Monday, July 17, 2006


I'm a Highly Trained Scientist, Do not Try this at Home

If my mom were writing this blog, she would title it "what ever happened to common sense?" and the body would merely say "discuss", but, since I have my Ph.D., I'm going to feel free to pile it on higher and deeper.

I like to complain that it isn't so much the Enlightenment that seems to be fading away (indeed, a lot of, e.g., fundamentalism, actually can be traced to the Great Awakening, which though we think of it as being counter to the Enlightenment, was, even according to its movers and shakers, part of it) as the Age of Reason (it would be interesting, e.g., if Bacon were right about eschatology: imagine Jesus coming down to Earth -- looking suspiciously like the Soup Nazi, asking some fundie about how God created living beings, the fundie would respond "intelligent design" and Jesus would say "No! haven't you properly studied God's creation without your mortal prejudices getting in the way? living organisms evolved -- no rapture for you!"), but, for all of our Franco-phobia, there is a certain trend, especially in American society, that in some ways is a weird take on Descartes. Where Descartes sought to prove everything from first principles but "magically" managed to "prove" (I wonder how? < / snark) the conventional wisdom of his day, today the kewl kids consistently try to establish certain things from first principles that always somehow manage to be counter-intuitive: and the counter-intuitiveness is supposed to mark the thinking being purveyed as somehow intellectual, rigorous and novel even if the thinking has no correspondence to reality, is incoherent and merely reflects the conventional wisdom of the managerial class, as some have pointed out regarding the work of, e.g., Leavitt. Of course for some economists the problem isn't class bias but a desire to be taken seriously as scientists that leads them to reject intuitive results and celebrate the opposite -- the ironic thing being that, of course, (scientific) intuition is most important in science, so at best those economists who glorify the counter-intuitive in pursuit of scientific sounding "objectivity" (is this an example of scientism?) are becoming dragons in the course of fighting dragons.

How is it that the counter-intuitiveness of the results of certain economists, for example, are supposed to make those results more rather than less valid? If economists are obtaining those results based on some notion of people engaging in rational choices, what does it mean then that people are such poor judges of the rationality of the choices they make that their intuition, which they use to make such choices, cannot tell them anything about those choices? Considering that people bet on the state of the economy all the time (e.g. in the stock market), if people are making decisions when they cannot know what the rational decisions others are making, doesn't neo-classical economics vanish in puff of logic? Yet somehow the counter-intuitive incoherency of neo-classical economics is what makes it serious social science.

You see this lack of common sense and celebration of counter-intuitiveness being pushed by the punditocracy all of the time -- "aggression is necessary to maintain peace", a politician who is bad at politics is a "statesman" (reminds me of the jokes about what "research oriented" and "teaching oriented" on a CV mean -- btw: I'm both "teaching oriented" and "research oriented"), etc. While sometimes sophistic arguments are enlightening -- it may be interesting and enlightening to consider that, at some level, for example, terrorists are cowards -- to label as dangerous radicals those who cut through the sophistry and tell us intuitive truths -- e.g., terrorists are on the face of it, not at all cowards -- is itself dangerous as it causes us to "mis-underestimate" the threats we face (it is especially ironic, FWIW, that the people taking the lead in punishing the anti-sophistic Socrates' of our day claim to be followers of Strauss whose chief concern was how to protect Socratic figures from society's sophists for the good of society: one imagines Strauss siding with Sontag over the neo-cons).

To understand that there is a hidden side to some things is important -- to assume, pace Leavitt, et al., that there is a hidden side to everything, is to miss the obvious forest for the hidden trees at best and to be a paranoid conspiracy nut at worst. And in that worst case are many Zionists who think everyone is out to get Israel and thus do everything they can to make sure their prophecies are fulfilled rather than actually seeking the real (as opposed to self-interested fundamentalist Christians who want Israel to be bellicose so as to bring on Armageddon) allies and good will Israel needs. Also in that worst case are anti-Zionists who mistake stupidity (at worst cupidity) for pure and cunning evil (of course, Likudnik types who try to spin Israel's mistakes as "we meant to do that in order to expand into Biblical Israel" are not helping matters).

Yet everywhere, probably in order to affirm and spread the prejudices of the powerful (as any student of the right can tell you, paranoia about hidden conspiracies goes hand in hand with a de facto deference to what are really obvious hierarchies if only people would notice the nakedness of the emperor), the punditocracy has convinced everyone that their intuitions are bad (e.g. even if Joe Sixpack is actually rather socially liberal, and his cousin Jane Microbrew, the engineer, will admit as much, they will still vote for socially conservative politicians because of their social conservativism, which the Joes and Janes perceive as "moral" positions) and that counter-intuitive thinking is de facto more sophisticated (in reality, one should leave off the "ated") and to prefer the counter-intuitive to the intuitive.

Thus, we are left with a public discourse in which people who supported stupid and resource draining wars (e.g. our Iraq war, many of Israel's counter-productive retaliations against terrorism) are deemed to be "serious about defense" while those who were right are blamed as "back-stabbers" for being right! (BTW -- any Jew who thinks the right is "safer" for us than the left, need look no further than to consider the prevalence of the traditionally rhetoric of back-stabbing on the right to realize how mistaken they are) And, as is obvious to any Mother worthy of that title, we have no more "common sense". If I may be allowed as a biologist (I'm a highly trained Biochemistry Ph.D. ... kids, don't try this at home) to channel Bergson a bit, by insisting that the counter-intuitive is deeper than the intuitive, we risk loosing our elan vital. Both metaphysically but, given the realities of a world in which there is, e.g., terrorism and economic failures due to the economic non-sense peddled by certain people named Friedman, also quite physically.

So I'll go back to how my mom would have written this post: whatever happened to common sense? Discuss.

It died, stabbed from all sides by conservative ideologues just as Julius Caesar on the Senate floor.

Actually, sadly, it's not just conservatives who killed common sense, though they get the lion's share of the blame. There's something about our American mindset that seems to lend itself to the fantastic. We're much more willing to cover our reality with a pleasing narrative than to face the harsh light of day. I think this is what leads so many Americans into fundamentalist religion, though that could be a "chicken or the egg?" argument.

At the heart of common sense is a willingness to view the world objectively and look for solutions that fit reality. Our conservative politics tells us to set the narrative of what we'd like reality to be, and then act accordingly. Of late, Israel seems to be suffering from that same malaise, which only a heaping dose of reality in the face seems to cure, sadly.
We're much more willing to cover our reality with a pleasing narrative than to face the harsh light of day. I think this is what leads so many Americans into fundamentalist religion -- Sam. Sam

Sometimes it's the opposite, though -- Americans being more willing to cover reality with a narrative that we're all inherently evil rather than face the bright light of day. And as a sometimes conspiracy freak myself, I'm not even saying it's all conspiracy theorizing that's off track.

I guess the common denominator is responsibility: do you appropriately ascribe responsibility or do you engage in thinking that obfuscates the issue.
It would be helpful to make a simple list of the idiotic
"counter-intuitive" (i.e.FALSE) ideas the Corporate & Religious Right
have been pushing for so long.

I can think of:

--Cutting taxes (esp on rich) increases revenues
--Gov't (i.e.TAX) money$ going to religious orgs
is not a violation of church/state separation principle
--The Founding Fathers actually didn't believe in the principle of
separation of church&state, even though they said they did
--Oral sex w/an intern is more serious than Constitutional violations
and war based on lies
--The Liberal Media exists
--Privatizing retirement benefits will grow them faster for everyone
--"Free Markets" really mean free/not manipulated

I am sure there are plenty more...
Could be useful, indeed.
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