an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Lessons from the Trump travesty?

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Consider this passage from The moral landscape, by Sam Harris:

As we better understand the brain, we will increasingly understand all of the forces – kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression, etc – that allow friends and strangers to collaborate successfully on the common projects of civilisation…

These are indeed, and surely, the forces, or traits, we should want in order to have the best social lives. And they involve a richly interactive relationship between the social milieu – the village, the tribe, the family, the state – and the individual brain, or person. They are also, IMHO, the sorts of traits we would hope to find in our best people – for example, our political leaders, regardless of which political faction they represent.

Now consider those traits in respect of one Donald Trump. It should be obvious to any reasoning observer that he is deficient in all of them. And I mean deficient to a jaw-dropping, head-scratching degree. So there are two questions worth posing here.

  1. How could a person, so obviously deficient in all of the traits we would consider vital to the project of civilisation, have been created in a country that prides itself on being a leader of the free, democratic, civilised world?
  2. How could such a person rise to become the President of that country – which, whether or not you agree with its self-description of its own moral worth, is undoubtedly the world’s most economically and militarily powerful nation, and a world-wide promoter of democracy (in theory if not always in practice)?

I feel for Harris, whose book was published in 2010, well before anyone really had an inkling of what was to come. In The moral landscape he argues for objective moral values, or moral realism, but you don’t have to agree with his general philosophical position to acknowledge that the advancement of civilisation is largely dependent on the above-quoted traits. But of course, not everyone acknowledges this, or has ever given a thought to the matter. It’s probably true that most people, in the USA and elsewhere, don’t give a tinker’s cuss about the advancement of civilisation.

So the general answer to question one is easy enough, even if the answer in any particular case requires detailed knowledge. I don’t have such knowledge of the family background, childhood and even pre-natal influences that formed Trump’s profoundly problematic character, but reasonable inferences can be made, I think. For example, one of Trump’s most obvious traits is his complete disregard for the truth. To give one trivial example among thousands, he recently described Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, as ‘nasty’, in a televised interview. In another televised interview, very shortly afterwards, he denied saying what he was clearly recorded as saying. This regular pattern of bare-faced lying, without any concern about being found out, confronted by his behaviour, or suffering consequences, says something. It says that he has rarely if ever been ‘corrected’ for breaking this commandment, and, very likely, has been rewarded for it from earliest childhood – this reward being likely in the form of amusement, acclamation, and encouragement in this practice. Since, as we know, Trump was a millionaire before he was old enough to pronounce the word, the son of a self-possessed, single-minded property shark, who bestowed on the child a thousand indications of his own importance, it’s more than likely that he grew up in a bubble-world in which self-interest and duplicity were constantly encouraged and rewarded, a world of extreme materialism, devoid of any intellectual stimulation. This is the classic ‘spoilt child’ I’ve already referred to. Often, when a child like this has to stand up on his own feet, his penchant for lying, his contempt for the law and his endless attention-seeking will get him into legal trouble, but Trump appears to have stayed under the wing of his father for much longer than average. His father bailed him out time and time again when he engaged in dumb business deals, until he learned a little more of the slyness of white-collar crime (including learning how to steal from his father). His father’s cronies in the crooked business and legal world would also have taught him much.

Trump is surely a clear-cut case of stunted moral development, the darling child who was encouraged, either directly or though observation of the perverse world of white-collar crime that surrounded him, to listen to no advice but his own, to have devotees rather than friends, and to study and master every possible form of exploitation available to him. Over time, he also realised that his habit of self-aggrandisement could be turned to advantage, and that it would continue to win people, in ever greater numbers, if effectively directed. Very little of this, of course, was the result of what psychologists describe as system 2 thinking – and it would be fascinating to study Trump’s brain for signs of activity in the prefrontal cortex – it was more about highly developed intuitions about what he could get away with, and who he could impress with his bluster.

Now, I admit, all of this is somewhat speculative. Given Trump’s current fame, there will doubtless be detailed biographies written about his childhood and formative years, if they haven’t been written already. My point here is that, given the environment of absurd and dodgy wealth to be found in small pockets of US society, and given the ‘greed is good’ mantra that many Americans (and of course non-Americans) swallow like the proverbial kool-aid, it isn’t so surprising that white-collar crime isn’t dealt with remotely adequately, and that characters like Trump dot the landscape, like pus-oozing pimples on human skin. In fact there are plenty of people, rich and poor alike, who would argue that tax evasion shouldn’t even be a crime… while also arguing that the USA, unlike every other western democracy, can’t afford universal medicare.

So that’s a rough-and-ready answer to question one. Question two has actually been addressed in a number of previous posts, but I’ll address it a little differently here.

The USA is, I think, overly obsessed with the individual. It’s a hotbed of libertarianism, an ideology entirely based on the myth of individualism and ‘individual freedom’, and it’s no surprise that Superman, Batman and most other super-heroes were American products. It’s probable that a sizeable section of Trump’s base see him in ‘superhero’ terms, someone not cut in the mould of Washington politicians, someone larger than life, someone almost from outer space in that he talks and acts differently from normal human beings let alone politicians. This makes him exciting and enlivening – like a comic book. And they’re happy to go along for the ride regardless of whether their lives are improved.

