecture II here.)
This lecture is one run-on paragraph. I will break it up for convenience of discussion:
Pestalozzi laid great stress on sense-perception as the foundation of all school education. Herbart lays stress on the elaboration of sense-perception or rather upon the mental reaction against the impressions made on our senses. Thought goes back of the object to understand and explain its origin, how it became to be what it is, what purpose it is to serve. Thought sees objects in the perspective of their history. It studies causes and purposes.
The Herbart Harris refers to here is one Johann Friedrich Herbart, (1776 – 1841) a German philosopher, psychologist and founder of the academic field of pedagogy. His principles of education are roughly Platonic, as he sees the fulfillment of the individual as only possible as a member of a civilization. Man is a political animal, after all, so no argument there on a general level. The trick here is implied in the phrase ‘productive citizen’ which Wikipedia uses to describe Herbart’s meaningful relationship between a man and his civilization. Does man derive his meaning and value from being a productive citizen? Or does the whole idea of a productive citizen depend on people having value and meaning prior to any production? In the first case, it might be logical and even merciful to cull any people – can’t really call them members of society in this context – who are not productive, since they cannot have meaningful lives without such production. Not that such an idea would occur to any Germans of that time…
Herbart is also said to be a follower of Pestalozzi, which supports my suspicion that Pestalozzi is more a Rorschach test than an actual teacher. My forays into Pestalozzi’s writings left me thinking he is nearly completely incoherent; when Fichte, a proto-Nazi, and Einstein, who was a student at a Pestalozzian school, both praise his methods, one has got to wonder if they are talking about the same thing. Herbart is said to differ from Pestalozzi in that Pestalozzi believed everything is built on sense perceptions, while Herbart believes cogitation on sense perceptions is the source of understanding and knowledge.
If that sounds a bit gobbly-goopy, it may be because it is. You get these men who want desperately to control how children learn – Fichte, Mann, Dewey, heck, Plato and on and on – and they start fighting over stuff that normal people, eve normal philosophers, would roll their eyes at. Watch a kid, especially a really small kid, and you’ll see someone obsessed with sense perception to the point where they’ll stick crap they pick up off the ground into their mouths (this is a big learning experience, btw. We don’t stop doing this because we’re told to, but because we insisted on doing it). AND one will see little minds working overtime to figure out how stuff works. It’s not that sense perception or cogitation is more or less important, but rather that it’s absurd upon inspection to imagine that adults need to do anything to promote either. Adults just need to refrain from screwing it up, which seems beyond the reach of these gentlemen.
I’m not going any deeper into Herbart, who I first heard of from these lectures, for now – this is all from a skim of Wikipedia, for which I promise to feel bad about later. Onward:
Thus thought is not as the disciples of Pestalozzi hold, a continued and elevated sort of sense-perception, but rather a reaction against it. It is a discovery of the subordinate place held by objects in the world ; they are seen to be mere steps in a process of manifestation, the manifestation of causal energies. A new perception is received into the mind by adjusting it to our previous knowledge ; we explain it in terms of the old ; we classify it, identify it ; reconcile what is strange and unfamiliar in it with previous experience; we interpret the object and comprehend it ; we translate the unknown into the known.
People learn by experiencing the world, thinking about what they experienced and trying as best they can to fit it in with everything else they know. Got it.
Does Harris suppose we can do anything about it? Does Harris imagine the process he (following Kant, more or less) describes ought to be somehow promoted or encouraged, let alone managed? That would be hubris-ridden nonsense, like believing the sun will not rise unless the shaman performs the correct rituals. You might as well try to teach kids hearts how to beat. But maybe that’s not where he’s going.
This process of adjusting, explaining, classifying, identifying, reconciling, interpreting and translating, is called apperception.
Yep, Kant. Apperception is one of those terms of art in Philosophy, pretty much meaning what Harris described above.
We must not only perceive, but we must apperceive ; not only see and hear, but digest or assimilate what we hear and see. Herbart’s “apperception ” is far more important for education than Pestalozzi’s “perception.” At first the memory was the chief faculty cultivated in education; then Pestalozzi reformed it by making the culture of sense- perception the chief aim; now with Herbart the chief aim would be apperception or the mental digestion of what is received by perception or memory.
