Convoluted Nonsense: Chicago

(Something from the draft pile from a month or two ago, that is sadly still pertinent.)

Over the course of reading American history and especially the history of education in America, I’ve developed an interest in Chicago’s history. Also, there was a time about 15-20 years ago when I had a number of customers in Chicago, and so made a trip or three there each year. I still get there occasionally. I’m familiar enough with the city to get the Chicago references in the Matrix without having to look them up.

Today’s absurdities/fake news comes out of Chicago – hardly a surprise. Chicago’s press, such as it is, is remarkable for its ability to ignore the obvious and simultaneously double down and minimize anything that makes the city, and, more importantly, the progressive project the city embodies, look bad. (1) I recall a while back, when googling around for information on Fred Roti, a lifetime Illinois politician, long-time city alderman, son of Mafia hit man Bruno “the Bomber” Roti, FBI-identified made man and convicted criminal, that I found an article about how Fred was just the nicest guy, a true lover of the city and patriot, that the FBI was clearly picking on him, and that law enforcement was the real criminal here. This appeared in one of the major Chicago papers back in the early 90s. This was the man who, for his decades as an alderman, always voted first – clearly, the rest of the city council, in their humility, needed the guidance of his example before doing something so stupid as voting against Roti.

The eminations coming out of the Chicago press defending Chicago are suspect in exactly the same way as the enthusiasm of the 2nd alderman to vote after Roti.

Problem: Chicago has a huge problem with gun violence. People kill each other with alarming frequency. Here’s not at all ever fake news CNN:

Chicago marked 2016 as the deadliest year in nearly two decades, data released by the Chicago Police Department shows.

The city saw a surge in gun violence in 2016: 762 murders, 3,550 shooting incidents, and 4,331 shooting victims, according to a statement released by the department on Sunday.

There were 480 murders in 2015, the most in the city since 1997.

Sounds like things are getting worse. Compare this with the situation in Houston, a similar sized city with a similarly diverse population:

Houston had 302 homicides in 2016, one fewer than a recorded 303 homicides in 2015, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced.

Houston has about 2.2 million people, Chicago about 2.7 million. By the magic of math, we see that Houston has a murder rate per 100,000 people of 14; while Chicago’s is 28. In other words, if murders are evenly distributed (fat chance), one would have twice as high a chance of getting murdered in Chicago as in Houston. However the murders are distributed, there were twice as many per capita in Chicago as in Houston in 2016. Further, Houston had a slight decrease in murders while Chicago had about a 59% increase.

Now, one might conclude from this that it seems likely, barring some pertinent additional information, that whatever the city of Chicago is doing to reduce murder rates isn’t working, while whatever Houston is doing seems to be working a better.

One might turn to the piece linked below in search of whatever might explain the murder rate differences. It is, after all, titled A Reporter Explains What Out-Of-Towners Keep Getting Wrong About Chicago Violence. Hey! I’m an out of towner! And I think Chicago’s murder rate – violence par excellence! – is twice as high as Houston’s because, well, it is. So, what am I getting wrong?

A reporter with the fine name of Evan Moore (no relation as far as I know) was approached by people wanting to make a documentary about Chicago, to get a sort of insider view.

After running down a list of what he liked about my work, he asked me to take him somewhere “relatively safe” on the South Side.

After shaking my head in disbelief, I wrote back asking what his definition of “safe” was. I didn’t hear back from him, but his associate offered a meeting at a coffee shop.

It was clear that the guy wanted to cover the violence in Chicago from a controlled environment. More importantly, he already had a preconceived notion about Chicago that he was going to use to shape his film.

I find this fascinating. I once visited the South Side – University of Chicago, to be specific – and *locals* were giving me all sorts of ‘stay away from there’ advise. They, people living on the South Side, seemed to have opinions more like the people doing the documentary than Mr. Moore. (2)

Also, as is so often the case among our media, our intrepid reporter has leet mind-reading skillz. He *knows* the documentary maker is going to use ‘preconceived notions’ to ‘shape’ his film.  Now, it is fair to assume that the filmmaker has notions about Chicago. They may even be ‘preconceived’ if by that phrase we mean ‘different from what he would have if he knew the city better’. What’s missing are reasons to suppose bad intent on the part of the filmmaker, other than the reporter supposing it.

Now, a simple man, especially a simple man with no bone to pick, might imagine that the documentary maker was soliciting input from locals precisely to ameliorate the effects of his ignorance, with the hope that he would then be able to present a better, truer picture of Chicago in his film. How Moore knows the filmmaker is going to ‘shape’ the film using ‘preconceived’ notions is, based on the information given in the article, borderline calumny – he wants us to believe that this unnamed documentary film maker is out to get Chicago, to sell preconceived notions – meaning negative notions, of course – to show how bad he imagines violence in the city to be. A responsible reporter (I slay me!) would never suggest such an unfavorable interpretation without, well, some facts.

Related image
Downtown, under the L. I’ve whiled away hours walking these streets. Fun. Very alive place. The picture captures, I think, something essential about Chicago’s soul: we need a train here. So stick it here! Not something you’d see in London or even LA.

