Recommended weekend reading

October 23, 2020 • 1:00 pm

It’s one of those days when braining is very hard, and I think this is a problem for many people during the pandemic. I’m not sure why it’s the case for me, unless I’ve internalized the anxiety I share with many people about politics, the pandemic, aborted plans, and so on—to the point where adrenaline and cortisol are clogging up my synapses. To be honest, reading any kind of scientific paper seems like an almost insuperable chore, and though I have a backlog of interesting science papers to report on, I just can’t bring myself to read them. Stay tuned.

This is probably temporary, so instead of braining I’ll just drop a few references that I’ve read and wanted to write about, but can’t force myself to say anything substantive. I’ll put the screenshots below and a few words about each one, and perhaps you’ll find intellectual nourishment. Click on each screenshot to read the article.

First, Andrew Sullivan’s weekly column just arrived in my inbox, and I haven’t read it yet, but I will. Sullivan informs us that this is the last free access to his new site, The Weekly Dish, before the paywall goes up. I’ve subscribed, and so will continue to call attention to pieces I think are interesting. If you don’t want to pay $50 per year, go to the link below to get your last free read.

The main piece is Sullivan’s argument for the legalization of psychedelic drugs, and why they’re useful, and there’s a secondary piece called “Is Wokeness Winning?”, a response to readers’ criticisms of Sullivan’s previous piece that answered the question “yes, it’s winning”, and explained why.

Speaking of James Lindsay, whom Sullivan mentions in the “wokeness” piece, criticizing his decision to vote for Trump, there’s a good albeit long analysis of the insidious connection between Critical Race Theory and anti-Semitism at Lindsay’s New Discourses site:


Here are two papers on “scientism”, one by Maarten Boudry and the other by Massimo Pigliucci, who take opposite positions on issues. Boudry rejects the term, defending the idea that the sciences (broadly construed, as I call it, as does Boudry) are the only sources of knowledge. Pigliucci has a narrower definition of “science”, but the real argument should be about whether there are other ways of knowing besides interrogating nature (the “empirical method”), something that Pigliucci seems to think. Read Boudry first, then Pigliucci:

Massimo’s response:

From Forbes. Those opposed to meritocracy on the grounds that it perpetuates racial inequalities and inequities have driven many colleges to ditch the use of standardized tests like SATs and ACTs. Because minorities get lower scores, this is seen as evidence that the tests are “racist”. People also argue that these tests have no predictive value for success in college or after college.

As far as I know from my reading, that last assertion is wrong: test scores not only are as useful as high-school grades in predicting college success, but also predict post-college success. They’re also also valuable in identifying students who may have lower GPAs but are worth noticing because of their high test performance. I stand by my prediction that, as wokeness spreads, the very idea that one should advance on the basis of merit will be tossed into the trash bin.

At any rate, this article argues (and gives lots of links) for the value of standardized tests as predictors of success.

20 thoughts on “Recommended weekend reading

  1. Massimo Pigliucci is featured (not in a good way) in this unfortunate story in Quillette. The author of the Quillette piece might not be a reliable report, what do I know?

  2. “I stand by my prediction that, as wokeness spreads, the very idea that one should advance on the basis of merit will be tossed into the trash bin.”

    I agree, fully. Wokeism is a new form of Marxism (as the book In Defense of Looting by Vicki Osterweil).

    It’s all about equality of outcomes. Not equality of opportunity (we still have work to do there).

    It thoroughly infects NPR these days. I recently heard a discussion of the local housing situation. They went on and on about how low income people had poorer housing than wealthier white people. Well, no sh!t, Dick Tracy!

    If having wealth can’t buy you a neighborhood with a lower crime rate, better housing, better food, and better health care for your family, what the heck else would one actually expend it upon?

    Why would one work hard and long hours (people at the upper end of the scale statistically work more than people of lower income) if there’s going to be some bureau/office/agency that will enforce equal outcomes? This is the basic fallacy of the Marxist idea.

    Why would someone defer gratification (clearly the most important life habit for success), such as putting themselves through a university education, if outcomes will be made equal, regardless?

    Leaving completely aside the idea that we should value the intellectual capacities and work products of a surgeon or a teacher more highly than a manual laborer (which job I had as a youth). They are simply worth more: It’s a fact in any rational system.

    But the Religion of Wokeism isn’t rational (rationality is a tool of White Supremacy and Oppression). The Woke simply want to take the goods of those who practice rationality, deferred gratification, hard work, etc.

    1. I disagree. Business and technology companies could not possibly compete without merit-based salaries, assignments, and promotions. Any company that did away with merit would be outcompeted in short order by its competitors. I suspect the same is true in politics and many other areas such as the arts. Getting rid of merit might gain a foothold in academia in some institutions but this will enable other universities to eat their lunch over the long haul. Students, and their parents, will continue to select universities based on the value of their degrees based on earning ability and status within the world. As long as the world is a competitive, capitalist place, merit will be a selective force. I’m surprised that I have to say this to evolutionists. 😉

  3. The irony is that, a while back, Pigliucci wrote a sensible paper arguing that:

    “… philosophers and biologists have gone through great pains to essentially deny the existence of biological human races. We argue that human races, in the biological sense of local populations adapted to particular environments, do in fact exist; …|

    Nowadays he argues the opposite. I think this is mainly virtue signalling: “look at me, I’m so anti-racist I’ll deny that races even exist!”.

    The usual way this is argued is by erecting the strawman that “races” have to be discrete and distinct, and then ritually burning the strawman (that’s what he does in the reply cited in the Quillette article).

