The Disaster of Success

(WordPress has decided I published this when I began writing it, which put it out of sequence, so I’m pinning it for a while.  Ah, the mystery of free blogging services!)

There’s much to be loathed and feared and fought against in the modern world, for sure, but the fact remains: in general and on a material level, things have never been better and keep getting better.  That this is treated as a disaster by some we’ll get to in a minute.

This overall material improvement, where there are now more people living better lives in safer places – and taking less of a toll per capita, and often even on a gross basis, on their environments – than ever before is the single biggest fact of modern life. It’s far from perfect, and it isn’t ‘fair’ by all definitions of fair (and wouldn’t it be nice if someone, *anyone* would propose a working definition of fair that is anything other than a stick to beat enemies with?).  But is it better? Oh, yea:

  • Infant mortality is down from up to 40% 200 years ago to low single digits now almost everywhere.

    infant mortality
    European Infant Mortality, selected countries, from THE DECLINE OF INFANT MORTALITY IN EUROPE, 1800-1950: FOUR NATIONAL CASE STUDIES p. 60. The y-axis scaling makes the drop look less dramatic than it is – from around 45% to around 6%
  • Where there is not war nor political unrest, there is not famine – this has changed radically over the last century. 100 years ago, in most of the world, famine could strike any year even where peace prevailed. Now? The world is so awash in food that any mere local problem can be and is readily addressed – if the political situation is stable enough to allow it.
From Drought doesn’t cause famine. People do. 
  • There are fewer wars going on now than at almost any time in history. A lower percentage of people die in war now than ever before.
A History of Violence: Edge Master Class 2011, Steven Pinker. There are lots of charts and graphs out there showing this overall decline.  “Violence has been in decline over long stretches of time,” says Harvard professor Steven Pinker, “and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”
  • The Amazon rainforest, to pick a poster-child for ecological destruction, is now growing back at about the same rate it is being cut down – no net loss of forest. If current trends continue, we’ll soon have increasing rainforests, not decreasing.

At least 20 percent land deforested in the Brazilian Amazon is regrowing forest, reports Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

its target of reducing emissions from deforestation 70 percent from a 1996-2005 baseline by 2018.

While the findings are a hopeful sign that the Amazon can recover from deforestation, it will take decades for regrowing forest to store as much carbon and house as much biodiversity as the original forest prior to clearing.

(from: 20% of land deforested in the Brazilian Amazon is regrowing forest  Since over 80% of the forest that was there in 1970 is still there, this would be about 4% growing back – the average losses are in range of 0.1 – 0.2%. There was no indication that these loss numbers were net. BTW: I’m trying to pick as completely non-controversial (to environmental activists) sources as possible here. No endorsement of implicit policies is to be inferred.)

  • In peaceful, prosperous countries (like ours) there’s more reforestation going on than deforestation. Vast tracts of marginal farmland – New England, for example – have returned to forest.
US forestation
From Google’s Forest Map. Note the heavy forestation from Maine to Delaware – areas that were heavily farmed 200 years ago. Also note the violet area across the southeast – there’s a ton tree farming done there, so we see “loss and gain”. Up in Canada, forests are being cut down – and there’s a lot of blue, where they’re growing back.
  • The number of blue whales is increasing, and has been for 30+ years;  there are probably twice as many polar bears now than there were 50 years ago.
Image result for blue whales population graph
Totally down with taking care of the wildlife, but we need to recognize what we do right as well as what we do wrong.  Whales & polar bears – we’re doing it right.

Off the top of my head. And so on and so forth. As we work out the implications of well-understood basic tech, like sewage treatment and water purification, power generation, and modern farming, things tend strongly to get better for more and more people. I’ve often suspected that if the money spent on iffy green projects had instead been spent on providing basic sanitation, power and food to poorer countries, we’d be far safer and better off as a species. People who have food to eat, clean water to drink and a place to charge their mobile phones are much, much less likely to want to go kill other people. Not a perfect correlation, but still.

