February 2013 Archives

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Proctor, Robert & Londa Schiebeinger, eds. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008)

This collection of essays is organized around agnotology, Robert Proctor's name for culturally-induced ignorance. One contributor defines it in philosophically-familiar terms:

Epistemology asks how knowledge can be uncovered and secured. Anti-epistemology asks how knowledge can be covered and obscured. Looks at it using(p. 45, Peter Galison, "Removing Knowledge: The Logic of Modern Censorship")

As Proctor writes in the Preface, "We live in an age of ignorance, and it is important to understand how this came to be and why:"

This volume emerged from workshops held at Pennsylvania State University in 2003 and at Stanford University in 2005, the goal of which was to come to grips with how ignorance has been understood, created, and ignored, linking these ideas also to allied creations of secrecy, uncertainty, confusion, silence, absence, and impotence--especially as these pertain to scientific activities. (pp. vii-viii, Preface)

The book covers a fair amount of ground--from carbon pollution causing climate change to the clitoris, from abortifacients to cigarettes causing lung cancer. The cultural prevalence of ignorance is, not surprisingly, agenda-driven:

And so it goes today, in industry after industry, with study after study, year after year. Data is disputed, data has to be reanalyzed. Animal data is deemed not relevant, human data not representative, exposure data not reliable. More research is always needed. Uncertainty is manufactured. Its purpose is always the same: shielding corporate interests from the inconvenience and economic consequences of public health protections. (p. 96, David Michaels, "Manufactured Uncertainty: Contested Science and the Protection of the Public's Health and Environment")

The gloss of knowledge is often applied to its opposite, much as Fox "News" touts itself as being "fair and balanced" despite its incessant impartiality:

Apologists for polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products commonly complain about government regulation, asserting that the agencies are not using "sound science." In fact, many of these manufacturers of uncertainty do not want "sound science"; they want something that sounds like science, but lets them do exactly what they want. (p. 103, David Michaels, "Manufactured Uncertainty: Contested Science and the Protection of the Public's Health and Environment")

Agnotology is, alas, a burgeoning field of study, ripe for investigatory plowing. Proctor and his compatriots have done an admirable job tilling its soil, but much work remains to be done.

educational

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I was talking with some family members about a relative who happens to be a teacher. There was the usual grousing about the luxurious ten-week summer vacations, Federal holidays and frequent "staff development" days, and a generous retirement plan--although unions were not mentioned.

I pointed out that we office denizens have a fair amount of flexibility in our work days--to get coffee or go to the restroom at will, to waste half an hour here or there on the Web. These are things that someone in charge of a two-dozen-child classroom cannot do at will--at least not without the potential for age-dependent disasters.

Denigrating teachers who got a teaching job right out of college and "never worked in any other field" doesn't make much sense to me, either; one could say the same about virtually any other degreed professional, from doctors and lawyers to engineers and MBAs.

Most professionals begin their careers immediately upon finishing their education, and many of them (technical, legal, and medical in particular) have exam and/or licensing requirements--even for fields such as accounting and real estate.

The charge that the teacher in question has "bought into the mystique" of the profession likewise struck me as odd. Is it not the nature of every group to aggrandize itself to some degree, to take some measure of pride in one's profession?

The real issue, I think, is not to complain that teachers are treated and compensated well--but to ask why the rest of us aren't.

Rick Perlstein writes that "There's nothing new under the wingnut sun," calling out Chicken-Little Conservatism by noting that "for generations we have shared our America with Americans who fear change, fear difference, fear you and me, fear everything falling apart:"

So much so that they organize their lives and politics around staving off the fear--which often entails taking political action that only makes America more fearful and dangerous in for everyone; which destroy the trust and love it takes to sustain communities; and who reinforce one another in their fear to such a degree that the less crazy among them surely play a positive role in spurring the more crazy to the kind of awful acts we see around us now. We need to better understand where that comes from, and why it is not going away.

Perlstein looks back to the early-1960s "Minutemen" carrying on the proud paranoia of McCarthyite anti-communism:

Make no mistake: armed right-wing enclave-defenders aren't just a function of their hatred for Democrats; they are also enabled by Democrats who braid paranoia into the political identity of the nation--Cold War paranoia then, "Homeland Security" paranoia now.

He also notes their Red-Dawn mentality which posits "Enclaves of innocents, always ever threatened by sudden siege by dread unnamed Others:"

There's nothing new under the wingnut sun--only that, these days, you're more likely to find ideas that once upon a time might have got you laughed off as a kook aired out in front of respectable congressional committees.

beauty, truth

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The Chronicle of Higher Education looks as beauty and scientific truth, observing that "the intertwining of the artistic and scientific notions goes back a long way." David Orrell, a mathematician whose new book is Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order, describes modern physics as "especially prone to develop ever-more-elaborate models whose goals have more to do with elegance or beauty for beauty's sake than anything else."

Also intriguing is Dartmouth physicist Marcelo Gleiser, whose book A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe sees "the beauty inherent in asymmetry:"

...in the fact that neutrinos, the most common particles in the universe, spin only in one direction, for example, or that amino acids can be produced in laboratories in "left-handed" or "right-handed" forms, but only the "left-handed" form appears in nature. These are nature's equivalent of Marilyn Monroe's mole, attractive because of their lopsidedness, and Orrell also makes use of those examples.

