Literature that skewers pompous fools

Update (April 4): I just finished reading Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews—a hilarious spoof of modern literary criticism, by someone who was the chair of Berkeley’s English department and understands the theories he’s ridiculing as well as anyone. I actually found Crews’ fake Marxist, feminist, and deconstructionist exegeses of Winnie the Pooh far more persuasive than the “serious” scholarship he “reverently” quotes.  Crews seems to be breathing life into straw opponents here: making the obscurantist literary theories much more sensible and interesting than they really are, in order to give himself some challenge knocking them down. (The real fun comes when his intentionally goofy arguments start working on you—when you yourself can no longer read innocent passages about Eeyore, Piglet, and Tigger without seeing the simmering sexual innuendo and class struggle.)  For anyone who likes the sort of books I discuss in this post, I recommend Postmodern Pooh in the strongest terms.


Several commenters on my last post asked why I’d waste time with Atlas Shrugged, given its evident flaws.  The reason is simple: because when there’s so little literature that gets emotional about rationality, you’re tempted to take what you can.  Throughout history, the weapons of art—poetry, literature, movies—have been deployed mercilessly against scientists, engineers, and anyone else so naïve or simplistic as to think there are “right” and “wrong” answers.  Other times, a work of literature will praise “scientists,” but the science itself will be cringeworthy—and worse yet, the juvenile humor at the core of how science works will be absent, replaced by a wooden earnestness more in line with the writer’s preconceptions.  Occasionally, though, what you might call the “satiric rationalist impulse” (if you were writing a PhD thesis about it) has found superb expression in literature.  So in this post, I’d like to celebrate a few literary works that exemplify what appealed to me about Ayn Rand as a teenager—but do so without Rand’s shrill libertarianism, suspicion of modern science, or deification of Nietszchean quasi-rapist supermen.At the head of the list is the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei.  I submit that Galileo’s greatest contribution here was not his account of how it could be possible for the Earth to go around the Sun even though we don’t feel the Earth’s motion.  For that achievement was far surpassed by his creation of Simplicio: the amiable doofus (standing in for scholastic astronomers) who answers Salviati’s patient explanations with pompous Latin phrases and quotations from Aristotle.  Apparently the main reason Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition was not his scientific arguments, which the Church assumed most people wouldn’t understand or care about anyway.  Rather, Pope Urban VIII was outraged that Galileo put his (the Pope’s) own arguments about the limits of empirical thinking into the mouth of Simplicio.I find it interesting that Galileo’s dialogues are almost never assigned in high schools, despite being not merely among the most influential works of all time, but also uproariously funny.  Why is that?  After 400 years, is the parody still too barbed for some people’s taste?

Next on the list is Huckleberry Finn.  Unlike Galileo’s dialogues, this one is assigned in American high schools.  But the final chapters—the ones where Tom Sawyer proposes increasingly elaborate and fanciful schemes to rescue Jim, rejecting as insufferably naïve Huck’s idea of simply going to the shed and freeing him—tend to be downplayed or denigrated as comic fluff that detracts from the novel’s Deep Important Message.  (It’s fun to imagine critics scratching their heads in bewilderment: what could Twain have been trying to say in the final chapters?  Surely he wasn’t questioning the value of obfuscating the obvious?)

As far as I know, the only person ever to win a Nobel Prize in Literature for writing that was explicitly anti-obscurantist was Bertrand Russell.  (Orwell might have gotten one had he lived longer; maybe a case could also be made for Churchill.)  In retrospect, Russell’s clarity seems to have been a serious mistake: had he learned to write as cryptically as his student Wittgenstein, his reputation today would’ve been vastly greater.  Alas, more recent “public rationalists”—such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins—have repeated Russell’s mistake of boringly saying what they mean, and for that reason, have failed to produce any serious literature.

Any list of the world’s great anti-pomposity literature has to include Sokal’s Social Text hoax.  But since the amount of ink already spilled about that illustrious hoax can only be explained using noncommutative (and hence nonlinear) chaos theory, let me address postmodernism using a more recent and less conventional choice: an interview with Priya Venkatesan conducted by The Dartmouth Review.  For those with better things to do than follow academic blogs, Venkatesan is a former instructor at Dartmouth College who’s announced that she’s suing the students in her freshman writing seminar for harassment because they (1) argued with her ideas, (2) asked too many impertinent questions about French critical theory and deconstructionism, (3) didn’t accord her sufficient respect as someone with both a Masters and a PhD, and (4) submitted poor teaching evaluations.  I know, it sounds like something some right-wing commentator would make up—which is why reading Venkatesan at length, in her own words, is so fascinating.  The reason I put this interview on my list is not Venkatesan herself (eloquent though she is), but her interviewer, Tyler Brace.  Brace seems acutely aware of his historical responsibility in interviewing this real-life Simplicio: the polite, faux-naïve questions give Venkatesan ample rope to hang not only herself, but (in my opinion) an entire academic subculture that made her possible.

My last entrant into the snarky rationalist canon is the recent poem Storm by Tim Minchin (see here for the YouTube version).  It far surpasses my own feeble attempt at this sort of poetry: When I Heard the Learn’d Poet, which I wrote in 11th-grade English.

Look, there’s an obvious paradox in the idea of “rationalist literature.”  Almost by definition, people who like rationality are going to want to write dry, methodical arguments, rather than novels or poems that bypass the neocortex and directly engage the emotions.  But the consequence is that they’ll tend to cede the emotional field without contest to the woo merchants.  If you want to defend yourself against obscurantist sharks, you need to enter the dark waters where the sharks live.  That’s why, in my view, the rare efforts to do that—to right the historical imbalance, to sing Modus Ponens from the rooftops—are actually worth something.  If you know of other good literature in this category, let me know in the comments section.

109 Responses to “Literature that skewers pompous fools”

  1. hronir Says:

    Jorge Luis Borges, of course! :)

  2. Robin Kothari Says:

    Gödel, Escher, Bach

  3. wolfgang Says:

    Feynman

  4. jrshipley Says:

    Wittgenstein’s not so bad, though one does need background and context to understand him. Provided background and context, however, I think that his writing is reasonably clear, if somewhat unconventional.

    You might enjoy WVO Quine’s popular work “Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary” (packed with short and readable gems), not to mention his more technical logical and philosophical works.

  5. Benoit Essiambre Says:

    Philosopher George Santayana, is the author who I feel has made the most rational case for aesthetics, poetry and art in general (See his essay on poetry here: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16053)

    Hey, you might like him as he was a huge fan of Mark Twain. He is also the one who introduced Lucretius to me. Lucretius wrote an epic poem “On the Nature of Things” a powerful work about , nature, atoms, elements, physics, biology and medicine that opens by denouncing religions and superstition in favor of scientific knowledge. It was written more than 2000 years ago. It made me realize how the science vs religion debate is never ending and almost older than science and religion themselves.

  6. Paul Says:

    “There’s so little literature that gets emotional about rationality.” I see your point but I think there’s more to consider–Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis, and Enemy of the People by Ibsen–Dr Stockmann basically takes on the world as the hero of rationality. Both of these are much shorter than the Rand, too.

    It’s worth reading Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden for some context on the literary response to (American) technological anxiety and development in the 19th century.

  7. John Sidles Says:

    When it comes to contemporary rationalist fiction (with a dark tinge), for my money Annie Proulx takes the prize.

    Well worth reading is Samuel Johnson’s Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language (freely available on Project Gutenberg) … and its dead-accurate Blackadder parody “Ink and Incapacity.”

  8. ScentOfViolets Says:

    The interpretation I have heard placed on Tom’s actions both in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and the novel preceding it is that this is a commentary, ironically, on an American character that prefers stories to facts. The story of the lone hero changing the course of a war is much more appealing than dry facts about logistics, intelligence, apparently tiny but key technological innovations that win the day. Audie Murphy vs. Enigma.

    I’ll nominate ‘Candide’ for my selection of literature that skews pompous fools.

  9. jrshipley Says:

    Candide is a good choice, though complicated by the fact that the “pompous fool” skewered in the character of Pangloss was a fine mathematician and logician, who’s work had a fair amount of influence on Russell. Of course, it wasn’t the mathematics or the logic that Voltaire satirized.

  10. milkshake Says:

    You forgot to mention H. G. Wells – a prolific advocate of reason and progress that used to have a tremendous influence on the popular imagination. Orwell wrote an excellent polemic on the subject in 1941 during the Blitz (“Wells, Hitler and the World State”) and he concluded it wearily that …”Wells is too sane to understand the modern world”.

  11. Anon Says:

    I feel obliged to point out, even though somewhat off-topic that one part of the Venkatesan fiasco has happened in a department much closer to you:

    A Berkeley EECS grad student, Farinaz Koushanfar, when she was about to graduate in 2004-2005, apparently got turned down from some academic position based on her teaching evaluations as a TA. Berkeley EECS used to have cumulative ratings data made available online via a student group as a service to students choosing TAs. Ms. Koushanfar had the dubious distinction of having the 2nd lowest rating ever among all of the EECS TA’s since ratings started being released (over 1000 TA’s since 1988).

    She proceeded to hire a lawyer and demand that TA ratings be taken down based on a ridiculous claim that they constituted her private records as a student (and thus fell under FERPA), threatening to sue the department and the student group (HKN) that posted said ratings. The UC lawyers didn’t want to deal with it, so the department had the TA ratings data permanently taken down (save for a worse-than-worseless opt-in system, which inductively disincentivizes anyone but the single person with the highest rating to opt in, for lack of global cumulative statistics to normalize against)

    Outcome:

    Farinaz Koushanfar, thanks to her artful use of lawsuit threats, is no longer publicly known to have a terrible teaching record, and has now landed a tenure-track position at Rice. Berkeley EECS students no longer have information on TA ratings. Oh and did I mention there’s a gag order, as well, under which no one involved in the case is allowed to mention it publicly?

  12. Jef Allbright Says:

    I think it’s worth highlighting here the easy tendency toward polarization. Binary distinctions — left-wing/right-wing, for-us/against-us, rational/irrational, tend to be very satisfying in their capacity to “carve reality at its joints”, but that which costs only one bit tends to be worth only one bit.

    But how many bits does it take to represent the context, upon which such binary distinction depend for their meaning?