Now, to be fair, I’ve lived in either LA and the Bay Area almost all my life, and people do get crazy notions about safety. You want to go to Watts or Compton or East LA? Fine, nobody will bother you if you just do your business. Just don’t leave stuff in your car, or park someplace out of the way where it might get stolen or stripped. And don’t just go hang out on the streets in the wee hours. Same goes for Oakland, except that about 75% of that city is really pretty suburban or even upscale. The only time I’ve gotten mugged in my life was at the LA Coliseum when I was a teen, and that was because I was lost in thought and got separated from my friends (who came back to check on me before things got ugly). Stuff happens. Personally, Berkeley, especially around Cal, is the worse, because people will steal your stuff in the blink of an eye. Kind of like in Rome.

So, yea, people get wrong ideas. But you straighten them out. You don’t accuse them of trying to set you up and produce propaganda – unless you’re willing to lay down a lot more evidence to support that idea than is presented in the article.

I understand why people want to come to Chicago to document the violence here. After all, Chicago has a long history of it—from Al Capone to Chief Keef. Chicago has always been considered sexy due to the violence. From the outside looking in, many media pundits, parachute journalists, and the people in the comment section in every media outlet known to man seems to believe that black and brown people on Chicago’s South and West Sides are killing each other on a daily basis and no one in those communities seems to care.

Who considers Chicago ‘sexy’ due to the violence? Any real people you can name? I would not use the word ‘sexy’ to describe anything about Chicago, let alone the violence. (And starting the violence with Capone is late – how about “Bathhouse” John Coughlin- or the Haymarket Riot, occasioned at least partly by voting fraud that never takes place? The not at all sexy history of violence in Chicago goes way back.) Millennium Park is cool, the Art Institute is lovely, the architecture down town is beautiful. Great restaurants. Nice museums. Other than that, it’s mostly a big, kinda dirty city – that is full of life, which is why, I suppose, people like big cities so much in the first place. I can dig it. Colorful might be a better overall term.

“…seems to believe that black and brown people on Chicago’s South and West Sides are killing each other on a daily basis and no one in those communities seems to care.” Let’s see: 762 divided by 365 would indicate that, on average, more than 2 people are getting murdered by *somebody* someplace in Chicago on a daily basis – which might explain the attitude. This would be the point at which a responsible reporter (can’t slay me, already dead) would throw down some facts, something that contradicts what seems on the surface a pretty reasonable position. The statistics I’ve seen largely support the idea that white people killing other white people or white people killing black people isn’t nearly the problem black people killing black people is – but hey, Mr. Reporter, I could be persuaded by some clear information here.

I’m thinking it’s the “…no one in those communities seems to care” that is the point of interest. But wait: Who, again, would imagine such a thing? I, for one, would not in a million years suppose that the people *in the community* in which the murders are taking place don’t “care” – I would assume that they care passionately. How could they not, if it’s their children and brothers and fathers getting killed? The idea that there are people imagining they don’t care is preposterous. One might get that impression cherry-picking the Internet, I suppose. But how about somebody on the record saying such a thing?

Who I would assume don’t care are those who do not live in the neighborhood. Political ideologues, for example, don’t care, those for whom murder is a complex and difficult problem the causes of which are nothing so simple as anger, jealousy, greed, and the desperation and insanity that spring up and thrive like so many mushrooms on the wreckage of destroyed families. (3)  If your ideology requires that you hate and oppose all the traditional supports for families – churches, making divorce hard, making abortion illegal, recognizing marriage and family as greater, more fundamental goods than any state – then you’ll be forced to come up with other supposed supports, such as ever-growing social services, even if such ‘help’ by its very nature divorces the individual from local ties and marries him to a distant bureaucracy. Like Vietnamese villages, we evidently must destroy the neighborhoods in order to save them.

Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. If so, arguments and numbers might be presented to explain it, or at least to suggest an avenue of exploration. There are no numbers in the article itself. Numbers may be what are giving out of towners their wrong impressions, after all. There are a few links to other articles in the same paper that take exactly the same approach – but do have some numbers. Maybe I’ll take a crack at them later. On the surface, none struck me as very helpful presentations, in that they do, in fact, show Chicago as a comparative disaster in terms of murder rates, yet never really offer any reasons why that aren’t highly speculative and frankly self-serving.

They focus on the amount of deaths and shootings, but not the systemic issues that have festered over time. That’s where the meat of Chicago’s problems are at.

Here’s an assertion. Given the lack of data and argument, one might call it a religious dogma. What gives Chicago such a tragic high and lonely destiny, murder wise, as opposed to other large, diverse American cities? Why don’t those systemic issues show up in the same magnitude in New York? Or Houston?

Chicago is increasingly a talking point of white supremacists and conservative media. After all, Chicago is often looked upon as everything that can wrong when you let liberals run a big city. President Donald Trump recently threatened to send in the National Guard (or in his words, “the feds”), and recently discussed our city with a select group of black people. Previously, Trump falsely claimed that two people were shot during President Barack Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago. He tweeted the numbers of shootings and killings in Chicago, along with calling our city “War Zone,” in meeting with black “leaders” at the White House.

Ah! Now we play the white supremacist card, and link it with the simple word ‘and’ to conservative media. Sure. Why not? That a Chicago neighborhood dweller can’t see any material difference is not an indictment of his eyesight, but rather proof that the overlap of the Venn diagram is near perfect. In classic critical theory, everything is explained as a function of economics, thus rendering all non-economic causes invisible. Here, in accord with the current more flexible iteration of critical theory, race takes the place of economics – that the (undefined – kind of a running theme, here) conservative media might say something from a place other than mere racism is conclusively presumed to be impossible.