    Humans across the globe do indeed show a biologically real pattern of shared-ancestry clustering (the concept underlying “race”), but this pattern is fuzzy edged since we’re all one species and so interbreed.

    1. Yes agree wrt virtue signalling. The message of the Quillette article is that such signalling is especially widespread and condoned among philosophers (I was going to write “academic philosophers” but seems redundant as there may be no other kinds of philosophers).

  4. “I stand by my prediction that, as wokeness spreads, the very idea that one should advance on the basis of merit will be tossed into the trash bin.”

    I have been soundly beat about the head and shoulders by the woke for my ‘antiquated’ appreciation of Dr. Martin Luther King who dreamed of a day when people would be judged by charater and not color.

  5. I stand by my prediction that, as wokeness spreads, the very idea that one should advance on the basis of merit will be tossed into the trash bin.

    It sure seems to be trying to take the US education system’s infantilization to the next step. I.e. first they came for the diploma, and nobody complained. Then they came for the B.S., and nobody complained…

    However I’m skeptical it can go much farther. If non-merit-based bachelor’s become a thing, we’re getting into the “working” degrees for most white collar professionals, and there are many non-academic institutions that come into play there, making it more difficult for the woke to exert pressure on a single weak point and get their way. Prospective lawyers eventually have to pass the bar. Prospective doctors eventually have to do surgeries without killing people. Prospective scientists have to run successful experiments that yield publishable results. Prospective engineers have to build things that don’t fall apart. Etc. These sorts of requirements do not arise out of single academic departments that can be browbeaten into wokeism.

    This is another factor in my belief that wokeism will be a generational fad at best. It’s probably all fine and good to be woke when you’re in school with non-woke people and you all get the same grades. In your 20s, there’s probably little “cost” for abandoning the notion of merit-based systems. But when you hit your late 20s to early 30s, and your non-woke friends are passing the bar and getting hired by firms while you look for work outside your chosen field, at least some of those wokies are going to wise up.

    1. “If something can’t go on forever it will stop.” Herb Stein
      In the real world, business will always demand skills because incompetence means failure and bankruptcy. Academic funding can go to the fashionably woke but no one is going to buy an woke iPhone that does not work.

  6. I read Lindsay’s essay, but it seemed to miss the fundamental point about the problem of high-functioning minorities in majority societies: elite over-representation and the hostility that over-representation evokes.

    If you start from the premise that racism is the only explanation for 1.6% of the population representing 40% of academics (at least in the 1970’s), who knows how much of the media, 20% of the Fortune 500, etc., then you have just morally legitimated Anti-Semitism. If you apply Kendi’s anti-racist paradigm, then his all-powerful department of anti-racism will have to contend with the Jewish Question. Its not about whether Jews have been really historically oppressed or whether Jews are really white or not (the Boers were historically oppressed but I don’t see them getting intersectional points for it).

    Even if you try to create a cordon sanitaire around the Anti-Semites bringing attention to Jewish over-representation, what are you doing? First, you are implicitly endorsing Anti-Semitism (as overrepresentation = racism), and second, you are just covering it up, thereby suggesting you are ashamed of it. You are training people to think just like Anti-Semites, and it is only a matter of time before they encounter it and adopt it.

    Another of the big lies is that majorities oppress minorities. The reality is that minorities (elites) manipulate majorities to oppress other minorities (especially elite rivals). The people who owned slaves were not the people dodging Union bullets. In an age of elite over production and given that America contains a host of what might be called high-functioning minorities (based on test scores) who aspire to become elites, a philosophy like Anti-Semitism constructed on Anti-Racist lines is extremely useful for say displacing Jewish elites and replacing them with other elite aspirants. In the long-term, I do not see how Anti-Racism doesn’t morph into Anti-Semitism in the coming battles of the future. Who did the Squad push out after all?

  7. Boudry rejects the term, defending the idea that the sciences (broadly construed, as I call it, as does Boudry) are the only sources of knowledge.

    I think it is a sign that philosophy superstition is dying when it proudly proclaims itself devoid of knowledge.

    1. And I read lately the ethnic group with the highest number of post-grad degrees in the US is…… Nigerians. YOU thought it’d be Koreans or Jews, didn’t you? So did I.

      Which is a retort to both racism and wokeism.

      Known maniac and obnoxious genius Nassem Taleb talks about the dynamics of minorities (in that context Jews and Muslims re Kosher/Halal) changing majorities.

      D.A., J.D., NYC

  8. My take on the Boudry-Pigliucci debate:

    Boudry rightly points out that many critics of scientism have a foundationalism problem. They think that knowledge has to start from somewhere in particular, and build from there. In truth, knowledge starts from a whole lot of tentative places, and cycles back and forth while encountering new information.

    Pigliucci argues that “science broadly construed” is over-broadly construed. Science as an institution has distinctive characteristics that make it implausible to call history or philosophy sciences, even if they are done in the most careful and inquisitive style possible. I think there is something to this complaint but I would rephrase it as: calling these things “science broadly construed” leads to more miscommunication than viable alternatives.

    In the four-option chart of “scientism” that both authors discuss, I find myself hanging by one hand from the bottom-right (“weak, broad”) corner of scientism. The sciences are the best source of knowledge, if you count logic as science (which is optional).

  9. >>I stand by my prediction that, as wokeness spreads, the very idea that one should advance on the basis of merit will be tossed into the trash bin.<<

    "Merit" pay and merit raises are very popular in Republican-controlled corners of the country. An example would be the public school teachers whose raises are based on their students' test scores. This never works:

    The only place merit pay could work is sales, but then look at what happened at Wells Fargo!

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