Friday, July 31, 2015

Bernie Sanders

I was hoping not to bore you with political discussions, but Bernie Sanders is one of Vermont's U.S. senators, and he is adding an uncommon dimension to the 2016 presidential race, making it seem almost as if Noam Chomsky were about to debate Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination on national television. The last few presidential elections have been dull, and there usually isn't much point in paying attention to what the candidates say. I am familiar with several of Bernie's positions, but won't go into any detail here. Rather I'll just explain what I generally like and dislike about him and leave it at that.

What is appealing about Bernie is his willingness to state in plain terms the positions that he feels strongly about. I may be slightly biased because I generally agree with him: for example, it seems obvious to me that Citizens United was one of the worst rulings in the history of the Supreme Court and that the federal government is effectively a plutocracy. In the context of how public servants should be spending their time, there aren't currently many national politicians besides Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who actively oppose the interests of those who provide most of the funding for election campaigns. As a politician, Bernie is highly accessible in Vermont and doesn't engage in double-talk when he claims to represent the people. He has honed his message with the help of years of political experience during which he learned how to win people over. His strongest card by far, and what makes him stand out the most, is his visible enthusiasm for the causes he values. That passion is contagious, and you won't find it in Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or any of the Republican candidates. Bernie is possibly the best hope in the U.S. for generating a populist movement that counters the relentless trend toward greater inequality.

Unfortunately there are a few negatives about Bernie, from my point of view anyway. Although he has cleaned up his language considerably, his still sounds a lot like an old-school socialist along the lines of Noam Chomsky, and both of them seem to be operating on a conceptually obsolete political model. Bernie loves to say "working families," which means little to me. "Working," I think, is a way of saying "worker" without the direct socialist connotations. "Families," it seems to me, is a toned-down representation of "the people," and shows a conscious effort by Bernie to cast his ideas in a framework that is familiar and acceptable to most Americans. I don't think these are the optimal frames of reference, because they refer back to an industrial period that no longer exists. While it might be argued that we still have oppressed workers, the masses must rise up, etc., the real conditions are far more complex than that, and I'm not sure how Bernie would deal with the present global economic situation. Just saying "workers unite" won't fix anything. Furthermore, I don't know how Bernie would deal with automation and AI, which are inevitably going to eliminate millions or possibly billions of jobs worldwide. Although Bernie is focusing on the real problems, I'm not sure he has the vocabulary or tools to deal with them effectively.

Bernie is a smart Jewish guy from Brooklyn, but he doesn't quite make it into the top tier of that category. The problem is that the smartest people rarely go into politics, which is one of the reasons why I usually find it uninteresting. He followed a pattern roughly similar to that of Howard Dean, another New Yorker who moved to Vermont and found it easy to launch a political career here. The influx of liberals to Vermont has made the state as a whole far more liberal than it used to be, and some old-time Vermont conservatives now consider Chittenden County, where both Bernie Sanders and Howard Dean started their political careers, a different state. However, over the years Bernie has become popular statewide. Even so, our neighbor, former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, says in his memoir, "A reasonable case can be made that Bernie's legislative accomplishments don't match those of other Vermont senators, but his rhetorical accomplishments certainly do." There may be some sour grapes in that statement, because even though it may be accurate, Jim Douglas would probably have liked to have Bernie's current job himself.

My guess is that Bernie Sanders is using this situation as a method of advancing his causes, and that actually becoming president is not his primary goal. At a minimum the political discussion should be more interesting than usual this time around. In the extremely unlikely event that Bernie wins the Democratic nomination for president I will vote for him. Otherwise I may vote for a third-party candidate, if at all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Doubt the Experts Annual Meeting

The second annual world meeting of Doubt the Experts was held on July 28, 2015, and no additional meetings are currently scheduled for the remainder of this year. The only attendee other than me was John, the expat translator who currently resides in Switzerland. The meeting was held at the bar at American Flatbread in Middlebury, where we chatted and consumed beer for a little over an hour. Since I drank two pints, John advised me to take a short walk before driving home, but I told him that that wouldn't be necessary.

