Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Palin's Conservative Critics

Many conservative intellectuals don’t much care for Sarah Palin.

Among these are: David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, David Frum, and Peggy Noonan.

On the other hand, some conservative intellectuals don’t seem to have a problem with her at all.

This group includes: Joseph Epstein, Victor Davis Hanson, Roger Kimball, and Thomas Sowell.

I think I discern a pattern here.

For Epstein, Hanson, Kimball, and Sowell, have credentials and expertise independent of their punditry. They are not considered to be intellectuals because of their political views or activities, rather they are intellectuals with non political bona fides, who also comment on political matters.

You could learn something from each one of them, without ever getting into politics.

For instance, Joseph Epstein could teach you about literature and about the history and theory of literary criticism; Victor Davis Hanson could teach you about philology, about Greek and Latin grammar and literature, and about ancient history and philosophy; Roger Kimball could teach you about the history of art and the theory of art criticism; and Thomas Sowell could teach you about the history of economics, and the theory and praxis of various economics models and philosophies.

All of the above have written scholarly books in their fields whose worth transcends politics or fashion.

David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, David Frum, and Peggy Noonan, on the other hand, can only really tell you about themselves: how they feel and what they think about current trends and events.

They are considered to be “intellectuals” not because of their knowledge or their accomplishments, but because of their style.

They share an intellectual patois, a sesquipedalian vocabulary, an impressive academic pedigree, a snobbish and pretentious demeanor, an impressive roster of friends and acquaintances, and an overwhelming sense of their own importance.

Sarah Palin, who does not share any of these traits, and yet whose actual accomplishments far exceeds any of their own, seems to horrify them to no end.

I wonder why?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Science and Consensus

Let us set aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not there is truly a consensus among scientists that global warming is both real and anthropogenic.

Let us stipulate—for the sake of argument—that such a consensus exists. The next question to ask is: so what? What is the value of consensus in science?

I contend that its value is not very great.

In fact, I would argue that were it possible to integrate the opinions of scientist over time and space, that is, to know the opinions of all the scientists in the world, for the entire history of science, you would find that the consensus opinions were, more often than not, wrong.

Most scientist before Pasteur believed in spontaneous generation; most scientists before Einstein believed that Mercury’s precessional anomaly of 43 seconds of arc per century was in no way an indication of the inadequacy of Newtonian Dynamics; the general consensus among biologists, before the experiments of Griffith, Avery, and Harvey and Chase, was that proteins, not DNA, were the molecules responsible for inheritance.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Scientific consensus is usually wrong.

This is in no way an indictment of science. In fact, just the opposite, it is a consequence of science’s greatest strength: that it is self-correcting.

Because of the fundamental weakness of (nonmathematical) inductive reasoning, scientists must always be on the lookout for counter examples, and scientific theories must be falsifiable.

One can have absolute certainty in mathematics and, in a different sense, in religion, but in science, all truths await (and welcome) falsification.

Appeals to consensus (argumentum ad populum) are appropriate—perhaps--in matters of theology or politics, but they have no place in science.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Definition of a Right-Wing Extremist

A right-wing extremist is anyone who at any time, for any reason, criticizes anyone or anything on the left in any way.

-From the Dictionary of 21st Century Newspeak

Bill Clinton Believes in Unfertilized Embryos

Former President Bill Clinton has no idea how human reproduction actually works (insert your own joke here).

Mr President, I humbly suggest that you read Langman’s Medical Embryology.

Obama’s Education

David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, Warren Buffet--all seem now sadly perplexed and disappointed that Barack Obama is not a moderate conservative, or even a moderate liberal.

Where did they ever get the idea that Barack Obama was a moderate?

Aside from such vapid locutions as: “post partisan,” “post racial,” “soft power,” “smart power,” that arguably don’t mean anything anyway, Barack Obama has been quite straightforward about his views and about what sorts of policies he would pursue if elected.

No one who has been paying attention should be surprised. And yet many are.

Those who believed that Barack Obama would magically tact to the center, or even the center-right, should have asked themselves: where, at what point in his education and professional career, would Obama have even been exposed to moderate or center-right philosophies and policies?

Did he study Hayek, Mises, Milton Friedman--or even Burke, Hume, Locke, and John Stuart Mill--at Columbia? If so, then most likely he was told that they were all members of the white male patriarchy, whose real agenda was to oppress capitalism’s victims.

And what, do you suppose, did he learn at Harvard Law?

Do you think that his professors and classmates were strict constructionists, opposed to judicial activism, or did Obama learn Critical Legal Theory at Harvard, the theory for which Harvard is famous, and which posits that law is merely a vehicle used by the powerful white oppressors to keep the poor and minorities down.

When Obama spoke, in 2001, of the constitution as a negative document that limits what the state can do but does not say what the state should do, such as redistribute wealth, he was speaking the language of Critical Theory. But the three Bs didn’t notice or didn’t care.

Would Obama have been exposed to moderate, or moderate-conservative views on economics, law, and foreign policy as a community organizer in Chicago? Or while working with Bill Ayers and attending Reverend Wright's church?

Many have defended Obama against the charge of guilt-by-association with respect to Ayers and Wright. I agree with Obama’s defenders: Obama is not guilty of Ayers crimes, nor can one assume that he shares Wright’s views. But this whole argument misses the really important point, which is not a matter of Obama’s guilt, but of his knowledge.

