No Contrast to Barbarism

Thursday, September 18, 2014

There are aspects of his column that I disagree with (primarily a sympathy to religion that I think is undeserved), but I do appreciate Walter Williams having asked a few pointed questions of multiculturalists:

Multiculturalists argue that different cultural values are morally equivalent. That's nonsense. Western culture and values are superior. For those who'd accuse me of Eurocentrism, I'd ask: Is forcible female genital mutilation, as practiced in nearly 30 sub-Saharan African and Middle Eastern countries, a morally equivalent cultural value? Slavery is practiced in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan; is it morally equivalent? In most of the Middle East, there are numerous limits placed on women, such as prohibitions on driving, employment and education. Under Islamic law, in some countries, female adulterers face death by stoning, and thieves face the punishment of having their hand severed. In some countries, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. Are these cultural values morally equivalent, superior or inferior to Western values? [ad links removed]
As Williams indicates elsewhere, those who preach multiculturalism pave their way by confining their critiques (when their insults even rise to that level)  to the West. That is bad enough, but, I'll add a further question of my own: If they can't bother critically examining other cultures, how can we assume that they have even examined ours for its virtues?

Part of what makes the nihilistic left as strong a cultural force as it is is that too many people unwittingly accept the following basic, unstated, and wrong premise: Fault-finding is the hallmark of critical thought. This premise helps lead to the enormous injustice against the West we are seeing today: The civilization that ended slavery and has achieved unprecedented (and widespread) prosperity is unacknowledged, while a caricature of it is held up to barbarism and found equivalent, if not wanting.

-- CAV


Fifty Years of Looting

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I found a report, by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, on the failure of the half-century War on Poverty  full of interesting facts, such as the following:

The media frequently associate the idea of poverty with being homeless. But less than two percent of the poor are homeless. Only one in ten live in mobile homes. The typical house or apartment of the poor is in good repair and uncrowded; it is actually larger than the average dwelling of non-poor French, Germans or English.

According to government surveys, the typical family that Census identifies as poor has air conditioning, cable or satellite TV, and a computer in his home. Forty percent have a wide screen HDTV and another 40 percent have internet access. Three quarters of the poor own a car and roughly a third have two or more cars. (These numbers are not the result of the current bad economy pushing middle class families into poverty; instead, they reflect a steady improvement in living conditions among the poor for many decades.) [bold added]
This reminds me of a time, when I was young, that my father served on the board of the parochial school we attended. My parents paid full tuition, although they were not exactly made of money. One of my Dad's tasks as a school board member was to evaluate requests for financial aid, and he often would visit the homes of the applicants in the course of making a recommendation on such requests. In many cases, applicants with larger homes or luxuries that we didn't have ended up being awarded some tuition relief. At least, however, this money came from private charity, rather than government looting, unlike what has been happening on a massive scale for the past half-century.

There are many more eye-opening facts to be gleaned from Rector's article, but I must express disagreement with his conclusion. Neither looting of the productive nor eliminating poverty are proper functions of government. The entitlement state, as an abuse of government power, cannot be "reformed" as Rector advocates, nor should we try. It must be abolished.

On top of that, if the prospect of starving won't move someone to acquire the skills to become self-sufficient, Rector is only fooling himself if he imagines that some government case worker is going to do a better job. And this is not to mention that the work-for-welfare programs he advocates would only add a further misuse of government to this system, whereby the precedent of the government ordering people around is added to that of stealing from them.

-- CAV


Pseudo-Psychological Creation Myths

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

There is a rambling and imperfectly critical, but nonetheless interesting article on the history of evolutionary psychology (EP) at The Nation.

