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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

May 24, 2010 | 13 Comments

Martin Gardner, Philosophical Scrivener, RIP

All regular readers will surely know Martin Gardner, writer, philosopher, mathematician, magician, exposer of flim flam. He died Saturday night; according to long-time friend and magician James Randi, peacefully.

For those who did not know Gardner, Roger Kimball’s tribute is an excellent starting point.

Gardner made it to 95, which is a damn good run. Florence King warns that we should never call somebody a “national treasure” because it is a cliché; but if those words don’t apply to Gardner, they’ll never be adequate for anybody. We are all better off because he lived.

Most of us knew his mathematical columns for Scientific American, back when that publication was serious. Many or most of those columns were compiled into books, of which we all have a few on our shelves.

He was also known for his columns exposing pseudo-science in the Skeptical Inquirer, back when that publication did not belong to the Socialist party. His best-known book in this field is Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, a sublime work that is mandatory reading.

Most don’t realize that Gardner was not a trained mathematician: he was a philosopher. He was a student of Rudolph Carnap, one of the leading minds of logical probability and, well, friend to induction. It is helpful to know that Carnap was hostile to the theories of Karl Popper; this skepticism was passed to Gardner, who gave it to all of us, tightly packaged in, inter alia, Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?. I in particular owe a tremendous intellectual debt to these grand gentlemen.

But about those topics, another day. For now, let’s look at his deepest work, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, which he said was “a book of essays about what I believe and why.”

Gardner called himself a “philosophical theist”; and since that term is unfamiliar, it is important to emphasize that Gardner was not an atheist. He accepted the existence of God and believed in the afterlife. Yet he was not religious, in the sense of belonging to an organized sect. He did, however, pray, but not on bended knee, but as Coleridge did, in “a silent ‘sense of supplication.'”

Prayer is a mode of communication, but not a magical activity designed to sway God to intercede in a material way. Indeed, Gardner was a kind of fideist, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy somewhat too tersely describes as the belief “that faith is in some sense independent of, if not outright adversarial toward, reason.”

God cannot intercede materially, because He designed the physical laws upon which the universe runs. To break them is therefore impossible; they are inviolate. Because of this, we cannot seek for the proof of God’s existence empirically. We can only come to God through faith.

Ah, faith, a very difficult word. Troublemaker William James liked to quote a schoolboy who said, “Faith is when you believe something you know ain’t true.” This is scurrilous. A better definition comes from Russell, who said faith is “a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” This can only be improved by changing the last words to “for which there can be no evidence.”

It is important—crucial!—to hold separate this meaning from “faith”‘s other shades, hope and trust. You may hope of God but you must first have faith in His existence. And trust is a rational response to empirical evidence; you trust a pilot to steer you in the proper direction, for example.

It is Russell’s sense of “faith” that philosophers have found so frightening. They want to talk of belief in the absence of material proof, but they don’t want to use the word “faith” because of its connotations with religion. So they instead talk of “a priori knowledge”, or of “synthetic a priori statements.”

But it’s all one, and there lies the fright and the reason many philosophers and would-be philosophers embraced relativism so warmly. You cannot discuss faith, the belief in the absence of proof, without asking why. The answer is always, “because my intuition says so.” Now, it is certainly true—examples are without number—that intuition has misled, that it has provided for beliefs that were false. But from this it does not follow that intuition always misleads.

Carnap labored vainly his whole career to emphasize that point, but he never convinced more than a minority. The rest of philosophy, as Donald Williams tells us, “in its dread of superstition and dogmatic reaction, has been oriented purposely toward skepticism: that a conclusion is admired in proportion as it is skeptical; that a jejune argument for skepticism will be admitted where a scrupulous defense of knowledge is derided or ignored; that an affirmative theory is a mere annoyance to be stamped down as quickly as possible to a normal level of denial and defeat.” (A favorite quote of David Stove’s.)

Gardner never surrendered to the wiles of skepticism. He quoted Luke: “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” I am sure those of us who do not have faith at least hope Gardner has gone to his reward.

May 23, 2010 | 12 Comments

eBooks And The Future of Reading

Warning: Raw Speculation Alert. You have been warned!