Hmmm. How far back is the phrase “at first” meant to go? Certainly not all the way back to the Greeks, who before Socrates’s time had come to understand education as a function of friendship. They didn’t even write about how kids learned reading, writing and basic math, any more than they wrote about how you went to the market or walked down the street. Instead, the wrote about ephebia – schools for young men entering adulthood, where they spent 2 or 3 years training to be fit soldiers and learning how to be good citizens – why they should love their city-state and Greek culture in general. Then, the most promising and noble youths were taken under the wings of men of achievement, who acted as mentors, as described peripherally in Plato’s Symposium. (The occasional sexual aspects of these relationships, while real, are generally overstated and misunderstood.) An educated Greek would memorize Homer, but even that feat had the primary goal of immersion into Greek culture, especially understanding arete, the excellence toward which every Greek aspired and the measure by which they would be judged.
More Enlightenment (sic) nonsense: Harris and his crowd thought they were the smart people, first people to understand these things, and had a right and duty to guide lesser individuals. They started with memorization, therefore, the whole project starts with memorization. That people have successfully educated their children for as long as there have been people if acknowledged at all is pooh-poohed: maybe, but not educating them correctly!
Illustrations of the power of apperception to strengthen perception: Cuvier could reconstruct the entire skeleton from a single bone ; Agassiz the entire fish from one of its scales ; Winckelman the entire statue from a fragment of the face; Lyell could see its history in a pebble; Asa Gray the history of a tree by a glance.
OK, I suppose, although I’d want a serious look at those reconstructions of Cuvier, Agassiz and Winckelman before conceding the point to quite that level. Be that as it may, I’m not sure such levels of expertise are the product of a particular kind of schooling. Not to give him too much credit, but Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink describes a similar if not identical result, except that the process by which an expert reaches his conclusion is mostly not conscious or even strictly rational. That level of expertise seems to be learned, but not taught, and to require some innate talent. Herbart, at least, is a blank slater – he doesn’t believe in innate talents. It the turtles of nurture all the way down.
Apperception adds to the perceived object its process of becoming. Noire has illustrated apperception by showing the two series of ideas called up by the perception of a piece of bread. First the regressive series dough, flour, rye ; and the processes baking, kneading, grinding, threshing, harvesting, planting, &c. Each one of these has collateral series, as for example, planting has plowing, plow, oxen, yoke, furrow, harrowing, sowing seeds, covering it, etc. The second series is progressive bread suggests its uses and functions; food, eating, digesting, organic tissue, life, nourishing strength, supply of heat, bodily labor, &c.
Ok, again. Yes, understanding something does mean putting it into a larger, more coherent, context.
The course of study in schools must be arranged so as to prepare the mind for quick apperception of what is studied. The Pestalozzian makes form, number, and language the elements of all knowledge. He unfortunately omits causal ideas, which are the chief factors of apperception ; we build our series on causally. Accidental association satisfies only the simpleminded and empty-headed.
Sure. Perhaps the course of study could be comparatively brief encounters with a mentor, who guides and reviews, and comparatively large amounts of time to experience and process the world?
I suspect that’s not where Harris is going with this.
With a growing backlog of books to review (Polanyi: what a fraud! Oops, sorry, should have spoilered that!) and about 120 draft posts to clean up/finish/toss/whatever, I digress:
If you already know the answer to life, the universe and everything, such that your dearest, most heartfelt belief is that everything is explained and all ends known with certainty, all discussions either support the conclusion, or are irrelevant noise. The very idea that something, something real or even some line of thought, might not fit in with the already known and sacred conclusion is anathema. Those who insist on bringing up challenges to The Answer are to be silenced with extreme prejudice.
The only worthy intellectual exercise is explaining and expanding on just exactly how 42 is the answer. An intellectual exercises his mind and creativity in coming up with ever more ingenious and detailed ways of getting to 42. The new ways 42 is demonstrated to be the one and only answer is a great comfort to the true believer, and a shield and bulwark against any line of thinking that might cause unease.
This much should be obvious. A little more subtle: Since 42 is the answer beyond challenge, any way of getting to 42 is valid regardless of the method used. 42 is beyond logic, beyond criticism of any kind. It explains – it must explain! It explains everything! – all attempts to unseat it. While it might be possible to have esthetic arguments about how one way to get to 42 is more elegant or thorough or technically accurate, it would be bad form to criticize the logic or structure or heaven forbid, the truth of any explication, so long as it gets to 42 in the end.