    In 1979 I read both Godel Escher Bach and Fuller’s Synergetics, and could barely contain the passion they aroused in me with their extraordinary depth and integrity. My friends thought I was just weird.

    Now thirty years further along the path, I tend to baffle and irritate “rationalists” and “postmodernists” alike with attempts to share such thinking online, lacking essential context due to limited bandwidth.

    “Left-wing” or “right-wing” is easy to communicate and inspire. “Up-wing”, while far more interesting, is far more difficult.

  13. Luca Says:

    Thanks for the link to the priceless Venkatesan interview. In some points the unintended humor is fantastic.

    After saying that the students had no right to challenge her because she has a PhD, asked to describe what postmodernism is she says: “There was a strict division between expert knowledge and lay knowledge. (…) Postmodernism was a challenge to that.”

    The interviewer was was very good, if a bit malicious. I loved the exchange about the “Gattaca” incident:

    PV: (…) she was asking, “how many T’s are in Gattaca?,” and I was about to answer her and Tom Cormen pre-empted me, “two t’s.” I’ll leave you to interpret it.

    TDR: No. No, I don’t understand that.

    PV: I have to tell you: it means tenure track.

    TDR: Oh, okay.

    PV: Because I wasn’t tenured track.

    TDR: Oh, okay, yes.

    PV: They were trying to intimate that I wasn’t ready for tenure track.

    TDR: Yes, okay, I didn’t realize that’s what that meant.

  14. Conformal Group Says:

    I follow your blog regularly and generally agree with almost everything you say and therefore have nothing to say. But, here I feel you are being a bit unfair to a whole lot of very clever and insightful people just because of a passing trend in modern lit crit. So i thought i’d pipe in.

    Tolstoy’s War & Peace has many passages of description of science and math (during Tolstoy’s thoughts on History).

    Book 3 Part 3 Chapter 1 (Aylmer Maude trans.)

    (after talking abt Zeno)….By adopting smaller and smaller elements of motion we only approach a solution of the problem, but never reach it. Only when we have admitted the conception of the infinitely small, and the resulting geometrical progression with a common ratio of one tenth, and have found the sum of this progression to infinity, do we reach a solution of the problem.
    A modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing with the infinitely small can now yield solutions in other more complex problems of motion which used to appear insoluble.
    This modern branch of mathematics, unknown to the ancients, when dealing with problems of motion admits the conception of the infinitely small, and so conforms to the chief condition of motion (absolute continuity) and thereby corrects the inevitable error which the human mind cannot avoid when it deals with separate elements of motion instead of examining continuous motion.

    There are other bits too… I think in the Epilogue somewhere.

    Goethe was a decent scientist (though his theory of colours was superceded by Newton). Read: Elective Affinities.

    Nabokov was one too… and his fiction is fantastically regulated, like clock-work. (For e.g. Pale Fire)

    Chekhov, Balzac….. Lewis Carrol!!

  15. anon Says:

    “There’s so little literature that gets emotional about rationality.”

    You should really check out “The Magic Mountain”

  16. Job Says:

    At some point in my English XYZ class, when asked to pick a public place and write an essay about it, having chosen to write about church and what people do there and why i think they go there, rationally, i received my essay back with a D on it and, the margins filled with comments not about the writing itself but some lengthy treatise on her part on how wrong i was about church and religion in general.

    “How can you criticize parents who take their kids to church?”, she asked.

    I had received positive feedback from the peer review process we had to go through for each essay, sufficient for me to aspire to a good grade on this assignment.

    At subsequent class meetings she would sometimes take students aside to talk about religion and how wrong i was.
    I was glad to have bothered her that much in my own little way.

  17. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Look, there’s an obvious paradox in the idea of “rationalist literature.”

    There is another paradox which is surely at least as obvious. Namely, that it is incredibly pompous to put yourself forward as a Dean of Reason. Take Carl Sagan, for instance. I like Carl Sagan; I would be very happy to have more achievements of the sort that he had. But anti-pompous? This is the guy who sued Apple for using his name as a code name for the Power Macintosh. (And see Wikipedia for the end of that great story.)

    No, you’re only truly anti-pompous if you note only speak or write directly and clearly, but also with sincere humility. (I.e., not false modesty; declaring that you are humbled by the cosmos is not good enough.) That is not easy if you (a) have a strong message, and (b) are incredibly successful.

    I can think of one writer who sometimes succeeded on all counts: Dr. Seuss. It’s hard to think of any literature at any level that’s more clearly written than, for instance, Green Eggs and Ham.

    Okay, Green Eggs and Ham, unpretentious and wonderful though it is, does not skewer pompous fools. But The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins does!

  18. alex Says:

    “worse yet, the juvenile humor at the core of how science works will be absent, replaced by a wooden earnestness more in line with the writer’s preconceptions.”

    I’m wondering who you had in mind when you wrote this.

  19. Scott Says:

    Conformal Group: I agree that the two-cultures split seems to have gotten worse with the rise of postmodernism. But even before the war, you had (for example) Heidegger. I haven’t studied him, but for those who have: doesn’t the fact that so many people took his rantings seriously indicate something sick about the intellectual culture then? (Even forgetting about his and many of his co-obscurantists’ support for National Socialism, which makes the question too easy?)

    I’ve been meaning to read War and Peace for a long time—ask me again in a year, and I’ll probably still be meaning to read it!

    Nabokov was an incredible writer—someone who could use a vocabulary orders of magnitude larger than mine and not make it sound pompous—but he doesn’t seem to fall into the category I’m describing here. (Or maybe I’m wrong? I’ve only read Lolita and some short pieces.)

    Anyway, literary types can, if they like, consider it a compliment that I care about them enough to bemoan their frequent hostility to science.

  20. Gaal Yahas Says:

    I think you may enjoy Neal Stephenson, in particular The Baroque Cycle. (Anathem is outstanding as well, if you want something shorter. Ha.)

    Since you mentioned Nabokov, perhaps you might also want to look at his (early) The Luzhin Defense, which is an entirely emotionally sensitive look at someone who wants to understand everything perfectly.

  21. Scott Says:

    Greg: I think that on balance, Sagan, Russell, and Dawkins merit being called “anti-pompous” for the same reason Churchill merits being called “anti-tyrannical.” :-) I’m curious: do you think any of them could’ve been successful in fighting the adversaries they did, if they didn’t share some of their adversaries’ worst character flaws?

  22. milkshake Says:

    baloney-deflating satire that celebrates stubborn rationality masked by cheerful idiocy: there is Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk. The humor is low-brow and the characters are uninspiring – but its very funny.

  23. anon II Says:

    Have you read:
    1. Alan Chalmers, “What Is This Thing Called Science?”, 1999

    2. Richard Westfall, “The Construction of Modern Science: Mechanism and Mechanics”, 1971

    3. Richard Westfall, “Essays on the Trial of Galileo”, 1989

    4. E. A. Burtt, “The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science”

    Nietzsche, Heidger, Wittgenstein. I think many intelligent thinkers understand at some point that science is not what it claims to be, and there are more important things in life. By the way what do you think about Lewis Carrol?

  24. Conformal Group Says:

    Scott,

    Perhaps there is some truth in what you are saying wrt Heidegger, I’ve read little of his stuff. But, I would hesitate to condemn that intellectual culture, let’s call it the School of Phenomenology, outright without a serious study. If for no other reason than the fact that someone like Weyl found some of Husserl’s writing useful in his own thinking.
    But, I have my pet peeve too and its closely connected to yours: existentialism (excluding Camus who never identified himself with it). I’ve wasted a lot of time during my undergrad trying to figure that one out since I just couldn’t believe that some of the stuff written by Sartre was indeed as stupid as they appeared and not that I was too dumb to get them.

  25. Scott Says:

    Nietzsche, Heidger, Wittgenstein. I think many intelligent thinkers understand at some point that science is not what it claims to be, and there are more important things in life.

    Thanks, anon II! I was a little worried people would accuse me of attacking a strawman.

    By the way what do you think about Lewis Carrol [sic]?

    I’m a huge fan. It’s not quite in the category I’m describing here, but Alice is probably the best children’s book ever written (with the possible exception of Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice).

  26. Anatoly Vorobey Says:

    Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

  27. ScentOfViolets Says:

    Speaking to the pompetus of pomposity, one of the things that got me going on math and logic when I was a tad was coming across old Scientific Americans with Gardner’s classic Mathematical Games column. Some of the material would have been quite boring in the hands of a lesser artist, I suppose. But to me, the puzzles, the repeated encounters with Dr. Irving Joshua Matrix and his daughter Iva were what mathematics was all about, or what it was supposed to be about; none of this boring ‘algebra’ stuff that us advanced kids were supposed to be taking in grade school.

    For pseudo-pomposity, how about Isaac Asimov? Another humanist and proponent of rationality over factionalism and tradition. Also the first of the great popularizers of modern times. I gather that he was rather less of a pain than Sagan in that respect, but personal accounts differ.

  28. tgm Says:

    It doesn’t seem to neatly fit what you’re looking for, but I just can’t help but mention Catch 22.

  29. John Sidles Says:

    tgm says: … Catch 22 … Good suggestion! And as an aside, Joseph Heller trained as a (rationalist) engineer, *not* as an English majors (Gene Wolf is another example of this rationalist-to-writer career arc).

    If we focus upon literature that is accessible, rationalist, *and* optimistic—the trifecta!—then it is striking how much outstanding rationalist literature has been written for children and juveniles (Philip Pullman, for example). Indeed, both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were conceived by Twain as adventure stories for children.

    Perhaps the only readers that are open-minded, rationalist, and optimistic … are children? :)

  30. Job Says:

    It’s easy to not be pompous when you don’t have the vocabulary to support it. Look at me…

  31. ScentOfViolets Says:

    John, aren’t the The New Sun, Long Sun and Short Sun series rather heavily infused with Catholicism of the more mystic sort to the point of appropriating Catholic imagery, Severian’s sword Terminus Est, for example? It’s been a while since I read those particular books, but that’s certainly my recollection.

  32. Daniel Says:

    the polite, faux-naïve questions give Venkatesan ample rope to hang not only herself, but (in my opinion) an entire academic subculture that made her possible.

