Dorothy Sayer on What Passes for Reasonable Discussion…

… from Mike Flynn’s excellent blog, from “The Lost Tools of Learning,” by Dorothy Sayers (1947):

“Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?”

And so on. Read the rest there, and contemplate how things have most definitely not gotten better.




One More Thought on Science!

Thinking of Ayn Rand has brought up a vivid memory from 5th grade:

By the end of 5th grade, I had turned over just about every science book in the St. Mary’s of the Assumption school library, and had started in on the Whittier public library up the street.

One day, it dawned on me: 99% of people, those who don’t do science, are pretty much useless freeloaders. I mean, just read the books, both popular science and especially science fiction – time and time again, the lone genius struggles for those moments of luminous enlightenment that advance the human race, while the ignorant masses ignore or even persecute him! Yet, the wonders that result from the scientists’ labor enrich lives everywhere, even, perhaps especially, the lives of those who ignore or even persecute him.

This thought caused a bit of despair, because I was pretty sure even back then that I wasn’t going to be a great scientist.

Gradually, over the course of the next few years, it dawned on me what a bunch of self-serving crap this was. I think I reached this conclusion with the help of both real science history, which tells a much different and much more communal and even societal story, and literature, especially philosophy. Reading Plato, you can easily see that scientist don’t have a monopoly on smarts, and even look a little stupid outside their core disciplines. (By the time I’d graduated college and watched Cosmos, guys like Sagan had totally disproved Scientists = Altruistic Smart Guys equation. Scientists can be every bit as concerned with their Q rating as any Hollywood bimbo.)

Scientists are utterly dependent on a social  environment that supports science – and they most certainly did not create that society.

The Church did.

The Nonexistent Seductive Powers of Ayn Rand

There is of course an unlimited list of things I will never understand, me being finite and the universe being effectively infinite (not to mention God and all that). High upon that list, just under why people, under no threat of torture or death, voluntarily watch Dukes of Hazard, Charlie’s Angels and ‘reality’ TV, is the appeal of Ayn Rand. Specifically, I don’t understand why anyone would read more than about half of either of her novels.

To hear her fan boys and fan girls talk reminds me of the first time I ever made a snowball. After growing up in Los Angeles, where we wisely keep our snow up on the mountaintops where we can admire it from afar as we work on our January tans, I ran into my first snowfall up close and personal a couple months into my first semester of college up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. About a 16th of an inch if snow had fallen, and I just had to scape about a quarter acre of landscaping to come up with a workable snowball, which I threw at a friend – a friend from Colorado.

He looked at me with a mixture of bemused disgust, as I had just cemented in his brain every goofball stereotype of the stupid Californian. By the third day, any enthusiasm I harbored for wintery outdoor activities had died, and I settled into waiting for Spring. I had learned what every Midwesterner and Northerner knows in his heart: snow sucks.

Basically, if you’ve never read a book with ideas in it, never thought a thought deeper than to wonder if anything good is on TV, never had occasion to exercise the thinking part of your brain at all – then, well, I suppose Rand could be kind of bracing, at least for a short while.

But if you’ve read anything good, you’d immediately recognize Rand as a writer of pot-boiler dreck. If you’d ever actively entertained any of the real thoughts out there in the world, like the stuff in Plato or the Bible (read to understand, not for proof texts)  or Chesterton or Tolkien, then Rand’s ‘ideas’ would be instantly recognized as utterly sophomoric posing. Or, finally, if you’d ever loved a child or someone old and ‘useless’, then you see Rand as pure evil.

Make your snowball, throw it at somebody you love, and get over it.

Bad Science Reporter! Bad!

Here, a science reporter says:

Despite our lack of evidence proving otherwise, we are probably not alone in this universe.

Um, what? What does that even mean? I fear the problem isn’t ignorance or even bad science, it’s anti-science.
Dude, given the current state of the evidence, all we can say about the possibility of life on other planets is ‘we don’t know’. It is neither probable or improbable. You – and so many other mystical metaphysicians claiming to be speaking for science – are relying on a series of assumptions about the nature of the universe that are absolutely unscientific, if by scientific we mean based on the observation and measurement of the observable material world. These mystical assumptions include:
– Life is solely the result of material causes and physical laws which are same everywhere in the Universe;
– Life must arise anywhere the required material conditions are present;
– It would be a terrible waste of space if life didn’t exist all over the universe.
It’s not *just* that none of those mystical assumption are known – it’s that none of them are knowable by science even in theory. For reasons that escape me, it appears many, many otherwise intelligent people utterly fail to grasp this logically inescapable fact.
Usual disclaimer: I’d be awed, thrilled and fascinated if we ever discovered non-terrestrial life. It’s just that such life is neither probable nor improbable – it is simply unknown, and it is unscientific and frankly stupid to claim otherwise.