From a purely pragmatic point of view, it might be helpful if some of the observations upon which the presentation (it won’t do to call it an argument) are true, or that some of the connections proposed (again, can’t invoke logic) are obvious and reasonably granted. When Polanyi and Marx point to the suffering of the urban poor when industry replaced rural life with slum life, they are pointing to something real. The emotional appeal is also real – what sort of heartless monster would be indifferent to the suffering of the children?
Suffering, especially suffering that primarily benefits somebody else, is nothing to be laughed at. Ignoring the suffering of others is a bad thing (under a moral code that recognizes right and wrong, of course). Yet identifying suffering is not the same thing as understanding what causes suffering. Even less is it an argument for whatever solution one might want to propose.
Ultimately, the truth of the observations, references and connections made as part of the presentation meant to demonstrate the truth of 42 do not reflect – are not allowed to reflect! – on whether 42 is in fact the answer. Quite the contrary: 42 becomes the filter used to determine what lines will be pursued and which will be ignored, and what tidbits of reality will be allowed to intrude. Marx and Polanyi have their defenders, rabid defenders, even, despite reality and history (you know, what happened, as opposed to mythical History, which make things happen in the future). The Soviet Union didn’t quite pan out? Well, Polanyi was right about the Asian Financial Crisis! (Except for the part where it was a hiccup in the now 75 year long planet-wide rise in economic productivity and subsequent drop in poverty and violence. Places where the likes of Polanyi are taken seriously being the exceptions, of course). Workers of the world are still not revolting (they have, increasingly, nothing to lose but there vacation packages, hi-def flat screens, second automobiles and iPhones).
The existence of injustice in the world – and there’s plenty to go around, don’t get me wrong – does not in fact prove anything about whether 42 is the answer or not. Describing problems is cheap; solutions are not, and may not even be possible.
Your math proving 42 not add up to 42? No problem! You got the right answer, that’s what counts.
But I have some ideas of my own. Historical data on seasonal rainfall totals for Los Angeles over the last 140+ year is readily available on the web. I took that data, and did a little light analysis.
Average seasonal rainfall in L.A. is 14.07″. 60% of the time, rainfall is below average; 40% above. Percentage of seasons with:
less than 75% of average rain: 32.62
between 75% and 125%: 39.01
over 75%: 28.37
“Normal” rainfall covers a pretty wide range, one would reasonably suppose. Getting a lot or a little seems somewhat more likely than getting somewhere around average. This fits with my experience growing up in L.A. (18 year sample size, use with caution.)
The last 20 years look like:
Season (July 1-June 30)
Total Rainfall, Inches
Variance from Avg
14 years out of 20 (70%) are under average; 6 above. Those 5 years in a row stand out, as does the 9 out of 11 years under from 2005-2006 to 2015-2016. (That 22.55 inches in 2004-2005 also stands out – very wet year by L.A. standards.)
Wow, that does look bad. So does this stretch, with 7 out of 8 under:
And this one, with 10 out of 11:
Or this, with 6 out of 7:
This last cherry-picked selection is also like the most recent years in that annual rainfall is not just under, but way under. This last sample shows more than 6″ under, in 5 out of 6 years. In the recent sample, 5 out of the last 7 years prior to this year were more than 6″ under, and one over 5″ under.
How often does L.A. get rainfall 6″ or more under average? About 22% of the time. So, hardly unusual, and, given a big enough sample (evidently not very big), you would expect to find the sorts of patterns we see here, even if, as it would be foolish to assume, every year’s rainfall is a completely independent event from the preceding year or years. It would make at least as much sense to think there are big, multi-year, multi-decade, multi-century and so on cycles – cycles that would take much larger samples of seasonal rainfall to detect. And those cycles could very well interact – cycles within cycles.
Problem is, I’ve got 141 years of data, so I can’t say. I suspect nobody can. Given the poorly understood cycles in the oceans and sun, and the effect of the moon on the oceans and atmosphere, which it would be reasonable to assume affect weather and rainfall, we’re far from discovering the causes of the little patterns cherry picking the data might present to us. They only tell us that rainfall seems to fall into patterns, where one dry year is often followed by one or two or even four or five more dry years. And sometimes not.