I must admit, though, that I’m mystified when I hear Trump supporters still saying ‘he’s done so much for our country’, when it’s fairly clear to me that, apart from cruelly mistreating asylum-seekers, he’s done little other than tweet insults and inanities and cheat at golf. The massive neglect of every aspect of federal government under his ‘watch’ will take decades to repair, and the question of whether the USA will ever recover from the tragi-comedy of this presidency is hard to answer.

But as to how Trump was ever allowed to become President, it’s all about a dangerously flawed political system, one that has too few safeguards against the simplistic populism that the ancient Greek philosophers railed against 2500 years ago. Unabashed elitists, they were deeply concerned that ‘the mob’ would be persuaded by a charismatic blowhard who promised everything and delivered nothing – or, worse than nothing, disaster. They were concerned because they witnessed it in their lifetime.

The USA today is sadly lacking in those safeguards. It probably thought the safeguards were adequate, until Trump came along. For example, it was expected – among gentlemen, so to speak – that successful candidates would present their tax returns, refuse to turn the Presidency to their own profit, support their own intelligence services and justice department, treat long-time allies as allies and long-time adversaries as adversaries, and, in short, display at least some of the qualities I’ve quoted from Harris at the top of this post.

The safeguards, however, need to go much further than this, IMHO. The power of the Presidency needs to be sharply curtailed. A more distributed, collaborative and accountable system needs to be developed, a team-based system (having far more women in leadership positions would help with this), not a system which separates the President/King and his courtiers/administration from congress/parliament. Pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers, power to select unelected officials to high office, power to appoint people to the judiciary – all of these need to be reined in drastically.

Of course, none of this is likely to happen in the near future – and I still believe blood will flow before Trump is heaved out of office. But I do hope that the silver lining to the cloud of this presidency is that, in the long term, a less partisan, less individual-based federal system will be the outcome of this Dark Age.

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2019 at 5:00 pm

Electric aircraft? It’s happening, in a small way

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the Ampaire 337

I no longer write on my solutionsok blog, as it’s just easier for a lazy person like me to maintain the one site, but as a result I’ve not been writing so much about solutions per se, so I’ll try to a bit more of that. The always entertaining and informative Fully Charged show on YouTube provides plenty of material about new developments in renewable energy, especially re transport, and in a recent episode, host Robert Llewelyn had a bit to say about electric planes, which I’d like to follow up on.

Everyone knows that plane travel has been on the up and up haha for decades, and you may have heard that these planes use up a lot of fossil fuel and produce lots of nasty emissions. According to the Australian government’s Department of Infrastructure and Many Other Things (DIMOT – don’t look it up) Australia’a civil aviation sector contributed 22 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions in 2016. That’s of course a meaningless number but safe to say it’s dwarfed by the emissions of the major aviation countries. I assume the term ‘C02-equivalent’ means other greenhouse gases converted into equivalent-impacting amounts of CO2. For aircraft this includes water vapour, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, lead and other atmosphere-affecting nasties. More innovative and less polluting engine designs have failed to halt the steady rise of emissions due to increased air travel worldwide, and there’s no end in sight. It’s really the only emissions sector for which there is no obvious solution – unlike other sectors which are largely blocked by vested interests.

So, while few people at present see electric aircraft as the big fix, enterprising engineers are making steady improvements and trying for major breakthroughs with an eye to the hopefully not-too-distant future. Just a couple of days ago, as reported on the nicely-named Good News Network, the largest-ever hybrid-electric aircraft (it looks rather small), the Ampaire 337, took flight from Camarillo airport in California (of course). The normally twin-engine plane was retrofitted with an electric motor working in concert with the remaining fuel engine to create a ‘parallel hybrid’, which significantly reduces emissions. After this successful test run, there will be multiple weekly flights over the next few months, and then, if all goes well, commercial short-haul flights are planned for Hawaii.

Of course, here in Australia, where electric cars are seen by power-brokers as some kind of futuristic horror set to destroy our way of life, there’s no obvious appetite for even wierder flying things, but our time will come – or perhaps we should all give up and invade western Europe or California. Meanwhile, Fully Charged are saying ‘there’s no shortage of aircraft companies around the world [including Rolls Royce] developing electric aircraft’, as well as converting light aircraft to electric (the Ampaire 337 mentioned above is actually a converted Cessna 337). A Canadian airline, Harbour Air, is converting 3 dozen seaplanes to electric motors, with first passengers flights expected by late 2021. These will only be capable of short flights in the region of British Columbia – range, which is connected to battery weight, being perhaps the biggest problem for electric aircraft to overcome. Again according to Fully Charged, there are over 100 electric aircraft development programs going on worldwide at present, and we should see some results in terms of short-haul flights in five years. Perfect for Europe, but also not out of the question for Adelaide to Melbourne or Port Lincoln, Canberra to Sydney and so on. Norway has a plan to use electric aircraft for all its domestic passenger flights in the not-too-distant future.

A name dropped on Fully Charged, Roei Ganzarski, seems worth following up. He says ‘By 2025, 1000 miles in an electric plane is going to be easily done. I’m not saying 5000 miles, but 1000 miles, easily.’ Ganzarski is currently the CEO of magniX, an ‘electric propulsion technology company’, based in Seattle. His company made the motors for the Ampaire 337, I think.