You are reading. This form of reading will not disappear.

eBooks—whether they be standalone devices, or merely apps on multipurpose toys like cell phones—will cause the reading of short bursts of words on a screen to become increasingly common. The key is “short”: columns such as this already push the limit of most people’s patience (yes, the content, too).

The reading of book-length material—which is to say books in electronic or paper forms—will decline rapidly. eBook sales will increase, accelerating over the next five years. With the closing of mall stores, and with the mega stores faltering, “consumer” eBook sales will overtake paper books within the next two decades. Paper books will dominate in commercial venues for some time.

Do not confuse sales with reading! They are not the same; they are only weakly correlated. This is also so for paper books (pBooks?), but at least the correlation with reading and sales of pBooks is high. This correspondence is not exact for many reasons: many pBooks are especially designed not to be read (coffee table and “gift” books), college textbooks lie fallow, and we often do not meet our intentions.

Many reviewers of standalone eBook devices whine that the screens are not color or that the devices do not allow for distractions, such as web surfing. Manufacturers have heard these complaints and have responded, and they will continue to respond. Standalone, dedicated-purpose eBook devices, therefore will become rare, forcing distraction-free reading to become rare.

The number of books that will be published will initially increase dramatically, but only in electronic format. There is little reason for publishers to refuse all-electronic books: as long as would-be authors conform to the software standard, books will slide without friction into the system because the marginal cost of storing a new book is near zero. Most of these offerings will not be promoted, and fewer will earn money. Eventually, the flood will ebb, and most writing will migrate on-line, in bite-sized packages (I resisted “byte”-sized).

Print-on-demand will flourish. Many people and institutions, such as libraries, will continue to buy paper copies of books. Since most book stores will close, print-on-demand will become the only real route to obtain paper copies. Surviving publishers will merge with companies like Amazon to ensure top listings.

Used bookstores, for the most part, and in all small cities, will die, mostly because of the lack of new stock. Specialty stores might exist, but will be frequented only by scholars or other elite. Nearly all sales of used books will migrate on line. Discovering new writers, therefore, will be difficult for most.

eBooks will finally kill reading for the common man. There will remain a core, a small fraction of humanity that continues to read book-length material regularly. This fraction will return to the low levels seen for most of recorded history.

Cynthia Ozick, in her “The Question of Our Speech: The Return to the Aural Culture”, reminds us that “mass literacy itself is the fixity of no more than a century”, an era which began with the introduction of leisure and the industrialization of printing. Obviously, the number and types of entertainment which require less effort than reading will become ubiquitous and cheap.

Books are a wonderfully stunted technology: they require no power source, they can be dropped, sat on, crushed, filled with sand or even water, and they still work. They can be lent, used as props or decorations, hurled, written in. They are useful for storage of small, flat objects like leaves. They can be sold and resold.

They are single-purpose: all they do is to display the set of words they came with. No matter what else changes, no matter the speed of the latest chips, or the changes in operating systems, those words remain the same. As long as the book isn’t lost, burned, or otherwise destroyed, there will never be any reason to replace it, nor to pay for its content more than once.

But best of all, they offer no distractions! You cannot press a button on the page to bring you to a website, nor can you check email or Facebook, nor can you Tweet. You can only read, or possibly take a note as you read. Further, your notes will never be lost as long as the book is not lost. They have no volume dial!

eBooks do not allow ownership of books; they merely grant licenses, which may be revoked, as has happened, and will continue to happen, particularly for works deemed “controversial.” Electronic bowdlerization and deletion will replace bonfires.

Remember: you read it here last.

Update I have just learned that Martin Gardner has died. More tomorrow on this great man—and writer of timeless books.

May 21, 2010 | 55 Comments

Louisiana State University Professor Booted: Course Too Hard

I have long predicted that as the proportion of high school graduates attending college increases, the classes offered at colleges would have to become easier. If they did not, then the proportion of students failing courses would increase to intolerable levels.

This prediction was correct. As proof, I offer you the story of Dominique Homberger, who tried teaching Biology 1001, “a large introductory course for nonscience majors at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.” A lot of kids flunked her first exam. And then a lot failed her second exam. In the end, about one out five students dropped out of her course.

Get it? Students were receiving bad grades! Grades that would decide their very future and control their fate. Horror!