In each case, we are presumed to believe in the phenomenon under analysis already. All we require is an explanation, a story that tells us why we are the way we are. Ultimately, the explanation is always the same: evolution—i.e, reproductive advantage. Click on one of these stories and you will find two things: first, the results of a recent psychological study that verifies an observation about a common human behavior; and second, an evolutionary explanation for why that behavior was advantageous for our ancestors. Because their standard operating procedure is to begin from behaviors that they perceive as universal (despite the fact that blond hair, for example, could hardly be considered universally valorized), evolutionary psychologists tend to confirm received wisdom. Many EP studies tautologically assert that widely held social values are... well, widely held. Study finds that most men are attracted to women who are deemed conventionally attractive by society!
The authors do well to show that EP is used to "explain" things many of us wish we understood better, and that many people buy these "just so stories", but I think they fall short in addressing the larger picture of why such claptrap seems to fill the void for so many.

It would take volumes to fully explain the disturbing popularity of EP, but I'll try a quick stab at it in the form of a question and an answer, followed by some relevant quotes I turned up: In an age of militant skepticism, and in a society that respects reason as if it were an occult art (because so many have become unable to practice it), what will people turn to to explain phenomena they want to understand? Something they are told is "science", and that has surface credibility would be a strong candidate. (Additionally, since we can't expect everyone to be professional philosophers, we can see the failure of professional intellectuals -- like that of journalist John Tierney -- permeating this story.)

Interestingly, three consecutive quotes on science appearing in the Ayn Rand Lexicon are also relevant to this question. (Please follow links for citation data.) These point to the rest of the picture.

First, we have this:
Science was born as a result and consequence of philosophy; it cannot survive without a philosophical (particularly epistemological) base. If philosophy perishes, science will be next to go.
And this decline is because...
It is not the special sciences that teach man to think; it is philosophy that lays down the epistemological criteria of all special sciences.
Centuries of bad philosophy have permeated the culture, causing people understandably not to rely on it, or to use it to evaluate propositions, whether or not they purport to be scientific. But, as Ayn Rand famously pointed out in "Philosophy: Who Needs It", human beings need guidelines to think and will end up finding (or absorbing from the culture) substitutes, like religion or pseudoscience.

And so we see science collapsing, even as people turn to it for answers instead of (and/or without the aid of) philosophy:
The disintegration of philosophy in the nineteenth century and its collapse in the twentieth have led to a similar, though much slower and less obvious, process in the course of modern science.

Today’s frantic development in the field of technology has a quality reminiscent of the days preceding the economic crash of 1929: riding on the momentum of the past, on the unacknowledged remnants of an Aristotelian epistemology, it is a hectic, feverish expansion, heedless of the fact that its theoretical account is long since overdrawn—that in the field of scientific theory, unable to integrate or interpret their own data, scientists are abetting the resurgence of a primitive mysticism. In the humanities, however, the crash is past, the depression has set in, and the collapse of science is all but complete.

The clearest evidence of it may be seen in such comparatively young sciences as psychology and political economy. In psychology, one may observe the attempt to study human behavior without reference to the fact that man is conscious. In political economy, one may observe the attempt to study and to devise social systems without reference to man.

It is philosophy that defines and establishes the epistemological criteria to guide human knowledge in general and specific sciences in particular. [bold added]
Evolutionary psychology explains human behavior no better than any religious creation myth, its lip-service to psychology, biology, and other sciences notwithstanding. Its popularity is a sign of cultural collapse, rather than of merit.

-- CAV


Economically and Morally Wrong

Monday, September 15, 2014

Paul Krugman writes a column on a subject it is tempting to joke that he ought to know something about: "How to Get It Wrong". The "It" is, in this case, economics, and Krugman even admits that intellectual failure has occurred at several levels in his discipline. But if you're expecting a mea culpa, holding your breath could be a life-threatening proposition:

In what sense did economics go astray? Hardly anyone predicted the 2008 crisis, but that in itself is arguably excusable in a complicated world. More damning was the widespread conviction among economists that such a crisis couldn't happen. Underlying this complacency was the dominance of an idealized vision of capitalism, in which individuals are always rational and markets always function perfectly.
That's right. Krugman, who we must assume applies the label "policy-oriented economist" to himself, is blaming a crisis caused by government meddling in the economy on a massive scale on  "capitalism" (in a world where that system exists nowhere) and individual irrationality for the same (as if said meddling hasn't incentivized it). This should come as no surprise since "policy-oriented economist" as he uses it is a euphemism for "an economist who assumes that the government should plan at least some aspect of the economy". (I suppose one could make a case for saying that an economist interested in the problems of transitioning from central planning to capitalism is "policy-oriented", but that's an argument we can hope to have in a better day.)

And so it is that Krugman (1) decries his professed discipline for failing to predict an economic collapse since economists improperly (a) modeled a system that doesn't exist anywhere today, by (b) not accounting for an irrationality he needn't presume (because "economic policy" -- i.e., central planning -- actively fostered it), and (2) buys into (or at least sells) the myth that government looting creates jobs. (By using the term "looting", I am accepting Krugman's invitation to connect dots. Government funding for job creation has to come from somewhere, doesn't it? Or is there a model out there for ex nihilo creation I am not privy to?)

With his column's title, Krugman tempts us to mock him as he prepares to hide behind the skirts of abstruse economic models. But I think he deserves more than mockery for errors so blatant that even a layman like myself can see them. I say this, because to truly understand how to get something wrong entails actual knowledge of how to get something right. Krugman's column thus encourages many steeped in bad mental habits to continue them, in part by setting up anyone speaking of the emperor's clothes to look like an idiot.

-- CAV


9-13-14 Hodgepodge

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Littered With Error: Why?

A couple of times in the past, I have mentioned the work of John Ioannidis, who has made a name for himself by pointing out that clinical research is rife with findings that are wrong or contradicted by other findings. Now, via We Stand Firm, I have learned of an article by another author that attempts to explain why this is the case. Here's an example:

Mistaking what came first in the order of causation is a form of protopathic bias. There are numerous examples in the literature. For example, an assumed association between breast feeding and stunted growth, actually reflected the fact that sicker infants were preferentially breastfed for longer periods. Thus, stunted growth led to more breastfeeding, not the other way around... [link in original, citation markers removed]
For a longer excerpt and a link to the full article (PDF, free registration required), visit the post at We Stand Firm.

Weekend Reading

"Even in day-to-day cases when you know that a change is going to be good, the happiness and anticipation can be bittersweet." -- Michael Hurd, in "Coping With Sudden Loss" at The Delaware Wave

"For something to be remembered, it has to be exciting or special." -- Michael Hurd, in "Jump-Start Your Memory" at The Delaware Coast Press

My Two Cents

Not to detract from the excellent "Jump-Start Your Memory", but it has a slightly misleading title. Among the valuable tips Michael Hurd offers -- and one I rely on quite heavily -- is putting important things in the same place every time, which eliminates the need to rely on memory. It also eliminates what I regard as one of the most irritating ways to spend my time: looking for something.

If by "Delicious", You Mean "Sugary and Mushy", ...

If you've ever wondered why you can't seem to find a decent apple, a story in the Atlantic sheds some light on why that has been the case in the recent past, but has become less of a problem in recent years:
[A]lluring yet undesirable, [the Red Delicious is] the most produced and arguably the least popular apple in the United States. It lurks in desolation. Bumped around the bottom of lunch bags as schoolchildren rummage for chips or shrink-wrapped Rice Krispies treats. Waiting by the last bruised banana in a roadside gas station, the only produce for miles. Left untouched on hospital trays, forlorn in the fruit bowl at hotel breakfast buffets, bereft in nests of gift-basket raffia.
I wouldn't say that this apple "took over" the American market so much as ill-advised "enhancements" ultimately made a marketplace winner into an inferior product that is on its way out. The article decries "the machinery of industrial capitalism" for these changes even as it shows the market forcing the industry to correct its bad decisions. Nevertheless, I found it interesting.