It should be pointed out that UAVs (unmanned – or unpersonned? – aerial vehicles), aka drones, are small electric aircraft, so the principle of electric flight is well established. It’s also worth noting that electricity doesn’t have to come from batteries, though they’re the most likely way forward. Solar cells, for example, can directly convert sunlight into electricity, and in 2015/16, using two alternating pilots, Solar Impulse 2 became the first fixed-wing, piloted, solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the globe. Fuel cells, particularly using hydrogen, are another option.

At the moment, though, hybrid power is all the go, and the focus is on light aircraft and short-haul flight. General aviation is still a long way off because, according to this Wikipedia article, ‘the specific energy of electricity storage is still 2% of aviation fuel’. As to what that means, I have very little idea, but this steal from a Vox piece on the topic helps to clarify:

The key limitation for aircraft is the energy density of its fuel: When space and weight are at a premium, you want to cram as much energy into as small a space as possible. Right now, some of the best lithium-ion batteries have a specific energy of 250 watt-hours per kilogram, which has already proved viable in cars. But to compete on air routes up to 600 nautical miles in a Boeing 737- or Airbus A320-size airliner, Schäfer estimated that a battery would need to have a specific energy of 800 watt-hours per kilogram. Jet fuel, by comparison, has a specific energy of 11,890 watt-hours per kilogram.

So, specific energy is essentially related to energy density, and I know that getting batteries to be as energy-dense as possible is the holy grail of researchers. So, until that ten-fold or 100-fold improvement in energy density is achieved by the battery of batteriologists beavering away at the big plane problem, we should at least push for light aircraft and short-haul flights to go completely electric asap. Ausgov, do us proud.

References

https://www.youtube.com/user/fullychargedshow

Largest Ever Hybrid-Electric Aircraft Takes Flight – and Airlines Are Already Expressing Interest

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ganzarski

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_aircraft

https://www.vox.com/2019/3/1/18241489/electric-batteries-aircraft-climate-change

https://www.exxonmobil.com/en/aviation/products-and-services/products/jet-a-jet-a-1

Written by stewart henderson

June 12, 2019 at 9:47 am

situation USA 3: the right i word

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Nancy Pelosi – trying to make the best of a bad system

I’ve been saying from the start that impeachment – thankfully not a part of the Westminster system – is a hopelessly politicised process, and that someone like Trump should be dealt with by straightforward, clear-cut law. Unfortunately, when it comes to white-collar crime – which is far from being victimless – the USA doesn’t set a great example. Though of course it’s not the only democratic nation to fail in this regard. However, Trump has pushed white-collar crime about as far as it can go without consequences. Just about all he has going for him presently is Presidential immunity. That’s why his principal aim right now is to extend that present as far into the future as possible, and that’s why I’m predicting that things will get worse. He won’t give up the presidency without a very ugly fight.

Nancy Pelosi has been in a friendly-fire fight with Jerry Nadler over the right i word. She says it’s imprisonment, and of course I agree with her. The USA needs to create clear law wiping out presidential immunity ASAP if it’s to regain the respect of the international community, but of course this won’t be possible until 2021. In the meantime, the House should continue to build its case against Trump, just as law officials are doing outside of Congress.

CNN ‘Editor-at-large’ (what does that mean? Editor who should be in prison?) Chris Cillizza has written a strange and quite silly piece, saying Trump’s imprisonment is ‘not likely’. His first point is that Pelosi, by bringing up the right i word, is trying to show Nadler and others that, by opposing the rush to impeachment, she’s not being soft, but realistic. It’s indeed an incredible thing that the Senate Republicans are largely choosing to stand by their flim-flam man, but it’s a fact, and proof of the tainted, politicised process that impeachment is. But Cillizza then describes this word as a ‘rhetorical grenade’. Rubbish, I say. The fact that Trump is still President-at-large is a disgrace. For a start, he’s not an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ in the SDNY case which saw his fixer plead guilty on two felony counts. I realise this a term of legal art, but it completely misrepresents the situation, in which Trump was the boss and Cohen merely the gofer. And of course the campaign violation stuff is just the tip of the iceberg.

Cillizza then instructs his readers with this gem of wisdom:

Remember that impeachment and indictment are two very different things. The first is a political process, the second is a legal one.

Wow. Is he addressing 10 year-olds or is he one himself? Anyway, he goes on rather long-windedly to point out that impeachment won’t work due to the GOP Senate majority and the two thirds rule. I’d be even more brief. Impeachment is gobshite. Only in America (ok – also in South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and any other country fool enough to follow the US system).

