The Virtue of Scientific Thinking

Steven Shapin in the Boston Review:

Shapin-JF15-600_0Can science make you good?

Of course it can’t, some will be quick to say—no more than repairing cars or editing literary journals can. Why should we think that science has any special capacity for moral uplift, or that scientists—by virtue of the particular job they do, or what they know, or the way in which they know it—are morally superior to other sorts of people? It is an odd question, maybe even an illogical one. Everybody knows that the prescriptive world of ought—the moral or the good—belongs to a different domain than the descriptive world of is.

This dismissal may capture the way many of us now think about the question, if indeed we think about it at all. But there are several reasons why it may be too quick.

First, there are different ways of understanding the question, and different modern sensibilities follow from the different senses such a question might have. Some ways of understanding it do lead to the glib dismissal, but other ways powerfully link science to moral matters. Here are just a few of the ways we might think about the relationship between science and virtue, about whether aspects of science have the power to make us good:

• Is there something about what scientists know that makes them better people than the normal run of humankind? Are different sorts of scientists—physicists, mathematicians, engineers, biologists, sociologists—more or less virtuous? And do some sorts of scientific expertise count as moral expertise?

• Are scientists recruited from a section of humankind that is already better than the norm?

• Is there something scientists know that, were it widely shared with non-scientists, would make the rest of us better? Or is there something about how scientists come to their knowledge—call it the scientific method—that would make the practices of non-scientists better, were they to master it? Would wide application of the scientist’s way of knowing make our society fairer, more just and flourishing?

More here.

Lawrence Krauss Faces Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct

Peter Aldhous, Azeen Ghorayshi and Virginia Hughes in BuzzFeed News:

ScreenHunter_2975 Feb. 22 20.01When Melody Hensley first met Lawrence Krauss, she was a 29-year-old makeup artist at a department store, and he was one of her intellectual idols. She ran an atheist website in her spare time and had just started volunteering for the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit group committed to promoting science and reason above faith. She was hoping to build a career in the burgeoning “skeptics” movement, and Krauss was one of its brightest luminaries.

At a CFI event in November 2006, Krauss asked Hensley for her card, and later, as she was leaving, asked her if she was “of age.” She brushed off the odd question, excited to meet a star skeptic. When he later emailed to invite her to dinner, she accepted.

“I didn’t care if he flirted with me, I just wanted to be around somebody important, and I also wanted to get a job in this field,” Hensley told BuzzFeed News. “I thought I could handle myself.”

They made a plan to eat in the restaurant at the Washington, DC, hotel where Krauss was staying, Hensley recalled. But first he asked her to come up to his room while he wrapped up some work. He seemed in no rush to leave, she said, ordering a cheese plate and later champagne, despite her suggestion that they go down to dinner.

More here.

The Prowess of Nina Simone’s Early Records

Lead_960 (6)Jason Heller at The Atlantic:

Sixty years ago, Nina Simone was not yet quite an icon. The legendary singer, pianist, songwriter, and civil-rights activist—who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April—turned 25 in 1958. Her debut album, Little Girl Blue, had just been released on Bethlehem Records, an up-and-coming jazz label. Among Bethlehem’s alumni were Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and a promising young saxophonist from Miles Davis’s band named John Coltrane. Simone, on the other hand, had been signed as more of a pop-jazz artist; the label, after all, was also the home of Mel Tormé. Relatively unknown, Simone was a fresh face to find success by safely interpreting the standards of the day, albeit by using her uniquely husky voice and bluesy yet classically informed piano playing.

Little Girl Blue kicked off a run of singles Simone made between 1958 and 1963 for both Bethlehem and another New York label, Colpix Records. The singles she released during that period, many of them drawn from the Great American Songbook, have been collected on two anthologies out this month: Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles (via BMG Records) and Nina Simone: The Colpix Singles (via Stateside Records).

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A History of Judaism

PhpThumb_generated_thumbnail (2)Martin Goodman at the LARB:

THE DESTRUCTION OF Jerusalem by Roman troops in 70 CE demanded a religious explanation. If God, the supreme ruler of the universe, had allowed such a disaster to be visited on his people, it must be as part of a divine plan. The author of an apocalyptic text that purports to describe the prophetic visions of Ezra, the priest and scribe of the fifth century BCE, but which must in fact have been composed in the last decades of the first century CE, envisaged divine vengeance on the Roman empire. He pictured Rome as a three-headed eagle destined for destruction during the last days that had now come upon the earth:

The Most High has looked at his times; now they have ended, and his ages have reached completion. Therefore you, eagle, will surely disappear, you and your terrifying wings, your most evil little wings, your malicious heads, your most evil talons, and your whole worthless body, so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved, and may hope for the judgement and mercy of him who made it.