L.A. also gets stretches such as this:
Not only are 7 out of 10 years wetter than average, the 3 years under average are only a little short. This would help explain why it is so often raining in Raymond Chandler stories set in L.A. – this sample of years overlaps most of his masterpieces.
The L.A. Times sees something in this data-based Rorschach test; I see nothing much. Let’s see what the article says:
Nothing. The headline writer, editor and writer evidently don’t talk to each other, as the article as published makes no attempt to answer or even address the question implied in the headline. It’s just a glorified weather report cobbled together from interviews from over the last several months. Conclusion: things seem OK, water system wise, for now, but keep some panic on slow simmer, just in case. Something like that.
Oh, well. You win some, you lose some. That *thunk* you hear is me falling out of my chair.
Here I wrote about how I’m trying to help this admirably curious young man for whom I am RCIA sponsor on his intellectual journey. I’m no Socrates, but I do know a thing or two that this young man is not going to pick up at school, that would be helpful to him and, frankly, to the world. Any efforts to get a little educated and shine a little light into the surrounding darkness seems a good thing to me.
I figure I’ll give him a single page every week or so when I see him, with the offer to talk it over whenever he’s available. Below is the content of the second page; you can see the first in the post linked above. We started off with a description of Truth and Knowledge. I figure the idea of a cultivated mind might be good next. We’ll wrap it up with a page on the Good and one on the Beautiful, and see where it goes from there.
Any thoughts/corrections appreciated.
A Cultivated Mind
A cultivated mind can consider an idea without accepting it.
What is meant by a “cultivated mind”?
Like a cultivated field:
Meant for things to be planted and grown in it
Weeded of bad habits and bad ideas
Is cared for daily
A cultivated mind
is what a civilized and educated man strives to have.
is not snobby or elitist.
Is what is required to honestly face the world.
Is open to new ideas, but considers them rationally before accepting them.
How do you cultivate your mind?
Reexamine the ideas you find most attractive:
Have you accepted them because you like them, or because you examined them and believe them true?
Carefully review all popular ideas:
Have you accepted them because to reject them might make you unpopular?
Have you really examined them before accepting them?
Double your efforts to be fair when considering ideas you do not like:
Can you restate the idea in terms that people who accept it would recognize and agree with? If not, you are not able to truly consider the idea.
NOTE 1: To engage ideas, listen to and read what people who hold those ideas say, especially when you don’t like them or already disagree. Hear and understand what the idea really is before you can consider it.This takes discipline and time.
NOTE 2: This is a life-long project, always subject to revision. Guard against over certainty, avoid exaggeration. Do not pretend to know what you do not know. Acknowledge that some things are difficult, and can only be known partially.
Follow the Dominican maxim: “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.”
In a recent post here you could almost hear the disappointment in the climate scientists’ words as they recounted the terrible truth: that, despite what the models were saying would happen, snowpack in the mountains of the western U.S. had not declined at all over the last 35 years. This got me thinking about the weather, as weather over time equals climate. So I looked into the history of the Sierra snowpack. Interesting stuff.
When California Gov. Jerry Brown stood in a snowless Sierra Nevada meadow on April 1 and ordered unprecedented drought restrictions, it was the first time in 75 years that the area had lacked any sign of spring snow.
Now researchers say this year’s record-low snowpack may be far more historic — and ominous — than previously realized.
A couple of commendable things stand out from this chart, and I would like to commend them: first, it is a very pleasant surprise to see the data sources acknowledged. From 1930 on, people took direct measurements of the snowpack. The way they do it today is two-fold: sticking a long, hollow calibrated pole into the snow until they hit dirt. They can simply read the numbers off the side of the pole to see how deep it is. The snow tends to stick inside the pole, which they can then weigh to see how much water is in the snow. They take these measurements in the same places on the same dates over the years, to get as close to an apples to apples comparison as they can. Very elegant and scientifilicious.
They also have many automated station that measure such things in a fancy automatic way. I assume they did it the first way back in 1930, and added the fancy way over time as the tech become available. Either way, we’re looking at actual snow more or less directly.