Cillizza goes on to ‘examine’ the possibility of imprisonment. It’s more of a glossing over, however, than an examination. The Mueller Report itself evaluates ten cases of obstruction of justice, some of which are strong enough to have over 700 federal prosecutors (as of a month ago – the number keeps rising) sign a letter baldly stating that Trump would face ‘multiple felony charges’ on obstruction alone if he was not President. What this says about the totally stuffed federal political system of the USA should indeed be clear to any wide-awake 10 year-old. Then there are the 16 or so criminal probes involving Trump, his foundation, his taxes, his inauguration, his emoluments violations, his anti-immigration horrors (his worst crimes while in office), his links with Russia and the Middle East, the Deutsche Bank money laundering scandals etc etc. It’s abundantly clear that Trump is a pre-teen spoilt brat turned career criminal – because, given his background, he couldn’t succeed at anything else. But a spoilt child, like a spoilt dinner, doesn’t spoil itself. It’s spoilt by its ‘makers’, and I’m not talking about gods. I’m talking about parents and environment and other early influences. So Trump isn’t to blame for becoming the US President, and making the US Presidency the object of global scorn and opprobrium. The fault lies with the US political system itself. The USA allowed this fainéant to become its President (not forgetting Russia’s sly assistance), because it takes pride in allowing anyone to become President. No screening for party allegiance, no screening for legal or political or historical literacy, no screening for business integrity or acumen, no screening for any kind of competence whatsoever. And instead of assuring the world – noting that we’re talking of the world’s most powerful nation, economically and militarily – that with great power comes great responsibility – it teaches us that, in the US at least, with great power comes great immunity.

But let’s get back to Cillizza’s piece. Here are his concluding remarks.

To be clear: Neither impeachment nor arrest is a sure thing. In fact, neither are even long shots. We are deliberating between something that is very, very, very, very unlikely to happen and something that is very, very, very, very, very unlikely to happen. But between impeachment and imprisonment, the former is the far more viable option. No matter what Pelosi wants.

As I’ve made clear, I have no interest in impeachment, but Cillizza is arguing – or, rather, stating, that imprisonment is a virtual impossibility for this career criminal, in spite of all the evidence piling up against him – which will always amount to a mere fraction of his wrong-doing. And yet, my impression is that Cillizza’s as jingoistic about ‘the leader of the free world’ and ‘the light on the hill’ as most Americans. The proverbial frog in the slowly boiling water comes to mind. If Trump escapes imprisonment, then surely that frog is doomed.

References

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/06/politics/nancy-pelosi-trump-prison/index.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/pelosi-tells-colleagues-she-wants-to-see-trump-in-prison-not-impeached/2019/06/06/afaf004a-8856-11e9-a491-25df61c78dc4_story.html?utm_term=.4907d39b22c7

https://www.wired.com/story/trumps-world-faces-16-known-criminal-probes/

View at Medium.com

Written by stewart henderson

June 9, 2019 at 3:33 pm

algorithms, logarithms and biorhythms

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Wilhelm Fliess with Sigmund Freud (you guess)

In a recent conversation I was talking about the algorithms used by organisations like Facebook and Google to get people hooked into reading or listening to or otherwise attending to a whole host of stuff related to what they attended to yesterday. My interlocutor continued the conversation, but inadvertantly replaced the word ‘algorithm’ with ‘logarithm’ throughout, which I didn’t correct, perhaps not so much out of politeness but because, though I knew enough about the difference to use the right word, I would have difficulty in defining either term, in case he asked. As for biorhythms, I threw them in just for fun.

Mathematics is probably my weakest subject, and for that reason I’ve often been drawn to it in my dilettantish fashion, as to a kind of secret society I’ve been excluded from due to lack of the requisite. So I’ll start with my extremely limited and probably wrong working understanding of algos and logos (and bios), then provide a more informed account through a bit of research.

An algorithm, I think, is a largely computer-generated aggregate of a person’s data-gathering which provides some predictive power about their future data-gathering, or future interest, so that the data can be presented to them for gathering. Or something like that. A logarithm, I think, has something to do with exponentials. So that if something increases exponentially, it also increases logarithmically. Or logarithmickly? Or maybe a logarithm is some mathematical relation between a number and its exponent. Or something like that. A biorhythm is something to do with your supposed natural cycle of activity/inactivity throughout the day. It was new age stuff of the seventies, my early teen years. It seems to have died the death.

So now for the details and correctives.

An algorithm is indeed most associated with computing and data processing, though it may be used in a broader sense, mathematically or not. In fact it can be used to describe the process to get any result. In that sense a cookbook is a set of algorithms. But even in computing, the term is broader than my working understanding of it implied. I was thinking of particular algorithms, the ones used by certain web presences like Google, Facebook and Netflix to get you hooked into continuing to use them. To get you addicted, in a sense. So that’s all that needs to be said here about algorithms in general. In another post I’ll look at those particular algorithms that have worked so well for their creators (or the hirers of those creators) that they’ve become some of the richest folk in the world. That should be much more interesting. 

A logarithm is also something like what I thought it was, but of course my understanding was very vague. It’s described as the inverse function to exponentiation – just as I sort of thought. For example, take the number 64, and think of it as 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, or 2. The 6 here is the exponent (n), while the 2 is the base (b), so the general formulation is bn. The exponent (n) is also called the power, as in two to the sixth power, 26. Now, say that you want to know what power to raise the number two to get 256. That’s to say, 2n = 256, find n. This number that we want to find is the logarithm. So the question or equation can be restated thus:

log2(256) = n , find n

and the answer is n = 8. So the logarithm is the power that we have to raise a specified (base) number to, in order to get to another specified number. That’s all we need to know as a beginning. Obviously it gets more complicated with higher powers – but then, with higher powers, anything’s possible.