Of course, I'm kidding, and the only reason John was in Middlebury was that his family happens to gather here every summer. However, there appear to be a few more regular blog readers other than my family members, and some of them may also like to meet me during their travels at some point in the future. This blog is currently semi-anonymous, but I will respond to any e-mails I receive at if you would ever like to contact me directly for any reason. Whether or not you ever plan to come to Middlebury, I am always interested in your opinions and suggestions.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Future Art

The archaeological record indicates that humans have always created what we now call art. From a qualitative standpoint, I don't think there has been any substantial improvement since the Chauvet cave paintings, the epic poems of Homer or the plays of Euripides. The aspects that change over time are the social function, the media, the style, the materials and the subject matter, but not the quality, though some periods do inevitably produce better art than others. As I wrote earlier, I don't think that the contemporary arts, or at least the ones that are widely known and with which I have some familiarity, are particularly good by historical standards, and I attribute this to commercialization, which is not to say that there isn't some better contemporary art that is presently inaccessible to the public for one reason or another.

Extrapolating into the future, if you assume that we won't become extinct and that we won't be replaced by an evolutionary successor to ourselves, I think art will become more important than ever as a pastime, because we simply may have nothing better to do. This scenario assumes that we will remain more or less the same as we are now, automation will obviate the need for most human labor, the political systems globally will maintain a higher level of equality than at present, and human conflict will fall to significantly lower levels. It is a rosy picture that may end up depending on dumb luck to materialize, but I think it is worth discussing if one takes an optimistic view on human destiny. The principal alternatives are gloomy if not unsettling.

Speculating this way, what is interesting to me is how good art would be if you took money out of the equation. In the current art world, the flow of money is a stand-in for quality measurement, with the art that draws the most money often becoming the de facto important art as far as the public is concerned. I don't think Damien Hirst, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg or Madonna are likely to make it into any future lists of great artists, and it would be an improvement for humanity if its members somehow managed to become more discerning. If money were removed from the calculation of quality, it seems plausible that a more meaningful form of measurement might replace it.

In a world in which people had no financial pressures and an abundance of free time, everyone could become an artist of one kind or another if they so chose, and this would change the rules of the game entirely. Idle people like me might, for example, write a blog as a form of art, take up painting or write poems. Systems might even be devised to provide recognition to those who felt that what they produced was important despite the absence of monetary ramifications. No doubt social status would somehow work its way into any reward scheme, but it most likely would be far less pernicious than what we experience under the current system of financial recompense.

Let this be a word of advice to those who produce art now under circumstances which they find unfavorable. Produce your art as you see fit, forget the present and think about a less philistine future, even if that means that you must earn a living doing something else.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Dark Triad in Cyberspace

The term "Dark Triad" refers to the psychological traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, which are all considered negative. A few days ago I read an article containing this link to a recent study of male Dark Triad behavior on social networking sites (SNSs). Although I don't engage in any social networking, unless you stretch things and count this blog, I have long been intrigued by Internet behavior and how traditional relationships have been undermined by the invasion of technology into people's lives. Among the study's conclusions:
Men who self-objectify spent more time on SNSs than those lower in self-objectification, and, supporting previous research, more narcissistic individuals reported spending more time on SNSs. Those higher in narcissism and psychopathy reported posting selfies more frequently. Narcissists and individuals high in self-objectification more frequently edited photos of themselves that they posted to SNSs. Thus, our study has provided evidence for several as yet unstudied relationships between personality traits and social media use and self-presentation. Further, it suggests that those high on Dark Triad traits may employ SNSs to execute "cheater strategies" that help them achieve their interpersonal and social goals despite their antisocial personality traits.