    I am not familiar with this academic subculture at all. But I’m still quite sure that Venkatesan is not an authentic voice or typical member of any subculture. She is just a mentally unstable, confused individual, a too easy target.

  33. Gelada Says:

    My comments were too long for this margin. However they were not profound enough to leave to history to figure out so I posted them (click my name). Short version:

    Borges (again) Perec, Pratchett, Potocki and Nabokov

    Of whom the three P’s all certainly nail poposity.

  34. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I’ve been meaning to read War and Peace for a long time—ask me again in a year, and I’ll probably still be meaning to read it!

    No, War and Peace is not a good example of anti-pompous rationalism. But I still liked it. Tolstoy has a viewpoint of inexorable fate which I think is interesting. It is almost like the law of large numbers. In his view individual actions do not deeply affect the future, because they are outscaled or washed out by statistical averaging. Things that are attributed to individuals, even to monarchs, are actually due to large-scale forces. Megalomania is the ultimate misconception and arguably the ultimate sin. Napoleon was a megalomaniac who did not realize that losing the War of 1812 was a matter of mathematical destiny. The Russian nobility, although they were so clueless that they preferred French to Russian before the war, were closer to realizing that they were just figureheads of fate.

    Another question was who burned Moscow, the French or the Russians. Tolstoy’s answer is that it’s not exactly the right question. The city was chronically on the verge of catching fire even in peacetime, and therefore the war and evacuation made it burn to the ground.

    I think that on balance, Sagan, Russell, and Dawkins merit being called “anti-pompous” for the same reason Churchill merits being called “anti-tyrannical.” :-) I’m curious: do you think any of them could’ve been successful in fighting the adversaries they did, if they didn’t share some of their adversaries’ worst character flaws?

    Succeed on whose terms, theirs or mine? Or yours? I suspect that Russell and Dawkins could have been more successful on my terms if they were less pompous, but on their terms maybe not. I’m undecided about Sagan.

    As far as I know, Martin Gardner isn’t pompous at all, and look what he accomplished.

  35. Matt Says:

    Ian McEwan is unusually ideologically pro-science for a literary writer. (He hangs around with Dawkins and so forth.) I can remember Michiko Kakutani describing Perowne, the surgeon protagonist of “Saturday”, as a simple-minded reductionist, but according to a good, long New Yorker piece from February, Perowne is largely representing the mature McEwan’s views.

    Also, Richard Powers seems to know a lot of science (undergrad physics major, I think; he has an AI book, a molecular biology book, …), but he’s not making arguments.

  36. John Sidles Says:

    ScentOfViolets asks: John, aren’t the The New Sun, Long Sun and Short Sun series rather heavily infused with Catholicism of the more mystic sort …

    Undoubtedly! But on the other hand, the only folks who conflate rationality with literalism … are the literalists.

    To me, what’s amazing is that Gene Wolf worked for many years as editor-in-chief of the down-to-earth, 100% rational journal Plant Engineer. Somehow, Wolf transitioned from “plant engineer” to “imagineer” … the latter profession IMHO requires supremely sophisticated levels of rationality.

  37. Vladimir Levin Says:

    Oliver Sacks writes in a rather poetic way about many interesting subjects. My favourites are The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Uncle Tungsten.

  38. mg Says:

    1. I suggest you read this article by Heinz von Foerster:

    http://www.stanford.edu/group/SHR/4-2/text/foerster.html

    You will probably find it to be utter nonsense, but having come from the Vienna Circle Positivist school, which established in part the philosophical assumptions you take as given (along with most scientists), he may make some sense to you.

    What I hope you will realize is that much, if not most, of philosophy does not ask “what”, but “how”. That is, some are concerned with “truth”, others are concerned with “ethics”. I like what von Foerster has to say about ethics though, which is quite non-traditional.

    2. Wittgenstein, I think, you denounce too easily, though his arguments completely dismantle your position so I don’t blame you.

    3. And here’s your counter argument, which I charge you to rebut.

    “Hegel was aware of his ‘obscurantism’ and saw it as part of philosophical thinking to accept the limitations of everyday thought and concepts and try to go beyond them. Hegel wrote in his essay “Who Thinks Abstractly?” that it is not the philosopher who thinks abstractly but the person on the street, who uses concepts as fixed, unchangeable givens, without any context. It is the philosopher who thinks concretely, because he goes beyond the limits of everyday concepts to understand their broader context. This makes philosophical thought and language seem mysterious or obscure to the person on the street.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obscurantism

    It is similar with mathematics, no?

    4. What do you think about the use of Heidegger in HCI (most prominently by Winograd)? Have you read Understanding Computers and Cognition?

    http://www.amazon.com/Understanding-Computers-Cognition-Foundation-Design/dp/0201112973

  39. Scott Says:

    mg:

    (1) Again, thanks! I was worried no one was going to take the bait and defend the obscurantists.

    (2) No, my “assumptions” don’t come from the Vienna Circle Positivists, but from long before then. Regarding what “knowledge” looks like, I don’t think I’d find much to disagree about with Galileo, or with almost any active scientist or mathematician thereafter. (Even some of the ancients, like Archimedes, got it.)

    (3) I tried to read the Tractatus and found much of it incomprehensible; the parts I could understand seemed banal. Maybe it’s just my failure. (I don’t doubt Wittgenstein was stimulating to talk to in person, which is how he managed to impress Russell and everyone else.)

    (4) I didn’t know Wittgenstein had arguments—I thought it was just a collection of aphorisms and edicts. If he indeed has arguments that dismantle “my position” (meaning scientific rationalism?), is it possible to state those arguments in plain language? Or can they only be stated obscurely?

    (5) No, the difficulty of math is not like the obscurity of postmodernism; they’re completely different in kind. I wish mathematicians would take the time to write more clearly, but I already know for independent reasons that they have some idea what they’re talking about.

    On this, if not on much else, I completely agree with Noam Chomsky:

      There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.
  40. Martin Schwarz Says:

    Scott, it’s your blog – but can’t we switch back to some QC or TCS topics? :-)

  41. Sean Barrett Says:

    I really enjoyed “Thinks…,” a novel by David Lodge, which has a lot of interesting things to say about cognitive science and the two cultures, and manages to also be funny and unpretentious.

  42. John Sidles Says:

    Scott, thank you for the terrific quote from Chomsky!

    One scientist who comes to mind, who apparently understands Foucalt et al., and whose work is known and respected by many people (including me), is Paul Rabinow.

    Rabinow leads the Human Practices thrust of the NSF’s highly-regarded Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC). From a blend of WIkipedia and the SynbBERC Human Practices web site we find

    Rabinow is known for his development of an “anthropology of reason”. If anthropology is understood as being composed of anthropos + logos, then anthropology can be taken up as a practice of studying how the mutually productive relations of knowledge, thought, and care are given form within shifting relations of power.

    … Rabinow was a close interlocutor of Michel Foucault, and has edited and interpreted Foucault’s work as well as ramifying it in new directions.

    … A key underlining premise of the SynBERC vision—to enable the rational design of valuable biological systems—is that the successful realization of such technical aims will require the reorganization of existing relations among and between engineering and the biosciences, the development of shared standards, and the fostering of an ethos of “open-source” biology.

    Since I work in an area (quantum spin microscopy) that shares SynBERC’s technical goals—that in fact hopes and plans to augment the pace and scope of SynBERC-style enterprises by orders of magnitude—I have thought it well-advised to study Rabinow’s work.

    If we study Rabinow’s works side-by-side with more accessible classics of system engineering (e.g., Booton and Ramo’s 1984 IEEE article The development of systems engineering) then—in the end—we have to (reluctantly) disagree with Chomsky, if only to conclude that Booton and Ramo-style analyses are very far from the last word, on what Norbert Weiner famously called “The human use of human beings.”

    Is the a connection to QIT? Ya, sure, you betcha … and the connection is an immensely strong one, which is central to both fields. Namely, QIT-based mathematical ideas are helping to radically augment the scope and efficiency of quantum simulations. This revolution in quantum simulation capability is, in turn, changing the way that physics, chemistry, and biology are done.

    Stop by poster 418 here at the 50th ENC on Wednesday or Thursday, and we’ll talk about this revolution … and more than talk about it … we’ll help conceive, design, and implement the algorithms and computer codes that will power the next stages of this revolution. The discussions held at poster 418 yesterday were thrilling, and it is clear that many researchers nowadays are thinking along these lines.

    It is true of both mathematics and politics that revolutions are accompanied by new ideas that require new modes of expression, and I have to give the magnetic resonance community (for example) quite a bit of credit for being open to these new ideas.

    It’s fun and exciting to participate in this revolution, both in the mathematical aspects that this blog (and Terry Tao’s blog) talk about, and in the social aspects that researchers like Foucalt and Rabinow talk about. And it is clear that these aspects are closely linked.

  43. John Sidles Says:

    Oh yeah, for the above reasons (IMHO) the better choice for “Chomsky’s possibilities” is (a), by far, and thus (IMHO) it is Chomsky whose pompous methods are skewered (to use Scott’s phrase).

    It is true that Foucalt, Derrida et al. express their ideas obscurely, and it is also true that a lot of bad (or boring, or obvious) research is done in their name. But isn’t this always true of important new ideas?

    The obscurity of their ideas and modes of expression is a wonderful opportunity for young and imaginative researchers, to do better.

  44. Scott Says:

    The obscurity of their ideas and modes of expression is a wonderful opportunity for young and imaginative researchers, to do better.

    Exactly! Like, by ignoring them and starting over from scratch? ;-)

  45. Scott Says:

    I am not familiar with this academic subculture at all. But I’m still quite sure that Venkatesan is not an authentic voice or typical member of any subculture. She is just a mentally unstable, confused individual, a too easy target.

    Daniel: Postmodernism really is a thriving academic subculture in the US, or at least it was in the 90s (before Bush reminded forgetful academics that the other side can benefit from anti-rationalism too :-) ). I experienced this subculture firsthand as an undergraduate at Cornell; most of my housemates were immersed in it.

    I agree with you that Venkatesan is mentally unstable, but that still leaves some important questions: how was she awarded a PhD? How was she given teaching jobs, at Dartmouth and then at Northwestern (after this all came out)? As far as I can tell, the answer to these questions is that the academic subculture she belongs to is mentally unstable as well.