A biorhythm chart is a development of ideas concocted by one Wilhelm Fliess, a good mate of the only slightly less eccentric Sigmund Freud, back in the late 19th century. I well remember this fad gaining super-popularity in the seventies, with a paperback on the topic floating around our household. That and ‘speed reading’ were all the go. The basic hypothesis was that our lives – presumably in terms of energy, ‘clarity’ and competence – go in cycles, which can be charted as sinusoidal waves. The standard model argued for a 23-day physical cycle, a 28-day emotional cycle and a 33-day intellectual cycle. I’ve actually met someone who drew up these charts for herself back in the day. You live and learn. Needless to say, there’s no evidence whatever to back these ideas up, but they’re claimed often as ancient learning which has been eclipsed by the monstrous juggernaut of modern science, much like that other font of cyclical predictive wisdom, astrology…..

References

https://computer.howstuffworks.com/what-is-a-computer-algorithm.htm

Khan academy video: intro to logarithms

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biorhythm

https://keisan.casio.com/exec/system/1340246447

Written by stewart henderson

June 6, 2019 at 9:55 am

situation USA 2: reflections on the Mueller Report and more recent events

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I’m listening with moderate interest to Sam Harris’s recent interview with a legal journalist, Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare, about the Mueller Report. Harris and I share a total abhorrence of Trump, but Harris gives the appearance of being apologetic about it, presumably because he’s an American and a Big Name with a large following, a percentage of whom are Trumpets, who either follow Harris because of his castigations of the Left and identity politics, or just like trolling and giving him a hard time. So it’s no surprise that he’s been avoiding the Trump disaster over the last year or so, and focusing largely on more positive stuff.

However, with the Mueller Report all done, and Trump so far from done, he’s found an expert to dive into the report’s findings and implications. I’m not a lawyer of course, but I’ve read the report and, no doubt like many other such readers, I feel smugly annoyed at the way it has been misrepresented by both sides of politics.

I’m broadly in agreement with Wittes’s analysis of the report, even if I find the legalistic tone a little obfuscating at times, given the nature of the crisis created by Trump’s advent. One thing, though, I continue to be disappointed about – and this is common to most legal analyses I’ve heard, is a kind of dithering or a throwing up of the hands vis-a-vis ‘the indictment of a sitting President’.

Trump should now be in prison for the campaign finance violations he directed Michael Cohen to commit (and would be if he had lost the election). It seems to me grossly unjust that Cohen – though he did commit other crimes – should go to prison for two felonies related to payments Trump arranged to be made to women he had secret relations with, and one crime of lying to Congress about Trump’s financial dealings in Russia, without Trump also being charged and convicted. Cohen was sentenced to 3 years’ prison all up, and it appears impossible to separate the sentences for crimes directed by Trump from other sentences, but it’s certain that Trump, as the ‘Mr Big’ who hired Cohen, should receive longer sentences than Cohen for those particular offences. Presumably he will be charged and imprisoned when he leaves office – for these any many other crimes. If he isn’t, this will simply add to the USA’s well-deserved global disgrace. 

Anyway, the interview takes the Mueller Report’s findings in order, first its release and the behaviour of Barr, then volume one and collusion/conspiracy, and then volume two and obstruction. 

Wittes first defends Barr regarding the delayed, redacted release of the report. He describes the redaction process as ‘labour-intensive’ and time consuming, so that the near 4-week lag from the completion of the 400-plus page document to its release was justified. He also feels that the redactions themselves were by and large reasonable (something that can’t really be determined until we get to read the unredacted version). My essential quibble with this claim is that everything I’ve learned about Mueller, through reading the report itself and through listening to those who know him and have worked with him, is that he is meticulous and thorough in all legal matters. So it seems to me more or less certain that he would not have handed the report over in unredacted form. Of course Barr would’ve received the unredacted report as Mueller’s boss, but Mueller surely would’ve given detailed indications of what the redactions should be, and why those redactions should be made. Had Barr accepted those indications holus-bolus the report could’ve been handed over to Congress and the public almost immediately. There are two other reasons why Barr may have wanted to delay. First, to intrude further into the redaction process (in Trump’s favour), and second, to delay for the sake of delay, hoping that the commotion might die down, that ardour might cool even slightly, and even to delay the inevitable (as the Trump administration has been doing since). 

Wittes next talks about the letter Barr wrote soon after receiving the report, and its distortion of the report’s content. This of course relates to the delay in the release of the report, because Barr’s summary, which he later tried to argue wasn’t a summary, seemed to exonerate Trump of all crimes, allowing Trump and his administration to claim complete innocence. The duplicitous ‘summary’, which Mueller himself criticised severely in a letter to Barr, seems further evidence that Barr’s delayed release of the redacted report was strategic. The duplicity is revealed, as Wittes points out, in an analysis of Barr’s selective quotes from the report, published in the New York Times. Having just read the letter myself, I find this quote particularly disturbing: 

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Having read volume two of the report, and listened to many legal analysts discussing it, I find this pretty astonishing. You’d have to wonder what could constitute obstruction, according to Barr (though the answer is pretty evident from his 19-page letter on the matter which got him appointed A-G in the first place). As to Rosenstein, his role in the administration is being reassessed in the light of this endorsement.