As is the case with many psychological studies, these conclusions seem fairly obvious and were only awaiting research to confirm them. I am wondering whether the Internet simply provides a new venue for people who already have Dark Triad characteristics or whether it actually increases the total Dark Triad population. Studies such as this one are too narrow to draw many conclusions, but I would say that Dark Triad traits have been there all along but were previously more repressed by face-to-face interactions and the relative difficulty of representing oneself anonymously. It is theoretically possible that Dark Triad characteristics would increase in the species over time if people who are predisposed to one or more of those traits reproduced more than they did in the past, but it seems more probable that the gene pool was flexible to begin with and the Internet is now rewarding such behavior, in effect making bad people out of those who would behave better under different circumstances. More people are willing to lie, cheat, etc., when they believe that there is little likelihood of their being caught and held accountable, and in any case the Internet hasn't been around long enough to change the gene pool. A further complication regarding how much influence the Internet has over behavior is the decline of civil behavior in other sectors of society. For example, the number of reported serial killers dramatically increased from 1900 to 1980, with the U.S. leading the world, and there may be multiple explanations for such phenomena that relate in complex ways to Dark Triad behavior. However, I think that cyberspace in conjunction with other social changes is probably producing more Dark Triad behavior than was present in previous generations.

To some extent the Internet seems to be normalizing over time, particularly under the influence of businesses, which now derive much more revenue through it than they used to and therefore have much more at stake. This gives it a safer appearance, but I think many of the elements of the Wild West are still present. For example, cyber-bullying, cyber-crime and Internet trolls are far from eradicated. Then there is the massive research conducted by businesses such as Facebook, and Google to figure out how to squeeze more money out of their users or sell that information to someone else. I suspect that beneath the surface of many websites, very little civility exists at all. I have experienced this myself at Wikipedia and at the NYRB and don't doubt that the Internet is teeming with façades concealing private agendas that are hardly kind and generous. Moreover, though I don't currently interact with many people, I get the impression that many within the under-thirty age group may lead double lives. They may outwardly placate their parents and their elders by exhibiting the behaviors expected of them while privately engaging in different behaviors which may, at their worst, fit within a Dark Triad profile. Even when their behavior doesn't seem sinister, they may be suffering from spending too much of their time in cyberspace, where they are less likely to learn many of the skills that were once considered part of being human.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Video of the Day

Click here for Moosehead Lake Aurora.

Political Correctness is a Human Rights Violation

One sphere in which the denial of our mammalian heritage can readily be observed is that of political correctness. Those of us who are self-aware continuously recognize visceral reactions that we experience when we come into contact with certain people, and that some of these reactions may not be on the approved list. For example, I have developed both positive and negative associations with various ethnicities which consciously or unconsciously affect how I react to people, though without entailing rigid categories or unfair judgments on my part. For example, I grew up in a suburb of New York City inhabited by many lower-middle-class immigrants from Southern Italy, whom I generally found to be unrefined, and this association has stuck with me throughout my life. There was one family in particular that I got to know quite well which inadvertently encouraged stereotype formation. The mother doted on her two sons, and they could do practically whatever they liked. The older brother sometimes found it convenient to blow his nose on his bed sheet. The mother stayed home all day cooking and cleaning, and the father worked in the construction business in Queens. He drove a big black Cadillac, and I wouldn't be surprised if he had some connections with organized crime. They were nice enough people, but overall I developed a visceral dislike for the Southern Italians in the area. Later, when I lived near Chicago, I was exposed to a lot of Mexicans who mostly did landscaping or worked in restaurants. Although I came to respect their work ethic, it was obvious that the majority of them had little or no interest in becoming integrated members of American society, and they were operating within a self-imposed system of cultural isolation which made them relatively inaccessible to me. They generally seemed like poorly-educated lower class people who only wanted to work and be left alone.

