Weekend reading: three easy pieces

September 5, 2020 • 12:30 pm

I commend three items to your attention for weekend reading, assuming that you’re not gallivanting about this Labor Day weekend, mingling with crowds and spreading viruses. You can access each article by clicking on the screenshot of its title.

First up we have an attack on science, seen as “scientism”, from Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, who works at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. I’ve written a few times about Feser, most famously about his theological analysis of why animals can’t go to Heaven. (Yes, someone gets paid to think about that kind of stuff!) Feser was furious at my critique and issued a bunch of ad hominems, including the usual claim that I’m theologically unsophisticated and need to read more Feser—the usual riposte to an attack on Sophisticated Theology®. (Feser is a nasty piece of work, and lets no attack go unrebutted, usually with lots of nasty counterattacks that tout his own superior wisdom.)

That aside, he’s now written an attack on scientism in The American Mind, the organ of The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank.  From reading it, you’d gather (well, I gathered) that Feser really knows very little about how science is actually done, adopting most of his criticisms from the rather erratic Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science.

Here’s one sign that Feser is scientifically unsophisticated (my way of a tu quoque response):

There is nevertheless a methodological tendency that scientists do have in common, which brings us to Feyerabend’s third point about method. In his view, scientists have a predilection for replacing the richness and complexity of actual, concrete empirical reality with abstract mathematical models. When some aspects of the world of ordinary experience prove difficult to fit into the models, they are tempted to deny the reality of these aspects rather than to acknowledge that the models are merely abstractions, and as such cannot capture all of reality in the first place. That a mathematical abstraction is technologically useful and captures part of physical reality does not entail that it captures the whole of it.

Never in my life did I make a mathematical model, though many scientists do. Darwin didn’t make a mathematical model, either about natural or sexual selection, and many scientists either make verbal models or simply describe phenomena and hypothesize about them or simply let them become part of our knowledge about nature. People like Feser don’t seem to realize that an important part of science is simply describing stuff.  Mathematics, while immensely useful in science, isn’t always necessary if you don’t need a mathematical model, though statistics is essential for reaching sound conclusions about quantitative data.

But you can read the piece for yourself; after all, that’s the point of this post. When I read it last week, I found myself saying over and over again, “Wait! That’s not a good description of science.” And if you don’t understand enough about science to describe it properly, and especially if you rely on Paul Feyerabend as your go-to expert, you’re going to produce an attack that will be embraced only by those who already despise science—like Feser. (Feser also seems to think that the pandemic is overblown.) It’s ironic that Feser, a Catholic, disparages science by saying it’s our “state religion.”  “See! You’re as bad as we are!”

Here’s Graeme Wood in The Atlantic going after Vicky Osterweil’s new book meant to justify looting as a positive social force.  It’s a humorous and well written piece, and it’s clear Wood doesn’t much like the book:

My view wasn’t that Osterweil’s interview with NPR shouldn’t have been published, but that the interviewer didn’t ask her any hard questions about her ridiculous thesis. NPR finally agreed, and walked the article back a bit.  Wood argues—and I agree—that we need to hear the best case possible for excusing looting, but also that NPR wasn’t critical enough. An excerpt:

Instead of writing off NPR or Code Switch, I prefer to think of them as coming very close to doing excellent journalism—and indeed I am jealous that I did not think of conducting this interview first. Since looting became widely reported in this season of protest over police violence, the reaction has split among those who do not support the protests or the looting, those who support the protests but denounce the looting, and those who support the protests and consider the looting a condign response to systemic injustice. Osterweil is enthusiastically in the last category and has given voice to a view that has heretofore been only gestured at. Good journalists find such voices and interrogate them roughly and fairly. The roughly part could, in the case of the NPR interview, have used a little work.