  46. John Sidles Says:

    “The obscurity of their ideas and modes of expression is a wonderful opportunity for young and imaginative researchers, to do better.”

    Scott says: Exactly! Like, by ignoring them and starting over from scratch? ;-)

    Hmmm …Scott, isn’t “starting over” what some folks think should be done with string theory? Starting over from scratch definitely can be a good idea, but common sense tells us that it is also helpful to borrow the good bits from existing research.

    The point being, learning about Foucalt, Rabinow, et al. by reading Chomsky is like learning about global warming by listening to Rush Limbaugh! :)

  47. Scott Says:

    John, that might be the first time in history Noam Chomsky was ever compared to Rush Limbaugh.

  48. John Sidles Says:

    Finding similarities between Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky? In the immortal words of Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin “That’s Easy!”

    Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn’s Commentary on The Fellowship of the Ring—as recorded for posterity by McSweeney’s—definitely is a classic example of “literature that skewers pompous fools!”

  49. tomate Says:

    Georges Perec, Umberto Eco

  50. gWrD Says:

    How about Sherlock Holmes? Or, to go really mainstream, Gregory House?

  51. csrster Says:

    Stephen Fry’s “Hippoptamus” is an intelligent, moving and very funny novel about the clash between the rational and irrational which, in the end, comes down (as might be expected) on the side of the rational.

  52. mirage Says:

    Do you think skewering those who, in your judgement, are pompous fools, is a rational response? I wonder why you get so emotional about irrationality?

  53. John Sidles Says:

    Mirage asks wonderful, rational questions … but it is not easy to supply wonderful, rational answers to those questions. Still, many have tried.

    At the dawn of the Enlightenment, the following (incomplete) answer was given by by Thomas Willis in his 1664 work Cerebri anatome, cui accessit Nervorum descriptio et usus (The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves)

    To explicate the uses of the Brain seems as difficult a task as to paint the soul, of which it is commonly said, that it understands all things except itself.

    Earlier in the thread, poster “Mg” recommends Winograd’s Understanding Computers and Cognition. That book sits on my shelves near to Minsky’s Society of Mind. Both works were written in the 1980s; but my copy of Winograd has not been opened in many years, whereas Minsky’s book is still a lot of fun to read, and is highly recommended.

    The reason is simple. We are learning from modern functional MRI and high-frequency encephalography that Minsky’s “multiple agents” approach to cognition is basically right. And this provides a neuroanatomic understanding of how it is that, as Willis rightly observed, “The soul understands all things except itself.”

  54. Scott Says:

    Do you think skewering those who, in your judgement, are pompous fools, is a rational response?

    Often I know it isn’t. For example, if Obama had given in to the temptation to say exactly what he thought about Sarah Palin, he probably would have lost the election. Galileo did give in to the temptation to ridicule the scholastics, and as a result, he spent the last decade of his life under house arrest.

    OK, I came up with a psychological thesis that might or might not be correct. Here it is: it’s precisely because nerds have to bottle up so many of their real thoughts—to cooperate with the forces of willful doofosity when they’re too powerful to oppose—that they enjoy literature that violates those constraints. On this view, Storm and Sokal’s hoax and so on are basically just escapist wish-fulfillment literature, taking you back to a childhood where you could laugh at naked emperors without having to worry about the emperors putting you on the torture rack.

  55. roland Says:

    John Sidles:

    Your post about how the work of Foucault is part
    of some revolution in Quantum Information technology is highly obscure itself.

  56. John Sidles Says:

    Roland, the strengthening relation between Foucalt and QIT is coming about as follows:

    (1) In the context of SynBERC, Rabinow is presently applying the abstract methods of Foucalt to the concrete realities of team-building.

    (2) In the context of spin microscopy, quantum systems engineers are presently applying the methods of QIT to the same concrete realities of team-building.

    Here at the 50th ENC, Alex Pines organized a wonderful “Emerging Science” session yesterday, featuring Anton Zeilinger (QIT), Peter Schultz (synthetic biology), and Bob Knight (cognitive neuroscience) that I thought made these connections almost explicit. :)

    The audience (standing room only) was made excited but uneasy by these talks … this combination IMHO is a hallmark of good science.

    —————————-

    By the way, Zinn and Chomsky have just released (via McSweeney’s again) a new four-part analysis of the *film* version of LOTR. This analysis definitely skewers *someone’s* pomposity! :)

  57. Danny Calegari Says:

    I find this thread a bit disconcerting. Is there a faint undercurrent of smugness, or am I being too sensitive? Let me suggest Berube on Sokal is relevant to the topic, though I wouldn’t say that there is necessarily any (undue) skewering going on:

    http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/berube_AmerSci_Jan-Feb_09.pdf

  58. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Scott, your criticism of the Nobel literature committee strikes me as a bit like criticising the poor plotting and character development in most Nobel prizewinning physics and chemistry papers. I’m personally not all that fond of the choices of the Nobel lit. committee, but that aside there is loads of highly regarded literature that is very clearly written. And the obvious reason Galileo’s dialogues aren’t assigned is because: (a) there is better literature available; and (b) Galileo isn’t exactly underrepresented in the High School curriculum. There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

  59. Anonymous Italian reader Says:

    I would also mention Italo Calvino and especially his works: “Cosmicomics”, “t zero”, “Invisible cities”, and “Palomar”.

  60. John Sidles Says:

    Michael, I agree with much of what you wrote, but Jonathan Israel has documented pretty thoroughly that although the Moderate Enlightenment is taught is high school (and college), the Radical Enlightenment is not taught.

    That is why (IMHO) so many students instinctively perceive that the “juice” is missing from the as-taught literature of history, mathematics, and science; their instincts are correct … the juice *is* missing.

    To paraphrase Jack Nicholson: “The truth? We can’t handle the truth!” Both students and teachers prefer classroom truths that are simple and reassuring, as set forth by leaders who are virtuous. Yet viewed dispassionately, history provides mighty few examples of either.

    We can ask, is there literature in which a pompous person self-admittedly learns humility? Here Ed Wilson’s wonderful scientific autobiography Naturalist comes to mind.

  61. Scott Says:

    Michael, I wasn’t criticizing the Nobel committee over that, just making an observation. I, too, enjoy plenty of literature that has nothing to do with rationalism (though I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing that was deliberately obscure).

    I don’t know how things are in Australia, but here in the US, most people graduate high school without the slightest idea of what Galileo did or how. They don’t know that motion is relative, or that there’s such a question. They don’t know what causes seasons, days, and years. And it’s difficult to blame them: they’ve taken years of something called “science class,” which involved spitting back formulas on a test, doing fill-in-the-blank labs with an expected answer, etc., none of it with any connection to anything they could possibly care about. So I have to disagree completely with your notion that high-school students already get “too much Galileo.”

  62. Scott Says:

    I find this thread a bit disconcerting.

    Danny: I understand, and maybe I can pinpoint the source. Look, my goal in life is basically to remake the world to make it less hostile to nerds. (Or rather, to contribute to that end in whatever tiny, local ways I can.) That was my goal when I was eight years old, and it’s still my goal today. Some people (like Greg Kuperberg) will probably find such a goal silly or misguided—in which case a lot of the things I’ve said and will say, on this blog and elsewhere, will be disconcerting to them. But I can’t help it: my goal is what it is.

  63. John Sidles Says:

    Scott says: “I can’t help it: my goal is what it is.”

    Welcome to the human race! But hopefully, you (and me, and every person on earth) can “help it” a little bit. Otherwise, rationality—and free will too—does not exist for you, or me, or anyone.

  64. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Some people (like Greg Kuperberg) will undoubtedly find my goal silly or misguided

    Actually I think that it’s a very good goal. Not only do I share your goal, I too adopted it when I was about eight, and I have kept this goal in mind with our children since they were about eight. What I have learned is that if you frame this goal incorrectly, you might worsen the problem in the name of “solving” it.

    For instance, after you said that “most people graduate high school without the slightest idea of what Galileo did or how”, and after seeing your less-than-positive essay about your high school, I confirmed that Council Rock High School (both of them, by now) offers AP Physics and AP Calculus. I don’t know whether they teach these courses well or badly, but how anti-Galileo could an AP Physics class possibly be? Should this school be likened to a prison instead of encouraged to improve?

    Certainly when I was 18, I could have written an essay like “Return to the Beehive”. I still could; I just wouldn’t want to. You have praised Obama’s “Zen-like equanimity”. I agree; I admire it too. But in the context of the nerdhood and high school, the secret is simple magnanimity. It does not require nerves of carbon nanotube.

  65. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Scott, Just to clarify: my use of “too much of a good thing” was a reference to a hypothetical world in which there was a great deal more Galileo taught (including in English classes), not the current situation. Like you, I’d be delighted if science were routinely taught well in high schools.

  66. Sumwan Says:

    Sorry, that’s really off topic on a serious blog entry like this one, but … What ? No April Fools’ this year ? No job interviewer asking about “dubious” past blogging ? No getting physical with physicists ?

  67. Stas Says:

    I’ve just started reading Galileo’s Dialog.
    Yeah, it’s still “barbed”, the very first passage of Simplicio proving 3-dim world is very much how some people prove P!=NP nowdays :)

  68. anon II Says:

    “my goal in life is basically to remake the world to make it less hostile to nerds”

    I was a nerd. But I changed at some point. Science has metaphysical assumption also. Take a look at the books I mentioned on my previous comment.

    There are too many statements in our culture that are rejected because it is not part of current scientific knowledge. We reject propositions easily when in reality we just don’t know if they are true or false. Science is not certain, and does make mistakes. Science is not the only source of knowledge that we have. Science does not explain why, it only gives descriptive theories, which is useful for mathematical calculating, technology, but that’s all it is. In place of saying current scientific knowledge represents at most the best available theories and models, people prefer to state things as if science is absolute truth. I personally feel that scientific culture has become a new religion, a new authority, to enforce beliefs and will over others. But of course, all of these are consistent with your goal.