In contrast to these somewhat negative reactions, I have more positive associations with some groups. The African blacks from Senegal and Liberia whom I met in college seemed intelligent, articulate and were often fun to be around. Later I worked with two Vietnamese refugees who were pleasant to encounter and seemed intelligent. My son-in-law, a Tibetan who grew up in Nepal, has a personality similar to my own. Although Americans comprise a highly mixed group, I usually place them somewhere in the middle in terms of positive and negative associations. On average there seems to be a dull, conformist, bovine quality to Americans that is hard to like but not particularly offensive. I also have mixed feelings about Northern Europeans even though I'm half English. My running theory is that the people who adapted to the harsh climate in Northern Europe may have become more cerebral than emotional, purely as a matter of survival, and as a result may have become emotionally stunted compared to Mediterraneans, who are generally more expressive.

Whether people admit it or not, they all have these kinds of reactions and take actions based on them. In my case this came into play in deciding where to live in retirement. I value low population density, an aesthetically desirable natural environment and an educated population, but as it has turned out I am also comfortable living in one of the least ethnically diverse states in the country. Vermont has a 96.4% white population, the highest of any state, though I didn't specifically consider this fact when deciding to move here. Our decision was based largely on an exploratory trip during which everyone whom we happened to encounter was white, and there were no Hispanics. We may still have chosen to move here if we had encountered different ethnic groups, but I think a case could be made for deep psychological influences underlying a preference for environments in which one feels an instinctive connection to the inhabitants, real or imagined.

The point here is that part of being human is having reactions like this, and the people who tell us to stop having them simply do not understand human nature. At best they are confusing the idea that all people must be treated equally, which is essentially a legal concept necessary to maintain fairness and order in a multicultural society, with an erroneous theory of human nature that denies the existence of known reactions that developed through an evolutionary process over the course of millions of years. Everyone has these reactions, and they are often harmless unless codified into a system such as Nazism, slavery, segregation or apartheid. In those instances the thought police, who directly benefited materially from the systems, created societies rife with inequality and unfairness. Unfortunately, the thought police in the U.S. today are just as likely to be associated with political correctness as with anything else. One may see this either as a misguided attempt by privileged liberals to put a stamp of authority on their sense of moral superiority or as a symptom of a collapsing society that attributes greater wisdom to the uninformed than they can possibly merit. Thankfully we are still able to laugh at political correctness or ignore it without going to jail.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What is Progress?

At this time of year the baby birds are leaving their nests and flying around confusedly. Yesterday an unkempt-looking little chickadee landed on the deck followed by its anxious parents, as if it were out trick-or-treating on Halloween in a dangerous neighborhood. The day before that, a baby goldfinch landed on the watering can that I was carrying and looked at me curiously for a minute before flying off. The babies of many species can be quite trusting before they learn the importance of fear.

By feeding the birds I am disrupting the local ecosystem. The goldfinch population, which constitutes the majority at the feeders, has grown over the last four years, and the trees in the vicinity are currently filled with bright yellow dots at certain times of day. They wait their turn at the feeder, and over time some of the branches have been denuded of foliage by the traffic. I'm going through about 320 pounds of sunflower kernels and 30 pounds of nyjer seed per year. The changes to the environment aren't that noticeable to me. There's now more prey available for hawks and cats, but small birds are hardly worth a hawk's effort, and there aren't many cats around. However, there are probably thousands of minute changes that you could detect if you did an in-depth study.

I don't think human populations behave all that differently from goldfinches. If you provide them with the essentials for living, all things being equal, their populations also increase. This is a phenomenon that the unpopular Thomas Malthus noticed over two hundred years ago. In current political thinking, talk of controlling human population growth intersects with racism, communism and any number of politically incorrect positions. I consider this one of the great paradoxes of our time: human population growth contributes to poverty, crime, political instability, war, pollution, climate change and mass extinctions, yet no one can discuss it without being labeled a racist, eugenicist or elitist of some sort. Illegal immigration to wealthy countries has become a fact of life, and few countries are currently able to deal with the problem effectively within their political systems.