The Dean, Kevin Carman, flew (well, walked vigorously) to the rescue. He booted Homberger from the classroom and had Homberger’s replacement artificially boost every kid’s grade.

“Don’t worry, poor children,” Dean Carman told the sobbing students, “Here are the As you deserve. You are not stupid. You are smart. Bad grades aren’t your fault. Remind your parents to send in your tuition checks.”

But, really—what excuse did LSU offer for this extraordinary act? “The grade distribution in Ms. Homberger’s section was far out of line with the historical pattern in Biology 1001.” I’m sure anybody from the Philosophy department (if they still have one) could have told them that this was a tautology with respect to the question asked: it is a restatement of the facts and not a reason.

Poor Dr Homberger didn’t see it coming. She ordinarily taught an advanced course in comparative anatomy, well known as brutal-going but rewarding. But she decided to see how the other half lived and volunteered to teach Bio 1001, a course specially designed for people who won’t be able to understand biology. Excuse me, I meant for non-science majors.

All went well until she gave her first exam. Students immediately complained of Homberger’s “eccentric format” of the test. A shocked LSU professor said that she “was using multiple-choice questions—but instead of the typical four or five possible answers, she used as many as 10.”

Oh, how I weep (retroactively) for the poor, benumbed kids who had to whittle down a correct response from twice as many possibilities as usual! (An example question from Homberger is copied below.)

What other infamies were there? Students said, “the questions often dealt with material that had been assigned as reading but never discussed in the classroom” (emphasis mine). Yes, dear readers, this termagant, this rogue professor assumed that the darlings in her charge would actually read the material assigned to them.

I know it may be difficult to face, but it was still worse. Many kids were downright “irked” because Homberger “did not give out detailed study guides for tests.” See! See! No wonder they couldn’t find the right answers.

Anyway, other smart alecks heard how Homberger was frog-marched from her classroom, so they began tossing criticisms at LSU. In the true spirit of collegiately, LSU responded by dishing dirt about Homberger, gossip which never rises above calling her a hard-ass.

For example, they put it out that “[s]tudents would complain and she would answer, ‘Did you have to read that? Well, then, you should know it.'” Just awful, no?

What about Homberger’s “academic freedom” to teach and grade how she likes? James Remsen, a professor of biology at LSU, called such talk “nauseating”, and said academic freedom “does not apply to what one teaches in core-curriculum courses.” He supports the Dean’s actions and said that LSU students “should worship at [his] altar” for giving them their (undeserved) grades.

Another prof fretted that Homberger didn’t hand out enough As, though he did acknowledge grading varies: “One [prof] is stingy with A’s, giving them to fewer than 5 percent of his students; one of his colleagues consistently awards 30 percent or more.” Did you catch that lingo? Grades aren’t earned, but are given or awarded.

LSU is now “investigating” a policy whereby the burden of grading can be removed from professors. Presumably, grading will be taken over by the Bursar. I jest not, dear reader. Just wait for the arguments that claim that high grades are a “right.”

Wait, did you hear that? It’s already being said. In an article on how maybe it’s not a good idea for all kids to go to college (sent in from reader and contributer Ari Schwartz), Peggy Williams, a counselor at a high school in suburban New York City said, “If we’re telling kids, ‘You can’t cut the mustard, you shouldn’t go to college or university,’ then we’re shortchanging them from experiencing an environment in which they might grow.”

The possibility that we’re saving them from routine humiliation caused from attempting what they cannot do evidently did not cross her mind.

Sample Question

From the Chronicle:

Students first read this article from the Financial Times (not usually considered difficult) and then answered this question:

(Choose the incorrect statement) Feral dogs in Moscow …

a. tend to have a similar look, with erect ears, thick fur, wedge-shaped head, and almond eyes.

b. look like a breed apart and very unlike the purebred dogs from which they may have descended.

c. vary in the color of their fur.

d. typically have a rolled-up tail.

e. tend to establish and defend territories.

f. are much less aggressive than wolves and are more tolerant of one another.

g. are an excellent example of feralization, which is the opposite mechanism of domestication.

h. rarely wag their tails and do not show affection toward humans.