Next, if any black person deigns to talk with Trump, that fact alone proves conclusively that they are not black leaders, but black “leaders”.

As you may have noticed, our president, and those who chide our city from the outside, never mention how it’s a small sample of hurt people in hurt communities that commit violent acts towards one another. That stance is willfully ignorant of the importance of investing in poverty-fighting practices and anti-gun policies that can help our communities in the long-run.

There are no arguments. We are merely presented with a story about preconceived notions, the presumed bad intent of some filmmaker, wild and nonsensical accusations that unnamed out of towners think locals don’t care about their family members and neighbors getting killed, a dismissal of the idea – supported by the numbers we’re not seeing – that minorities in the neighborhoods tend to kill each other at a much higher rate than the larger community. We are then told, in conclusion, what to do: invest in “poverty-fighting practices and anti-gun policies”.  Because it’s not like Chicago has been at the forefront of such efforts for a century or more, with the results we see before our eyes….

We report, you decide has passed even from memory; we report and decide has been taken off life support. We’ll tell you what to think is passing before our eyes into we’ll tell you what to feel on its way to we’ll tell you what to do.

  1. Which, if they ever even acknowledge anything wrong with the way the city is run, is always nuanced and complicated, in their view, and in any event the possibility it might have something to do with 100 years of Progressive politics is never raised except to be mocked.  As the linked piece demonstrates.
  2. The University employs 140 police officers. Not security guards, but people with police powers, who patrol University grounds and also patrol some of the nearby streets. I don’t think UCLA or Stanford does this.
  3. I tended to discount stories about how social programs destroy families – seemed overstated, at least. However,  we’ve gotten to know a young family through the local Gabriel Project. Black, poor, from shattered families, but heroic – the mom kept her baby, dad didn’t run away but stayed and eventually married the mother of his child. They both work low end jobs. Crazy hard life, but they’re trying! Well, the mom told my wife recently that a social services person told her that her husband should move out, that as long as he stayed, there were severe limits on what they could do for her and the baby, but if he were out of the picture, there would be more aid available. Pure evil. I wish I could be sure this is an unintended consequence.
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Curse of the Pyramids

(Thoughts not yet fully formed follow. Like that’s anything new.)

When diagramming out some issue using a pyramid, we are invited (if not forced) to think hierarchically, in terms of a foundation, middle stories built on that foundation, and a crowning achievement/reward at the top:

We have food pyramids,

USDA Food Pyramid
If you carb-load, then eat your fruits and veggies and top them off with a cheese burger, you have proved your virtue and may then have sweets! 

Maslow’s Hierarchy,

Image result for maslow hierarchy of needs pyramid diagram
“Breathing, Food, Water, Sex, Sleep, Homeostasis, Excretion” – Hmmm – which one of these is not like the others? (Homeostasis in this context is a largely redundant catch-all for all the others – except one.) 

Management hierarchies:

CEO Pyramid
I think this is a joke. I hope it is a joke. At the very least, except for a few very highly specialized businesses, it should be way wider at the bottom, narrow rapidly and come to a pointy-point. 

 

Even hierarchies of disagreement:

Image result for disagreement  pyramid diagram
So, we’re to base our disagreements on name-calling, and then work our way up through ad hominem past gainsaying and then finally arrive at something like reasonable discussion? Seems an unlikely progression. 

A moment’s reflection should reveal, I think, that except when applied to construction of large monumental structures, such pyramid thinking is very unlikely to apply to anything in the real world. Imagine, for example, a pyramid describing a bee hive:

Bee Hive Hierarchy

Or maybe:

Bee Hive Hierarchy II

Does either one of these make any sense at all? Of course not. Placing these relationships in a pyramid all but forces us to assume a hierarchy that isn’t there. Even the names – queens, drones, workers – are blatant anthropomorphizing. The queen isn’t commanding the workers any more than the workers are enslaving the queen.

In a similar way, all the examples given are nonsense. Our food habits aren’t hierarchical – we don’t build upon a base of carbs to support an apex of sweets and fats. Maslow’s diagram hides an important truth: that it’s belief in and desire for the good that often motivates people to accept less fulfillment or show no concern for lower levels, sometimes, because we are not defined by them. There are many accounts of brilliantly happy saints who went hungry, voluntarily eschewed sex, lived in times of turmoil, did not have a place to lay their heads, were shunned and mistreated by their contemporaries – and achieved a level of ‘self-actualization’ beyond anything known to Maslow’s philosophy.

In the flat moral universe I’m often on about here, the temptation is to see the world as a series of pyramids, where there’s a bottom level of oppression and mistreatment to be escaped, upper levels holding lower levels down with bad intent, and a struggle to invert the pyramid, somehow.

In almost every case, such an understanding is poor. Relationships are both more complex and subject to much more variety than can be even roughly approximated by layer in a triangle.

Pyramid thinking: a bad idea.

All Cases Make Bad Law

(Half-formed thoughts, subject to revision. More than usual, I mean.)