Prior to 1930, there were no standard way of doing this, and I’d suppose, prior to the early 1800s at the earliest, nobody really thought much about doing it. Instead, modern researchers looked at tree rings to get a ballpark idea.
I have some confidence in their proxy method simply because it passes the eye test: in that first chart, the patterns and extremes in the proxies look pretty much exactly like the patterns and extremes measured more directly over the past 85 years. But that’s just a gut feel, maybe there’s some unconscious forcing going on, some understatement of uncertainty, or some other factors making the pre-1930 estimates less like the post 1930 measurements. But it’s good solid science to own up to the different nature of the numbers. We’re not doing an apples to apples comparison, even if it looks pretty reasonable.
The second thing to commend the Times on: they included this chart, even though it in fact does not support the panic mongering in the headline. It would have been very easy to leave it out, and avoid the admittedly small chance readers might notice that, while the claim that the 2015 snowpack was the lowest in 500 might conceivably be true, having a similar very low snowpack has been a pretty regular occurrence over that same 500 years. Further, they might notice those very low years have been soon followed by some really high years, without exception.
Ominous, we are told. What did happen? 2015-2016 snowpack was around the average, 2016-2017 was near record deep, 2017-2018 also around average. So far, the 2018-2019 season, as the chart from the automatic system shows, is at 128% of season to date average. What the chart doesn’t show: a huge storm is rolling in later this week, forecast to drop 5 to 8 feet of additional snow. This should put us well above the April 1 average, which date is around the usual maximum snowpack date, with 7 more weeks to go. Even without additional snow, this will be a good year. If we get a few more storm between now and April 1, it could be a very good year.
And I will predict, with high confidence, that, over the next 10 years, we’ll have one or two or maybe even 3 years well below average. Because, lacking a cause to change it, that’s been the pattern for centuries.
Just as the climate researchers mentioned in the previous post were disappointed Nature failed to comply with their models, the panic mongering of the Times 3.5 years ago has also proven inaccurate. In both cases, without even looking it up, we know what kind of answer we will be given: this is an inexplicable aberration! It will get hotter and dryer! Eventually! Or it won’t, for reasons, none of which shall entail admitting our models are wrong.
It’s a truism in weather forecasting that simply predicting tomorrow’s weather will be a lot like today’s is a really accurate method. If those researchers from the last post and the Times had simply looked at their own data and predicted future snowpacks would be a lot like past ones, they’d have been pretty accurate, too.
Still waiting for the next mega-storm season, like 1861-1862. I should hope it never happens, as it would wipe out much of California’s water infrastructure and flood out millions of people. But, if it’s going to happen anyway, I’d just as soon get to see it. Or is that too morbid?
As I have argued elsewhere, the attraction of political narratives that posit vast unseen conspiracies derives in part from the general tendency in modern intellectual life reflexively to suppose that “nothing is at it seems,” that reality is radically different from or even contrary to what common sense supposes it to be. This is a misinterpretation and overgeneralization of certain cases in the history of modern science where common sense turned out to be wrong, and when applied to moral and social issues it yields variations on the “hermeneutics of suspicion” associated with thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx.
Readers of this blog may recognize in Feser discussion above what I refer to as the Galileo Trap: the tendency or perhaps pathology that rejects all common experiences to embrace complex, difficult explanations that contradict them. In Galileo’s case, it happens that all common experiences tell you the world is stationary. Sure does not look or feel like we are moving at all. That the planet “really” is spinning at 1,000 miles an hour and whipping through space even faster proves, somehow, that all those gullible rubes relying on their lying eyes are wrong! Similar situations arise with relativity and motion in general, where the accepted science does not square with simple understanding based on common experience.
Historically, science sometimes presents explanations that, by accurately accommodating more esoteric observations, make common observations much more complicated to understand. Galileo notably failed to explain how life on the surface of a spinning globe spiraling through space could appear so bucolic. By offering a more elegant explanation of the motion of other planets, he made understanding the apparent and easily observed immobility of this one something requiring a complex account. But Galileo proved to be (more or less) correct; over the course of the next couple centuries, theories were developed and accepted that accounted for the apparent discrepancies between common appearance and reality.