    Let me give a concrete example (which I hope you will like) to show what I mean. One of people arguing against Evolution theory is Karl Popper. His opposition is not based on religion or metaphysical assumption. He simply says that Evolution is not a scientific theory. There are also other methodological problems in theory of Evolution. But most of people think that the opposition against Evolution is just people trying to hold on to their Christians beliefs. It has become part of a fight for influence, scientific culture against religious culture. I don’t want to get involved in it.

    ps: I can explain to you for hours what love is, but if you have not fallen in love, you will not understand what love is. No argument can make you understand. You have to feel it, experience it, live it, to really understand.
    I can explain to you for hours how painful it is to loose a beloved one, and how much it hurts. But as long as you have not lost someone you loved, you will not understand.
    This is why many continental philosophers and ordinary people prefer to use other ways to communicate, not just arguments; methods which are way more effective.

  69. Scott Says:

    What ? No April Fools’ this year ?

    Eh, it got old. And it wouldn’t have fooled anyone.

  70. Scott Says:

    anon II: You say that if you’ve never fallen in love, you won’t know what it is, despite having it patiently explained to you for hours. I agree! But you’re begging the question: if science can’t explain love, why can obscure volumes of Continental philosophy explain it? Either way, by your own admission, you won’t understand it until you’ve experienced it yourself! So then why not just go out and fall in love? Why bother with Derrida or Heidegger? Understand what I’m saying?

    Likewise you write:

    Science does not explain why, it only gives descriptive theories, which is useful for mathematical calculating, technology, but that’s all it is

    Once again you beg the question: just because science can’t penetrate to the “true essences of things,” why should we accept that there’s some other way of knowing that can? (This particular non sequitur—“science has this gap, ergo, there must be some other kind of knowledge that fills it”—is played constantly by the woo-meisters. You’re going to have to try harder with me. :-) )

  71. Michael Says:

    All great examples but having done Galileo’s book at uni I must disagree a bit with the interpretation. Galileo deliberately makes the Aristotelian counterargument into a much more foolish one than it could have been — and he also ignores Tycho Brahe’s system which by then was the primary and entirely reasonable contender over the Ptolemaic system.

    It’s a great book and should be studied more widely but in the proper context — at the time it was still very reasonable to reject Galileo and he certainly didn’t provide the kind of evidence he thought he had (esp. with his tides argument in day 4 which contradicts his other arguments).

  72. Scott Says:

    Michael: Yes, his tides argument was completely wrong, and is interesting as a case study in how even the best can screw up. He also didn’t understand gravity, even though most of the ingredients were in place (about all that Isaac had and he didn’t was the apple—well, and I guess calculus, although Galileo certainly knew how to differentiate and integrate in an ad-hoc fashion).

    But considering what other ideas were around then, I think most of the dialogue has held up spectacularly well the last 400 years. In particular, I’m certainly willing to forgive Galileo for ridiculing the Aristotelian arguments more than warranted—to the victor go the spoils! :-)

  73. conformal group Says:

    Anon II@68

    Science does not explain why, it only gives descriptive theories, which is useful for mathematical calculating, technology, but that’s all it is.

    But, the business of science is also to provide explanations.
    I don’t know your background, but if you are really serious about all this and have a working knowledge of predicate calculus, you could try beginning with the standard text: Wesley Salmon, Four Decades of Scientific Explanation (1989).

  74. John Sidles Says:

    The topic of “skewering” can be given a more kindly & universal aspect, if we look for literature that skewers not pompous fools, but sacred cows. Most people find this literature to be very enjoyable … unless it should happen that one of their own sacred cows is being skewered. :)

    The list of sacred cows that have been thoroughly skewered by mathematics and science is long: the divine authorship of sacred texts, the dubious efficacy of intercessory prayer, heliocentrism, Noah’s Flood, free-market economics as an engine of civic virtue, rationality as a model of human cognition, and the generic exponential difficulty of large-scale quantum simulation, all are on the “skewered by math and science” list.

    By the metric ⟨greatness⟩ ∝ ⟨skewering⟩, then (arguably) the greatest scientist of the 21st century was … Jane Goodall. “She saw what everyone had seen, and thought what no one had thought”, namely, that ape cognition and human cognition are so similar, as to be nearly identical.

  75. Sumwan Says:

    But here in the US, most people graduate high school without the slightest idea of what Galileo did or how. They don’t know that motion is relative, or that there’s such a question

    I live in a thirld world country and you won’t be surprised to learn that things are worse here, what they teach sometimes isn’t even true, an example from the official national Physics textbook for the last year of high school: “To calculate the orbit of a satellite we can consider the earth as a point mass because the radius of the earth is negligible compared to the distance between the earth and the satellite.”
    Not only the teaching is dogmatic, but what is worse is that it succeeds in persuading even the best students that asking for evidence or actually trying to understand math or physics is a character flaw, just some kind of impolite and annoying attention-seeking behavior, “and if you’re so good try to get better grades at exams.”

    That was an aside, the purpose of my post is to ask you (and other comment authors), are high school students in the USA, in your experience, aware that “real” science isn’t what they’re taught at school ? Are the “nerds” among them aware of this ? if yes, did they reach that awareness only through books, or do they have in general well educated families that help them have broader horizons than their less advantaged peers ?

  76. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    it succeeds in persuading even the best students that asking for evidence or actually trying to understand math or physics is a character flaw

    I do not agree that all but a negligible fraction of science education in the US is disastrously bad (see below). But it is true that many science classes in the US are not very good. The most common problem in these classes is that it’s fine to ask for evidence, and it’s fine to truly understand the material, but actually combining evidence with understanding is missing. Theory without experiment is one familiar kind of bad science; experiment without theory is another familiar kind of bad science. Combining theory and experiment is genuinely difficult and many science teachers are not well-prepared for it.

    the purpose of my post is to ask you (and other comment authors), are high school students in the USA, in your experience, aware that “real” science isn’t what they’re taught at school?

    A sweeping generalization on this point is out of place. One of the high school standards in the United States is called Advanced Placement Physics. It is true that it is a very optional standard, but it is nonetheless a standard. If you think that high school science is all fluff, you should try some of the sample questions in the course description. Don’t just glance at the questions and grandly pass judgment, actually try to do them.

    http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/ap/students/physics/ap-cd-physics-0607.pdf

  77. Sumwan Says:

    Thank you very much for your reply, Greg. The comment that you quoted was about High School in my country, ( and I have absolutely no first hand experience of life in the US, let alone its school system.) And what I said concerning how students are literally discouraged from trying to understand is a statement of fact concerning my country. Now of course, there are a few expensive foreign schools which are a lot better (and thankfully my parents sent me to one of these), but as a volunteer teacher I taught kids from more typical schools, heard the stories they told, saw the exams theywere given. And my greatest worry is not that high school science is all fluff, but rather that the smartest students, because of the totally distorted image of science they have,either lose interest or become unable to learn real science.
    Although I am not speaking about Brazil, Feynman mentioned somewhat similar problems about university education in Brazil a few decades ago, as you probably know:
    http://www.feep.org/articles/feynman.html
    Also, English is not the mother tongue of most students, and even bright students, but from poor backgrounds, do not have a sufficient mastery of English (or any other European language) to be able to counterbalance the bad influence of the schools.

    Concerning the US school system, it would be a bit ridiculous that I pretend to offer an authoritative (or even merely informed) opinion about it, since I never lived in the US.
    But the image I have from the web, the media, and Scott’s blogging is that it is not very good on the average. I know that there are several outstanding high schools, some of them having a worldwide reputation like Thomas Jefferson High School, etc, but I am not talking about those.
    As to the Advanced Placement sample questions, they are good , but to me as a foreigner, this is not convincing evidence, I do not doubt there are scientists in the US capable of making a good curriculum and good tests, the problem is whether those are actually implemented in average schools.
    The echos I have received from several people seem to indicate that the damage done by bad high school education is much more reversible in the US than where I live. I wondered why, and I thought that books and the web may play an important role. Of course it could very well be that high school education is not that bad, as you are saying, and I thank you very much for your reply.

  78. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I do not doubt there are scientists in the US capable of making a good curriculum and good tests, the problem is whether those are actually implemented in average schools.

    The miracle of the AP system is that if a high school offers AP courses at all, it cannot stray too far from the standard syllabus. The reason is that it has no control over the AP exam; rather the College Board writes and administers these exams along with the standard SAT test that is used for college admissions. I’m sure that some students get an A+ in an AP course and then get the lowest score on the AP test. But that outcome looks bad for the school and might well irritate students or their parents.

    In this way, the AP system is a conduit to extend college-level standards and competitiveness into high schools. To be sure, AP courses are not nearly as good as the best university courses. Even when it’s the same material, the mere existence of the AP exam does not make anyone teach a deep point of view. But the system isn’t bad at all. I went to a non-magnet high school in Alabama where I was not very happy (although that was more my fault than I was willing to admit). It has AP Calculus and some AP science, unfortunately not AP Physics. Scott went to a non-magnet high school in Pennsylvania where he was not very happy; it has AP Calculus and AP Physics.

    Admittedly both of our high schools are still above average. The bottom third of American high schools struggle a lot more to prepare their students for college. At many of these high schools, The Big Dream is more than epsilon AP enrollment.

    The echos I have received from several people seem to indicate that the damage done by bad high school education is much more reversible in the US than where I live. I wondered why, and I thought that books and the web may play an important role.

    I departed from the usual track in public school mathematics without the web (which did not exist), without books (because I was not a hit-the-books type), and without home schooling (although I did learn a lot from my parents). In my experience, American public schools are a weird juxtaposition of overly rigid rules and flexible thinking. I knew that some of my teachers seemed to at least be friendly to me. Except for one math teacher who was really wonderful, I gave them too little credit at the time for helping me. I did not know they had regular meetings to discuss unusual students, and that they discussed my case at some of these meetings. They let me and my parents carve out a number of exceptions. Eventually I took university math courses while enrolled in public school.

    This mostly positive story is common enough in the United States. The greater tragedy is capable students who are under the radar, i.e., whose parents and teachers never notice that they could have learned more math (say). It’s the situation where you are happy that your investment made a 20% profit, when actually it should have made a 200% profit. Often the students themselves don’t know; for some of them college is the big revelation.

  79. John Sidles Says:

    Conformal group recommends: You could try beginning with the standard text: Wesley Salmon, Four Decades of Scientific Explanation (1989).