Two anecdotes:

As a  young man, worked briefly in the insurance industry, for a while as a personal lines (auto, home, that sort of thing) underwriting analyst. The particular company I worked for had a marketing strategy by which they would approach certain groups – the California Teacher’s Union being the biggest – and offer them some special deals if they’d agree that we were their official insurance company and let us market directly to their members that way. A very interesting business model, and how I came to have a small bit of personal contact with the uppity-ups in the Teacher’s Union. One part of the typical deal was an appeals board that included some actual union members, that people insured could make appeals to if they didn’t like how the insurance company treated them. (1)

One task we with the Underwriting Analyst job title would do is look over the more crazy, out there claims and issues, including stuff that had been appealed to these boards. One time, we were discussing a case where a dreaded Young Male Driver was appealing non-renewal (when the insurance company says ‘no thanks’ to another year of coverage). Over the previous year or so, he had multiple moving violations to the point where his licence was near being revoked, and had made a couple of claims (those things do go together). He was shocked and claimed it was totally unfair of us to not renew his policy – that his driving record was no worse than anybody else he knew. For all I know, he was completely sincere.

Now, an underwriting analyst has access to much accumulated insurance wisdom. Using this wisdom, I know I am a fairly typical driver: in 40 years of driving, I’ve had 2 at fault accidents (both in the first year of driving, when I was a dreaded Young Male Driver myself) and 1 moving violation. That averages out to 0.05 accidents and 0.025 tickets per year. Having more than one ticket in a year is very unusual, and raises a lot of red flags, because getting tickets and costing the insurance company a lot money do go together. This kid was a phenomenal outlier and probably a menace. But he was sure he was typical, and no amount of information could convince him otherwise.

Second anecdote:

Almost the last time I listened to NPR was years ago, a Terry Gross interview of some legal scholar. They were addressing the issue of how real life changes faster than laws can get written, so that judges are faced with cases laws never anticipated and for which there are not any really valid precedents. Their conclusion: of course judges must make the law! With a strongly implied ‘how could anybody seem so stupid as to imagine otherwise?’

Instead of discussing the need for balance – the need for the written law to be respected and weighed against the occasional need to rule on a situation that lies outside the written law – we just chuck the written law! What could be simpler?

A common thread in the above is how a a thing, a ‘this’ in Aristotle’s way of talking, presents itself for consideration. In insurance, a thing might be a claim; in law, it might be a case. As a claims adjuster or a judge, the units of interest to you arrive to your awareness prepackaged, as it were, by rules and laws, assumptions and theories – as facts, as things made, in a traditional configuration. Yet what’s missing, what is critical to making wise decisions, is the knowledge of the wide cultural and moral context within which the claim or case is made.

Such a moral and cultural context is not strictly objective, in the sense that it’s not something to be learned merely by looking at how things are at some time and place. It includes, at least in the West, recognition of imperfectly realized ideals. Without this cultural context taken in the widest possible sense, a sense that includes Jewish reverence for the law of God, Greek logic, and Christendom’s ancient sense of salvation history, not just hard cases, but all cases make bad law.

This is where case law gets tricky. If we look to precedent, what we are doing should not be just sussing out how other judges judged and seeing if their judgement applies to the facts in this case. We should also try to to understand that constellation of moral and cultural beliefs that made that judgement seem just to that judge.

Image result for oliver wendell holmes supreme court
Righteous mustache, I must admit. 

I’m not a lawyer, and have felt only the slightest attraction to that profession(2). But I love philosophy. I’ve read just enough (very little) of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr to be dangerous.  OWH Jr assures us that law is, in its essence, philosophy (3). Well, then! Here we go.

If I understand justice to be essentially something eternal and unchanging, along the lines of a Platonic form, more or less, I will look at case law as perhaps revealing something true about justice. At least potentially, all those decisions will reflect all the judges’ best cogitations on the same truth. Like science, it would be acknowledged up front that all such attempt are provisional, that something that comes along later might require reexamination of assumptions. But the basic shape of the process is also like science – it assumes the existence of an objective reality to which our best efforts are an approximation. Over time, we should hope that the approximation gets better. In the meantime, we get useful gadgets and useful rulings.

Hegel, whose influence, fell and dread, was strong on OWH Jr, teaches that the methods of science is not suitable for true philosophers. By this, he does not mean the (real and true) limitation of modern science to things that can be measured. Rather, he refers to the logical processes that underlie not only science but all prior philosophy. Science works by ‘propositional logic’, moving step by careful step from premises stated and restated to be as clear as possible, using logic as beloved by Aristotle and Thomas to reach valid conclusions. Hegel dismissed such efforts as something engaged in by the little people – not by true philosophers like himself.

True philosophers use speculative reason, a phrase redefined away from its traditional meaning by Hegel to mean insights gained by whatever it is that Hegel does to get insights.

The most fundamental of all realities to Hegel are not immutable truths, but Progress. The Spirit reveals and comes to know itself through an endless series of revelations. Reason that relies on logic as an immutable foundation is thus never going to get it right – people wedded to logic, to the notion that true things need to make sense on some level, will reject the latest revelation on the grounds that it is irrational – that it is self-contradictory. To Hegel, this is both of the nature of revelation – it wouldn’t be a revelation if it made sense – and the reason to reject *logic*, at least in philosophic discourse.

Human beings struggle to come to grips with these revelations, struggle to shed the previous rigid thinking we’d settled into after we’d incorporated the last revelation into our consciousness. Those who cannot incorporate the new revelation – those unable to suspend the contradiction within a dialectic synthesis – are left behind, are on the wrong side of history, or, worse yet, are trying to turn the clock back.

Hegel has never been accused of being clear.

We see a meeting of soul-mates. This is not a coincidence. Hegel was a conventional Lutheran. For 300 years, Lutherans and Calvinists and Protestants in general had asserted the rational superiority of their beliefs to Catholicism. Yet both Calvin and Luther famously denigrated reason – ‘that whore’, as Luther called it. I suppose that’s one of those contradictions subsumed in a synthesis, a contradiction in creative tension.