But now I need to interrupt this analysis in the light of a recent brief press conference held by Mueller. He has used this platform to stress the finding that, due to Department of Justice policy, charging the President with a crime was ‘not an option we could consider’ – that’s to say, it was never on the table from the start. This, presumably, regardless of the crime – murder, rape, grand larceny, treason, no crime is so heinous that it needs to be dealt with pronto. Instead, Mueller refers to his introduction to volume 2 of the report. Here is the essential message from Mueller’s presentation:

If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the President did commit a crime. The introduction to volume 2 of our report explains that decision. It explains that under long-standing department policy a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and kept from public view, that too is prohibited. The Special Counsel’s office is under the Department of Justice and under the regulation it was bound by that department policy. Charging the President with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider. The department’s written opinion explaining the policy makes several important points that further informed our handling of the obstruction investigation…. First the opinion explicitly permits the investigation of a sitting President because it is important to preserve evidence while memories are fresh and documents available…. And second the opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrong-doing.

The words in italics are, importantly, Mueller’s emphases. As just about every pundit agrees, Mueller has emphasised this part of the report very deliberately to indicate that, now, that other process should take over. That’s to say, congressional oversight or impeachment.

But what Mueller and almost everyone else in the USA doesn’t get, is that this other process is fundamentally flawed because it is a political process. It is simply wrong to shirk the legal responsibility of dealing with legal issues, for one person only – the POTUS. It is, in fact, corrupt, to a degree that is so screamingly obvious to an outsider like me, that I feel like committing the whole nation to an institution for the criminally insane. And if the US Constitution permits this, so much the worse for that constitution. I must admit to being sick to death of the US Constitution being referred to in reverential and worshipful tones by Americans. It seems to make critical analysis impossible, almost treasonous. In any case, the implication of not being able to charge the President with clear-cut criminal behaviour, is this – with great power comes great immunity.

By not dealing directly with Trump’s criminality, or Presidential criminality in general, for whatever lame historical reasons, the Department of Justice has handed this situation over to partisan players, most of whom are not qualified or educated in law. This is wrong. And I’ve not heard a single US ‘expert’ point this out. To describe this as extremely frustrating is a vast understatement. I note that Mueller uses the weasel term ‘wrong-doing’ instead of crimes, to try to get the DoJ off the hook. It won’t do. Trump has committed crimes. His ‘fixer’ is in jail for some of them, and most lawyers happily say that they would win convictions for others. This whole sorry situation will damage, deservedly, the USA’s reputation for a long time into the future. Permanently, in fact, until it gets it the criminal liability of its all-too powerful leaders sorted out. Currently their President is above the law, and that’s the example they’re setting for heads of state everywhere.

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2019 at 8:38 am

On Massimo Pigliucci on scientism 2: brains r us

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neuroethics is coming…

In his Point of Inquiry interview, Pigliucci mentions Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape a couple of times. Harris seeks to make the argument, in that book, that we can establish, sometime in the future, a science of morality. That is, we can be factual about the good life and its opposite, and we can be scientific about the pathways, though there might be many, that lead towards the good life and away from the bad life. I’m in broad agreement about this, though for pragmatic reasons I would probably prefer the term ‘objective’ to ‘scientific’. Just because it doesn’t frighten the horses so much. As mentioned in my previous post, I don’t want to get hung up on terminology. Science obviously requires objectivity, but it doesn’t seem clear to everyone that morality requires objectivity too. I think that it does (as did, I presume, the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and I think Harris argues cogently that it does, based on our well-being as a social species. But Pigliucci says this about Harris’s project:

When Sam Harris wrote his famous book The Moral Landscape, the subtitle was ‘How science can solve moral questions’ – something like that. Well that’s a startling question if you think about it because – holy crap! So I would assume that a typical reader would buy that book and imagine that now he’s going to get answers to moral questions such as whether abortion is permissible and in what circumstances, or the death penalty or something… And get them from say physics or chemistry, maybe neuroscience, since Harris has a degree in neuroscience..

Pigliucci makes some strange assumptions about the ‘typical reader’ here. Maybe I’m a long way from being a ‘typical reader’ (don’t we all want to think that?) but, to me the subtitle (which is actually ‘How science can determine human values’) suggests, again, methodology. By what methods, or by what means, can human value – that’s to say what is most valuable to human well-being – be determined. I would certainly not have expected, reading the actual sub-title, and considering the main title of the book, answers to specific moral questions. And I certainly wouldn’t expect answers to those questions to come from physics or chemistry. Pigliucci just mentions those disciplines to make Harris’s views seem more outrageous. That’s not good faith arguing. Neuroscience, however, is closer to the mark. Our brains r us, and if we want to know why a particular mammal behaves ‘badly’, or with puzzling altruism, studying the animal’s brain might be one among many places to start. And yet Pigliucci makes this statement later on re ‘scientistic’ scientists

It seems to me that the fundamental springboard for all this is a combination of hubris, the conviction that what they do is the most important thing – in the case of Sam Harris for instance, it turns out at the end of the book [The Moral Landscape] it’s not just science that gives you the answers, it’s neuroscience that gives you the answers. Well, surprise surprise, he’s a neuroscientist.