But we have no idea how many other Jews shared in this eschatological hope. IV Ezra is preserved only through copies and translations made by Christians, among whom the text proved immensely popular, presumably in part because of their strong interest in the imminent end times, but it is not known whether the text held similar appeal for non-Christian Jews.

more here.

Luther vs. Erasmus

Luther-erasmus1Michael Massing at the NYRB:

The publication of Erasmus’s revised New Testament was a milestone in biblical studies. It gave scholars the tools to read the Bible as a document that, while divinely inspired, was a human product that could be deconstructed and edited in the same manner as a text by Livy or Seneca. As copies began circulating, the magnitude of Erasmus’s achievement was immediately recognized. Not since Cicero had an intellectual figure so dominated Western discourse as Erasmus did in that enchanted spring of 1516. “Everywhere in all Christendom your fame is spreading,” wrote John Watson, a rector in England with whom he was friendly. “By the unanimous verdict of all scholars, you are voted the best scholar of them all, and the most learned in both Greek and Latin.”

The term “Erasmian” came into use to describe those who shared his vision. But those Erasmians represented only a small sliver of society. Erasmus wrote exclusively in Latin, for the highly educated, Latin-speaking elite. Dazzled by his readings in ancient Greek, Erasmus began promoting knowledge of that language as no less essential than Latin. “Almost everything worth learning is set forth in these two languages,” he wrote in one of his many educational texts. In these, Erasmus proposed a new curriculum for Europe, with instruction in Latin and Greek at its core.

more here.

The Facebook Armageddon: The social network’s increasing threat to journalism

Mathew Ingram in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Ingram-hero-2474x960At some point over the past decade, Facebook stopped being a mostly harmless social network filled with baby photos and became one of the most powerful forces in media—with more than 2 billion users every month and a growing lock on the ad revenue that used to underpin most of the media industry. When it comes to threats to journalism, in other words, Facebook qualifies as one, whether it wants to admit it or not.

Facebook’s relationship with the media has been a classic Faustian bargain: News outlets want to reach those 2 billion users, so they put as much of their content as they can on the network. Some of them are favored by the company’s all-powerful (and completely mysterious) algorithm, giving them access to a wider audience to pitch for subscriptions or the pennies worth of ad revenue they receive from the platform.

But while many media outlets continue to pander to Facebook, even some of the digital-media entities that have catered to the company seem to be struggling. Mashable, which laid off much of its news staff to focus on video for Facebook, is being acquired by Ziff Davis for 20 percent of what it was valued at a year ago, and BuzzFeed reportedly missed its revenue targets for 2017 and had to lay off a number of editorial staff.

Facebook continues to move the goalposts when it comes to how the News Feed algorithm works. In January, the company said that it would be de-emphasizing posts from media outlets in favor of “meaningful interactions” between users, and suggested this could result in a significant decline in traffic for some publishers.

More here.

Scant Evidence of Power Laws Found in Real-World Networks: A new study challenges one of the most celebrated and controversial ideas in network science

Erica Klarreich in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_2974 Feb. 21 19.36A paper posted online last month has reignited a debate about one of the oldest, most startling claims in the modern era of network science: the proposition that most complex networks in the real world — from the World Wide Web to interacting proteins in a cell — are “scale-free.” Roughly speaking, that means that a few of their nodes should have many more connections than others, following a mathematical formula called a power law, so that there’s no one scale that characterizes the network.

Purely random networks do not obey power laws, so when the early proponents of the scale-free paradigm started seeing power laws in real-world networks in the late 1990s, they viewed them as evidence of a universal organizing principle underlying the formation of these diverse networks. The architecture of scale-freeness, researchers argued, could provide insight into fundamental questions such as how likely a virus is to cause an epidemic, or how easily hackers can disable a network.

Over the past two decades, an avalanche of papers has asserted the scale-freeness of hundreds of real-world networks. In 2002, Albert-László Barabási — a physicist-turned-network scientist who pioneered the scale-free networks paradigm — wrote a book for a general audience, Linked, in which he asserted that power laws are ubiquitous in complex networks.