    Thank you for that terrific recommendation! Thanks to the miracle of Google Books, I was able to acquaint myself with Salmon’s philosophy (click here) and compare it with the radical evolution of the nature of scientific explanation that is apparent here at the 50th ENC.

    It seems to me that a new book Two More Decades of Scientific Explanation might take as its point of departure Salmon’s 1989 assertion

    On one fundamental issue consensus has remained intact. Philosophers of very diverse persuasions continue to agree that a fundamental aim of science is to provide explanations of natural phenomena.

    Here at the 50th ENC, it is clear that the modern practice of science is departing from Salmon’s (too-simple) philosophical paradigm in at least four (radical) respects … and that still more radical changes are on the horizon.

    CHANGE 1: Pretty much every research group here is a group; there is very little single-person work being reported.

    CHANGE 2: Almost every experiment begins and ends with a detailed quantum simulation. These simulations allow experiments of increased complexity to proceed faster with lower reduced risk, and also (importantly) the simulations provide a commons for building group cohesion. In consequence, there is an unlimited appetite here at the 50th ENC for further increases in quantum simulation capability.

    CHANGE 3: Increasingly research groups have as their goal not to understand or explain nature as it presently exists, but to synthesize never-before-seen aspects of nature.

    CHANGE 4: The radical insights of modern cognitive neurophysiology are seeping into the general scientific culture. One result is the dawning acceptance that it is neither feasible, nor necessary, nor desirable for all members of a scientific research group to share a common cognitive schema.

    It seems pretty clear to me that all of these four changes are going to accelerate in the decades to come. My own interest in QIT is driven largely by Change 1 in service of Change 3. Scott’s frustration with “pompous fools” might perhaps be a reflection of Change 4.

  80. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I vaguely recall reading “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn” as a kid, and not particularly liking them. I might have been too young to appreciate whatever. I recently read “Roughing It” which is somewhat of an autobiography of MT’s early years “out west”, and I recommend it heartily. It is an excellent account of the locale and color of the times. Twain’s slightly dry, self deprecating humor make it a joy to read. Check it out.

  81. ScentOfViolets Says:

    I do not agree that all but a negligible fraction of science education in the US is disastrously bad (see below). But it is true that many science classes in the US are not very good. The most common problem in these classes is that it’s fine to ask for evidence, and it’s fine to truly understand the material, but actually combining evidence with understanding is missing. Theory without experiment is one familiar kind of bad science; experiment without theory is another familiar kind of bad science. Combining theory and experiment is genuinely difficult and many science teachers are not well-prepared for it.

    Does anyone remember Pyramid Power? How, among other feats of mysticism, a properly proportioned pyramid aligned just so north and south could sharpen razor blades? We spent a month in my jr. high science class testing this proposition. We had discussions followed by experimentation about what it meant for a razor blade to be sharp, how you could quantitatively measure sharpness to make qualitative comparisons, etc. Then we constructed pyramids of various proportions, oriented them in different directions, inserted blades of differing degrees of sharpness, even did some limited double-blind experimentation.

    Afterwords we did a writeup of the results, what our conclusions were, what might have gone wrong. Finally each team had a spokesperson give an oral presentation. This was real science, doing it the way it ought to be done. The only event that marred this month of investigation was when our teacher asked us why, in our explanation for our null results(all us got that result), none of us made the obvious inference that Pyramid power was hokum.

    I know, a long story. But the point is that while we may have technically been behind in the syllabus, what we learned over the course of that month were by far the most important concepts to take away from a class on ‘science’ that you could get at that grade level. A little less regurgitation, a little more critical thinking. As a teacher, I would be remiss in failing to note that the most expensive bits of lab equipment were razor blades and a largish sheet of balsa wood. You don’t have to get fancy or elaborate to get good results, or be some sort of super pedagogical expert.

  82. Anon II Says:

    conformal group@73:

    “But, *the business* of science is also to provide explanations. I don’t know your background, but if you are really serious about all this and have a working knowledge of predicate calculus, you could try beginning with the standard text: Wesley Salmon, Four Decades of Scientific Explanation (1989).”

    I took a look at his wiki page. It seems a little metaphysical to me, his definition of what is an explanation, cause, event, … , but well, I don’t know. I can accept that science can give partial explanation for observable phenomenons; as far as I know, always reducing one problem to something else: lightening is transfer of electrons from clouds to earth, it is what we tell children in school, and they stop seeing how wonderful it is, and unfortunately they seldom ask what is an electron? What is an electron? And there you go …

    I do not think we, as scientists, discover truth, we build (mathematical) models approximating reality, which themselves are used for prediction (probably with the exception of some mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists).
    But I do not think that it answers “why?” questions. Science does not create meaning, therefore some people start to claim that there is no meaning at all!
    I may read the book you suggested, but I don’t have time for it right now. Thanks. I don’t what to continue this discussion right now. Maybe some other time.

    ps: I would suggest you to take a look at H. Putnam’s relatively recent article in the first issue of ASL’s Review of Symbolic Logic. It is an interesting reading.

  83. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The only event that marred this month of investigation was when our teacher asked us why, in our explanation for our null results(all us got that result), none of us made the obvious inference that Pyramid power was hokum.

    But this is a very important point, and sort-of the point that I meant to make. “pyramid power” is not a coherent theory to begin with, so you cannot test it with a logical experimental plan. If you only know why theory without experiment is wrong, but not why experiment without theory is wrong, you could keep testing “pyramid power” forever.

    This was not a lasting problem with pyramid power, but it certainly is a problem with the fear that cell phones cause cancer. Cancer is many different diseases. There are infinitely many hypothetical ways that cell phones could cause or prevent cancer, but not even one good proposal for how they could be related. Yet the government has funded enormous studies to discern a connection; it could continue to fund them forever. It would be better to step back and realize that no real question is being answered, only a pretense of one, and that we won’t learn anything from experiment without theory.

  84. anon II Says:

    “You say that if you’ve never fallen in love, you won’t know what it is, despite having it patiently explained to you for hours. I agree! But you’re begging the obvious question: if science can’t explain love, why can obscure volumes of Continental philosophy explain it? Either way, by your own admission, you won’t understand it until you’ve experienced it yourself! So then why not just go out and fall in love? Why bother with Derrida or Heidegger? Understand what I’m saying?”

    I understand. The point is you can not explain love to someone, but by writing an intelligent novel, you may be able to make the reader to feel close to a character in it which falls in love and have some kind experience of love. The reader may be still unable to feel it completely, but may come close. I think this is what (sometimes) happens to me when I watch movies. Rational explanation is not the most effective way of communication, specially when the topic is not a mathematical statement. You can ignore consciousness and communicate with unconsciousness. We see how much TV advertisements use this idea everyday.

    “Likewise you write:

    Science does not explain why, it only gives descriptive theories, which is useful for mathematical calculating, technology, but that’s all it is

    Once again you beg the question: just because science can’t penetrate to the “true essences of things,” why should we accept that there’s some other way of knowing that can? (This particular non sequitur—”science has this gap, ergo, there must be some other kind of knowledge that fills it”—is played constantly by the woo-meisters. ”

    I think proving existence of some other kind of knowledge is not harder than rejecting there is no such thing. In my humble opinion, science is as modest as it should be.
    History shows that scientist have claimed many times that something is absurd because of their own shortcoming, and after centuries someone comes and explains it based on new scientific culture. I think this shows to some extend that there are other knowledge sources. Acupuncture works, Chinese knew it and used it effectively, if we don’t explain it scientifically, it may be our shortcoming.

    I hope I will be able to explain what I mean a little more by giving an other example: Wittgenstein’s later works. I think he is giving tips about what he sees to the reader, if the reader is willing to follow the steps and fill in the gaps, then she may be able to see what Wittgenstein sees. You can not force someone to see something if she is sure that it is completely impossible. These kind of works are more similar to eastern mysticism than Socratic arguments.

    “You’re going to have to try harder with me. :-) )”

    I am not trying to convince you, I am just trying to explain what I see. :)

  85. anon II Says:

    Correction:
    “In my humble opinion, science is NOT as modest as it should be.”

  86. John Sidles Says:

    What a fun thread! Here are two points that hopefully will help it pass the 100-comment milestone.

    (1) Scott asked: If you know of other good literature in this category [skewering pompous fools], let me know in the comments section.

    Scott, a movie that skewers fools, and yet manages to remain wonderfully good-hearted, is Fierce Creatures, with John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis. This is a movie that is much-cherished by biologists/ecologists *and* by ardent Python fans.

    What other good-hearted fool-skewering movies can people name? How about The Wizard of Oz, for example? And Young Frankenstein? And Dr. Strangelove?

    (2) When I read the philosophy of science, it is often unclear whether the philosopher(s) is describing science as it is, versus science as it ought-to-be (in the opinion of the philosopher, obviously).

    Science as described by philosophers is all about the interplay between theory and experiment. Science as practiced in the real world has a third crucial aspect, namely observation.

    Using Google book’s handy search feature, we find that Salmon and his colleagues have almost nothing to say about observation (the word is “observation” does not even occur in the first 55 pages).

    In consequence, it’s seems that whatever practice it is that Salmon and his philosophical colleagues are analyzing, has rather little to do with real-world data-rich observational sciences like ecology, geology, anthropology, astronomy, genomics, etc.

  87. Scott Says:

    anon II: Thanks for your interesting response! A few comments:

    (1) I agree that, if your goal is to “communicate effectively”—sell a product, win converts, get laid, etc.—your best bet is generally not to use rational arguments. Indeed, I think that’s precisely why it took so long for science to get started: science only starts beating woo when your goal is to understand the universe, build planes that fly, etc. Most people, most of the time, are much more interested in bamboozling other people for personal advantage.

    (2) Contrary to what you suggest, I’m open to the possibility that there are ways of knowing I’m not yet familiar with. The point is, you need to make an affirmative case for some specific other way of knowing—not just point to some gap in the ways I know about. In the case of Continental philosophy, every single time I’ve tried to read it, I’ve caught a strong whiff of vacuous, pretentious crap. But who knows? Maybe I’ve just been freakishly unlucky, and the next passage of Heidegger I read will not merely transform my understanding of love, but also show me the positive aspects of the Third Reich. :-)

    (3) I completely agree about “intelligent novels” taking us about as close as it’s possible to get to other people’s experiences without actually sharing those experiences. In fact, I would add that the best novelists have been far better students of human nature than almost any social scientist or philosopher. Not coincidentally, the best novelists have also tended to take a dim view of jargon-encrusted academic criticism and philosophy.