Can it all come crashing down in a human-caused apocalypse of one kind or another? Sure, that’s always on the table, although, as touched lightly upon here and as is evident across popular culture, it seems people are fixated on only a small number of frankly unlikely disaster scenarios while ignoring the very real examples history has given us.

It’s never, it seems, an end times scenario based on the French Revolution, where a Reign of Terror is instituted by a group of maniacs calling themselves The Committee for Public Safety. Maniacs who, in the name of Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood and Atheism slaughtered at least several hundred thousand of their unarmed fellow citizens (before they started in killing each other – take note, you who would have violence!). The peace-loving French revolutionaries also started or fanned the flames of numerous wars.

Nor is it based on the real horrors of  the Soviet Union, China, Cuba or, now, Venezuela. Nope,  it’s usually a totalitarian theocracy we must worry about – and not the ones History has shown. There’s basically no chance of a Christian theocratic dictatorship, if such a thing were to arise, getting anywhere near the levels of terror the French, Russian or Chinese revolutions – at least, not based on reality, on what actually has happened. What has actually happened is that evangelical atheists, such as the French revolutionaries, the Commies,  and the Nazis, have seen it as their sacred duty to improve humanity by slaughtering millions of its members.

If you want religiously-motivated slaughter, Islam is the prime example. When government and religion are one – Sharia law, folks – and the religion promotes conversion-by-conquest – you’re going to get government-sponsored religiously motivated slaughter. This is true even where the leaders are not religious fanatics themselves – they, like all historical leaders,  will use whatever stick is handy that they think they can get away with using.  (Islamic conquest of the West began in 634 A.D., and has only taken occasional breaks since. It was not caused by Western Imperialism.)

One might think, if one had perhaps grown up in a world lit by the dolorous rays of a distant red sun, that all this good news would cheer people up. Ha, and again I say, ha! Instead, we can’t see anything good that isn’t dwarfed by the EEEEVIL lurking everywhere, like we’re randy teenagers in the second half of a horror movie. (1)

This inability to see good is a carefully-cultivated sign of refinement. We are carefully trained to accept certain content-free Newspeak phrases, phrases that can be used as both points of dogma and convenient shibboleths. Proper application of such phrases ensures that no improvement can be seen, let alone acknowledged and embraced. Expressing any doubts or reservations about, say, gay rights, microagressions, global warming, the virtues of green energy or that women are underpaid relative to men places one beyond the pale. These and many similar ideas are free of any intelligible content, or so nearly so that whatever the original ideas they were trying to capture have long since receded into the distance, and thus the slogans or catch phrases are empty containers to be filled with emotions and outrage.

The mere idea that anyone would challenge any of these ideas on the basis that they make no sense is an act of intolerable aggression, a rejection of the feelings that make people who they are. The overthrow of thought by feelings – we no longer say we think such and such, but rather that we feel the answer to the math question is 42 – being, of course, one of these ideas. It no longer matters what anyone thinks I am (even who I think I am!) but rather who I feel I am is conclusive. The nonsense that results from this irrationality is yet another thing filtered out from consideration.

Having reality defined by what we feel it is is a very useful state for a certain ambitious type of person. If fear, dread and outrage can be poured into the empty verbal shells, and people lead to feel those emotions are right –  emotions are always right. or at any rate sacred and unchallengable – then large  numbers of people can be lead about, either because they feel the truth of the emotional content, or merely fear being cast out of the cool kids’ club. Those, like the utterly loathsome Rahm Emanuel, who won’t ever let a crisis go to waste even if they have to make crises up for the purpose of not wasting them, will do their best to make sure we stay properly terrified and desperate.

Gramsci noticed way back that Italian workers and peasants really weren’t all that keen on revolting as long as they found comfort in families, church and village. Your typical Italian – your typical human being, frankly – is pretty much OK if he’s got family and friends, a roof over his head and enough good food to eat. He will tend to love the Church, which reinforces and supports these things, or at least not want to burn it down.