In a funny reversal of the normal polarities of “cancel culture,” conservatives might object to NPR’s decision to give Osterweil a platform at all, given that her defense of looting is a call to criminal behavior likely, even if not intended, to cause death and impoverishment. Should NPR also interview Nazis? Yes, actually—if the year is 1933, and most Americans don’t know what Nazis believe. Osterweil is not a Nazi (I have even sweeter compliments for her where that came from), but she has taken up a position that others espouse implicitly. A full exploration of that position is exactly what we need, and Code Switch found its best defender. If Osterweil’s defense is a bad one, she has now given other pro-looters a chance to reply to it and say why. If they do not, we can assume that they agree with Osterweil, and her argument is the pinnacle of looting apologia. A week ago, you could have said that looting might not be so bad, and I might have wondered what you meant by that. Now I will ask you if your reasons are the same as Osterweil’s, and I will make fun of you if you say yes. This is progress. For that, thank Code Switch.

Finally, we have this provocatively titled article from Inside Higher Ed, and the answer to the title question is “yes.” Well, it’s a bit misleading—the title is apparently chosen to make the article look more au courant in the George Floyd era. Lecturing isn’t exactly racist, but it does, say the authors, discriminate against minorities, who learn better using other methods.

Before you dismiss the piece entirely, read it (it’s short). There are apparently data showing that some minorities don’t learn as well in lectures as they do under a method called “active learning”. I haven’t looked that method up, but, if the purpose of lectures is to help students learn, and if the authors’ studies really show that active learning is better for everyone than are lectures, then we need to rethink how we teach. Of course there’s considerable inertia here, as that’s the way we’ve always done stuff, and there’s a pleasurable frisson of showmanship involved in lecturing. Remember, though that the evidence seems to come largely from the authors’ own research:

An excerpt:

Chemistry classes at the university we studied, like most chemistry and indeed STEM courses in North America, are dominated by lectures. But in a study published just this March, we showed that on average and across many STEM courses and institutions, achievement gaps for URM and low-income students shrink dramatically when lectures are replaced by the innovative approaches to teaching collectively known as active learning.

Earlier work from our group shows that all students do better with active learning. The news in the new data was that underrepresented groups get an extra bump — a disproportionate benefit. Changes in difficulty don’t explain these patterns, either. The active-learning courses in our studies were just as rigorous as lectures; we only looked at comparisons where students were taking identical or equivalent exams in the lecture and active learning versions of the same course.

Using evidence-based approaches to shrink achievement gaps could have profound consequences for representation in STEM degrees, which are associated with many or most of the highest-paying careers in our economy. For example, one of the analyses in our chemistry study showed that if students from underrepresented groups got a C or below, they dropped out of the STEM track at much higher rates than their overrepresented peers with the same grade. But if women, URM or low-income students got a C-plus or better, they persisted at much higher rates. They hyperpersisted, even if their grades were only at the class median.

Closing achievement gaps with active learning, then, means that more underrepresented students pass critically important introductory courses, which means that more move into the hyperpersistent zone and stay in STEM majors, which means that more become doctors, dentists, technicians, computer scientists, engineers, research scientists, entrepreneurs and problem solvers.

But for a one-off, like a visiting talk or a short series of talks on board a ship, I still think lectures are the way to go.

Have a good weekend!


Weekend reading

August 22, 2020 • 12:30 pm

The new shingles shot, Shingrix, is notorious for having fairly frequent side effects, including flulike symptoms, chills, etc. It’s a series of two, given 2-6 months apart, and is recommended for everyone over 50, so get yours. Despite possible side effects, it beats shingles! (I’ve heard horror stories from people who have had this outbreak.) At any rate, I had my first shot yesterday and now, about 20 hours later, have a bit of chills and a sore arm. Nothing serious, but I’m going to go light on the posts today so I can rest and summon up the energy to feed the many ducks (now about 45!) in Botany Pond.

At any rate, I have three items today that I call to your attention. Coincidentally (?), all are about the dangers of extreme Woke Leftism.  I won’t comment on them except to give a brief idea of the contents, as you should evaluate them for yourself. And I’ll ask readers to share links to things they’re reading online.