We see an arrow arch through the air, slow, and fall; we see a feather fall more slowly than a rock. Somehow, we think Aristotle was stupid for failing to discover and apply Newton’s laws. While they wonderfully explain the extraordinarily difficult to see motion of the planets, they also require the introduction of a number of other factors to explain a falling leaf you can see out the kitchen window.
Thus, because in few critical areas of hard science – or, as we say here, simply science – useful, elegant and more general explanations sometimes make common experiences harder to understand, it has become common to believe it is a feature of the universe that what’s *really* going on contradicts any simple understanding. Rather than the default position being ‘stick with the simple explanation unless forced by evidence to move off it,’ the general attitude seems to be the real explanation is always hidden and contradicts appearances. This boils down to the belief we cannot trust any common, simple, direct explanations. We cannot trust tradition or authority, which tend to formulate and pass on common sense explanations, even and especially in science!
Such pessimism, as Feser calls it, is bad enough in science. It is the disaster he describes in politics and culture. Simply, it matters if you expect hidden, subtle explanations and reject common experience. You become an easy mark for conspiracy theories.
I’ve commented here on how Hegel classifies the world into enlightened people who agree with him, and the ignorant, unwashed masses who don’t. He establishes, in other words, a cool kid’s club. Oh sure, some of the little people need logic and math and other such crutches, but the pure speculative philosophers epitomized by Hegel have transcended such weakness. Marx and Freud make effusive and near-exclusive use of this approach as well. Today’s ‘woke’ population is this same idea mass-produced for general consumption.
Since at least Luther in the West, the rhetorical tool of accusing your opponent of being unenlightened, evil or both in lieu of addressing the argument itself has come to dominate public discourse.
A clue to the real attraction of conspiracy theories, I would suggest, lies in the rhetoric of theorists themselves, which is filled with self-congratulatory descriptions of those who accept such theories as “willing to think,” “educated,” “independent-minded,” and so forth, and with invective against the “uninformed” and “unthinking” “sheeple” who “blindly follow authority.” The world of the conspiracy theorist is Manichean: either you are intelligent, well-informed, and honest, and therefore question all authority and received opinion; or you accept what popular opinion or an authority says and therefore must be stupid, dishonest, and ignorant. There is no third option.
Feser traces the roots:
Crude as this dichotomy is, anyone familiar with the intellectual and cultural history of the last several hundred years might hear in it at least an echo of the rhetoric of the Enlightenment, and of much of the philosophical and political thought that has followed in its wake. The core of the Enlightenment narrative – you might call it the “official story” – is that the Western world languished for centuries in a superstitious and authoritarian darkness, in thrall to a corrupt and power-hungry Church which stifled free inquiry. Then came Science, whose brave practitioners “spoke truth to power,” liberating us from the dead hand of ecclesiastical authority and exposing the falsity of its outmoded dogmas. Ever since, all has been progress, freedom, smiles and good cheer.
If being enlightened, having raised one’s consciousness or being woke meant anything positive, it would mean coming to grips with the appalling stupidity of the “official story”. It’s also amusing that science itself is under attack. It’s a social construct of the hegemony, used to oppress us, you see. Thus the snake eats its tail: this radical skepticism owes its appeal to the rare valid cases where science showed common experiences misleading, and yet now it attacks the science which is its only non-neurotic basis.
LECTURE II. Saturday, January 14, 1893. PROBLEMS PECULIAR TO AMERICAN EDUCATION. (found here. Lecture I review here.)
Harris begins his second lecture by describing what he means by ‘substantial education’:
There are two kinds of education. The first may be called substantial education, the education by means of the memory; the education which gives to the individual, methods and habits and the fundamentals of knowledge. It is this education which the child begins to receive from its birth. This sort of education is education by authority that is, the individual accepts the authority of the teacher for the truth of what he is told, and does not question it or seek to obtain insight into the reason for its being so.
At this point, I had to check whether Harris was married and had children. A quick perusal of the interwebs reveal that he married his childhood sweetheart, but if they had any children, the sources fail to mention it. Why this is relevant: the idea that children accept everything on authority could hardly be held by anyone who ever raised children. It’s a variation on tabla rasa, as if kids are waiting around for authority figures to lecture them, and accepting the lecture without criticism, and otherwise don’t learn anything. Anyone who has raised children can see that, starting from birth at the latest, the vast bulk of learning is done by the child on his own initiative. He absorbs the assumptions of the adults around him, to a large extent, without criticism, but any adult who has tried the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach will quickly see how much adult authority figures into what children accept without question.