More here.

Mohsin Hamid on the rise of nationalism: ‘In the land of the pure, no one is pure enough’

Mohsin Hamid in The Guardian:

3000Perhaps it is living half your life in Pakistan, for Pakistan is the land of the pure. Literally so: the land, stan, of the pure, pak. Perhaps that is why you have come to question the commonly held perception that purity is good and impurity is bad. For a tribe of humans newly arrived in a location never before inhabited by humans, such an outlook is perhaps sensible. Purity in a stream of water renders it fit to drink. Impurity in a piece of meat sickens those who eat it. Purity is hence to be valued and impurity to be avoided, resisted, expelled. And yet you believe the time has come to seek to reverse, at least partially, the emotional polarity of these two words, to extol impurity’s benefits and denounce purity’s harms.

The issue is, of course, personal. We are each of us composed of atoms, but equally we are composed by time. Since your time has been spent half inside Pakistan and half outside, and your outlook and attitudes shaped by this, you are in a sense half-Pakistani, which is to say, as Pakistan is the land of the pure, you are half-pure: an impossible state. You cannot exist as you are. Or rather, you must be impure. And if impurity is bad then you are bad. And to be bad is hazardous, in any society. So yes, the issue is personal, and pressing.

But in Pakistan, the issue is political as well, for it affects everyone. Once purity becomes what determines the rights a human being is afforded, indeed whether they are entitled to live or not, then there is a ferocious contest to establish hierarchies of purity, and in that contest no one can win. No one can ever be sufficiently pure to be lastingly safe. In the land of the pure, no one is pure enough. No Muslim is Muslim enough. And so all are suspect. All are at risk. And many are killed by others who find their purity lacking, and many of their killers are in turn killed for the same reason. And on and on, in a chain reaction. The politics of purity is the politics of fission.

This should not be surprising. Pakistan was founded by fission, the splitting of British imperial India into two separate independent states, Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. And Pakistan has experienced further fission, the splitting of its western and eastern wings into Pakistan and Bangladesh. In each case, a more complex entity was broken into what was believed would be two more internally harmonious ones. But a retreat from complexity is no guarantee of future harmony. Too often, it is accompanied by the rise of a fetish for purity, the desire to exterminate lingering traces of complexity within.

Pakistan is not unique. Rather, it is at the forefront of a global trend.

More here.

The Marvel of Cécile McLorin Salvant

Download (15)David Hajdu at The Nation:

What I experienced at the Village Vanguard in October was something more than the fulfillment of that promise: I saw Salvant transcend the conventions of multiple traditions in jazz singing, including Holiday’s, without abandoning the tenets of emotional maturity, deep musicality, and rhythmic drive that distinguish jazz. Onstage at the Vanguard, as well as on her latest album, Dreams and Daggers, Salvant made a kind of jazz that honors the history of the music while speaking with ringing, stinging cogency to a 21st-century audience.

In place of reverence, quiet, and stillness, there was an atmosphere of shared excitement. If the regulars remembered the rules about keeping quiet, it didn’t show. And there seemed to be many more newcomers than regulars in the place—unbridled fans cheering in full voice during a song, picking up on Salvant’s cheeky humor and laughing along, even calling out requests, an act of apostasy at the Vanguard. About halfway into the set, someone yelled for “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” the Rodgers and Hart ballad that Salvant reconsiders on Dreams and Daggers—a double-CD set of standards, vintage obscurities, and new songs written (or co-written) by her, including some tracks recorded at a show at the Vanguard in late 2016 that I didn’t attend.

more here.

A new biography of Edward Lansdale is a study in self-deception

Download (14)John Ganz at The Baffler:

Lansdale’s early interventions in Vietnam during the 1950s were instrumental in installing and supporting the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Lansdale helped rig a phony plebiscite against the emperor Bao Dai where Diem received 98.2 percent of the vote. Diem was, by most accounts, a weak leader who tolerated the repressive tactics of his brother Nhu and his sister-in-law Madame Nhu. Lansdale was put in close liaison with Diem, even living in the presidential palace for a time, and he developed a friendly rapport with the man, who was often perceived as cold. But after Lansdale helped Diem fend off his rivals for power with a combination of force and bribery with money provided by the U.S. government, Diem distanced himself from Lansdale, saying “Lansdale is too CIA and an encumbrance. In politics, there is no room for sentiment.” In trying to tease out the complexities of the relationship, Boot fails to state clearly the obvious conclusion: Diem used Lansdale and the U.S. government for his own ends, believing he could manipulate them both.