The first piece is a long blog post for the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society by Chuck Almdale, who wrote this post as “Chukar” (but put his name at the bottom of the post, reproduced with permission here). It’s a dissection of the controversy about the upcoming renaming of American birds, one that I touched on briefly in two recent posts.  In particular, my posts and Chuck’s center on the renaming of McCown’s Longspur as the Thick-billed Longspur. The reason? McCown fought for the Confederacy. Almdale gives 13 reasons why the renaming was unwarranted, among which is that there seems to be no evidence that John McCown had slaves or was a racist (there are many reasons why soldiers fought for the Confederacy besides “defending slavery”). If simply fighting for the Confederacy for reasons unknown makes you an Unperson and effaces your accomplishments (and, ornithologically, McCown was accomplished), then we’re going to have to erase a lot of people.

At any rate, Almdale’s piece is long, and veers off into tangential explication of social-justice warriorism and its sequelae, but if you’re just interested in the ongoing bird controversy—148 more birds are going to be renamed because they’re named after white people and therefore “bear the stench of colonialism“—you can read the intro, the 13 reasons, and look at the tweets for and against the change. Who would have guessed that Wokeness would invade the bird community? Well, if it did down knitting, I suppose nothing is immune.

This article from the Times Literary Supplement is unusual in two respects: it’s free and it’s against Cancel Culture (the TLS is usually woke). A poem that appeared in Poetry Magazine was canceled (effaced from the online version and, apparently, with the paper copies withdrawn) because it contained the word “Negress,” even though the poem, called “Scholls Ferry Road”, was simply recounting a term used by the poet’s grandmother. Not only that, but the editor of the magazine apologized cravenly and then resigned. Click on the screenshot to read about the fracas, which is the first part of a two-part column. (The second is about the French writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet.)

I think of The Atlantic Magazine as a Leftist organ—not one that would publicize the excesses of the Left, but I may be wrong. Viz., read the piece below by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf. (Wikipedia describes him this way, “In an interview with journalist Matt Lewis, Friedersdorf stated that he has right-leaning views but that he does not consider himself to be a doctrinal conservative or a member of the conservative movement.” But the entry also notes that Friedersdorf has called for the abolition of ICE and and “has praised Peggy McIntosh‘s essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.“) 

The piece below recounts a controversy I was unaware of, involving “screen schools” (New York schools that funnel talented students, determined from testing into their classrooms) and, oddly, a white school board member who bounced a black child in his lap during a virtual meeting. I’ll leave you to read about Bouncegate:

So, what have you read online that is interesting and worth calling to the attention of readers? Put the links and maybe a few words in the comments.


Saturday readings

February 15, 2020 • 11:00 am

As I’ll be out much of the day, slurping down pho and other Vietnamese goodies, I’ll just mention two books that I’m reading (this is also a time for you to recommend books) and then give a list of four or five articles I’ve read recently that might interest you. All the screenshots will link to the pieces.

What I’m reading now. I usually do one book at a time, but I am now reading two, and am about 2/3 of the way through both of them.

First, this one, for I am a sucker for the Courtier’s Reply. It doesn’t say much beyond what Goff’s papers say: panpsychists tend to use the same arguments over and over again, perhaps hoping that repetition will convince people that materialism—I call it “naturalism”—is wrong and that every particle on Earth has some form of consciousness. I haven’t yet bought the theory, and can’t imagine that I will, but I’m puzzled why so many people, including Annaka Harris and Philip Pullman (they blurbed Goff’s book) find it alluring. To me panpsychism is a religion, not science, and not even wrong.

Nevertheless, I am persisting. There’s a new breed of philosopher, of which Goff is one, who, irked by the advances of science (in his case, neuroscience), try to mount a defense that the truth about nature (in his case, the origin of consciousness), can be found by rumination alone without any need to consult nature or do experiments. They are wrong.

Below: a much better book. Having read several biographies of T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), watched the eponymous movie several times (one of the best films of all time!), and read Lawrence’s uneven Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I am a sucker for any material on Lawrence. I admire him because he was both a scholar and a man of action, which reminds me that that is what I should have been but wasn’t.

This book, a bestseller, diverges from normal Lawrence biography because it sets his activities within the politics and battles of World War I in Arabia, and also has two other main characters, Aaron Aaronsohn and William Yale). It’s also extremely well written but also minutely researched, with a lot of material I didn’t know. I recommend it highly if you’re into this period of history:


Now: recommended reading (click on screenshots):

In the Spectator Douglas Murray recommends four works that every free-speech advocate should read. It’s a very short piece.