It is this education by authority, the education of the past, that the modern or second kind of education seeks to supersede. This second kind may be called individual or scientific education; it is the education of insight as opposed to that of authority.
The man here using the word ‘scientific’ was heavily into phrenology and late 19th century psychology, among other things, so what he means by ‘scientific’ is clearly not ‘that which can be objectively verified through observation’ but rather more along the lines of ‘what my smart friends and I believe.’ This is relevant, since the advocates for progressive, modern, compulsory schools have long claimed their approach was scientific. That word they keep using – I don’t think it means what they think it means.
“The education of insight” is a very interesting phrase. Part of Hegel – a part most beloved by Marx – is the idea of speculative philosophy being a growing, progressing series of insights. Philosophy doesn’t advance through hashing things out via observations and logical deductions, but rather the Spirit/History reveals the next stage via revelation to the enlightened few. These revelations are called ‘insights’ and contradict the unenlightened stage of History currently prevailing, until both are subsumed and suspended in a new synthesis. The curious part: those lacking the insight cannot understand those who have it. Under Hegel, at least, the insight will slowly spread out from the chosen prophets until the consciousness of mankind is raised – or something. Marx is all about exterminating the unenlightened as the means by which enlightenment spreads.
Here Harris is talking about what normal people call understanding. Does a kid understand what he is taught (insight) or merely parroting what he’s heard (authority)? It would seem Harris is thinking schooling can impart insight in a non-authoritarian manner. Kids who in his view have become mindless automata via accepting everything they know on authority, will at some point, somehow be brought to the freedom of individuality (1) through – compulsory standardized schooling!
When this kind of education is acquired, it frees the individual from the authority of the other. Under the system of education by authority when told, for instance, that the sum of three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, this will be blindly believed only as long as authority sanctions this belief; but when an insight into the reason for this geometrical truth is obtained, no change of authority is able to make the individual doubt.
Really? Harris imagines a teacher, with grim authority, simply telling a kid that the sum of the angles in a triangle equals two right angles, and the kid just buying it, no questions asked. The kid, having been told this, simply does not or cannot try to understand it? I did not think math instruction had universally ‘advanced’ to this point as of the late 19th century. Nowadays, of courses, grade school teachers of math who understand or even just don’t loathe math are the exception.
I think, rather, that kids are curious, and try to understand things, at least until it is beaten out of them by a decade or two of schooling. It’s not a switch waiting for some enlightened adult to throw.
But there is this danger in the system of education by insight, if begun too early, that the individual tends to become so self-conceited with what he considers knowledge gotten by his own personal thought and research, that he drifts toward empty agnosticism with the casting overboard of all authority. It is, therefore, necessary that this excessive conceit of self which this modern scientific method of education fosters, be lessened by building on the safe foundations of what has been described as the education of authority. The problems of the reform movement centre, therefore, on the proper method of replacing this authoritative or passive method of education by education through self-activity.
This is the thing about education theorists such as Fichte, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Mann and here Harris: they frame the problem wrong. Harris really thinks that a kid who learns how to exercise his curiosity in a constructive way is going to be conceited and unmanageable? The result of this is “empty agnosticism with the casting overboard of all authority”? Again, did this man know any children? Somehow, a kid who sees Euclid’s proof that the sum of the angles in a triangle add up to two right angles is going to get conceited, if he sees it too early? Or might he not gain a respect for the genius of ancient Greek geometry, and an appreciation of rigorous reasoning?
We see here the outlines of a plan: Harris would have education by authority practiced from kindergarten (he was a big advocate of the kindergarten movement) without any contamination by ‘insight’. The little dears must learn to OBEY. Then, at some later date (Harris was also a huge factor in establishing compulsory high school) such well-trained automata will be ready to accept insights. But this form of education is a synthesis: both the automaton and the free individual exist in a creative tension, neither contradicting nor obviating the other.