But a Marxist is sure such a one should be miserable, and is, in fact, miserable but just doesn’t know it. The pain and outrage a peasant might experience when, say, Spanish Marxists launch a campaign of assassination against his bishops and priests is like the pain of bright light to those who dwelt in darkness. That peasant would be pleased, heck, he’d join right in, if only he was looking at the world the right way!

Thus, Marxists believe dogmatically that people are miserable, or should be. They will support any position that increases fear and unhappiness. They may themselves believe these positions – that we’re destroying the planet, that misery is always the result of oppression, that all institutions that are not actively trying to overthrow the system are tools of control, and so on – but it hardly matters. They, and the many useful idiots and their victims will act as if it’s all true because the feelings such panic generates are the right feelings: one should be miserable! You are either an evil oppressor, the victim of oppression, or both – any way you slice it, misery is your just lot! What kind of a jerk could ever be happy is such a world! It’s infuriating!

All the good news must either be a lie, or irrelevant, or a tool of oppression. If things are getting better, if more and more people have every material thing they need to be happy, that would destroy everything such people have made themselves believe. The mere possibility of such a disaster must not be allowed to enter one’s mind.

There is plenty wrong with the world. By focusing on imaginary threats and ignoring real improvements, we reduce our opportunities to do anything anything about real, concrete problems.

  1. Or so I’ve heard. Never watched horror movies much – history and the news fulfill my daily required dose of horror.
  2. From Wikipedia: “Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view develops a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.” Translation: Capitalists aren’t actually oppressing people, at least not to such a degree that people would much notice. Instead, they inflict evil institutions on them, such as family and church, participation in which often makes the peasants and workers fairly happy and thus less likely to want to throw off their chains. The poor fools think being happy is desirable, and find extended families and the church (which tend strongly to blend into and support each other) conducive. A good forward thinking Marxist (and how good a Marxist can you be if you’re not thinking way, way into the misty and fantastic yet somehow certain future?) will thus concern himself with the destruction of family and church and any other social institutions that tend to make people happy, in order to make people miserable enough that even Communism starts to look attractive. You destroy the village in order to save it.


Against my better judgement, took a phone poll from Research!America, the caller for which claimed Research!America is an independent non-partisan research group.

This claim of neutrality might be somewhat less than completely accurate:

Research!America is the nation’s largest not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance working to make research to improve health a higher national priority. We urge Congress and the administration to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Science Foundation (NSF) at levels that keep pace with scientific opportunity. We also advocate for federal funding for global health research and a legislative and regulatory climate that stimulates growth in industry research and development.

Maybe it’s just me and my pesky reliance on logic and English, but ‘advocacy’ and ‘neutrality’ are pretty much mutually exclusive in this space-time continuum.

The questions themselves bore my suspicions out. Seems the state of California has passed a bunch of legislation intended to “fight climate change,” and the poll was intended to frog march me to the right conclusion – that anyone who cares about THE CHILDREN!!! must support the efforts of Comrade Brown and his Lysenko-ite hench-minions to have California lead the way in Stopping Climate Change!

I was asked to give my opinion on various statements that, when boiled down, took the form of ‘do you support the efforts of all right-thinking people to SAVE THE CHILDREN AND THE PLANET or are you a greedy, callous SOB who probably works for the oil companies and would just as soon inflict fatal asthma on babies as say hello?’

More or less. Mostly more.

(This is certainly an appealingly simple way to view reality. None of those pesky details or facts or trade-offs need trouble the serene innocence of one’s mind.)

Maybe one of these days, I’ll turn down a pollster’s request, on the invariably confirmed premise that it’s just playing into the whole puritanical elitist drive to lead us little people to the correct positions that we, poor dears, can’t be trusted to reach on our own.  For now, I’ve contented myself with trying to get the pollster off script and rolling my eyes *hard*. It’s some small comfort.