Reader Rick sent this article from The Big Think. While it’s a tad self-congratulatory, and I don’t know most of the research cited, it at least gives us some ammunition to counter the claim that atheists are nihilistic people lacking a moral foundation.

The much demonized and often de-platformed Heather Mac Donald has a good piece in Quillette decrying Yale’s elimination of its Introduction to Fine Art course, which has been deep-sixed as a required course and then revamped to be a woke course. (Mac Donald took the course when she was an undergraduate English major at Yale.) In January I wrote about Yale’s abominable act.

Yale is becoming a school to make fun of, for its administrators are so woke that they’re destroying the school’s quality in order to flaunt its supposed virtue. (h/t: Luana).

An excerpt, which scares me about my own university (my emphasis):

The one-sided subjection of Western civilization to the petty tyranny of identity politics will only worsen. Yale is one of four universities to have received a $4 million grant to infuse the theme of race into every aspect of humanities teaching and scholarship. Brown, the University of Chicago, and Stanford are the other recipients of that Andrew W. Mellon Foundation bequest. (The Mellon Foundation, once a supporter of apolitical humanities scholarship, has been captured by the identitarian Left.) Race, Yale announced in its press release about the Mellon grant, is critically important and indisputably central to the humanities.

Actually, it is not. The humanities are about matters far more compelling than the trivialities of race, which in any case we are supposed to believe is not even real. For centuries, poets, painters, novelists, and architects sought to express essential truths about the human condition. Race may have played a role in a few classic works, such as Othello or The Heart of Darkness, but it was hardly “central” to the entire tradition. Those who seek to make it so do so in the pursuit of political grievance, not scholarly accuracy.

Some students know better, however. Once word got out that this year would be the curtain call for the two introductory Western art courses, students stampeded to enroll. Though the courses were not in fact a required gateway into the study of art history, it would have been perfectly appropriate to make them so. The primary obligation of education is to pass on a particular civilization’s cultural inheritance with love and gratitude. Yale, like nearly every other college today, has lost the will to do so. It has therefore negated its very reason for being.

And for fun (and historical interest in Honorary Cats®, we have this article from Atlas Obscura sent by reader Don:

If you want to see Ben Franklin’s poem on the ex-squirrel, go here.

There are some nice illustrations, too, like this Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling by Hans Holbein:

And a bonus video just in from reader Bryan. Mark Rober, the videomaker, tries all kind of plant-based burgers (“Impossible burgers”) and then serves them to Bill Gates (he likes them). I have to say: this makes me want to try these things. This video has been up only 3 days and currently has nearly 7 million views!

Today’s reading

January 28, 2018 • 1:00 pm

Need something to read on this lazy Sunday? I have five items I commend to your attention; each screenshot links to the article:

1.) From the Business (?) section of today’s New York Times, the paper’s reporter (Philip Galanes) transcribes a conversation between himself, Bill Gates, and Steve Pinker held in Gates’s Washington State office. The conversation is largely about Steve’s new book, Enlightenment Now, that’s coming out in February, and continues the Better Angels thesis that the world is gradually but inexorably getting better—largely because of science. Gates has received an advance copy.

Two quotes:

PG But I was asking about the tribalism of the moment, whether your devil is the 1 percent or the bad hombres. Can science and reason really unbundle tribal thinking?

SP One of the biggest enemies of reason is tribalism. When people subscribe to an ideology, they suck up evidence that supports their preconceptions and filter out evidence that goes against them. Contrary to the belief of most scientists that denial of climate change is an effect of scientific illiteracy, it is not at all correlated with scientific literacy. People who believe in man-made climate change don’t know any more about climate or science than those who deny it. It’s almost perfectly correlated with left-wing versus right-wing orientation. And a move toward greater rationality would unbundle them and let evidence inform what the optimal policies ought to be.


PG Name a problem we may think of as intractable that you’re optimistic about solving in the near future.

SP War between countries. Civil wars are harder to eliminate because there are so many insurgent and militia forces. But there are only 192 countries. They could agree not to declare war on each other. I think we’re on the way.