While in some ways I am a liberal (e.g. I support Bernie Sanders), I often find this group collectively naïve about human nature. Specifically, it is a taboo to refer to people as animals even though they clearly are animals. Science increasingly shows that we are more like than unlike our fellow mammals. As I have remarked before, there is a denial of this fact embedded in our culture; it is associated with Christianity and Romanticism and oddly belies our professed belief in the separation of church and state. There seems to be an unrecognized assumption in society that man is better than nature despite the massive evidence to the contrary: man is nature, or, more precisely, part of it.

A little observation demonstrates that in broad biological terms humans aren't much different from goldfinches. Under the right environmental conditions both goldfinches and humans increase in population until factors rebalance their ecosystems. Both goldfinches and humans tend to exhibit the same basic behavior before and after population increases. Goldfinches continue to build nests, lay eggs, etc., and humans continue to build houses, have children, etc. Somehow in all of this humans are supposed to be making progress, and that is what I'm questioning here.

To be sure, there has been some progress within developed countries in terms of quality of life, health, longevity, education and knowledge, but at a more fundamental level there has been little change at all. The ideals and goals that people have now are hardly any different from those who lived during the Bronze Age. Agamemnon wanted a big house in a good location with protection from intruders, so did William the Conqueror, and so does Bill Gates. I am struck by what many wealthy people do with their money now: they build big houses in attractive locations just as wealthy people did three thousand years ago. Although it is never stated exactly as such, the American Dream implies that everyone has a right to own a large house in a pleasant location, and that is exactly how many people see it. This is easy to spot here in Vermont, to which about half of the population has moved from densely-populated regions in the Northeast, and many of them bought large retirement homes. In other words, the American Dream wouldn't quite work for them in Bayonne, Brooklyn, Bridgeport or Boston. In what way is this model an improvement for humanity, and is it sustainable?

This is sort of a "what's wrong with this picture?" post. If you live in the U.S. and absorb the ideas in circulation you may get the idea that this is a free country that encourages everyone to own a large house in a nice location and have as many children as they like. Has anyone, other than a few environmentalists, thought much about the impact of population growth? What will Vermont be like in fifty years if ten thousand new people move here every year? On a small scale I can simply stop feeding the goldfinches if they get out of control, but little attention is being paid to the much more significant problem of human population growth, which is already straining us with countless burdens.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

This Blog

During the summer months I spend more time outside or away than during the winter, and though I have never been what would be considered a heavy reader I read even less now. This dries up my writing material a little, and I hope I'm not becoming too boring or repetitious. I enjoy writing, because it allows me to put down thoughts that I rarely see elsewhere. I believe that my thinking is more independent and less derivative than it is for most people, and I feel a need to counter the light entertainment, propaganda, brainwashing and conformity that I see everywhere else. From my vantage point, the narratives that one encounters in books, magazines, film, television and throughout the Internet tend to reinforce each other even as they present a version of reality that is distorted compared to what I see. Of course, you can always write me off as a disgruntled crank, but many of the things that I object to I object to deeply after considerable observation and reflection and an effort to be unbiased. I have no ax to grind about anything and consider myself fortunate.

As it is, you may have to put up with whatever eruptions burst from my brain, however coherent or incoherent they may be. Today I've been thinking about what the main theme of this blog is. It looks to me as if the central one is the illusions one maintains during one's life: if one has an open mind, one realizes that many assumptions made earlier, either explicitly or implicitly, were just plain wrong. In a way I am observing and thinking like a novelist such as Honoré de Balzac, but I am making explicit interpretations of situations, people and events rather than presenting them as stories left to the reader's judgment. Balzac understood his era well, but he certainly doesn't pass my concision test, and his writing sometimes seems clumsy. Yet he creates memorable realism with, for example, the relationship between Lucien de Rubempré and Madame de Bargeton in Lost Illusions. I found it hilarious when, after all the buildup and fanfare during their escapades in Angoulême, the two split up permanently the moment they arrive in Paris. Of course, this is all written with French sangfroid and none of the sentimentality that American readers prefer, and as in most literature no one is there to point out anything to you. I am the man on the street who is there to do it - in the real world.