May 18, 2010 | 6 Comments

Sue Over Climate Change? Comer v. Murphy Oil

You know the old saying: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. And then sue a company with a lot of money—the inclemency must be their fault.

Consider the case of Ned Comer et al. (plaintiffs) versus Murphy Oil USA et al. (defendants), now making its way through the United States Court of Appeal, Fifth Circuit (PDF).

See, old Ned was a sittin’ down on the Mississippi bayou, mindin’ his own bidness, when along came hurricane Katrina. Whap! Knocked old Ned right on his keister. “Ouch!” he said, rubbing the only part of his body that had ever been any use to him.

Boy, was Ned unhappy. And so were his neighbors. They got together and reasoned thusly: since no hurricane had ever hit us before, no hurricane could have hit us without that something nefarious occurred.

Now, nefarious doesn’t just happen on its own; it needs agents, minions, evil lackeys. Who might they be? How about that global warming everybody was chattering about? Wasn’t that supposed to create killer ‘canes? Yes, sir, it was.

But what made global warming? Why, carbon dioxide. And who made that nasty gas? Of course! Oil companies!

The neighbors cheered.

“Those oil companies sure are a nuisance,” said one. “They knew their product would cause old Ned grief.

“They were negligent,” said another.

“They’s trespassin’ on my property!” shouted a third.

“I think you mean they engaged in an ‘unjust enrichment’ of your land,” said number four, who knew a lot of big words because he had actually started high school (in Arkansas).

“It’s a civil conspiracy, that’s what it is,” said five.

Old Ned smiled on his gabbling crowd and announced, “They said oil was good for us. They lied! We’ll get ’em for fraudulent misrepresentation.”

Once more, a lusty cheer rolled across the swamp.

Thus encouraged, the gang lit up their torches and headed down to Sorry Hollow, where Junior Beauford’s boy Dewey was fighting a gator over ownership of a dead possum. Dewey had had a case of beer fall on his head when he was just a tyke, and was never quite right after that.

“Dewey! Say, Dewey! C’mere, boy!” shouted Ned. When Dewey clambered out of the muck, Ned said, “Dewey, we need you to sue Murphy Oil et al. for us.”

Later, a stack of papers landed on the local judge’s desk. The judge saw that it was the work of Dewey, and he figured Dewey was either drunk or going through one of his phases, so he tossed the papers in the ashcan and forgot all about them.

But the judge’s secretary was keen on recycling, so she retrieved the papers and returned them to Dewey, who, poor soul, reasoned the judge wanted him to appeal.

Now, them appellate judges—Davis, Stewart, and Dennis—are some good old boys. Here’s what they said about Dewey’s brief:

The plaintiffs allege that defendants’ operation of energy, fossil fuels, and chemical industries in the United States caused the emission of greenhouse gasses [sic] that contributed to global warming, viz., the increase in global surface air and water temperatures, that in turn caused a rise in sea levels and added to the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina, which combined to destroy the plaintiffs’ private property, as well as public property useful to them.

The Murphy clan, previously silent, cried foul. They said, “Didn’t old Ned and his neighbors, and even you judges drive down here propelled by some of our oil? Nobody forced you. If you hated oil so much, you could have rode your horse, or even walked. Start thinking straight.”

These words caused Stewart and Dennis to squirm, but not Davis, who still smarted from a vivid memory of having his mouth washed out with Murphy’s Oil Soap. He figured that some mystery chemical in that soap was what was responsible for his occasional hallucinations and dementia.

Stewart and Davis knew Murphy was right, but they also had to get along with the ornery Davis, so they figured they would compromise. They tossed out the civil conspiracy and fraudulent misrepresentation claims. They also got rid of that unjust enrichment bit, mostly because nobody knew what it meant.

But they said to old Ned, “Go ahead and sue for nuisance, trespass, and negligence. Those other things, though are non-justiciable.” Dewey explained to old Ned that “non-justiciable” was a word they had to use to make the whole thing legal.

And legal it was. Even as I write this, lawyers everywhere are licking their chops, delighted to discover a new area to sue about. Tobacco suits, after all, had grown pretty stale.

But who will win: Old Ned or Murphy? Stick around!


HT WSJ. Insanity not unique to Mississippi.

Update Link fixed. Thanks DAV.