Thursday Links

Got a week on-site with a customer next week doing new product roll-out, Diablo Valley School’s graduation and year-end party (20th anniversary!) on Saturday, while my beloved and overworked wife is getting grandma settled and providing huge amounts of care (grandma needs help to stand, sit, get dressed, etc. – prayers for both of them appreciated)  so I have no excuse to be blogging – here are some links:

A: Climate Science here and here via TOF’s blog. The comments are enlightening.

B. Dear to my heart, an explanation of how a non-scientist can nontheless tell that the current climate change panic is bogus, by the estimable John C. Wright. His explanation is from the perspective of a lawyer (although I strongly suspect his experience as a newsman plays a part as well). My perspective is similar, but, since I’m not a lawyer, flavored more strongly by my life-long love of science. This love includes the realization early on that the claims of science are conditional, limited, and only as strong as the challenges they are able to survive. Planck’s quip – that science advances one funeral at a time – reveals a deep truth about people: that we are not likely to give up beliefs, especially those upon which our careers and livelihoods are built, just because somebody poses a question or provides evidence that doesn’t fit. Since facts can always be understood in more than one way, even, often, contradictory ways, our default behavior as human beings is to choose a way to understand the facts that doesn’t require us to abandon what we hold dear.

The foregoing is how I account for the true believers who are actual scientists. There really don’t seem to be many of those – real scientists preaching unfettered panic and insisting on the institutions of global controls that can only be called totalitarian. Instead, we have scientists in love with their babies – oops, models – who can’t accept the reality of the failure of those models. The existence of multiple models is, in itself, a nearly definitive proof that the science is not settled – what it would settle on, if it were settled, would be one basic model reflecting one nearly complete and useful theory. This, I should think, is blindingly obvious.

What the truth about human nature expressed in Planck’s quip does not account for are the easily-impressed rabble (scientifically speaking – I trust these folks are decent enough where it matters, are kind to their pets and call their mothers often)  who, in the words Robert Bolt places in Henry VIII’s mouth, will follow anything that moves. They do not understand science well enough to notice that Sagan, deGrasse Tyson, or even Bill Freakin’ Nye (1) are cheerleaders, whose pronouncements are not science and as often as not, could not be science in principle. As Belloc said:

…it is the mark of modern insufficiency that it can conceive of no other form of certitude save certitude through demonstration, and therefore does not, as a rule, appreciate even its own unproved first principles.

Finally, we have a few (I sincerely hope) of the fine moral specimens exemplified by Rahm Emmanuel: those who not only won’t let a good crisis go to waste, but will eagerly foment one when it serves their purposes. These Machiavellians find the previous two groups useful, and therefore fan the flames. Our obligations as lovers of truth are to fight these last, seek to inform the vast crowd in the middle, and, I suppose, mourn appropriately at the funerals of the first.

C. An Open Letter to the Author. This is amusing.

D. And Then I Popped Him One is interesting, and reflects what I once read somewhere that Raymond Chandler said: a fight scene can’t go by too quickly in a story, or it will disappoint the reader. If you’ve spent 50 pages working up to it, it can’t go by in a paragraph. This brought to mind the wonderful opening to Farewell, My Lovely, which is one of the most perfect noir detective opening I’ve ever read.  The bar scene, while not the climactic fight scene, it sets the stage for all that follows.

Image result for Farewell, My LovelyA man, described by Chandler as “…a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck” recently released from prison stops by the bar where his girl, Velma, worked when he was put away 5 years ago.  In the intervening years, the bar had become a ‘colored’ bar, an obvious fact which nonetheless escapes his notice. He asks after Velma, who of course no one there has heard of, and encounters the bouncer:

The bouncer frowned. He was not used to being talked to like that. He took his hand off the shirt and doubled it into a fist about the size and color of a large eggplant. He had his job, his reputation for toughness, his public esteem to consider. He considered them for a second and made a mistake. He swung the fist very hard and short with a sudden outward jerk of the elbow and hit the big man on the side of the jaw. A soft sigh went around the room.

It was a good punch. The shoulder dropped and the body swung behind it. There was a lot of weight in that punch and the man who landed it had had plenty of practice.