Probably I'm more sensitive to the consequences of delusional thinking than most people because of the lives my parents led, as recounted earlier. If people were able to see into the future they would radically alter some of their decisions. My mother thought she was marrying a dashing war hero who would take her away to a prosperous life in England. As it was, from a combination of immaturity, war trauma and a big ego, my father was a business failure and dead at age fifty. My mother never remarried and worked in menial jobs up until age seventy-five, when her Alzheimer's symptoms became pronounced, all the while stockpiling money saved with the help of her wealthy boyfriend, who treated her like a mistress. Late in life she speculated that her parents had intentionally set her adrift in order to have one less mouth to feed in postwar Greece. Any lingering fond thoughts for my father had evaporated by then.

The conditions that anyone who is now reading this is living under are probably far better than those of postwar Europe, but the same kinds of mistakes are made over and over again, perhaps with less dramatic consequence. My impression is that many young people don't understand the world, and many adults aren't much better. Although adults become acclimated to the world with which they are familiar, they are still susceptible to making false assumptions about how conditions may change during the remainder of their lives. Thus my repeated warning that no one is running the show - and the title of the blog.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Anti-Science Bias

As I said earlier, when I was growing up I was more interested in math and science than in the humanities, but by the end of high school I took up the humanities instead. Looking back, I've occasionally wondered whether I ought to have continued in the sciences. It is impossible to know now whether I would have preferred a more technical career, but as the job market tightens now it appears to be in most people's interest to beef up on science and technology if they want good jobs in the future. I have been thinking for a long time about why people get turned off science and will say a few things on that topic.

I've noticed that even the greatest scientists often have other strong interests that have nothing to do with science. Isaac Newton owned and read more books in the humanities than in math and science. His most famous work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which revolutionized physics and astronomy, contains few equations and follows a style similar to that of Euclid. He spent many years studying alchemy and mysticism, which today would place him among the ranks of the gullible. Albert Einstein also read widely and had hobbies such as playing the violin and sailing. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, many scientists write well - as well or better than many professional writers in the humanities - which indicates more than a superficial level of reading in non-scientific literature.

In the U.S. some parents are called "helicopter parents" and closely monitor their children in order to optimize their chances for success. The Asian "tiger moms" who have been in the news recently take radical steps to ensure that their children get top grades, particularly in math and the sciences. I consider these sociologically significant developments and think that these parents correctly recognize that their children will need this knowledge and the right credentials in order to have economically successful lives as adults if current trends continue. According to the "tiger mom" mentality, their children will become doctors and scientists or hold other top positions, while the children of many other parents will be doomed to lower-paying jobs or unemployment. This is interesting because even the wealthy class in the U.S. doesn't see things quite that way. Rather, the Bushes, the Kochs, the Rockefellers, etc., figure that they already have enough wealth and know how to keep it. Old money often becomes interested in the arts, charities or politics, and in most cases their children are set for life, making the relatively desperate behavior of "tiger moms" irrelevant from their point of view. One might argue that the rich are shortsighted in this instance, but I think that they represent some fundamental human features that aren't likely to disappear anytime soon.

My interpretation of this situation is that we are biologically and culturally predisposed to recognize and respond to the signals associated with high social status. While there is some recognition among wealthy Americans that their children need state-of-the-art educations that include science, they also recognize that the highest social status was once granted to those who didn't need to work and were, for example, merely conversant in the arts. The model in the U.S. dating from the nineteenth century and earlier has been to become fabulously wealthy by hook or by crook and then spend the remainder of your life demonstrating what good taste you have and what a nice person you are. These days, once rich, that often translates into buying ridiculously-priced art, building superfluous multi-million-dollar houses, funding research to cure AIDS, starting foundations to end child hunger, etc. The tastes among tech billionaires are a little different from those who were rich in the past, but the social function is little changed. A paradox seems to occur in parts of the upper middle class. These parents are not wealthy enough to be confident about the well-being of their children under many plausible future scenarios, and not all of them seem to have caught on to the fact that many of the professions could soon be downgraded with respect to income and social status. New software and outsourcing are already cutting into the pay of lawyers, and artificial intelligence may eventually cause a significant reduction in income among the medical and other professions. Some upper-middle-class parents still think that their children will do fine if they study, say, classics, art history or Romance languages, but economic reality is rapidly making that strategy implausible. In their case it seems as if obsolete social norms are doing their families a disservice.