2.) A note in the discussion above says that Bill Gates has reviewed Steve’s new book on his (Gates’s) book blog, and given it a great review. I didn’t even know Gates had a book blog, though I recalled that when Gates said, a few years ago, that Better Angels was his “favorite book of all time”, that book rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists. Gates gives Enlightenment Now an even better review (I noticed today that neither Kirkus nor Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, though both gave it a good review).  Here’s the beginning of Gates’s take:

And a short video about the book, apparently filmed in Gates’s office. Notice Pinker’s cowboy boots; I think they’re black ostrich:

3.) When Joseph Heath was asked to select a prize-winning book on social sciences from a Canadian University Press, he came across a problem: most of the books weren’t just tendentious, but they didn’t even know how to make a normative argument properly. Their failures included the failure to admit that the books were tendentious, and an inability to define movements the authors were attacking. This led Heath to a general complaint about such books, “The problem with ‘critical’ studies“, that was published at In Due Course.

He also found the books badly written, as such things tend to be. Two quotes:

As I was reading through the stack, I couldn’t help but notice that the most reliable indicator that a book is going to be a complete mess, from a normative perspective, is that it contains either discussion or extensive citation of Foucault (and/or Bourdieu). From the perspective of someone in philosophy, where this stuff is dead as disco, it’s amazing to see academics still taking it seriously. In any case, the major thing that they seem to be attracted to, in this ’80s French theory, is the cryptonormativism.

And get a load of this sentence that appeared in one of the books:

In this socio-historical context, I position courts as a specific, semi-autonomous, and generative form of juridical power: specific, in that the courts currently hold a specific relation of power in Canadian society and, equally importantly, over other institutions within the larger juridical field; semi-autonomous, in that although shaped by various social and cultural factors (racialization, for example), the distinctive dynamics of the courts shape the production of logics not only irreducible to the dynamics of other social fields but potentially resistant to them; and generative, in that the dynamism of court struggles produces a form of “juridical capital” that rather than directly constituting social relations or (re)producing a “grand hegemony,” generates particular depictions and problematizations of social issues and classifications that can potentially shape the parameters within which subsequent political strategies and struggles ensue, but only upon their subsequent successful translation into those fields (63).

4.) From the American Association of University Professors site, we have this piece by Joshua Cuevas, identified as “an as­sociate professor and educational psychologist at the University of North Georgia, where he teaches courses in research methodol­ogy, assessment, and applied cognition”.  In case you think that only Leftists try to enforce ideological purity, Cuevas (a liberal and a Hispanic) shows how some things he said about the last Presidential election, and about the demographic breakdown among voters, mushroomed into a huge social-media onslaught of white supremacists and other odious people bent on harassing him. His university defended him, but it was rough going

One problem with this piece is that the “Far Right’s Use of Cyberharassment” is a purely personal story; there’s no attempt to document or discuss whether this kind of harassment is widespread. There’s surely more than one case, but you wouldn’t know it from this piece.

5.) I’ve written about Ben Shapiro before. Despite his age (34), he’s an influential right-wing commenter, and one of the few I try to read. (We all should be reading a couple of websites or magazines from the “other side.”) He causes the Left to riot when he appears on campuses, despite the fact that he’s pretty calm and not a provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos. I find him interesting because, while I disagree with almost everything he says, he has concocted smooth arguments to support his right-wing views, while his college opponents on the Left haven’t; the result is that they’re often reduced to screaming and babbling. For a conservative, Shapiro is remarkably critical of Donald Trump; in fact, he hates the man.

Shapiro’s life and views are the subject of today’s cover story at Slate, and I find that the author, Seth Stevenson, shares my view:

I’ve listened to dozens upon dozens of episodes of the Ben Shapiro Show in reporting this piece. I almost always disagree with his rants, yet I find them fascinating. He often constructs well-crafted arguments that flow from first principles I deem wackadoo. This helps me understand conservative thinking even if it rarely changes my mind. Increasingly, though, I find I’m listening most closely to Shapiro to determine one thing: When it really hits the fan, will he go Trump? In a time of crisis, where will this shepherd of millennial conservatives lead his flock?

h/t: BJ, Hempenstein