The big man didn’t move his head more than an inch. He didn’t try to block the punch. He took it, shook himself lightly, made a quiet sound in his throat and took hold of the bouncer by the throat.

The bouncer tried to knee him in the groin. The big man turned him in the air and slid his gaudy shoes apart on the scaly linoleum that covered the floor. He bent the bouncer backwards and shifted his right hand to the bouncer’s belt. The belt broke like a piece of butcher’s string. The big man put his enormous hands flat against the bouncer’s spine and heaved; He threw him clear across the room, spinning and staggering and flailing with his arms. Three men jumped out of the way. The bouncer went over with a table and smacked into the baseboard with a crash that must have been heard in Denver. His legs twitched. Then he lay still.

“Some guys,” the big man said, “has got wrong ideas about when to get tough.”

Makes we want to go reread a bunch of Chandler.

  1. Of the three, NdGT is at least a prominent scientist in real life, meaning I’d pay rapt attention to what he has to say – about the science of which he is a prominent practitioner. Sagan was a work-a-day college professor whose ambitions are better measured in Q-rating than in scientific achievement, and Nye holds less of a claim to being a scientist than I do. Failure to parrot whatever these clowns have to say about anything at all is, nonetheless, seen as being anti-science.

Science! Look Close, Find Stuff

[Update: These pics of Juno’s approach from NASA really are dazzling, mysterious and beautiful.]

On some blogazine called Observer, we encounter the breathless and predictable headline:

NASA’s First Close-Up of Jupiter Is Shocking and Surprising Everyone on Earth

17 051 2 NASA’s First Close Up of Jupiter Is Shocking and Surprising Everyone on Earth
Some NASA pic of Jupiter, looking down on the its south pole.

Well, not *everyone* exactly. I, for one, have learned from a lifetime of experience that just about every time some space probe gets a close look at anything in the solar system, it finds that What We Thought Was Wrong! This has a lot to do with planets and moons and comets and stuff being really, really far away. When you’re looking at something from a couple hundred million miles away, it’s pretty likely you’ll miss some important details that will be evident once you get, say, “only” a million miles away. The probe that produced the picture was 52,000 kilometers away at the time – practically spittin’ distance – so I’d be shocked if it didn’t find cool new stuff. I would bet heavily that if, somehow, we got a look from inside Jupiter’s atmosphere or its solid surface, wherever and whatever that might be, we’d find out, again, the Much Of What We Thought Was Wrong! And act all surprised.

This is a tiny and relatively harmless example of Science! in action. NASA, whose political/public relations tail is always trying to wag its scientific dog, is going to try to drum up enthusiasm and gee-wiz us every chance it gets. For example: 

“We are excited to share these early discoveries, which help us better understand what makes Jupiter so fascinating,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It was a long trip to get to Jupiter, but these first results already demonstrate it was well worth the journey.”

One can hardly blame the program executive for pointing out her project was a success. That would be an essential part of the job. But that last sentence is telling: the probe has “already demonstrate it was well worth the journey.” A journey, it must be remembered that cost 1.1 billion taxpayer dollars.  By NASA standards, that a bargain, and, again, it is part of an executive’s job description to make the case that the project was worth the money.  It’s also part of the job of us taxpayers to wonder about that.

Me? I’m cool. Love me some Hubble pictures, I get very excited about the Webb, no matter how over budget it is. Space probes are cool, and comparatively cheap. I start getting concerned with manned missions that are projected to cost planetary-level investments, such as a trillion dollars or some such astronomical (heh) sum. That kind of money will attract the worst kind of attention from the most lamprey-like political players, and, being too big for any one country to swallow, will attract world-wide parasitic attention. It could easily end up as logically coherent and focused as the U.N.

And nobody wants that.

Frankly, I’d like to see a real space station where significant numbers of people live for years at a time, or a moon base, before we just throw people at Mars or whatever. Proof of concept. Ya know?

So, glad we’ve discovered all this interesting new stuff about Jupiter, just like we discover new stuff about anything we get a good long close look at for the first time. But keep your pants on.


