Sunday, December 20, 2020

In Defense of the Blog

This is the age of social media. Instagram. Twitter. Facebook. YouTube. The quip, the hot take, the alluring image. Likes, click-throughs, and shares are the currency of the realm.

But there is still a great need for the humble, stodgy, curmudgeonly blog. 

While great work is being done by scholars and others on Twitter, the format doesn't work well with long-form pieces, and social media drama (status signalling, call-outs, etc.) tends to drown out the signal with too much noise. And certain platforms, such as Facebook, are difficult to search and don't seem to function well as a digital archive for important information. 

Medium is perhaps an exception to the general trend toward short and noisy communiques. The platform is designed for the long-form essay; but it still seems rife with clickbait titles and mostly vapid posts. Perhaps this is because Medium uses algorithms to direct users' attention to other posts in order to sustain their engagement, much like YouTube does for videos. 

In any event, here are a few fine examples of active (or recently active) blogs that show the medium's great potential as a platform for sophisticated thought and analysis:

  • Marginal Revolution: Two George Mason economists discuss economics, policy, the arts, and more. 
  • Slate Star Codex: Brilliant analysis by "Scott Alexander." Currently in hibernation because of drama with the New York Times, but, as the saying goes, "that is not dead which eternal lies, and with strange eons even death may die."
  • Applied Divinity Studies: A worthy successor to Slate Star Codex. Applies critical thinking and statistical analysis to vexing problems. 

My own colleague at Pasadena City College, Ed Feser, has been hugely successful at making his personal blog a platform for sharing his (conservative Catholic) political, religious, and philosophical views, and his blog serves as a gathering place for people of like minds. This is yet another example of the conintuing power and relevance of blogging as a medium.

When I look at my online reading, much of it is still of blogs, accessed through Feedly (an RSS aggregator). I imagine there are still many journalists and perhaps some academics who are similar in their information consumption habits.

In addition to a decline of blogs due to the new (and relentless) attention economy that drives what happens on the internet these days, there also seems to be an issue of popularity or fashionability. People follow trends and imitate what other people do and believe, especially people they perceive to be of higher social status. It's no longer cool, fashionable, hip, or trendy to blog. Sadly, this loss of social status of blogs seems independent of their actual usefulness or functionality.

(On a related note, a similar case could be made for the continuing relevance of the humble, stodgy, curmudgeonly, and decidedly unfashionable internet discussion forum or bulletin board. A lot of useful and focused work is still being done on forums in obscure corners of the internet.)

Because of all this, it is my sincere hope that the great thinkers and makers of our time return to blogging, or that they start blogging, if they never experimented with it before. We need a blogging Renaissance.

Also because of this, I have decided to start blogging again, using my old personal blog. I may not find much of a readership, but it seems like a better place for sticking my random thoughts and lists of links and resources (mainly for students) than private emails or the social media cesspit. So here we go.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Rebranding Philosophy

In order to survive the current and future rounds of purges in the arts and sciences, it would seem that philosophy needs some serious rebranding.

When most people think of 'philosophy', they think of one's general attitude towards life, or other such fuzzy, airy-fairy ideas.

My proposal: When selling philosophy to our administrative, political, and corporate overlords, characterize philosophy as THE discipline of logic and critical thinking.

The evidence is somewhat equivocal, but after reading Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, one of their general findings is the importance of student gains in critical thinking and complex reasoning ability when it comes to predicting their success post-graduation on numerous measures (including employment, income, financial independence, marriage, and civic engagement, among others).

Because of its intense focus on formal and informal logic, philosophy is uniquely suited to help train students in these important skills.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Student Rape and the Incentives of University Administrators

"Two Kansas State University students say the university, in apparent violation of federal guidelines, refused to investigate their rape complaints."  This seems to be a common story when it comes to students seeking redress through a university for on-campus or off-campus rapes. (In this case, the rape occurred at an off-campus frat house.) Let's get the word out: If you're raped by another student on or off-campus, don't seek redress through the university. They have an incentive to ignore your complaint, both to avoid the expense and hassle of an investigation, and to protect their public image. Report the rape to the police immediately, and hire an attorney. Be prepared to bring civil suits against the perpetrator, the fraternity (if relevant), and the university. Then things might start to change.

"The Case Against Reality"

That is the title of an Atlantic interview with professor of cognitive science Donald D. Hoffman. The interview seems to conflate three different issues: (1) whether reality is observer-dependent; (2) the entanglement of quantum states; (3) whether living creatures have accurate perceptions or adaptive perceptions.