So, how do you foster this creative tension, where students are both obedient to authority yet free to gain insights? Text books! No, really:
There is another problem that of the method of study. Germany advises us to teach by oral methods, by giving pieces of information and insight orally by word of mouth. But the American educators have blundered upon what may be defended as the correct method, namely, the text book method. It was merely the outcome of an unconscious trend. The method is of course liable to very serious abuse, but the good points greatly outweigh the bad. It has the advantage of making one independent of his teacher ; you can take your book wherever you please. You cannot do that with the great lecturer, neither can you question him as you can the book, nor can you select the time for hearing the great teacher talk as you can for reading the book. And it is true that nearly all the great teachers have embodied their ideas in books.
Germany, implementing Fichte, had as its educational goal to replace the father with the state, on Fichte’s theory that what a child desires more than anything is the approval of his father. It’s a simple matter, per Fichte, to remove the child from the family and replace the authority of the father with the state in the person of a state appointed and certified teacher. Thus trained, the child will be unable to think anything his teacher does not want him to think.
Textbooks, from a German perspective, might interfere with this instillation of blind loyalty to the state, as the kid might learn something without the explicit approval of the state/father. Thus, the student learns only what the teacher explicitly tells them.
While it seems Harris has here in mind more general books, as he explicitly mentions “nearly all the great teachers have embodied their ideas in books,” he was himself a producer of what we now call textbooks: books specifically produced for use by school children. It is unclear, at least at this point, what exactly Harris means here. Does he was students to read Euclid and Rousseau, say, on their own? Or does he mean text books to be mere extensions of the teacher’s authority, mere receptacles of approved ‘insight’?
The greatest danger of text-book education is verbatim, parrot-like recitation; but even then from the poorest text-book a great deal of knowledge can be gleaned. Then there is the alertness which in any large class will necessarily be engendered by an intelligent understanding and criticism of the results arrived at by different pupils in discussing a certain piece of work given in his own words. And then there is the advantage to be found in the fact that with the text-book the child can be busy by itself.
It remains unclear to me what Harris means by text books. Modern textbooks, with the possible exception of some more advanced math and science books, are characterized by predigestion: they have taken the subject and determined what correct thoughts about it are, as evidenced by the presence of questions at the ends of chapters, with the correct answers in the teacher’s edition. Nothing so open-ended as what Harris suggests – “intelligent understanding and criticism of the results arrived at by different pupils” – if he, indeed, intends to encourage free discussion.
Lastly, there is the problem of discipline. There should be very little corporal punishment ; the milder forms of restraint should be used. The child that is brought up accustomed to the rod loses his self respect, and may become the man who must have police surveillance. Silence, punctuality, regularity and industry are fundamental parts of a “substantial education” as much as the critical study of mathematics, literature, science and history is a part of the ” education of insight.” These two kinds of education, that of authority and that of self-activity, should be made complementary.
One can make the case that Harris is making simple common-sense observations, that kids need discipline enough to be quiet, show up regularly and work hard in order to learn anything, and that these must be inculcated prior to any particular subject matter. He calls this basis ‘substantial education’ and holds that it – discipline and enculturation – make one a mindless automaton. Yet, unless you achieve this level of discipline and conformity, you cannot hope for a liberal education, what Harris calls an “education of insight”.
I hear echoes of Pestalozzi here, where a child is to be lead step by step down a path designed by his teacher, not allowed to move on until a given step is mastered, as well as echoes of Fichte and the Blank Slate contingent. Harris’s prescriptions may sound good, but it flies in the face of experience with actual children. Kids learn different things in different orders at different speeds, and their native curiosity and intellectual capacities vary enormously. Their appreciation for and capacity to conform to behavioral norms, such as when be quiet, how hard and long to work on something, how to pay attention also vary, so that one 6 year old might sit quietly working for an hour with no trouble, while another can’t hold still for 5 minutes.
Self control and cultural norms are learned at home. Fichte saw this as a problem to be solved by the state. Don Bosco, working with boys who didn’t have a home, understood that he must supply some of what his boys lacked in order for them to succeed, but never imagined the home to be the source of all social ills. Rather, he saw the lack of a home as the problem.
Harris clearly seems to think school – and he was huge force in making compulsory, state-run K-12 schools the norm – is the place where civilization is learned, not home. He advocated for the forced removal of American Indian children from their homes, in order to inculcate in them a “lower form of civilization” suitable for their inclusion in society. For completely benevolent reasons, of course.