This just seems silly to me. Morality is about our thoughts and actions, which start with brain processes. Our cultural practices affect our neural processes from our birth, and even before our conception, given the cultural attitudes and behaviours of our future parents. It’s very likely that Harris completed his PhD in cognitive neuroscience because of his interest in human behaviour and its ethical consequences (Harris is of course known for his critique of religion, but there seems no doubt that his greatest concerns about religious belief are at base concerns about ethics). Yet according to Pigliucci, had Harris been a physicist he would have written a book on morality in terms of electromagnetic waves or quantum electrodynamics. And of course Pigliucci doesn’t examine Harris’s reasoning as to why he thinks science, and most particularly neuroscience and related disciplines, can determine human values. He appears to simply dismiss the whole project as hubristic and wrong-headed.

I know that I’m being a little harsh in critiquing Pigliucci based on a 20-minute interview, but there doesn’t seem any attempt, at least here, to explain why certain topics are or should be off-limits to science, except to infer that it’s obvious. Does he feel, for example, that religious belief should be off-limits to scientific analysis? If so, what do reflective non-religious people do with their puzzlement and wonder about such beliefs? And if it’s worth trying to get to the bottom of what cultural and psychological conditions bring about the neurological networking that disposes people to believe in a loving or vengeful omnipotent creator-being, it’s also worth trying to get to the bottom of other mind-sets that dispose people to behave in ways productive or counter-productive to their well-being. And the reason we’re interested isn’t just curiosity, for the point isn’t just to understand our human world, but to improve it.

Finally Pigliucci seems to confuse a lack of interest, among such people in his orbit as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss, in philosophy, especially as it pertains to science, with scientism. They’re surely two different things. It isn’t ‘scientism’ for a scientist to eschew a particular branch of philosophy any more than it is for her to eschew a different field of science from her own, though it might seem sometimes a bit narrow-minded. Of course, as a non-scientist and self-professed dilettante I’m drawn to those with a wide range of scientific and other interests, but I certainly recognise the difficulty of getting your head around quantum mechanical, legal, neurological, biochemical and other terminology (I don’t like the word ‘jargon’), when your own ‘rabbit hole’ is so fascinating and enjoyably time-consuming.

There are, of course, examples of scientists claiming too much for the explanatory power of their own disciplines, and that’s always something to watch for, but overall I think the ‘scientism’ claim is more abused than otherwise – ‘weaponised’ is the trendy term for it. And I think Pigliucci needs to be a little more skeptical of his own views about the limits of science.

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2019 at 3:09 pm

On Massimo Pigliucci on scientism: part 1 – what is science?

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Massimo Pigliucci, who seems like a nice enough bloke…

 

I’ve written a couple of posts on scientism (all references below), which is for some reason a topic that always gets me exercised. So a recent brief interview with the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, on the Point of Inquiry podcast, has set me back on the wagon. This blog post will be a piece by piece analysis of (some bits of) the interview. 

I’ll begin with the Point of Inquiry host Kavin Senapathy’s intro, in which she gives a definition of scientism as:

this idea that the scientific method is the only worthwhile way of answering questions, and that any question that can’t be tackled using science is therefore unimportant or frivolous, and this often seems to apply to areas of social or political concern. In practice, those with a scientific approach try to colonise other areas of expertise and call them science. So this is really an ideology

So scientism is an ideology (and Pigliucci agrees with this later in the interview). I must say I’m skeptical of both terms, but let me focus for now on ‘ideology’. I once recall, during a meeting of secular and religious humanists, an old bloke beside me describing atheism as an ideology. The term’s often abused, and almost invariably used as a put-down. Only the other day, our former PM, John Howard, not known for his scientific literacy, complained that the recent federal election was marred by ‘climate change ideology’, by which he clearly meant the view that anthropogenic global warming is an issue. 

More important here, though, is the attempt to define scientism, which makes me wonder if scientism is really a thing at all. The problem for me here is that it’s obvious that any area of ‘social or political concern’ will benefit from rigorous thought, or inference, based on various forms of evidence. Whether you want to call it science or not isn’t, for me, a major issue. For example, a state’s immigration policy would best be based on a range of concerns and analyses about its population, its resources, its productivity, its degree of integration, its previous experience of immigration, its relations with neighbours, the needs and aspirations of the immigrants, and so on. These factors can’t simply be intuited (though politicians generally do base their decisions on intuition, or ideology), but whether such analysis rises to the level of science doubtless depends on how you define science. However, it would clearly benefit from science in the form of number-crunching computer technology – always bearing in mind the garbage-in-garbage-out caveat. 

So, it’s not about ‘colonising’ – it’s about applying more rigour, and more questioning, to every area of human activity. And this is why ‘scientism’ is often a term of abuse used by the religious, and by ‘alternative medicine’ and ‘new age’ aficionados, who are always more interested in converts than critiques. 

Returning to the interview, Pigliucci was asked first off whether it’s a common misconception among skeptics that there’s a thing called ‘the scientific method’: 

Yes I think it is, and it’s actually a common misconception among scientists, which is more worrisome. If you pick up a typical science textbook… it usually starts out with a short section on the scientific method, by which they usually mean some version of… the nomological deductive model. The idea is that science is based firstly on laws…. the discovery of laws of nature, and ‘deductive’ means that mostly what is done is deduction, the kind of inferential reasoning that mathematicians and logicians do. But no scientists have ever used this model, and philosophers of science have debated the issue over the last century of so and now the consensus among such philosophers is that scientists do whatever the hell works….