If you define ‘rational’ as ‘falling under the purview of the methods of Aristotle and Thomas’ the teachings of Calvin and Luther will lose that argument (4). That’s why Philosophy since 1630 or so has been exclusively devoted to dismissing or ignoring Aristotle and Thomas. Just as Holmes’ inherited convictions from his Harvard crowd about how the good and holy Puritans Unitarians secularist progressives should be in charge survived his rejection of the God upon the understanding of Whom such claims of superiority were initially based, the efforts to find some other way – any other way! – to think about reality than using Aristotelian logic survived the Academy’s rejection of all things theological. The lust for power survives any particular justification for it.

To be continued.

  1. Aside: you’ll sometimes hear an insurance company tout its 97% customer satisfaction rate with its claims services. Duh. About 97% of the time, the claim is obvious and any half-way respectable insurance company will promptly pay it – reasonable people are pretty satisfied with that. The other 3% includes the very rare hard case,  where it’s not clear at all that the insurance company should pay, a few fraud cases, but mostly, I’d guess about 3% of the population simply does not want to be satisfied no matter what. I suspect we all know people like that, and thus suspect anything over a 97% satisfaction rate doesn’t include a representative sample of humanity.
  2. Taking my father’s oft-stated belief that education was for getting a better job, I couldn’t see law as anything but a job that claimed to be a vocation that has no justification outside of working for justice. In other words, a lawyer making money is a sell-out by definition. Of course, a couple of my college roommates became a judge and a worker’s rights lawyer, which kinda works…
  3. And, in the course of assuring us of this, dismisses the vast bulk of lawyers as just journeymen of a craft, with no real understanding. This goes back, I would think, to his bedrock Harvard/Boston/essentially Puritan roots, institutions founded on the belief that people like him – the smart, good people – should be in charge of the less smart, less good people. Even losing his faith in God didn’t damage his faith in his own Brahmin class’s meritocracy and fitness to rule.
  4. The Catholic Encyclopedia, whose side in this dispute should be obvious,  says of Robert Bellarmine: “In 1576 …the lectures thus delivered grew into the work “De Controversiis” which, amidst so much else of excellence, forms the chief title to his greatness. This monumental work was the earliest attempt to systematize the various controversies of the time, and made an immense impression throughout Europe, the blow it dealt to Protestantism being so acutely felt in Germany and England that special chairs were founded in order to provide replies to it.” Thus began Catholic attempts to make sense of the mish-mash of Protestant claims and arguments. That there are so many conflicting claims and arguments has always testified against them – Does human will count for anything? Does a plowboy need any help understanding Scripture? Do we need baptism or not? Once, or more than once? What, if anything, does the Eucharist represent? And on and on and on. It is obvious that, if these claims represent superior rationality, that rationality cannot be based on the belief that the Truth is One. Thus, Aristotle and Thomas must be rejected.

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.”

and:

“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.

Stanley Fish: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along

In 1996, Stanley Fish wrote an article for First Things called Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, a link to which was washed up on my beach via Twitter. This fairly dense and densely reasoned essay touches upon a subject of some interest here on this blog: how did our colleges and universities arrive at the disastrous state we’ve reached today? I’m going to have to pick a few of many worthy thoughts to comment on, since this is a blog post and I don’t have a week to research and write a reply. Please read the whole essay, as I am not going to be able to do justice to the full scope of his very interesting argument.  The reasoning here will not be as tight as the subject deserves, for which I apologize to Dr. Fish and my readers. The line of challenge and pursuit is I think important to get out there, however imperfectly.

First, Fish is a college professor, and thus, when he talks about how Americans think, he’s talking about how people in colleges and the penumbra of colleges think. When this battle was being fought back in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, less than 10% of the population attended college; as late as 1945, less than 30% graduated high school. As late as Harry Truman, America could elect as president someone who attended no college – and not feel particularly bad about it.

I mention this because Fish doesn’t concern himself with the downward push of these ideas from the university to the vast bulk of the citizens. That these ideas were cultivated among a small and very self-conscious elite and inflicted on their presumed inferiors is, I think, an important and telling aspect of the process, as is the fundamental difference in mindset between the children and grandchildren of Calvinist Puritans who founded Harvard and a typical American farmer. (Most Americans lived on farms until almost 1900, and most lived in close proximity to farms until maybe 1940.) Employing the sort of reasoning prefered by Fish, it could be said that certain unconscious assumptions made by a farmer and by a Harvard grad would be mutually unintelligible, and thus kill the possibility of free discussion a-birthing. I would add: minds are not that open; minds simply cannot be that open and remain rational. Thus, what is to be imposed is not rationality, but a belief system.

But Fish’s essay is not about how liberal open-mindedness got promulgated and eventually swept the field, but rather is about its dogmatic intolerance. He gets close to the heart of the matter when he notes that no reasoning can begin without premises, and that such premises cannot be the result of reasoning. Thus, he rejects the idea that articles of faith can be judged by their reasonableness, and calls no less a witness than Augustine.

