Category Archives: Science
Not long ago I was watching videos in the ‘Shift Happens’ series, and unfortunately came across a troll video with entirely made up statistics (even though it was very professional looking). Given my proclivity for rationalizing anything unfortunate that happens to me, I soon had the epiphany that in a way, made up statistics tell more than actual statistics. By identifying the limits of plausibility, made up statistics reveal the extent of what is possible (good or bad) about the subject in question, be it a society, business, or demographic.
For instance, I could inform a firm’s board of directors that 67% of its employees confuse the words ‘loose’ and ‘lose’ in company emails, and if they reject that statistic outright then we know how high is the expected education calibre of the employees; if, on the other hand, they entertain its possibility, then we know that there is a problem. Made up statistics allow us to quantify the margins of error inherent in managers’ conceptions of their company—an eminently subjective frontier, but one that is, in a way, far more important than the actual performance data of a company. In the tradition of economic graphs, this allows us to compare the actual productivity of a company with the counterfactual horizons of its potentiality, and ask—in a much more objective way than before—what a business can do to make itself better.
Some provisos: first, this method can be applied to any portion of the social sphere, but not to the natural sciences. Second, its practical application opens up the (somewhat amusing) possibility of ‘modal terrorism’ on the part of managers: “The probability that you’ll slack off is higher than the probability that X will slack off! Shape up or ship out!” With some misgivings, one could sympathize with the purpose of such a policy, but it could easily degenerate into what might be called the ‘Caesar’s Wife problem’. The book How To Build a Better Vocabulary (p. 220) explains the origin of the phrase “like Caesar’s wife” as follows:
The phrase is especially applied to public officials whose conduct must be free not only from actual misdeed but from any suspicion of wrongdoing. Plutarch tells us how the expression arose. A young nobleman Publius Clodius was accused of a religious crime in which Pompeia, the wife of Caesar, was implicated. Caesar divorced Pompeia, “but being summoned as a witness against Clodius, said he had nothing to charge him with. This looking like a paradox, the accuser asked him why he parted with his wife. Caesar replied, ‘I wish my wife to be not so much as suspected.’”
The very idea that such a policy may be implemented on a large scale should strike the reader as being quite silly, but fittingly, the fact that we can imagine it at all tells us something important about capitalism that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.
[The following essay is directed toward an imaginary positivist with unflinching faith in the veracity of Einstein's research programme of relativity, because of relativity's overwhelming empirical success. Rather than being anti-science (quite the opposite, actually), my humble goal here is simply to show that empiricism does not provide the full picture, and that fallibilism is justified as a default position when considering contemporary science. I would have liked to explicitly dwell upon specific philosophers of science (particularly Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend), but that will have to wait for another time. Lastly, this is unfortunately not an introductory essay, and is directed toward those who are at least superficially familiar with relativity and the history of physics preceding it.]
The pessimistic meta-induction is the supposition that just as so many theories in the history of science have been superseded, current theories will likewise be found to be unsatisfactory, despite their empirical success. This can be taken in a strong or a weak sense: the strong sense implies that current theories are completely wrong (just as phlogiston, to contemporary scientists, is completely wrong), and the weak sense (fallibilism) acknowledges the empirical success of current theories while insisting that they may be incomplete—epiphenomena, of sorts, of a larger pattern. It is the aim of this essay to make a case for fallibilism, illustrating its case with examples from special relativity, general relativity, and quantum theory; once the latter case is made, the strong pessimistic meta-induction will be left as a possibility, since by definition no positive case (save the explicit falsification of current theories) can be made for its correctness, but only a negative case. Starting with a brief glance into Einstein’s epistemology, the historical development of the concept of ether will be documented, and upon finding that it is not necessarily as “superfluous” as Einstein may have once thought, the implications of this incompleteness will be examined.
“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother,” Einstein is reputed to have said. This strikes the reader as a surprising statement to come from one so notorious for the abstruseness of his theories, but it reveals a striking distinction for philosophies of science: that between how a theory works (in all its mathematical intricacy) and what it means. As Hegel writes in his Shorter Logic, “The chemist places a piece of flesh in his retort, tortures it in many ways, and then informs us that it consists of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, etc. True: but these abstract matters have ceased to be flesh.” Here we see that Hegel rejects the mechanical in favor of the conceptual, presumably reacting to the reductionist tendency of scientists to favor the former at the expense of the latter, but we see in Einstein a desire to retain the two in all their incommensurability. Yet, we can also proceed backwards from Einstein’s distinction: if mathematics is a formal delineation of the relations between terms, then insofar as mathematical physics is an empirical science, its terms cannot merely be mathematical variables, but objects, to which correspond concepts. With physics in particular, however, the boundaries separating concepts are of prime importance, and it is these mutable boundaries that pose the primary weak point of scientific research, to the point where fallibilism becomes a rational mindset for scientists regardless of the empirical success of any given theory taken on its own. Read the rest of this entry
[Here is my sustained attack on the currently available instruments which have been proposed to bring about sustainable growth. I didn't originally intend it to be so sustained, but due to a combination of the bias expounded in the preliminary note and "blogger's guilt," it has become so. The main criticisms that can be brought against it are that I intermingle rational arguments with empirical ones and Canadian politics with global politics. As well, my main source is fairly dated, but I'm nevertheless impressed with his ability to refute political programmes a priori.