(I’ve ‘smoothed out’ the actual words of Pigliucci here and elsewhere, but I believe I’ve represented his ideas accurately). I found this an extraordinary confession, by a philosopher of science, that after a century of theorising, philosophers have failed abysmally in trying to define the parameters of the scientific process. I’m not sure if Pigliucci understands the significance, for his own profession, of what he’s claiming here. 

I have no problems with Pigliucci’s description that scientists ‘do what works’, though I think there’s a little more to it than that. Interestingly, I read a few books and essays on the philosophy of science way back in my youth, before I actually started reading popular science books and magazines, and once I plugged into the world of actual scientific experimentation and discovery I was rarely tempted to read that kind of philosophy again (mainly because scientists and science writers tend to do their own practical philosophising about the field they focus on, which is usually more relevant than the work of academic philosophers). I came up, years ago, with my own amateur description of the scientific process, which I’ll raise here to the status of Universal Law:

Scientists employ an open-ended set of methods to arrive at reliable and confirmable knowledge about the world.

So, while there’s no single scientific method, methodology is vital to good science, for hopefully obvious reasons. Arriving at this definition doesn’t require much in the way of philosophical training, so I rather sympathise with those, such as Neil Degrasse Tyson, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who are targeted by Pigliucci as promoters or practitioners of scientism (largely because they feel much in the philosophy of science is irrelevant to their field). But first we really need to get a clearer view of what Pigliucci means by the term. Here’s his attempt at a definition:

Scientism is the notion that some people apply science where either it doesn’t belong or it’s not particularly useful. So, as betrayed by the ‘ism’, it’s an ideology. It’s the notion that it’s an all-powerful activity and that all interesting questions should be reducible to scientific questions. If they’re not, if science can’t tell you anything, then either the question is uninteresting or incoherent. This description of scientism is generally seen as a critique, though there are some who see scientism as a badge of honour.

Now I must say that I first came across scientism in this critical sense, while watching a collection of speeches by Christians and pro-religion philosophers getting stuck into ye olde ‘new atheism’ (see the references below). Their views were of course very defensive, and not very sophisticated IMHO, but scientism was clearly being used to shelter religious beliefs, which cover everything from morality to cosmology, from any sort of critique. There was also a lot of bristling about scientific investigations of religion, which raises the question, I suppose, as to whether anthropology is a science. It’s obvious enough that some anthropological analyses are more rigorous than others, but again, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over such questions.

But the beauty of the scientific quest is that every ‘answer’ opens up new questions. Good science is always productive of further science. For example, when we reliably learned that genes and their ‘mutations’ were the source of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution, myriad questions were raised about the molecular structure of genes, where they were to be found, how they were transferred from parents to offspring, how they brought about replication and variation, and so forth. Science is like that, the gift that keeps on giving, turning ‘unknown unknowns’ into ‘known unknowns’ on a regular basis. 

I’ve read countless books of ‘popular’ science – actually many of them, such as Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, James Gleick’s The information, and Oliver Morton’s Eating the the sun, are fiendishly complex, so not particularly ‘popular’ – as well as a ton of New Scientist, Scientific American and Cosmos magazines, and no mention has been made of ‘the scientific method’ in any of them, so Pigliucci’s claim that many scientists believe in some specific method just doesn’t ring true to me. But let me turn to some more specific critiques.

When Sam Harris wrote The Moral Landscape…he wrote in an endnote to the book that by science he meant any kind of reasoning that is informed by facts. Well, by that standard when my grandmother used to make mushroom risotto for me on Sundays, she was using science, because she was reasoning about what to do, based on factual experience. Surely that doesn’t count as science [laughing]… Even if you think of ‘food science’ as a science that’s definitely not what my grandmother was doing. It’s this attempt to colonise other areas of expertise and call them science…

In my view Pigliucci disastrously misses the point here. Making a delicious risotto is all about method, as is conducting an effective scientific experiment. It’s not metaphorical to say that every act of cooking is a scientific experiment – though of course if you apply the same method to the same ingredients, MacDonalds-style, the experimental element diminishes pretty rapidly. Once someone, or some group, work out how to make a delicious mushroom risotto (I’m glad Pigliucci chose this example as I’ve cooked this dish countless times myself!) they can set down the recipe – usually in two parts, ingredients and method – so that it can be more or less replicated by anyone. Similarly, once scientists and technologists work out how to construct a functioning computer, they can set down a ‘computer recipe’ (components and method of construction) so that it can be mass-produced. There’s barely any daylight between the two processes. The first bread-makers arguably advanced human technology as much as did the first computer-makers.

I have quite a bit more to say, so I’ll break this essay into two parts. More soon.

References – apart from the first and the last, these are all to pieces written by me.

Point of Inquiry interview with Massimo Pigliucci

Discussion on scientific progress and scientism, posted April 2019

A post about truth, knowledge and other heavy stuff, posted March 2013

politics and science need to mix, posted August 2011

On supervenience, posted January 2011

Roger Scruton and the atheist ‘fashion’, posted January 2011

a critique of Johnathan Ree’s contribution, posted January 2011

Marilynne Robinson tries her hand at taking on ‘new atheism’, posted January 2011

After new atheism: where now for the god debate? Talks by Marilynne Robinson, Roger Scruton and Jonathan Ree

Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2019 at 11:50 am