  88. NoName Says:

    I have not encountered the Pomo-lit crits (as they are “fondly” called) often. However one of their arguments for Deconstruction (or what ever they call it) is a strong argument for Science and rationality although a majority of them some how misunderstand it. I am no expert in Pomo-lit-critism but one of their hypothesis is that each writing is biased towards the writers point of view and hence it makes sense to remove the central theme. What ever remains is closer to actual events. I found the principle quite useful while reading for example newspaper reports.

    This argument I guess is also a strong reason to use rationalist approach where the writer has to
    justify his point of view with sound logic as in
    maths and experiments as in physics

  89. mg Says:

    (1) Again, thanks! I was worried no one was going to take the bait and defend the obscurantists.

    Heinz von Foerster is an incredibly straightforward writer, as are Winograd and Flores.

    (2) No, my “assumptions” don’t come from the Vienna Circle Positivists, but from long before then. Regarding what “knowledge” looks like, I don’t think I’d find much to disagree about with Galileo, or with almost any active scientist or mathematician thereafter. (Even some of the ancients, like Archimedes, got it.)

    No, certainly not originally. All philosophical ‘schools’ find their roots in the past. Logical positivism just happens to be a recent example of a certain type of approach — a Rational one — and it happens to be an example that influenced highly what you might call modern American scientific rationalism, of which you’re a part. But if you want to take your cues from the ancients, I have no objection. Just know the origin of your biases.

    (3) I tried to read the Tractatus and found much of it incomprehensible; the parts I could understand seemed banal. Maybe it’s just my failure. (I don’t doubt Wittgenstein was stimulating to talk to in person, which is how he managed to impress Russell and everyone else.)”

    I’ve never read the Tractatus, but you might have a look at Philosophical Investigations, which is in many ways a departure. Yes, it is cryptically written, but keep in mind that it is translated from German.

    (4) I didn’t know Wittgenstein had arguments—I thought it was just a collection of aphorisms and edicts.

    No, he does not make arguments explicitly, he leads you to realizations through rhetorical questions. It is a different way of making an argument.

    If he indeed has arguments that dismantle “my position” (meaning scientific rationalism?), is it possible to state those arguments in plain language?

    Yes. You might try reading a book _about_ Wittgenstein written by an English speaker. You should, however, make sure that you pick a good one. It’s easier to be a bad philosopher than it is to be a mad mathematician, so the reader must choose carefully.

    (5) No, the difficulty of math is not like the obscurity of postmodernism; they’re completely different in kind.

    My quote was not from a post-modernist. It was from Hegel, a pre-modern philosopher. The point is that just as mathematicians cannot express concepts in “plain language” without losing resolution, so to speak, so can’t philosophers.

    Your quoting Chomsky was completely out of context as I didn’t mention a single “post-modernist” philosopher. I personally find Lacan, Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault (don’t know Kristeva) hard to comprehend as well. But I’m willing to give them some leeway as I believe their so-called “obscurantism” has a lot to do with: the nature of the French language and the fact that much of them are translated, and the intellectual/political climate that they were written in. Foucault especially, and Chomsky acknowledges this sort of, has a lot to offer to those who wish to understand our immensely complex, nearly unanalyzable culture, but unfortunately you must navigate his often unclear writing and this is a shame.

    Perhaps, by your logic, we should accuse the Lao Tzu of being obscurantist?

    And finally, though I have not argued this above, I contend that you are attacking, not a straw-man, but the bath water, not the baby. Yes, there are many bad philosophers (or “theorists”), but just as there are many bad musicians, artists, novelists, etc. Because there are no proofs or experiments — that is, no methodology — in philosophy, there is no, if you will, empirical test for whether somebody is an idiot. Relevance is determined by popularity (sales) and endorsement. Obviously, then, there is the possibility of philosophers gaming the system, that is to say, doing what every good marketer does. I think that in recent years, writers have found (not-consciously) that they can game the system (market themselves) by writing in certain ways which appeal to vanity. This, I believe, is a problem. But it does not mean that all contemporary philosophy is bullshit. It means only that we need to be extra careful, even ruthlessly so. Good concepts are not cheap.

    Perhaps you should look at Richard Rorty. He makes a wonderful argument that philosophy is essentially a form of literature. For a taste:

    From Wikipedia:

    When discussing Derrida, Rorty claims that Derrida is most useful when viewed as a funny writer who attempted to circumvent the Western philosophical tradition, rather than the inventor of a philosophical “method.” In this vein, Rorty criticizes Derrida’s followers like Paul de Man for taking deconstructive literary theory too seriously.

  90. Scott Says:

    Just know the origin of your biases.

    Thank you! Had someone free of all bias not come to diagnose me, I might have labored my whole life under the false consciousness of scientific rationalism. But I jest… :-)

    I don’t by any means think all contemporary philosophy is crap. Off the top of my head, Martha Nussbaum, Saul Kripke, Peter Singer, Thomas Nagel, and Nick Bostrom are five (very different) living philosophers who are all able to write a coherent argument in clear prose, whether you agree with it or not. The contrast with the kind of “philosopher” we’re discussing here is striking.

    Your comments helped me put my finger on one of my biggest pet peeves with the kind of philosophy I dislike (as well as a red flag that I’m dealing with that kind of philosophy). It’s the knowing reference:

    “As Wittgenstein has shown…”
    “As Nietzsche has demonstrated…”
    “Such a naïve rationalism is obviously untenable, since Kuhn proved decades ago…”

    To a first approximation, philosophers don’t show anything in the sense scientists or mathematicians do. (When they do show things, they stop being philosophers and become scientists or mathematicians.) So all a phrase like the above really communicates is, “if you don’t belong to my clique, you’re not as cool as I am! Get with the program.” Which, admittedly, is a decisive argument for some readers.

  91. Uri Says:

    I would recommend Solzhenitsyn, in particular “The First Circle” – Solz. studied Math and Physics, and the novel is based on his experiences of being sent to a special Soviet prison for the scientist types who could still be of special use. It is perhaps slightly reminiscent of Rand at times (especially the interactions between Soviet bureaucrats and scientists) but is much more intelligent, actual science-loving, and realistic.

  92. wolfgang Says:

    Scott,

    >> when you yourself can no longer read innocent passages about Eeyore, Piglet, and Tigger without seeing the simmering sexual innuendo and class struggle

    how do you know the sexual innuendo etc. is not really there?
    The name Piglet seems to give it away already …

  93. Scott Says:

    how do you know the sexual innuendo etc. is not really there?

    Wolfgang: Because using the same methods, it’s obvious that a creative person could make any passage whatsoever be entirely “about” sex, or dialectical materialism, or whatever his or her obsession is. And that reduces the case for these esoteric readings to meaninglessness—in the same way the Bible Codes can be refuted by finding similar prophetic messages in Australian fishery regulations.

  94. John Armstrong Says:

    “Archie is not f___ing Mr. Weatherbee!”

    — Banky Edwards

  95. ScentOfViolets Says:

    Sorry this is a little bit late:

    But this is a very important point, and sort-of the point that I meant to make. “pyramid power” is not a coherent theory to begin with, so you cannot test it with a logical experimental plan. If you only know why theory without experiment is wrong, but not why experiment without theory is wrong, you could keep testing “pyramid power” forever.

    Well, bear in mind that this is the seventh grade! The question we were narrowly concerned with was: “Can pyramids be used to sharpen razor blades?”

    We all knew the five(or seven or whatever) steps of the scientific method. But it was by rote, as it were. On Authority. We had at that point never really thought about what it meant. When you ‘make observations’, for example, I guess there was this vague notion of microscopes, bubbling beakers, maybe a scientific balance. But here – and this is to my mind very significant – what does it mean to say a razor blade is ‘sharper’? And how do you measure it? We eventually came up with a device that used the weight of the razor blade to make cuts in xerox paper from the same package. We then measured the length of the cuts under a microscope with a tool marked off in 64ths of an inch.

    Pretty small beer, eh? But really, it was a good lesson about rational inquiry: before one can make rational inferences about relationships, one must have some sort of objective and quantitative measure! No surprise physics got a jump on all of the other sciences.

    This sort of thinking does not come naturally to most people, this idea of a precise formulation of a narrow question that can be definitively answered one way or the other. People, in my experience, tend to make basic menatl manipulations on what are really qualitative statements, even though they often seem to be quantitative.

    That’s why woo survives and thrives. ‘Of course pyramids can sharpen razor blades. I’ve tried it myself and when I use a sharpened blade that I’ve checked myself, it certainly feels sharper.’ Sadly, woo is just a particular manifestation of this problem. You see it in such statements as ‘taxes are theft’, ‘homosexuality is immoral’, that sort of thing.

  96. Douglas Knight Says:

    “As Wittgenstein has shown…”

    Are you sure it’s about cliques and not, say, an admission of how uncertain philosophy is? Perhaps it is said by people who want to go on to elaborate ideas, rather than rehashing the arguments at the foundation. It could be a convention that you are misinterpreting. And people outside the clique do sometimes read these elaborations and use them as reductio against the foundations.

  97. Scott Says:

    Perhaps it is said by people who want to go on to elaborate ideas, rather than rehashing the arguments at the foundation.

    Douglas: Yes, I understand. What I question in such cases is whether there is a “foundation”—that is, something that a reasonable person could agree has already been established as part of the body of knowledge. With no theorems or experiments, more often than not the “foundation” turns out to be something that a high-status authority declared and a group of acolytes then accepted.

    You see the same pattern in Marxist writings, radical feminist writings, postmodernist writings, Objectivist writings, and religious apologetics: a set of extremely dubious propositions is simply taken as given, with an appeal to an authority (Marx, Dworkin, Lacan, Rand, Maimonides) serving as a “placeholder” where you’d expect the argument to go in a math or science paper. It’s as if the author is glaring at the reader, daring him or her to doubt the authority.