Science: Manning Up

How many fundamental science errors can you spot in this one short article on different fossil pre-humans? How about in that last sentence?

Piltdown Skull

Here’s a couple to get you going:

But 50 years ago, researchers discovered an even older and more primitive species of human called Homo habilis that may have coexisted with H. erectus. Now it seems H. rudolfensis was around too and raises the distinct possibility that many other species of human also existed at the time

“…raises the distinct possibility that many other species of human also existed at the time”  Really? How is it any more a possibility that there are “many” undiscovered species now than there were before this latest discovery?  Why does this find not raise the distinct possibility that, nope, this is it, last new find. What is the author trying to say here? This may be more of a basic logic error than a basic science error, but you don’t get far in science without logic.

In other groups of animals many different species evolve, each with new traits, such as plumage, or webbed feet. If the new trait is better suited to the environment then the new species thrives, if not it becomes extinct.

No, that’s not it, exactly. In other groups of animals, it sometimes happens that many different species arise from a common stock, thereby changing the environment of evolutionary adaptation in which they exist (didn’t have the new species before, now it does!), or, sometimes, moving into completely different environments.  Survival depends on the big picture, which includes not only closely-related ‘competitors’ but the whole ecosystem over time. Rarely do new traits arise in isolation or in such a way that anyone can say “That’s why it survived!”  Does the giraffe with the longest neck or the Australopithecus with the biggest brain win? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s that whole extended phenotype thing. As so often the case, Mike Flynn has covered this. Continue reading “Science: Manning Up”

Romney’s Income Tax Returns

Let me say this about that:


Now that that’s out of the way: This morning on NPR, talking heads were speculating on why a usually astute politician like Romney would not release his income tax returns. One fellow guessed that Romney may have taken a beating on some of his holdings during the downturn, and might have paid no income tax, which, it went without saying, would look bad to us little people.

Just to be clear: the idea is that every year, each American who made any money in the previous year is supposed to fill out a bunch of forms to see if they owe the federal government any income taxes. If, after following the rules and doing the math, you made any “taxable income” you have to pay some tax.  Boo hoo. 😦   However – now, follow this closely – if you discover you have not made any taxable income, you don’t have to pay any tax for that year. Sometimes, due to some complicated rules in the tax code, you might even get some of the money you paid in previous years back! Woo Hoo! 😉

So, here it is: Romney, it is suspected, lost a bunch of money when assets he owned decreased in value due to the late economic unpleasantness. It might turn out that he lost more money in one place than he made in total everywhere else  (such as salary). Overall, therefore, he lost money that year – technically, he had no taxable income. He then would pay no taxes for that year, and might even have gotten some money back.

(Usual disclaimer: not an apologist for Romney – he’s a cipher on a good day. Both our major parties are despicable.)

Here’s the catch: we, the voters, are assumed (alas! correctly assumed) to be too dense to understand this. We are assumed (again, correctly in most cases) to believe that Romney is cheating, is a rich dude who didn’t pay any taxes, and that’s so unfair!

Now, it may be true that rich people don’t pull their weight in supporting our federal government – I tend to think that’s roughly true. But, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere on this blog, income taxes are not a material concern for the truly wealthy.  They own assets that produce more wealth, and would only pay income taxes on that wealth if they sold it – and even then, with prudent planning, you can minimize income taxes.

Keep in mind, there are people like you and me, who have to work for a living, to whom income taxes are a real material issue – we see our paychecks reduced by withholding, or have to write checks to the government regularly – and, it’s not always what we’d prefer to do with our money. But there are also people like the members of the Walton family, for whom work is strictly optional – their assets – largely ownership of billions of dollars worth of WalMart stock – are making them wealthy whether they work like a dog or lie around drunk all day. They don’t care very much about income – wages and salaries, and the taxes on wages and salaries, are for the little people.

Romney may be a bad man for all I know – but it’s not because he may have not paid income taxes one year. If you really think that’s unfair, then you’ll have to come up with some way to tax his assets, because some years he may just not make any taxable income.

Good luck with that.

Today’s Science Headlines

A part of the on-going reality check of Science(tm) reporting, we here look at today’s Google News science headlines:

Oldest spiral galaxy in universe discovered

One little word would have made this accurate: ‘yet’. Or one might eagerly read on to see what inconceivable breakthrough allows men looking through telescopes to become assured that what they’re looking at is the oldest spiral galaxy, and that it isn’t even possible that there could be an older one out there among the trillions of galaxies that we haven’t really looked at yet.

Trivial, yes, but characteristic of the subtle incompetence or dishonesty that infects virtually all science reporting.

Have archaeologists uncovered Mona Lisa model’s remains?

How does such a mishmash of conditionals – archeologists have discovered what may be the skeleton of a woman who may have been the model for Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the ruins of a convent which may have been where this woman was buried – become a science headline?  I think the line between science and barely tethered speculation is a few blocks back in the rear-view mirror.