I don't know much about quantum mechanics, but evidently quantum entanglement does not entail an observer-dependent reality, despite this widespread belief (at least among the public and among purveyors of popular science). An easy way to see the difference is that quantum entanglement happened even before there were biological organisms observing the world. Macro-level observations of phenomena are not required by quantum entanglement. (Quantum entanglement is about the mutual dependence of the states of different quantum particles, such that the state of each particle cannot be described independently of the states of the others.)

Secondly, the issue of whether humans and other organisms that evolved through natural selection have adaptive perceptions rather than accurate perceptions is fascinating, but it seems irrelevant to quantum entanglement. It's true that human perception of objects as independent realities does not correspond to the quantum mechanics picture of reality, but then again neither does it correspond to the general relativity, nor even to Newtonian physics (e.g., inertial motion).

Even when we discuss the narrow issue of whether ordinary objects really exist, it would seem that classical physics also undermines realism about ordinary objects, because of the view that such objects are completely reducible to atoms or other constituent particles, and so have no independent causal powers or other real-making features. Quantum mechanics does pose special challenges or realism about ordinary objects, but it is by no means unique in this regard.

The issue of realism about ordinary objects has been discussed for a long time in philosophy, and I think cognitive scientists and popular science writers would benefit by examining this literature before holding forth about the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics, neuroscience, and so on.

In addition, at the end of the interview, Hoffman posits conscious experiences as ontological primitives (i.e., the basic constituents of reality). It's true that conscious experiences could be distinct from our perceptions of ordinary objects, and thus realism about the former does not imply realism about the latter, although presumably this would require that conscious experiences not include experiences of real objects (such as if the conscious experiences are constituents of perceptions of real objects).

But there are two confusing things about this proposed ontology. The first is that the ontology of conscious experiences is incompatible with the initial argument given for the claim that we don't perceive reality. The initial argument was that our perceptions of real objects do not accurately reflect quantum entanglement. The presumption was that quantum phenomena are the basic constituents of reality. But now Hoffman is saying that conscious experiences, not quantum phenomena, are ontologically primitive.

The second confusing thing with Hoffman's proposed ontology is that it doesn't seem to fit with his claim that our perceptions are adaptive but not accurate. Assuming that our perceptions are composed of conscious experiences, how could they fail to be accurate (at least in some sense), if they include the fundamental constituents of reality? Technically, the perceptions would not be accurate as representations of reality, because they themselves contain reality. But still, this is a different picture which makes the initial claim look like a bait and switch.

I am left wondering if I am the one who is fundamentally confused here, or if it is Hoffman, or the interviewer, or all of the above. But this sort of confusion is typical when non-philosophers try to talk about metaphysics or other philosophical questions (ahem), which makes me realize the value of philosophy as a discipline (even if we maybe we do have more philosophers than we need and could do with more doctors or nurses, for example :) ). I am left almost happy about the terrible conceptual muddle that seems to be contained in this article, because at least it shows that there is a need for philosophy to help untangle the conceptual knots or unclog our conceptual plumbing.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Warning Regarding Nature's P-Value Warning

Source: Wikipedia

An article recently appeared in Nature which reports on a warning issued by statisticians about the misuse of p-values. The article focuses on two common problems regarding p-values: (1) Misinterpreting a p-value of .05 as indicating that there is a 95% chance that the test hypothesis is true; (2) Mistaking statistical significance as a measure of practical importance, or otherwise excessively relying upon p-values when engaged in critical thinking about the meaning and value of the results of a study.

However, the article itself risks confusion in two ways: First, by not clearly explaining the phrase 'at least as extreme as' when it gives the standard definition of a p-value of .05 (used as the criterion for statistical significance): "it signifies that if the null hypothesis is true, and all other assumptions made are valid, there is a 5% chance of obtaining a result at least as extreme as the one observed."

The second way in which the article risks confusion is by not clearly distinguishing between two methodological problems surrounding p-values: (1) There is widespread confusion about the meaning and implications of p-values; (2) There is widespread disagreement about the theoretical and practical importance of p-values when it comes to interpreting and evaluating the results of experiments or other scientific studies.

Nevertheless, it is refreshing and illuminating to see scientists engaged in this thought-provoking discussion about scientific methodology, and I hope it continues.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Continuing Relevance of Edmund Burke's Political Thought

I recently started re-reading Burke's Reflections, and was struck by the continuing relevance of his argument to today's debates over social justice. I'm surprised that more political philosophers have not attempted a serious appraisal of his work. A former colleague recommended Yuval Levin's book, but it seems primarily intended for a popular audience.