For what voices in Obama’s past were in competition with Ayer’s and Wright’s, with his professors at Columbia and Harvard Law, with his colleagues on the boards of left-wing foundations and among the radical Left of Chicago’s Democrat Party?

At what point in Obama’s life would he have learned that raising taxes during a recession is a bad thing; that appeasement doesn’t work and usually leads to war; that part of America’s exceptionalism stems from the fact that we are a nation of laws, and not of men: our belief that rights are not granted by governments, but are inalienable?

Obama is successful, at least in part, because he is fashionable—and none of the ideas in the preceding paragraph are currently fashionable.

Brooks, Buckley, and Buffet probably learned all of these things and internalized them and now take them for granted. Obama, very likely, did not.

For these ideas have been expunged and expurgated and “discredited” by the people who taught Obama. When Obama was exposed to these ideas—the legacy of classical liberalism--it was only to be told how wrong and evil they are and how much damage they have inflicted and how they must be replaced with the shiny new and exciting theories of the academic Left.

Obama was a good student; he absorbed the lessons he was taught. No one should be surprised.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Who's to Blame?

“Who’s to blame?”

I hear you asking and I’m ready to assist

I humbly set about to draft

A true and thorough list:

We comprehend the culprits

And we know who must atone

Those vile and thieving bastards who

Will not leave us alone:

The champagne-sipping plutocrats

The beer-stained redneck trash

The crooked politicians

Who have siphoned off our cash

Elitist urban hipsters

Overeducated snobs

The pick-up driving hoi polloi

Unkempt benighted slobs

The yokels in the country

And the dandies in the towns

I’m sure we all agree

There’s so much blame to go around

We’ll blame those prudish Christians

And those funny-talking Jews

We’ll blame the Easter Bunny

And the Loch Ness monster too

Those vicious probing aliens

The endless zombie hordes

Their clear responsibility

Must never be ignored

We’ll blame those fruity unicorns

We’ll blame those filthy elves

Of one thing we are sure:

That we must never blame ourselves.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Socialism and the Re-animator Syndrome

In the 1985 movie version of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-animator, there is a fascinating scene that does not correspond to anything in Lovecraft’s original story.

In the movie, Herbert West’s classmate, Dan Cain, has an affair with the daughter of the medical school’s dean. (In Lovecraft’s story there is no love interest.)

By the end of the movie Dan’s girlfriend is dead and West’s glowing green chemical concoction has reanimated several corpses, not back to life, but into terrible monsters that can only be stopped via power-tools.

In the film’s final scene, Dan looks at his dead girlfriend, and he looks at West’s reanimating fluid; he has seen the result of reanimation with his own eyes: his empirical experience tells him that injecting his girlfriend with the fluid will turn her into a monster, but the only alternative is to do nothing, and this he cannot bear.

And so he injects his dead girlfriend, not because of his experiences and his knowledge but in spite of them, because the psychological pressure to do something is too great.

Those of us who wonder how anyone could believe in socialism, the greatest empirical failure is the history of human ideas, should remember this scene--and keep our power-tools ready.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Idols of the Theatre

“His ideas have such intuitive appeal that many of the words he used have infiltrated popular parlance, although no one thinks of them as science because he never did any experiments.”

-V.S. Ramachandran on Sigmund Freud, from Phantoms in the Brain.

In 1620 Francis Bacon published The New Organon, an epigrammatic treatise challenging scholasticism and promoting a more empirical approach to science.

In the Organon, Bacon identified four kinds of illusions (idola—usually translated as “idols”) that “block men’s minds.”

First there are the “idols of the tribe.” These are the illusions or distortions that are common to all men. In modern terms we would identify these with the physical limitations of our perception organs and the physical nature of the brain: we are all limited in the frequencies that we can see and hear and our brains produce artifacts and distortions that we all share.

Next are the “idols of the cave.” These are the illusions peculiar to an individual.

“For…each man has a kind of individual cave or cavern which fragments and distorts the light of nature.”

Third, there are the “idols of the marketplace.” These are distortions due to the shared use of false, equivocal, or fatuous language. Bacon recognized that language can function not only to elucidate but also to obfuscate reason and perceptions, and that furthermore, this power of obfuscation is proportional to the degree of general acceptance of misleading language.

“Plainly words do violence to the understanding, and confuse everything; and betray men into countless empty disputes and fictions.”

Finally, there are the “idols of the theatre.” These are shared illusions implanted by education.

“…for all the philosophies that men have learned or devised are, in our opinion, so many plays produced and performed which have created false and fictitious worlds.”

Bacon sensed that the versions of reality created by man-made philosophical systems--both the “facts” and the “logic” derived from these systems--are often more compelling, and have greater influence upon thoughts and perceptions, than true facts and proper logic. Furthermore, the influence of these philosophical systems is often invisible (in modern terms, subconscious) to those they afflict.

Bacon anticipated Karl Popper by noting that the “idols of the theatre” represent complete systems that can accommodate any external datum and bend any logic to fit their intrinsic curvature.

“There is no possibility of argument, since we do not agree either about the principles or the proofs.”

Bacon also recognized that the smart and well educated are more susceptible to the idols of the theatre, precisely because they are smart and well educated:

“It is absolutely clear that if you run the wrong way, the better and faster you are, the more you go astray.”