Is this true? That I’m asking this question reveals my own premises, most important of which are that truth matters, is knowable and can be reached or at least approached by reason. Fish calls Augustine to the stand to defend the idea that articles of faith are by their nature unreasonable (or, perhaps, a-reasonable, after the immoral/amoral distinction) and thus sticks to the Platonic side of the pool. By omission of the arguments from the Aristotle/Thomist (deep) end of the pool, Plato stands as the type of the only line of reasoning to be considered.

Like Augustine, Thomas would reject the idea that one could reason his way to the Resurrection (to stick with Fish’s example), but he would consider it completely correct, required, even, to understand that the claim that Christ is Risen is not unreasonable.  One who holds to the Perennial Philosophy would expect all revealed truths to be confirmed by all other truths however arrived at. They would expect all Truth to be One.

A book or two would be required to spell out how, say, knowing the melting point of iron points to the Incarnation. For now, it is enough to insist that rational discussion is not possible if we admit the idea of multiple contradioctory truth into the arena. I contend that the fundamental premise that all truth is one, that no truth arrived at one way can stand unchallenged by a contradictory truth arrived at some other way, is not only tacitly assumed by people with any claim to being reasonable, but is required for any rational discourse whatsoever. Contradictions are not acceptable. Something’s afoot. We must look harder.

Image result for tevye
Horse sense? 

Avram: (gestures at Perchik and Mordcha) He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.

Tevye: You know… you are also right.

My fundamental objection to Fish’s otherwise sympathetic analysis is his shying away from examining which premises support the activity of rational discourse, and which defeat it or, rather, preclude it. In this regard, I find it odd that Marx gets mentioned indirectly and in passing once, and Hegel not at all. Yet I think it indisputable that the premises of Hegel and Marx have replaced the Enlightenment premises as expressed by Jefferson and company as the foundation upon which the current ideas of open-minded discussion, so called, are built.

And I think Fish agrees, on some level. Discussing George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief , Fish says

The answer has many components, including the Jeffersonian project of softening sectarian aggressiveness and establishing a general religion of peace, reason, and morality, the identification of common sense philosophy with Christian morality within the assumption that each supported the other, the rise of the cult of the expert whose skills and authority were independent of his character or religious faith, and the substitution for the imperative of adhering to an already-revealed truth the imperative of continuing to search for a truth whose full emergence is located in an ever-receding future.

This last was particularly important because if truth was by definition larger and more inclusive than our present horizons declared it to be, obedience to traditional norms and values was no longer a virtue, but a fault, and a moral fault at that.

“The higher truth was an ever progressing ideal toward which the human community . . . always moved, yet never reached. Since truth was by definition always changing, the only thing ultimately sacred was the means of pursuing it. No religious or other dogmatic claim could be allowed to stand in its way.”

It is not the business of a university, declared Charles Eliot of Harvard, “to train men for those functions in which implicit obedience is of the first importance. On the contrary, it should train men for those occupations in which self-government, independence, and originating power are preeminently needed.” (Or, in Satan’s more succinct formulation, “self-begot, self-raised.”)

We see here Hegel’s idea of the Spirit unfolding itself through history, an idea that conquered Harvard in the early 19th century, and infused all top-down educational efforts from that point forward. This idea – that men are not given to know divine truths unless and until the Spirit comes to know them in concrete History – held great appeal to Protestant and recently Protestant minds. Rather than an indictment, they could reframe the radical fracturing of Protestantism over time and space as the necessarily messy workings of the Spirit, and the Church’s claim to being the repository and defender of unchanging Truth to be the height of ignorance and hubris.

Win-win.

Princeton’s Francis Patton declared that “the rationality or rather the reasonableness of a belief is the condition of its credibility.” That is, you believe it because reason ratifies it, a view Augustine would have heard with horror, one that John Webster, writing in 1654, rejects as obviously absurd. “But if man gave his assent unto, or believed the things of Christ . . . because they appear probable . . . to his reason, then would his faith be . . . upon the rotten basis of human authority.” By the end of the nineteenth century, human authority has been put in the place of revelation; or rather human authority, now identified with the progressive illumination afforded by reason, has become the vehicle of revelation and of a religion that can do very nicely without any strong conception of personal deity.

This realization was not instantaneous nor universal by any means. Up until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for various Protestant leaders (Francis Patton, for example) to cry anathema on other Protestants and Christian sects for the heresy of disagreeing with established dogmas. These firebrands still believed that there were revealed truths that *required* our assent if we were to be saved. Since then, and especially over the last 5 or 6 decades, it has become moot to wonder what an American Episcopalian or Lutheran, say, would have to do to be a heretic by the lights of the leaders of their own denominations. Still, among the sheep, there are those who believe that it is possible to be wrong – but, practically, among the leadership? I’ve seen no evidence.

Once Christianity fades entirely and Hegel’s Spirit is laughed off the stage, Marx substitutes his strangely efficacious History into the Spirit’s slot (it fits once Hegel is flipped on his head). Marx renounces Hegel’s considered modesty: we, in the person of Marx, no longer need to wait for Spirit/History to unfold itself, it has unfolded itself to the end! We know where we’re going – and the only foolishness is to be on the wrong side.

Hegel considers what he calls ‘propositional reason,’ which is what Fish is calling simply reason in this essay, to be useful to the little people such as scientists and mathematicians, but of no use to real philosophers doing the hard thinking of real philosophy. For such lofty person pursuing their high and lonely destinies, the law of noncontradiction does not apply, neither do they attempt to work from true premises using valid logic to new states of knowledge. No, like Freud attacking his critics from within his theory (they only disagree because they are repressed, you see), reason is based on some form of unassailable enlightenment. It doesn’t have to be consistent; it doesn’t have to make sense. In any case, it is beyond the reach of mere logical discussion.