There is also a convergence between Burke's view of the wisdom of inherited traditions and recent work on the evolution of human culture--I'm thinking specifically of Joseph Henrich's The Secret of Our Success. Henrich argues, inter alia, that the capacity to learn a culture is an evolutionary adaptation, and that a crucial element of this capacity is the ability to have faith in customs for which there is no known rational justification. Humans learn their society's culture largely by imitating others, with preferential imitation of people of high status.

An example that Henrich gives that has a Burkean flair is the set of customs practiced by some South American cultures related to the processing of manioc, a tuber which is a staple of their diet. The Tukonoan people, for example, engage in five separate practices--scraping, grating, washing and separating, boiling, and waiting two or more days--that involve great time and effort, but that greatly reduce the quantity of neurotoxins in the manioc--even though none of the Tukonoans have a rational justification for any of the practices, nor are they even aware of the presence of neurotoxins in the manioc. Ex hypothesi, many human customs and social institutions are similarly functional, even though we don't know what function they serve nor how they serve it.

Of course, there are presumably some "junk" customs and institutions in the mix, but attempting to institute radical, revolutionary change is seemingly bound to cause great harm and destruction by weakening or eliminating vital customs and institutions. This is relevant, too, to U.S. attempts to "nation build" in ways that do not sufficiently heed the matrix of existing customs and institutions in other societies.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Choosing a Major and Pursuing a Career

I recently put together some links for students who are seeking advice about choosing a major or pursuing a career. Here they are, with my summaries and comments, listed from most to least recent:

1. "The New College Degrees" (2016/02/04): Blog post by economist Alex Tabarrok about students choosing majors (such as psychology) for which there are few jobs, and about the small number of students choosing majors for which there is a greater need.

2. “Salaries of Philosophy Majors Over Time.” (2015/09/04): Daily Nous blog post which compares average salary for philosophy majors to average salary of other humanities majors. However, several caveats are in order: (1) The list only includes humanities degrees—there are many non-humanities degrees with higher expected incomes. (2) The cause of the high expected income for a philosophy degree is probably NOT the philosophy degree itself. It is much more likely that the cause of the high expected income for philosophy majors is that people who are more intelligent and who are from a higher socioeconomic class are both more likely to earn more and more likely to major in philosophy. Majoring in philosophy will probably not itself make you much more intelligent or raise your socioeconomic class.

3. "Economists Offer These 10 Career Tips for Today's Graduates" (2015/05/22): Sensible, data-driven advice on how what factors relevant to pursuing a career after graduation. Many of these can be acted on before you graduate.

4. "Economists Say Millennials Should Consider Careers in Trades" (2015/02/04): NPR story on how learning a trade can be much cheaper than going to college and yet pay more in terms of ability to get a job and expected income. The fact that non-college options exist should help you assess the costs and benefits of paying for your college education, in terms of time, money, and effort.

5. "Your College Major Is a Pretty Good Indication of How Smart You Are" (2015/02/13): Quartz article on how choice of major correlates with measures of intelligence. Intelligence probably causes people to choose certain majors, rather than the majors causing people to have a certain level of intelligence. Philosophy majors do tend to be smarter than the average bear, but this is probably because more intelligent people are more likely to choose philosophy.

6. "A Philosophy Degree Earns More Than an Accounting Degree" (2015/01/30): Yahoo Finance article which ranks humanities degrees in order of expected income. Philosophy is #1. However, the same caveats apply to this article as to the Daily Nous link on philosophy salary given above.

7. "The Social Science Guide to Picking a Career You'll Love" (2014/12/30): Vox article on how to choose a career that will give you greater life satisfaction, according to social science research. One of the pieces of advice is that salary is overrated. This makes sense to me, but at the same time you need to have an accurate understanding of your expected income after graduation and how that relates to your debt and other financial obligations.

8. "A Bit of College Can Be Worse Than None at All" (2014/10/13): Wall Street Journal article on students who fail to finish college, and how they can be worse off than those with no college, because of the debts they rack up and the opportunity cost of having less workplace experience.

9. "Generation Jobless" (2011/11/09): Wall Street Journal article on students who pick easier majors (such as in the humanities and social sciences) even though it's harder to find jobs, and the jobs one can find generally pay less.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

David Chapman on Buddhist Romanticism

Chapman also explains that the Illuminatus Trilogy was mainly intended as a critique of Eric Voegelin and the right-wingers of the 1960's and 70's who were influenced by his critique of communism, fascism, and other authoritarian utopian movements.