    I’ve seen dozens of deep and interesting philosophy papers—but not one of them (as far as I can remember) relied on conclusions from previous philosophy papers.

  98. anon II Says:

    “anon II: Thanks for your interesting response! A few comments:”

    Thanks for your post! :)

    “(1) I agree that, if your goal is to “communicate effectively”—sell a product, win converts, get laid, etc.—your best bet is generally not to use rational arguments. Indeed, I think that’s precisely why it took so long for science to get started: science only starts beating woo when your goal is to understand the universe, build planes that fly, etc. Most people, most of the time, are much more interested in bamboozling other people for personal advantage.”

    I agree that this method is misused by many “interested in bamboozling other people for personal advantage”, but sometimes it is also used by honest people because it is more useful for communicating and making points about universe. Universe is not just quarks, electrons, planes, … we, as human beings, are part of it, and this is the area that our scientific knowledge is much more limited.

    “(2) Contrary to what you suggest, I’m open to the possibility that there are ways of knowing I’m not yet familiar with. The point is, you need to make an affirmative case for some specific other way of knowing—not just point to some gap in the ways I know about. In the case of Continental philosophy, every single time I’ve tried to read it, I’ve caught a strong whiff of vacuous, pretentious crap. But who knows? Maybe I’ve just been freakishly unlucky, and the next passage of Heidegger I read will not merely transform my understanding of love, but also show me the positive aspects of the Third Reich. :-)”

    I agree again, there are lots of crap and nonsense in continental philosophy, actually I used to dislike these works. I am not saying that everything Heidegger says is meaningful, specially when he talks about Third Reich, same with Nietzsche and his superhuman. But there are lots of interesting points in their wittings. Heidegger is specially hard to read, because contrary to usual claim he is NOT writing in German, he is creating his own words and language while writing. It was really interesting for me when Heidegger tells to Descartes and Husserl that there is no need to produce rational arguments to prove our existence, we obviously know we do! Or when Wittgenstein tells Russel there are lots of things that you can not speak about with a perfect formal language, or when he attacks Philosophers that because there is a word, there needs to be a reference, a concept that captures all things that the word refers to, when he attacks them saying that many philosophical problems are just games philosophers have created by misusing language, …

    “(3) I completely agree about “intelligent novels” taking us about as close as it’s possible to get to other people’s experiences without actually sharing those experiences. In fact, I would add that the best novelists have been far better students of human nature than almost any social scientist or philosopher. Not coincidentally, the best novelists have also tended to take a dim view of jargon-encrusted academic criticism and philosophy.”

    Sometimes there are no words in the language you can use to refer to something new you see, a new experience, you need to invent new words, and since you are the first person to use them, it is harder for other people to understand what it means, particularly about internal experiences. I think the problem is when other people start using these words without knowing what they mean, which results in nonsense.

    Thank you for your appealing comments. :)

  99. John Sidles Says:

    Scott says: So all a phrase [that philosophers use] really communicates is, “If you don’t belong to my clique, you’re not as cool as I am! Get with the program.”

    That is a good point … but Scott, isn’t this clique-oriented thinking similarly widespread among mathematicians and scientists as among philosophers?

    After all, aren’t there plenty of folks who conceive that QIT is mainly about theorem-proving? Are they on any firmer ground than the philosophers?

    The sobering history of the “AI Winter” (as mentioned in your thread on the Quantum Information Science Workshop) thoroughly documents that clique-oriented thinking is similarly prevalent in mathematics and science as it is in philosophy.

    It is not so easy to struggle against excessively clique-oriented thinking. After all, informed rational criticism is good too!

    IMHO, a good starting point is to recognize that it is highly desirable—in almost every field of human endeavor—that everyone not think alike, on the common-sense grounds that healthy ecosystems are almost invariably diverse ecosystems.

    Yet it is equally necessary to respect the traditional norms of science—including reproducibility, explanatory and/or predictive power, practical utility, logical rigor, openness, peer review, and rational debate—on the common-sense grounds that many new ideas, when put to the test, turn out to be bad ideas.

    Having just driven the Lost Coast on the way back to Seattle from Asilomar, I found that the tidepools—with their vibrantly diverse ecologies—reminded me of the vibrant diversity of the scientific enterprise. There is no such thing as stasis or perfection in a tidepool, and neither should mortals like us expect (or desire) static perfection in mathematics, science, or philosophy.

  100. ScentOfViolets Says:

    That’s a fine line you’re drawing between a chaos of competition for scarce resources and monocultural group-think, John. Is this Minsky’s Theory of Mind writ large :-)

  101. John Sidles Says:

    ScentOfViolets, your point is excellent … so excellent that I continued it on Scott’s timely thread about the coming Quantum Information Science Workshop.

    `Cuz hey, the present thread is about “literature that skewers pompous fools” … which is a valuable topic! :)

    With regard to high-quality children’s literature, where IMHO the best-hearted skewering is found, I wish to nominate Wind in the Willows, for Badger’s and Rat’s and Mole’s pointed yet friendly skewering of Toad’s pomposity.

    Truth in Wind in the Willows is found in Nature and in friendship … with a high tolerance for diversity … this is a philosophy for which I have a lot of sympathy.

  102. Chris W. Says:

    Since Ludwig Wittgenstein has been mentioned numerous times in this post and the subsequent comments, I’ll point to this new article in the New Yorker about the Wittgenstein family, which concludes this way:

    There’s a telling description of genius by Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher of romantic pessimism, whose work was well known to Ludwig, Paul, Gretl, and Hans: “Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target, as far as which others cannot even see.” That seems to have been the Wittgenstein way: trying to hit targets that others could not see. But if ordinary mortals cannot spot the bull’s-eye, how do they know whether it has been hit? According to Schopenhauer, they just have to accept the evidence of genius on faith, which is what Ludwig’s admirers often did. When Ludwig attacked some of Russell’s ideas, Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell, “I couldn’t understand his objection—in fact he was very inarticulate—but I feel in my bones that he must be right.” Other philosophers who met Ludwig reported the same feeling.
    It’s tempting to come away from the Wittgenstein saga with the thought that Karl, if only he had lived long enough, would have acknowledged the iron-willed independence of Paul and Ludwig as a reflection of his own, and given them his blessing. But that would probably be expecting too much of him. Tragic or not, no family has room for more than one Wittgenstein.

    [Scott: Please delete the previous comment.]

  103. Scott Says:

    John: In math and science, you definitely get cliques who all think a certain topic is interesting, even though they can’t explain why to outsiders. But if they take the further step of accepting some central claim as true, without being able to explain the evidence for it to colleagues in other fields, then I’d say they’ve probably degenerated into pseudoscience. Yet the latter situation seems like the norm in postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and the other fields we’re discussing here.

    Incidentally, what’s an example of someone who thinks QIT is “all about proving theorems”? I’m probably as theoretical as you can possibly get within this field, and I think it’s equally about experiment.

  104. John Sidles Says:

    Scott asks: “What’s an example example of someone who thinks QIT is “all about proving theorems”?”

    LOL … it’s not someone who would want to be quoted!

    But your question is very interesting when stated in its reversed form … if *no* experiments in QIT had been done since, say, the year 2000, then by how much would progress in QIT have been retarded?

    To put it another way, which advances of quantum complexity theory, in the last decade, have depended crucially upon experimental inputs?

    In clinical medicine, this question is very easy to answer: pretty much all advances in medicine depend crucially upon experiments and clinical observations.

    But in quantum complexity theory, the answer is less clear (to me at least). So I am asking in all humility.

  105. Algirdas Says:

    John,

    when you write

    “Here at the 50th ENC, Alex Pines organized a wonderful “Emerging Science” session
    [ … ]
    The audience (standing room only) was made excited but uneasy by these talks … this combination IMHO is a hallmark of good science.”

    what precisely do you mean by “uneasy”?

    I ask because I happened to attend ENC, including this session. Was there excitement? Yes! Uneasiness? I don’t think I sensed much.

  106. John Sidles Says:

    Algirdas asks: What precisely do you mean by “uneasy”?

    Anton Zeilinger’s talk was good, but I don’t think it made anyone feel particularly uneasy (because it didn’t really impact the way that folks design their experiments). So Zeilinger’s talk was IMHO the least radical of the three.

    Peter Schultz’ research (on synthetic biology) makes my experimental biology friends uneasy—and me too—by its sheer scale, scope, and pace … anyone who runs 10^9 experiments in parallel … for purposes of (successfully) engineering organisms that operate by radically new metabolic and genomic mechanisms (new amino acids, new quadruplet RNA codes) … and then jokes about releasing these organisms … yes that made some folks uneasy! Partly for the pragmatic reason that these large-scale fast-paced methods are raising the funding bar for everyone else.

    Bob Knight’s work in cognitive neurophysiology (mapping real-time human brain activity via thousands of electrodes, on spatial scales down to 3mm, at frequencies up to 250 Hz, with the resulting dynamics illustrated by amazing graphics) … only made uneasy those ENC audience members who truly believed that their own cognitive processes functioned via these non-rule-based, non-logical brain processes. :)

  107. Vladimir Levin Says:

    Last comment? I can’t help but supply the following:

    http://xkcd.com/451/

  108. John Sidles Says:

    Vladimir, it saddens me to say that, for me, xkcd has slowly devolved into the technorati equivalent of Rush Limbaugh … yet another unsubtle voice for the counter-enlightenment … due possibly to a too-intimate embrace of ideological libertarianism … with the sad consequence that xkcd has become … well … safe. Which is fatal to effective fool-skewering.

    So who are today’s heirs to the immortal fool-skewering Comic Enlightenment of The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes? Everyone has their own favorites, but for me, any list of today’s most creative fool-skewering rebels would include artists like Ryan North for his Dinosaur Comics and Jonathon Coulton for his songs like Re: Your Brains.

    Historically, comic art and songs have been among the very sharpest implements for fool-skewering … and the work of artists like North and Coulton is keeping this tradition alive and well. Good!

  109. Mauro Persano Says:

    I believe their so-called “obscurantism” has a lot to do with: the nature of the French language and the fact that much of them are translated

    Sorry, but that stuff still looks like something that came out of a Markov Chain-based random text generator even when read in the original French.