The attentive reader will note that such premises are not only as dogmatic and more than anything claimed by Calvin or Luther, but that they serve at least as well the purpose of ending discourse, or hope of discourse. You either get it, or you don’t.

It’s not like people didn’t notice, even at the time:

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Yale’s Noah Porter scoffed at the supposed neutrality and evenhandedness of secular educational theory, which, he pointed out, was its theology: “The question is not whether the college shall or shall not teach theology, but what theology it shall teach”theology according to . . . Moses and Paul or according to Buckle and Draper.” By the beginning of this century it was all too evident which of these directions had been taken by American education. In tones recently echoed by conservative polemicists, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine complained in 1909 that

In hundreds of classrooms it is being taught daily that the decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils . . . that the change of one religion to another is like getting a new hat; that moral precepts are passing shibboleths; that conceptions of right and wrong are as unstable as styles of dress.

“The neutrality we have,” thundered William Jennings Bryan in 1923, “is often but a sham; it carefully excludes the Christian religion but permits the use of the schoolroom for the destruction of faith and for the teaching of materialistic doctrines.” From a quite different perspective, Walter Lippmann agreed: “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.” What this means, as Marsden points out, is that “two irreconcilable views of truth and education were at issue”; but of course the issue was never really joined, because the liberal establishment thought of itself as already reconciled to everything and anything and therefore was unable to see how exclusionary its policy of radical in clusion really was: “Groups that were excluded, such as Marxists and fundamentalists, often raised the point that they were being excluded by liberal dogmatism, but they were seldom heard.”

That they were not heard is hardly surprising, since what they were saying was that a state of “warfare” existed, and warfare ”deep conflict over basic and nonnegotiable issues” was precisely what liberalism was invented to deny; and it manages that denial by excluding from the tolerance it preaches anyone who will not pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.

The point being missed: an Hegelian or Marxist will very easily “pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.” They have already done it. They’ve been doing it for a century. They are doing it now, most notably at Berkeley. War is Peace. Speech is Aggression. Beatings and Intimidation are Freedom. Gramsci and Alinsky would nod approvingly.

On an intellectual level, we must challenge the premises that preclude rational discussion. While on a strictly logical basis, Fish is correct that premises cannot be chosen rationally – you have to have premises to reason in the first place. But the logical outcomes of our premises can be examined, and contradictions can invalidate certain combinations of premises as being incompatible. Thus, I cannot defend open-minded discussion without some sort of assumption that truth matters, that truth is knowable at least to some degree, and that words carry meanings that can be communicated between interlocutors.

It is not merely a question of this or that indifferent premise being enforced because we like it better for pre-rational reasons, so to speak. Some premises support conversation and some defeat it. Any society worth defending supports the free expression of ideas. To do so, it must hold up to scorn and refuse to enshrine in law or custom any premises that defeat communication  by their nature.

Things have only gotten worse since Dr. Fish wrote this essay. When we allow thugs to shut down speech, when we are ‘tolerant’ of views that defeat the very idea of tolerance, when we cede the field to those who claim the very idea of  logical consistency is irrational, we are not furthering this grand experiment. We are less, not more, free.

More Poll Results

We’ve beaten this one up before, but it rears its mindless head as if it’s never even *heard* of this blog! Is outrage! So, like people building a civilization, like Charlemagne ruling from the saddle, we are riding off to smack down the Saxons of Ignorance (nice band name!) One. More. Time:

Someone tweets (I really need to give that horrid 140 character god up) this chart from surveys done last year:

Let’s play classroom: Without even going to the Pew site, who can spot problems with this? As with all such rhetorical questions, the foregoing serves one purpose only: to reinforce the teacher’s authority by showing who the good students are – those who supply the answers the teacher wants! Oh, sorry, digression city. Moving on:

The footnote says that these scientifilicious results were obtained via a survey (using an ‘instrument’ no doubt) whereby people were asked such totally non-loaded, non-judgmental questions as: what race are you? How much money do you make? City slicker or country bumpkin? And, BTW, how many books did you read over the last year?

Suppose I’m a hipster city slicker living in Manhattan. I don’t read. But last year, there was some graphic novel all the other cool cats were talking about, so I leafed through it and looked at the pictures.

Well? Did I read one book? Why/why not? Defend your answer!

More important, does the pollster get into a discussion with the hipster over just exactly what qualifies as a ‘book’ and ‘reading’? Oddly, we can answer this: professional or well-trained pollsters do not (I’ve tried to engage pollsters – it just confuses them). The role of leading the witness is left primarily to the writers of the ‘instrument’ – the pollsters themselves see it as their high duty not to, as if their restraint will make this exercise any less ludicrous than it already is.

The same sort of issues exist for almost all the questions: I’m something like 1/32 Cherokee – well? Mixed race? Indian? White? Other? Say I graduated from barber college – is my education level high school? some college? college graduate? I live on the outskirts of the suburbs, so that my nearest neighbors on one side are farmers, but I’m 3 blocks from an art house theater and espresso bar – rural? suburban? Heck, urban?

Another layer: I’m a troublemaker. I ask myself: what degree of honesty do I owe to some schmuck who interrupted my dinner with a phone call the ultimate purpose of which is to establish the Pew Center and its supporters and sycophants as the Smart People with All the Answers? (See what I did there? The answer you get depends a lot on how you ask the question.)