Of course, in the U.S. in particular, there are more obvious sources of anti-science bias. As one of the ostensibly most Christian nations in the world, the U.S. is a stronghold for creationists and anthropogenic climate change deniers. There is also a lingering disruptiveness in the South emanating from the Civil War, making some Southerners behave like Luddites who, in a psychological sense, seem as if they would like to go back in time to the pre-industrial era during which their ancestors were able to become wealthy with slave labor. The South, though slowly modernizing, still possesses elements of willful anti-intellectualism that impede its economic and social progress and put it at odds with the developed world. Not much proof is needed to demonstrate that creationism is a pseudoscience that is best ignored, but it is still popular in the Bible Belt.

From an intellectual standpoint, the most interesting aspect of resistance to science has occurred in universities following C.P. Snow's introduction of the "two cultures" concept in 1959. Although I'm a long way from academia, there still seems to me to be an enormous rift between science and the humanities. They seem to be going their separate ways, with no shortage of enmity and little cooperation. I sometimes get the impression that the better scientists are more open-minded than the humanities academics who seem hell-bent on remaining scientifically illiterate, yet there are also a few presumptuous scientists who seem to have little understanding of the nuances of Western culture. The most arrogant and insensitive scientists use the successes of science to embellish their social prestige and don't always realize that they themselves have not escaped cultural paradigms that exist independently from the rationality that they claim to exemplify. The people who defend the humanities rightly recognize the importance to us of cultural history but at the extreme end do not represent openness to insights into reality that we would never have gained without scientific research. Extreme humanistic academics value culture so much more than science that they are comfortable living in a make-believe world that they erroneously believe can survive scientific scrutiny. As I wrote earlier, I believe that much of the popular thought in the Western tradition that pertains to ethics, political theory and human nature in general can be seen as warmed-over Christianity that harbors unquestioned theological dogma. While the worst scientific offenders are imperious bullies, the worst humanists are naïve fantasists.

To generally explain all of the above, I would say that we are in the process of an evolutionary transition. Although we are all instinctive scientists and observe and analyze the world from the moment that we are born, modern science fails to satisfy this instinct because it is too advanced and raises too many questions that we find threatening. It is one thing to invent the wheel but something else entirely to demonstrate precisely how we are related to chimpanzees. Until recently our scientific inquisitiveness did not conflict with our anthropocentric mythologies. People would rather not know that their behavior isn't all that different from that of chipmunks. Furthermore, science itself has become difficult and tedious. Gone are the days when a scientist could come up with a good idea and run experiments himself to prove whatever his theory might be. Now most scientists must diligently study abstruse topics for many years and then participate in large research teams whose projects may take decades to complete. It is possible to spend an entire career testing one theory that finally proves to be incorrect. Those who favor the humanities may not be wrong if they think that scientific jobs are like boring and meaningless desk jobs at a large corporation.