Science! Attempts to Destroy Itself

And we should help. Here we go: Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real.  Money quote:

If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field—and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind—could be total bunk.

Of course, anyone sane and conversant in the scientific method would find the idea that “much of what you understood about the universe was wrong” to be nearly a truism, and “that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what … we think we understand about the mind—could be total bunk” to be a revelation on the order of “the sun rises in the East.”

These two ideas go together. While it is important – very important – to recognize that science, especially applied science, has produced a large number of very useful and valuable insights into how the world works, that’s not the same as thinking science has gotten to the bottom, or nearly to the bottom, of How Things Are. It is yet another truism that each scientific answer generates an unlimited supply of additional questions. This state of an ever-receding bottom is in addition to the metaphysical questions the answers to which are both essential to the very concept of science and outside the methods of science to answer.

Science should be a humbling exercise, the thrill of discovery balanced with the inescapable reality that there’s more to figure out than will ever be understood. While egomaniacs can be found in all areas of study, it seems there’s an overall bias: the softer the science, the more play there is for ego, the more ready people are to blow their own horn and take offense at legitimate questions.

Back to the article. There’s a useful recap of what happened in parapsychology in the late ’80s. James Randi had made a name for himself by showing, essentially, that parapsychologist are gullible rubes, or, more generously, that scientists are not trained to expect Nature to try to pull one over on them, leaving them vulnerable to frauds. With careers to consider and funding money on the table, this state of affairs must be addressed.

A raft of reforms were proposed and implemented. Experimenters were advised to be wary of the classic test for “statistical significance,” for example, since it could often be misleading. They should avail themselves of larger groups of subjects, so they’d have sufficient power to detect a real effect. They should also attempt to replicate their work, ideally in adversarial collaborations with skeptics of the paranormal, and they should analyze the data from lots of different studies all at once, including those that had never gotten published. In short, the field of parapsychology decided to adopt the principles of solid scientific practice that had long been ignored by their mainstream academic peers.

“the principles of solid scientific practice that had long been ignored by their mainstream academic peers.”  Let that sink in. Psychology is a field where Freud remains among the top handful of most cited sources. For those who have not had the pleasure of reading ol’ Siggy, he perfected and took to new extremes the approach of answering critics *of* his theories from *inside* his theories – typically, any attempt to point out flaws in his theorizing (and they are patent and legion) was answered by the accusation that the critic was obviously repressed. Jung counts on the same dynamic – reflexive dismissal of critics as simple unenlightened – but has vaguer, less vulgar theories and so appears nicer about it. And so, down the lineage of ‘great’ psychologists to this day.

Success in such an environment hinged more on titillating the undergrads and keeping a straight face than on anything remotely related to science.  All serious and fundamental criticism was summarily dismissed – it had to be, or we’d have never heard of these jokers, who, based on the merit of their theories alone, would hold the same intellectual position as Rosicrucians. Instead, they got paying gigs on the public teat at our great universities, and positions of influence over our young.

Not that things never changed. After Skinner and all the rat running (1), it became popular to use cook-book level statistical analysis in studies. To do this, one needs to assign numerical values to data, ignoring that much, maybe most, things that count as data in psychology do not admit of valid numerical values (on a scale of 1 to 5, how happy are you right now?). Low p-values became the ultimate validation that what you were doing was real, just like the real scientists.

Further, in order to get those p-values, it became common practice to follow many paths, ignore the ones that didn’t ‘work’ and report on those that did. This is an example of an old-style scam (not that the researchers were always aware that scamming was what they were doing – could be enthusiasm + ignorance): send a prediction to 1000 people on who will win that week’s big game – 500 predicting the home team, 500 predicting the away team. Next week, discard the 500 you got wrong, and send out 500 more to those you got right on this week’s big game – 250 predicting the home team, 250 predicting the away team. Repeat a few more times. Then send a note to the remaining people who have received an amazing string of predictions that proved right, saying you’ll send them predictions for the upcoming week for a mere $1,000. How could they resist? You’ve never been wrong before!