So: Yep, I’m a full-blooded Inuit nuclear physicist making low 7 figures from my career as an underwear model – and I read at least 1,000 books a year from my mountain redoubt.

Prove I’m not.

Bottom line here: if we did not learn from the last election that polls are, at best. treacherously misleading when they are not out and out tools of manipulation, my little essays aren’t going to clear it up.

But those punk Saxons are asking for it.

Uncertainty in Scholarship

Not talking Science! here today, just more mundane scholarship.

On the one hand, I am grateful for all the endless effort many men and women of great talent and perseverance have put into the scholarly investigation of many fascinating topics. I’m counting on R. A. Lafferty, for example, to not mislead me about the Visigoths and Romans, because a) I’ll never live long enough to do the level of research he has done, and b) ditto on learning the languages he seems to know (Classical Latin, at least).

So I trust him. I’ve trusted, more or less explicitly, hundreds and thousands of scholars over the years – the people who have written the books I’ve read, as well as the other scholars those authors have used as well.

On the other hand – where to start? How about toward the deep end: when I read a scholar such as Menand, I am very nearly seduced by his excellent prose and feigned (I think now) sympathy with ideas that might not fly at a typical Manhattan cocktail party. Then he will write, as he recently did, apologetics for Marx – a subject I know enough about from other sources (say, Marx’s own writings!) to see for the craven propaganda it most definitely is.

Image result for Marx
See? A kindly hippy-dude who only wishes peace! Just like Menand himself!

But I so want to trust him on other subjects! Because he writes so beautifully and points out things I find fascinating. Yet, he’s clearly willing to lie (most likely unconsciously, and to himself first, I’m willing to assume) about Marx. So, should I believe him about Harvard and early 19th century America, because I find his take more palatable? And because he pointed me toward topics I’ve since read more on, and found even more palatable? Or am I just playing his game in reverse? Picking and choosing from among the things Menand says, and paying attention to and judging true only the parts I like?

The only solution, it seems to me, is to read broadly enough that one can at least weight the opinions of the scholars relative to each other; study philosophy and logic so that the nature and structure of the arguments can be made clear; and read history – what has happened – to get some context.

Unlike the deconstructionists and other relativists, I don’t think such an approach is completely circular; the philosophy and logic parts allows one to at least eliminate utter nonsense, which then will cause the collapse partial or full of the ideas built upon that nonsense. In this regard, trying to get to the bottom of even a little Hegel makes a lot of the modern world and its addictions much more clear.  It is not man’s lot to understand with complete clarity and conviction, but the world does admit of better and worse degrees of knowledge.

The trouble is even so meager and humble a scholar as I am is still, evidently, an extreme outlier. Do 10% of people actually read, reason, compare, analyze much of anything in life? 1%? 0.1%? I really don’t know, and perhaps the actual life most people are living has much in it that is too important for such digressions. Family, friends, God and neighbors spring to mind.  But unless we are protected by the sort of education and life epitomized by Samwise Gamgee, this lack of interest tends to make us pliable, gullible fools – more so, I mean, than we all are by default already.

On the other hand, back on the shallow end, we – by which I mean I – have the recurring experience of having to listen to people tell us this or that MUST be TRUE since this or that group of scholars have reached that opinion. Often, this undue confidence is mostly harmless. Recently heard a homily in which the lovely priest, for whom I thank God daily, mentioned as fact that the Apostle Peter didn’t write 1 Peter. Now, that’s possible, and has certainly been an opinion I’ve heard before (not as much as with 2 Peter, which all the right people are stone certain could not be the work of Peter).  But the certainty with which such an idea should be expressed is very, very slight – the claim seems to hang on a) not having sufficiently old manuscripts, and b) not seeming like the work of a fisherman from the Levant.  In other words, the oldest manuscripts seem to come from decades after Peter’s death, and the Greek in which the letter is written seems pretty sophisticated from some dumb fisherman.

That these are not particularly strong arguments, and have been shot down repeatedly by other arguments at least as strong (it’s a bit of a miracle that we have ANY ancient documents , and a bit of a crapshoot which are saved and which not, Peter used a scribe, who would have gussied up the language as a matter of course. Tradition as old or older that any manuscripts assigns authorship to Peter.)  And – here’s the point – in and of itself, it doesn’t matter much. But in context, it matters because it spreads the ideas that modern smart people have, once again, overturned what all those ancient dumb people thought. This is pernicious, dishonest – and an assumption upon which the Modern World since at least Hegel has made.  Much woe has resulted.

This is hardly restricted to religious texts. Just about all of the modern ‘soft’ ‘sciences’ depend on this misplaced trust in scholarship to turn, in the best cases, poorly supported claims into hard and fast facts.

If, on the other hand, the views of scholars were presented as informed opinions that might be of interest but must be always be recognized as necessarily carrying a large load of doubt, we might, however unlikely, learn to weigh such opinions with broad scales – to include in the balance however wide a range of items as might be applicable.

It spirals out of control from there: somebody heard Beloved Expert X say that such and such a thing has been proven or disproven by scholars, and then repeats it as fact, which then becomes common sense or at least common knowledge, so that disagreeing make one an ignorant fuddy-duddy at best and a willfully ignorant hater at worst.

Wish I could believe this has all come about through more or less innocent human weaknesses, not cold calculation.