--CAV


Friday Four

Friday, September 12, 2014

1. Out for dinner with the in-laws last week, my inquiry into the identity of the garnish on my plate -- which I tasted -- reminded me of an article I ran across some time ago at Slate, on "Kale of Duty: Why I Choose to Eat Nothing but Kale, Ever, for the Rest of my Life".

DAY 2: Many foods give up their charms all too easily. Not so of kale. In order to coax from it even the most basic edibility, kale must actually be massaged. Massaging breaks down the tough kale leaves and tempers their off-putting taste and texture (i.e. their "kaleness"). Most chefs massage their kale for 5 to 10 minutes in a mixing bowl. I went longer than that for my first kale salad -- an hour and a half total -- mostly because that's what I'd want if the kale were massaging me.
About to elaborate a bit, the waiter continued, "It's best eaten --"

"-- by somebody else." I couldn't resist interrupting him.

2. Taking heed of some good advice I recently passed along here on getting papers organized, I recently purchased a new shredder from Amazon. This thing is a beast compared to my old shredder, even when it was new. It shreds more at a time and faster. I have yet to jam it. It's reasonably-priced and fun to use. I may even find myself missing the backlog of papers I started working through Wednesday, after I finish -- probably this morning.

3. My daughter is a fan of The Octonauts, a children's cartoon series Wikipedia calls "reminiscent of Star Trek and Thunderbirds blended with Jacques Cousteau". During an episode I watched with her recently, some of the Octonauts went inside a whale shark to rescue a puffer fish (as well as to save the whale shark from the poisonous fish).

"Can people really go inside a whale shark?" Pumpkin asked.

"Not like that. The only way to end up inside a shark is to be eaten," I replied, chuckling.

"Are people poisonous?" she then asked.

"No. We just don't get into the water when sharks are around."

4. Although it was affected by the recent Napa Valley earthquake, the Quent Cordair art gallery is open for business:
Our artists need financial support as well during this time. The gallery's website at www.cordair.com remains *OPEN* for business. Most of the paintings, prints, and sculpture are undamaged and remain available for purchase - please consider supporting your favorite QCFA artist by making a purchase while the physical gallery remains closed for repair. If you can't afford to purchase art at this time, consider joining Club Cordair at http://cordair.com/wordpress/clubcordair for as low as $50 month --all monthly contributions into club accounts are available towards future purchases.
(HT: HBL)

-- CAV


Bribery: Just a Symptom

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Walter Williams administers a column-length corrective  to the idea -- perpetuated by leftists -- that the "money in politics" we should do away with is in lobbying and campaign finance.

... Most concerns about money in politics tend to focus on relatively trivial matters such as the costs of running for office and interest-group influence on Congress and the White House. The bedrock problem is the awesome power of Congress. We Americans have asked, demanded and allowed congressmen to ignore their oaths of office and ignore the constitutional limitations imposed on them. The greater the congressional power to give handouts and grant favors and make special privileges the greater the value of being able to influence congressional decision-making. There's no better influence than money. [bold added]
Williams is correct: Bribery is ubiquitous because of pervasive, improper government power. However, Williams could have gone even further to identify the "money in politics" the left bemoans as a symptom, rather than the problem. It is easy to see how a contest for loot and favors spirals out of control when everyone is already corrupt, but what about those companies that would rather compete on merit? Ayn Rand once said of such companies:
[W]hat could the railroads do, except try to "own whole legislatures," if these legislatures held the power of life or death over them? What could the railroads do, except resort to bribery, if they wished to exist at all? Who was to blame and who was "corrupt"--the businessmen who had to pay "protection money" for the right to remain in business--or the politicians who held the power to sell that right?
Even for those who oppose the entitlement state, the power Williams describes -- and correctly calls to eliminate -- has essentially made bribery necessary.

-- CAV