UniteBlue

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PoliticusUSA discusses the Unite Blue movement and quotes Zach Green, Founder of UniteBlue.com:

"A group of conservatives organized under the hashtag #TGDN has been targeting progressive accounts with the intention of getting them suspended. They report progressive accounts as Spam, which is particularly effective against smaller accounts with few followers. We're helping the Left find and follow one another so they are protected."

UniteBlue purports to have curated "the largest and most carefully selected list of progressives and Democrats available for Twitter," promising that:

The current version of UniteBlue.com is completely free and a robust set of features will remain free forever. We have a lot of enhancements planned for the future, and some of those new features will require a very fair payment.

falling fertility

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In "America' Baby Bust," the WSJ draws "an economic parallel to China's bureaucratic method of limiting births," noting that "America has its very own one-child policy. And we have chosen it for ourselves."

The nation's falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems. Once a country's fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract. This dual problem--a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall--has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences.

Our fertility rate has been falling for centuries rather than decades:

In 1800, the average white American woman had seven children. (The first reliable data on black fertility begin in the 1850s.) Since then, our fertility rate has floated consistently downward, with only one major moment of increase--the baby boom. In 1940, America's fertility rate was already skirting the replacement level, but after the war it jumped and remained elevated for a generation. Then, beginning in 1970, it began to sink like a stone.

There's a constellation of reasons for this decline: Middle-class wages began a long period of stagnation. College became a universal experience for most Americans, which not only pushed people into marrying later but made having children more expensive. Women began attending college in equal (and then greater) numbers than men. More important, women began branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing. And the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.

Stagnating wages and skyrocketing college costs have helped to make child-rearing an expensive proposition, to the point where we're essentially "outsourcing our fertility" to immigrants:

We've received a massive influx of immigrants from south of the border since the late 1970s. Immigration has kept America from careening over the demographic cliff. Today, there are roughly 38 million people in the U.S. who were born elsewhere. (Two-thirds of them are here legally.) To put that in perspective, consider that just four million babies are born annually in the U.S.

If you strip these immigrants--and their relatively high fertility rates--from our population profile, America suddenly looks an awful lot like continental Europe, which has a fertility rate of 1.5., if not quite as demographically terminal as Japan.

The piece suggests three "starting points" for encouraging couples to have more children:

Social Security. In the U.S., the Social Security system has taken on most of the burden for caring for elderly adults, a duty that traditionally fell to grown-up children. A perverse effect of putting government in the business of eldercare has been to reduce the incentives to have children in the first place.

College. Since 1960, the real cost of goods in nearly every other sector of American life has dropped. Meanwhile, the real cost of college has increased by more than 1,000%. [...]

The Dirt Gap. A big factor in family formation is the cost of land: It determines not just housing expenses but also the costs of transportation, entertainment, baby sitting, school and pretty much everything else. [...] Improving the highway system and boosting opportunities for telecommuting would go a long way in helping families to live in lower-cost areas.

H/t: Boston Review, with this tl;dr summation:

One reason we have low fertility rate: this is a ridiculously unfriendly country in which to raise a child.

The NYT investigates the phrase "big data" as "An Etymological Detective Story," talking to Fred R. Shapiro (editor of the Yale Book of Quotations and an associate librarian at the Yale Law School) about the term's origin:

The unruly digital data of the Web is a big ingredient in what is now being called "Big Data." And as it turns out, the term Big Data seems to be most accurately traced not to references in news or journal archives, but to digital artifacts now posted on technical Web sites, appropriately enough. [...]

The term Big Data is so generic that the hunt for its origin was not just an effort to find an early reference to those two words being used together. Instead, the goal was the early use of the term that suggests its present connotation -- that is, not just a lot of data, but different types of data handled in new ways.

unhistorical

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Sean Wilentz is not enamored with Oliver Stone's co-authored book The Untold History of the United States, opining that the authors "simply ignore the scholarship that contradicts their basic assumptions:"

Although the book by Stone and Kuznick is heavily footnoted, the sourcing...recalls nothing so much as Dick Cheney's cherry-picking of intelligence, particularly about the origins and early years of the cold war. [...] This book is less a work of history than a skewed political document...

After JFK, We probably shouldn't have expected much...

John Gribbin's look at the popularization of physics discusses Leonard Susskind & George Hrabvosky's The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics and comments that "there is a natural tendency for popularizers of science (myself included) to focus on the popularizing more than on the scientific nitty-gritty:"

In this neat little book the authors aim to provide the minimum amount of knowledge you need about classical physics (that is, everything except quantum mechanics) to gain some real understanding of the world or to proceed to "the next level," which would be freshman physics. [...]

Along the way you get beautifully clear explanations of famously "difficult" things like differential and integral calculus, conservation laws and what physicists mean by symmetries. Despite the emphasis here on classical physics, "The Theoretical Minimum" actually takes the reader to the edge of an introduction to quantum mechanics; we can only hope that this will be the theme of the team's next book.

As a long-time fan of Gribbin's books, I take praise such as this quite seriously:

The book most definitely hits the spot for the kind of mature, committed "nonacademic" that the authors have in mind. [...] It is spot-on for any young student of science to read before heading off to college to study physics seriously, and I shall certainly be recommending it in that connection.

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