This tension regarding science may resolve itself in one of two ways. On the one hand, it is possible that the current pressures to make people more scientific will continue, and top scientists will become the leaders of society by virtue of their command of the relevant subjects. On the other hand, technology may reach a point where scientific research will be carried out through artificial intelligence, leaving people free to spend their time however they choose. I am inclined to think the latter will occur, because we are already going through scientific burnout and our brains are hitting limits that we never encountered in the past. We are good at being primates, and at the moment we are hesitant about becoming more intelligent than we have ever been. However, it is important to keep in mind that evolution has no predetermined path, and we may have big surprises in store.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In Praise of Concision

Among the features of this blog that I would find attractive if it were written by someone else are the brevity of the posts and the emphasis on getting to the point. As a reader I frequently find other writers loquacious and unfocused. From my point of view, many of the articles and books that I read are more than twice as long as they ought to be and sometimes border on unintelligibility. There are many explanations for this, and I'll touch on a few of them here.

Sometimes the fault may be mine: perhaps I don't get it when others do. That probably occurs occasionally, but most likely in specialties with which I am unfamiliar. Of course, I may be more stupid than I realize, a common human error, but for general reading I don't think comprehension is much of a problem if you are literate: when in doubt you can always look things up. I suppose that it might also be argued that my preference for concision is a matter of personal taste and may not apply to everyone. However, what I'm complaining about has to do with unnecessarily fuzzy thoughts and the insensitivity and bad manners associated with wasting someone else's time. A case can be made for unusually verbose authors such as Proust, but even there I think he would have benefited from heavy editing. I'm about halfway through In Search of Lost Time, which I started several years ago, and it may take an act of will to resume reading it. It is surely no coincidence that in person Proust's acquaintance, Claude Debussy, a far greater artist in my opinion, found him "long-winded." Though Proust writes well, I believe that his standing will decline when the mystique currently in vogue wears off. I am willing to cut some slack for writers who display an unusual sensitivity to language. It is true, however, that my interests and background incline me to favor "the short version." As a philosophy student in the Anglo-American tradition, I was encouraged not to waste words. Most of my career in the printing industry required me to write short, accurate instructions that were followed in manufacturing plants where a mistake could cost thousands of dollars in losses. Furthermore, business school taught me the importance of "the executive summary."

These caveats aside, I have to say that a lot of what I read is quite disappointing. In an earlier post I commented on commercial writing, which I believe is a very large part of the problem. The length of an article is generally going to be determined by a publisher's requirement to fill a certain space, whether virtual or printed, and this constricts the author from the outset. Regardless of the real interest of a topic or an author's knowledge of the subject, you are going to get a predetermined number of words. In this context, you might, for example, get a circuitous two thousand word essay instead of a simple "He was a minor prewar English poet whom no one ever read or should read now." This example pertains to what one encounters in literary publications such as the TLS, LRB or NYRB and calls attention to the vapidity of much literary discourse, which has become a type of pseudo-intellectualism. But pure academic writing may be worse yet. In that you are likely to encounter unnecessary jargon and references which serve mainly to demonstrate the author's knowledge; he has dedicated his life to the rote memorization of obscure facts and jazzed them up for publication with convoluted language that passes for astute analysis. While some academic writing, particularly in technical subjects, remains precise, the humanities seem to be riddled with verbal legerdemain. To explain this phenomenon one need look no further than the number of PhDs in the humanities and the "publish or perish" pressures that they live with professionally. Unfortunately we now have thousands of academics combing the same barren ground for increasingly insignificant material long after the best of it has been harvested. You could probably write a PhD on Charles Dickens's underwear.

Popular writing seems to have become a little shorter over the years. In this area my complaints have more to do with quality, and one would not expect popular authors to write better books than their readers could appreciate. Thus, a reader who is not aesthetically challenged is likely to be disappointed not only with popular television programs, magazines and films, but with the works of popular authors. Within the broad field of fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction fits into a special category of its own. You might say that over the last fifty years fiction in the U.S. has become a managed industry. Bestsellers are controlled by major publishers with no academic involvement, while literary fiction is publicized subject to approval by academics and prize juries. Literary fiction represents an incestuous relationship between academia and the publishing industry that in my opinion tosses artistic merit to the wind.

To sum up, serious readers seek writers who say interesting things concisely, without fuss, diversion or subterfuge, and in a better world that would not be such a rarity.