Furthermore, it would seem that with this essay I am making my Leftist leanings explicit for the first time, but I'd like to think that the matter is not so cut-and-dried. I support whatever political and economic programs works, and environmentalism is one such issue where performativity is important above all else. I am not committing myself to a Leftist stance per se, but side with it here only because Conservatives (with the exception of Iain Murray and his book The Really Inconvenient Truths) have contented themselves thus far with sticking their heads in the sand. I find it quite intriguing to think of the kind of policy the Conservatives would develop if they decided to take environmental issues seriously.]
Discussion Question 3: Will a post-liberal state be required before we can reach sustainability? [In response to Wissenburg - Sustainability and the Limits of Liberalism]
Preliminary Note: After some consideration of this question, I have realized that it is contains an inherent incentive for agreeing with the existing (neo)liberal system. As I mention below, the real question is, of course: “Is there any method of reaching sustainability within a (neo)liberal framework, i.e. not calling for massive systemic change?” (‘Yes’ in the latter phrasing of the question would mean ‘No’ in its original phrasing.) The bias lies in the fact that in order to argue that a post-liberal state isn’t needed, one need only show one method capable of working within a (neo)liberal framework. If one argues otherwise, they must show that all possible methods cannot work within (neo)liberalism, and of course, no self-respecting student is going to do any more work than they absolutely have to, no? Given that I do not fall within the latter category of students (i.e. that I lack a self-preservation instinct, that I’m utterly enraged by sloppy thinking and/or obscurantism in academia, and that tedious academic assignments have not yet suffocated my love of writing), I have decided to be a smart-ass by developing a meticulous argument that liberalism is insufficient to reach sustainability. I append this note here simply in order to show that I am not being a smart-ass simply for the same of being a smart-ass.
Please click the four arrows to view in fullscreen. The creators’ description can be read here.
The title of this post, so literally exemplified in the video’s example of Manhattan, is taken from a despairing Lionel Trilling as his students occupied Columbia University in 1968. Not to compare the contemporary Occupy movement(s) with May ’68, which is so tacky, but the quotation gains an intriguing new meaning now, which the above video helps to draw out. Though I’m in no state to define modernism, it can roughly be described as the belief in the capacity of science and reason to encapsulate all the variables of the universe in order to achieve a state of total control & perfection. This is to be contrasted with postmodernism, which is, quite frankly, impossible to succinctly describe. With our cliché definition of modernism out of the way, however, we can focus our attention on the much more interesting elements entailed by this weltanschauung. Case in point:
High modernist subjectivity gives an extraordinary privilege, for example, to judgement and especially to cognition. It correspondingly devalues the faculty of perception, so that vision itself is so to speak colonized by cognition. The modern predominance of reading fosters epistemologies of representation, of a visual paradigm in the sphere of art [...]. High modernist subjectivity seems furthermore to privilege the cognitive and moral over the aesthetic and the libidinal, the ego over the id, the visual over touch, and discursive over figural communication. It gives primacy to culture over nature, to the individual over the community, As an ethics of responsibility, high modernist personality and Lebensfürung [life-course] it allows the individual to be somehow ‘closed’ instead of open; to be somehow obsessed with self-mastery and self-domination.
Lash, S. & Friedman, J. (Eds.). (1993). Modernity & Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, pg. 5
To conclude, here is Microsoft’s projection of our technological future:
For the 2009 version, see here.
[This is yet another presentation that I made a couple of years ago for my sociology class; I had found a textbook on gerontology at a used bookstore and wanted an excuse to read it. It has become unfashionable to mention the aging baby boomers, but the fact remains that the elderly are becoming an increasingly important element in North America, and we will likely see our political, economic, and cultural systems adjusting to this demographic shift. (See here for an idea of the impending changes.) Hence, I present to you a general description of the biological, psychological, and economic aspects of gerontology. For the accompanying slideshow presentation on the topic, the interested reader is directed here.]
[This is my first assignment for my Environmental Politics class, which I think is sufficiently interesting to merit publication here. As a preliminary note, I utilize the term "Greens" to encompass both environmentalists and ecologists (not the scientific type, but the holistic type; this distinction is the source of my reluctance to use the term 'ecologist' at all). For the first question, there is evidently an anthropocentric bias to the question which is likely the part that we're meant to critique, but I think that it's much more interesting to witness how this simple statement forecloses any possible argument on its own terms. If anyone can show how this différend no longer applies when the question is looked at outside of anthropocentrism, I would really like to hear their answer. In my second answer, I believe that 'intrinsic value' is an entirely empty concept, but utilize it nevertheless in a sort of 'immanent critique' which shows the contradictions of ecologism. My third answer mostly paraphrases Debord, but it's an excellent example of how the very terms of a question (i.e. what has been the most significant historical revolution thus far?) often delimit the possible answers to it.]