To Slate’s credit, this is all explained fairly well in the article.

Bern submitted a paper for publication to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the most prestigious and rigorous journal in his field. An E. J. Wagenmakers read it.

Wagenmakers finally managed to get through Bem’s paper. “I was shocked,” he says. “The paper made it clear that just by doing things the regular way, you could find just about anything.”


“Clearly by the normal rules that we [used] in evaluating research, we would accept this paper,” said Lee Ross, a noted social psychologist at Stanford who served as one of Bem’s peer reviewers. “The level of proof here was ordinary. I mean that positively as well as negatively. I mean it was exactly the kind of conventional psychology analysis that [one often sees], with the same failings and concerns that most research has.”

This was all happening way back in 2010. As a result, there is a movement to tighten up research practices. The article neither mentions nor have I read elsewhere any movement to disavow all findings under the previous method, after the manner in which companies recall batches of product that have poison in them. Calling this a ‘replication crisis’ is dramatically underselling the problem: we have a ‘this is a stinking pile and needs to be shoveled out of here’ crisis. But no one in the field will say that. Instead they will say limp-wristed things like ‘these issue call some earlier findings into question.’ Right. (2)

The article, which is in general commendable and full of useful information, still attempts early on the standard ‘science is hard’ spin I’ve found so often in places like fivethirtyeight: any inclination you might have toward dismissing the entire field of psychology must be resisted, because science is hard!

The replication crisis as it’s understood today may yet prove to be a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective. It might also grow and spread in years to come, flaring from the social sciences into other disciplines, burning trails of cinder through medicine, neuroscience, and chemistry. It’s hard to see into the future. But here’s one thing we can say about the past: The final research project of Bem’s career landed like an ember in the underbrush and set his field ablaze.

Note the not so subtle inclusion of medicine, neuroscience and chemistry as other fields that might be affected by these methodological problems. These three fields do not stand in the same relationship to scientific method as the the social “sciences”. If by neuroscience the author means the wild approaches that lead to MRI studies of dead salmon, then, yes, neuroscience is in exactly the position of psychology. Medicine, on the other hand, has always been a combination of art and science, and has always had a lunatic fringe very similar to mainstream psychology in its approaches and conclusions. But medicine also has results – epidemics prevented, successful surgeries, recoveries from formerly fatal conditions – much more measurable and important. Finally, chemistry is wonderful in that it either works or it doesn’t, so that if you make a claim with any real-world implications, incompetence and fraud will soon out.

No, Slate, there’s no chance this is “a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective.” Nor is it likely to have much effect on fields where hard, objective results are routinely demanded.

There is no replication crisis. There is a this is utter BS crisis, to be resolved once people in general conclude: the social sciences are purveyors of utter BS.

Why, yes, I am a little grumpy today. Why do you ask?

  1. Long quote from Feynman’s famous and oft quoted Cal Tech commencement speech:All experiments in psychology are not of this type, however. For example, there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on–with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

    The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the
    corridor, and still the rats could tell.

    He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

    Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using–not what you think it’s using. And that is the
    experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

    I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of cargo cult science.

  2. There are, of course, people who were thrilled at Bern’s results, and accepted them with unfiltered enthusiasm:  “But for Bem’s fellow members of the Parapsychological Association, the publication marked a great success. “He brought a lot of attention to the possibility that this research can be done, and that it can be done in a mainstream establishment,” says Marilyn Schlitz, a sociolinguist who studies psi phenomena and has an appointment at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California.

Link & Roundup: Um, Yea.

A. Wesley Smith at First Things is hammering on the point I’m trying to make here about Science! in its capitalized and exclamatory expression.  I got into philosophy and the Great Books second – science was my first love. After a few years spent thumbing through every science book (we’re counting the Time-Life rah-rah Science! series as science for the purposes of this discussion – hey, I was in 4th grade) in St. Mary’s Whittier’s tiny library, I’d already more or less dimly reached the conclusion that science just can’t tell us the answers to most of the really interesting questions. (This also explains the brevity of my fling with Plato – the ‘I only know that I don’t know’ schtick gets old fast.) By the time I’d reached college, I’d honed my eye to a fine gimlet, science-claims wise.