Diem pretty consistently ignored Lansdale’s advice to take the country in a more democratic direction, instead favoring the ideology of Personalism that his brother Nhu espoused. “I like the guy, but I won’t buy fascism,” Lansdale said.

more here.

Utopia for Realists

Unnamed (1)George Eaton at The New Statesman:

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

more here.

Wednesday Poem

The Spirit of Triumph

do you remember learning to tie your shoes?
astonishing! the loops you had to make the delicate
adjustments the pulling-through tightening impossible!
the things we learn!
putting a bridle on a horse when he's headshy
getting your hands under a girl's sweater
no wonder we are the crown of all that exists
we can do anything how we climb chimneys
how we put one foot on the gas one on the clutch
and make the car go nothing too difficult nothing!

crutches artificial arms have you seen that?
how they pick their cups up and use razors? amazing!
and the wives shine it for them at night
they're sleeping the wives take it out of the room
and polish it with its own special rag
it's late they hold it against their bellies
the leather laces dangle into their laps
the mechanisms slip noiselessly
lowering the hook softly onto their breasts
we men! aren't we something? I mean
we are worth thinking about aren't we?
we are the end we are the living end

by C.K. Williams
from Selected Poems
Harper Collins, 1994

Best-dressed? It’s all relative

Luke Leitch in The Economist:

EIN_01-headerWhen new acquaintances ask what I do, their eyes flick up and down my scuffed sneakers, well-loved jumbo cords and moth-kissed sweater before clouding over with inevitable confusion. A more sensitive soul might regard the effect that my clothes have as grounds for professional self-doubt. But not me. After all, isn’t football full of incisive pundits who have never scored a goal? How many respected political editors have ever stood for office, let alone won? And do theatre critics get appointed because they craft brilliant plays? You don’t have to be a clothes horse to write about fashion.

But there is one time of year when the comfortable elastic of the psychological waistband that holds up this justification for my lack of dashing personal style suddenly cinches like a too-tight pair of jeans: best-dressed season. For 2018 I nominated the Gucci designer Alessandro Michele to British GQ for its list (he came in 10th). Then I interviewed Charlie Heaton – the handsome young English actor who plays Winona Ryder’s son in Netflix’s 1980s redux horror series, “Stranger Things” – for a cover story naming him as the winner of Italian GQ’s list. He revealed a recently acquired fondness for high-waisted trousers, a long-held reluctance to wear anything that isn’t black or grey, and was generally charming.

The men who top these lists are invariably youngish, handsomish and successful in fields like acting, sports or that baffling modern profession – celebrity. There is usually a rising politician and a royal chucked in for good measure. The clothes of these types are an extension of their public persona, and sometimes even part of their income stream too. Their reasons for dressing well are boringly instrumental. I have long craved a masculine style icon to champion who dresses fantastically despite convention, not because of it – someone whose choice of clothes reflects their brilliance in other fields, who looks as remarkable as they are without attempting to appear more remarkable than they are. And – eureka! – I think at last I’ve found him.

More here.

Set the World on Fire: A New Book on Black Nationalist Women’s Activism

Melissa N. Shaw in AAIHS:

Blain_set-the-world-on-fire_cover-1-678x1024In 1932, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon spoke to a crowd of black Chicagoans at the old Jack Johnson boxing ring, rallying their support for emigration to West Africa. In 1937, Celia Jane Allen traveled to Jim Crow Mississippi to organize rural black workers around black nationalist causes. In the late 1940s, from her home in Kingston, Jamaica, Amy Jacques Garvey launched an extensive letter-writing campaign to defend the Greater Liberia Bill, which would relocate 13 million black Americans to West Africa. Gordon, Allen, and Jacques Garvey—as well as Maymie De Mena, Ethel Collins, Amy Ashwood, and Ethel Waddell—are part of an overlooked and understudied group of black women who take center stage in Set the World on Fire, the first book to examine how black nationalist women engaged in national and global politics from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. Historians of the era generally portray the period between the Garvey movement of the 1920s and the Black Power movement of the 1960s as an era of declining black nationalist activism, but Keisha N. Blain reframes the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War as significant eras of black nationalist—and particularly, black nationalist women’s—ferment.