Under the Science! category here are numerous examples of science either done or used wrongly, and most egregiously, claims made in the name of science that are not possible to make on scientific grounds even in theory – moral claims, for example. Smith’s fine essay provides the general context.

Janez Vajkard Valvasor - Bitka med Teodozijem in Evgenijem.jpg
Battle of the Fridgius River, By Johann Weikhard von Valvasor –, Public Domain,

B. Stilicho was not only more Roman than the Emperor and more Catholic than the Pope – he was evidently Klingon. Making my happy way through Lafferty’s Fall of Rome, came across a scene where Alaric, age 17, commanding about 14,000 crack Gothic troops in defence of the Emperor Theodosius from the usurper Eugenius, has spent a day fighting his bloody way through a narrow valley. He has lost 10,000 men, and reached the plains near sundown only to see a huge army in front of him. He sends a message to Stilicho, Master General of the Empire and his commander, asking if he should proceed into almost certain death, or retreat and rendezvous with the other forces.

It takes time for messengers to ride.  Alaric – 17 years old, remember – decides that in lieu of countermanding orders, he will lead his men into the fight and die. Just then, the messenger returns with Stilicho’s orders: Where Alaric stood “is as good a graveyard as any.”

Perhaps it is a good day to die.  These were manly men. Gik’tal!

(Grandfather: She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.

Grandson: What?

Grandfather: The eel doesn’t get her. Now, I’m explaining to you
because you look nervous.

Grandson: I wasn’t nervous. Well, maybe I was a little bit
concerned, but that’s not the same thing.)

3. As requested by absolutely no one, I’ll be doing a final California Weather 2016-2017: That was the Rain Year that Was post as soon as I’m really sure we’re done. They’re predicting more rain in a week, so – not yet. The rule, as I understand it, is that over 3 days out, the forecast strongly converges with the almanac – if you bet season average, you’d be as close as any prediction. Exceptions include the conditions we had this year, where those atmospheric rivers could be spotted a week in advance out over the Pacific, and had nowhere to go but the West Coast. With those things, the only variable seems to be timing: when, not if.

In addition to being very wet, it’s also been cooler in general. The atmospheric river thing  does draw in tropical moisture and therefore lingering tropical warmth.  But that tends more toward mitigating lows than actually pushing highs much higher, it seems – I’ll look over the data to confirm. It’s only in the last few days that temperatures reached the 80F for the first time this calendar year – we sometimes get 80 degree days even in late February and certainly in March and April, but not this year until the last days of April. Now the forecast says 90s for the next couple days – not at all unheard of for May, but high. Then, it’s back down into the 80s and 70s. 85F is the average high for summers here, with 105F and 75F not being unusual highs.

Boooooring! The only point of interest is just how variable weather really is. From year to year, California weather can be dramatically different. The climate – weather over time – is perhaps generally dry and warm, but within that generalization there’s very dry, very warm, very wet and so on. ‘Normal’ is a fairly broad range.

4. Back to the Fall of Rome: Lafferty’s asides are both edifying and hilarious. At one point, he mentions that the political and palace intrigue conducted upon Theodosius’s death was too complicated to be understood in these simpler times. He mentions that, while we have assurances that the Church will endure, that doesn’t mean all its worldly furniture can’t be made to disappear.  And so on – laugh a minute, with the fate of the world in the balance and men killing each other left and right. Read an historian once who quipped that, by modern standards, all ancient peoples were sociopathic – slaughtering each other just didn’t seem to bug them as much as one would hope.

I worry that rising above that baseline human behavior is quite anti-entropic, and as people enthusiastically kick away the cultural props from under our modern restraint, social gravity, as it were, will bring us right back down to ambient. The experiences of the 20th century, even and especially in supposedly civilized Europe, are not encouraging.