In Chicago, Harlem, and the Mississippi Delta, from Britain to Jamaica, these women built alliances with people of color around the globe, agitating for the rights and liberation of black people in the United States and across the African diaspora. As pragmatic activists, they employed multiple protest strategies and tactics, combined numerous religious and political ideologies, and forged unlikely alliances in their struggles for freedom. Drawing on a variety of previously untapped sources, including newspapers, government records, songs, and poetry, Set the World on Fire highlights the flexibility, adaptability, and experimentation of black women leaders who demanded equal recognition and participation in global civil society.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month)

On the compulsion to innovate

Santiago Zabala in Public Seminar:

ScreenHunter_2973 Feb. 20 19.30Given our prejudice towards innovation, everything labeled as “new” captures our interest with the promise of genuine improvement. But are new politicians, technological discoveries, and works of art necessarily better than previous ones? As we enter 2018 we recall last year’s breakthroughs as improvements in politics, technology, and art. It is as if novelty were the only criteria: the young president of France will not only reform his country but also save Europe; new facial-recognition (Face++) software will provide access to buildings, authorize payments, and also track down criminals; and Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable overpowers his previous works.

These things may all be new, but they are not necessarily improvements. “Every innovation,” as Boris Groys explains in his book On The New, results from a new interpretation, a new contextualization or decontextualization of a cultural attitude or act.” The new, in other words, is relative. But if innovation cannot be defined simply by our compulsion for progress, growth, and improvement, how can we know when something new occurs?

While the search for the new used to be driven by the aspiration to discover truth, essence, and transcendental meaning beyond cultural differences, today the new is primarily defined in relation to what is considered traditional, old, and surpassed. Instead of following a tradition and complying with its criteria, politicians, scientists, and artists are today required to produce new traditions and criteria. But do previous traditions ever really come to an end?

More here.

Retrocausality may explain how the future can change what happens now – as in a quantum time machine

Adam Becker in Signs of the Times:

Retrocausalitymain_800x533The idea that the future can influence the past may finally explain the inherent randomness of quantum theory and bring it in line with Einstein's space-time

If you were to break your arm tomorrow afternoon, would you suddenly find it hanging useless in a sling this morning? Of course not – the question makes no sense. Cause always precedes effect. But maybe life isn't quite so straightforward for a photon. In the subatomic realm, where the laws of quantum physics make seemingly impossible feats routine, the one thing that we always considered beyond the pale might just be true.

This idea that the future can influence the present, and that the present can influence the past, is known as retrocausality. It has been around for a while without ever catching on – and for good reason, because we never see effects happen before their causes in everyday life. But now, a fresh twist on a deep tension in the foundations of quantum theory suggests that we may have no choice but to think again.

No one is saying time travel is anything other than fantasy. But if the theorists going back to the future with retrocausality can make it stick, the implications would be almost as mind-boggling. They could not only explain the randomness seemingly inherent to the quantum world, but even remake it in a way that finally brings it into line with Einstein's ideas of space and time – an achievement that has eluded physicists for decades. "If you allow retrocausality, it is possible to have a theory of reality that's more compatible with lots of things that we think should be true," says Matthew Leifer at Chapman University in Orange, California.

More here. [Thanks to Huw Price.]

A Consensus Emerges: Russia Committed an “Act of War” on Par With Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Should the U.S. Response Be Similar?

Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept:

Russia-hacking-putin-1483743532-article-headerIn the wake of last week’s indictments alleging that 13 Russian nationals and entities created fake social media accounts and sponsored political events to sow political discord in the U.S., something of a consensus has arisen in the political and media class (with some notable exceptions) that these actions not only constitute an “act of war” against the U.S., but one so grave that it is tantamount to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Indeed, that Russia’s alleged “meddling” is comparable to the two most devastating attacks in U.S. history has, overnight, become a virtual cliché.

The claim that Russian meddling in the election is “an act of war” comparable to these events isn’t brand new. Senators from both parties, such as Republican John McCain and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, have long described Russian meddling in 2016 as an “act of war.” Hillary Clinton, while promoting her book last October, described Russia’s alleged hacking of the DNC and John Podesta’s email inbox as a “cyber 9/11.” And last February, the always war-hungry Tom Friedman of the New York Times said on “Morning Joe” that Russian hacking “was a 9/11-scale event. They attacked the core of our democracy. That was a Pearl Harbor-scale event.”

But the last few days have ushered in an explosion of this rhetoric from politicians and journalists alike.

More here.