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Sunday, September 26, 2010

How to disassemble a society

by John MacBeath Watkins

When America entered World War II, our society worked together with remarkable social cohesion, and the end of that war, which revealed the evil of the Holocaust, seemed to confirm the good we had done and the validity of American ideals.

During the 1950s, this cohesion seemed secure, although there was an ugly side to it.  The House Un-American Activities Committee attempted to enforce conformity of thought by weeding out Communists, and fear-mongering became a technique used by some politicians with great success.  But in the end, the Army-McCarthy hearings showed the excesses of this tendency, and the urge to apply the American principles of freedom, equality and self-government seemed secure.

Then came the civil rights movement, an extension of the urge to apply those ideals, and with is civil unrest.  This was resolved through the democratic process as progressives from both major parties helped pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

The urge to spread the American way of life, however, led to an unpopular war in Viet Nam, and again, to civil unrest.  Our draft laws tended to concentrate anti-war people of draft age in the universities, leading to student riots.  To many Americans, it looked like the country was tearing itself apart.  The Democratic Party, which had been ascendant since the 1930s, began tearing itself apart at its violent 1968 convention.  Conservative Democrats began leaving the party and joining the Republicans, in part because of the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon.

George Packer, in his New Yorker article, The Fall of Conservatism, explored the history of this strategy.  I recommend you follow the link and read the entire article.  Here's an excerpt quoting Patrick Buchanan:

“From Day One, Nixon and I talked about creating a new majority,” Buchanan told me recently, sitting in the library of his Greek-revival house in McLean, Virginia, on a secluded lane bordering the fenced grounds of the Central Intelligence Agency. “What we talked about, basically, was shearing off huge segments of F.D.R.’s New Deal coalition, which L.B.J. had held together: Northern Catholic ethnics and Southern Protestant conservatives—what we called the Daley-Rizzo Democrats in the North and, frankly, the Wallace Democrats in the South.”

Read more
Packer recounts a memo Buchanan prepared for Nixon:
" recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare. Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats. “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”

Exacerbating divisions in the electorate became standard procedure for Republican candidates.  To this day, the culture wars, veiled appeals to racial fears, distrust of elites, denunciations of welfare and appeals to the divisions in religious belief of the electorate are visible in our politics.

There was also another attack on elites.  By the 1950s, there was a broad scientific consensus that smoking tobacco caused cancer.  To avoid regulation that would make their product unprofitable, they funded skeptics and research into possible alternate causes of lung cancer, started a program to reassure smokers about their health and in general, tried to argue that the case against tobacco was not closed.

Robert N. Proctor, a professor of history at Stanford, has quoted a tobacco company memo as saying "doubt is our product."  Proctor said: "There's a saying in the PR business that for every PhD there's an equal and opposite PhD. And if there's not one then you can create one through funding. And if you put a lot of money into manufacturing ignorance, it can actually work."
At the same 2007 symposium, University of California-San Diego history and science studies Professor Naomi Oreskes discussed a similar topic in a paper titled "Confounding Science: The Tobacco Road to Global Warming," and journalist Paul Thacker gave a talk titled "Thank You for Polluting: How Campaigns to Create Scientific Confusion Kill Product Regulation."
At the same time as people were being told they couldn't trust government elites, they were being taught not to believe scientific elites.  And while they were funding confusion and obfuscation in science, the same regulation-adverse companies were funding Republican politicians.  The Republican party has long been the party of business, so there was a natural alliance between those undermining political and scientific elites.

In addition, Nixon began an attack on the news media.  Those who bought into all of these attacks on elites could not trust government, intellectuals and scientists, or the news media that brought them information on the basis of which they would make their decisions.

And now, the success of the tea party candidates in knocking off candidates endorsed by the Republican party shows that the conservative distrust they have nourished has now turned on the Republican party elite.  Where does this lead?  Perhaps it's a momentary movement, a reaction to the state of the economy and residual racial fears awakened by having a black president and a black head of the Republican National Committee.

Or perhaps, it's the beginning of an ant mill.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Apparently, I'm now some kind of expert

by John MacBeath Watkins

I was mousing around on the thinking box just now, and it turns out one of the essays I've put up on Sribd has been cited as part of the science behind the new science fiction novel, Entangled, by Graham Hancock.

Second cite down.

Here's a link to the essay, which by the way needs updating since Neanderthal genes have been found in most modern humans.

I have written about the Neanderthal interbreeding here:

Shrugging off Atlas Shrugged

by John MacBeath Watkins

Paul Krugman points to a wonderful put-down of Ayn Rand from Kung Fu Monkey:

"-- There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

My  own take on Ayn Rand is that anyone who reads her should be required to read Crime and Punishment, a far better exploration of the superman ideal.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Title of the day

"Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note..." by LeRoi Jones.

Scientific truth and the emotion of belief

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been delving into Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book with a great reputation among lefty intellectuals in the humanities.  The first thing that strikes me about it is that it's not much use to someone trying to do science.

Kuhn applies the concept of structuralism to scientific knowledge and analyzes the history of science in what looks to me like dialectical idealism, Hegel's concept of how history progresses.  Structuralism, in political theory, has been the province of new-Marxists, and Marx used Hegel's concept of the dialectic while changing it to dialectical materialism, analyzing history in terms of more concrete conflicts.

So it's no surprise that Marxists have used Kuhn's work to argue that science's claim to be about objective truth is a load of hooey, that it's really shaped by history and power.  I would find this more persuasive if power had a better record of shaping science.  Despite the efforts of the Catholic Church, science still thinks the earth revolves around the sun; despite the efforts of Stalin and the Soviet authorities, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko's Lamarkian theories about the heritability of acquired traits did not hold sway even in Soviet biological science for long.  It just didn't produce results.

Kuhn's main competition for the interpretation of science is Karl Popper, who argued that scientific truth can only be arrived at through falsifiability.  That is, you have to be able to check the statement against observations, and for it to be a scientific truth, it must be possible to prove it false.  Except, of course, the statement that scientific truth must be arrived at through falsifiability, that you have to accept on his logic, which means that his theory about how to arrive at scientific truth is not itself a scientific truth.

Popper's theory has the virtue of resembling the way science is actually done, although nobody has yet found a way to test string theory (which makes some scientists question whether string theory is science at all.)  One problem with this theory is that it would not recognize some scientific revolutions.  Popper thought the theory of natural selection was untestable, "a most successful metaphysical research programme," although it strikes me that the theory is easily testable with a few Petri dishes of bacteria and some antibiotics.

He counted the search for truth as among the strongest motivations for the advancement of science.  Truth is one of the more slippery concepts in philosophy, though.  He thought true statements are statements that correspond to observable facts, a statement that seems at once obvious and at odds with the emotional nature of the response most of us have to the question of whether things are true.  If it were that simple, would people get so excited about whether things are true?

My own view is that truth is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question.  Belief is an emotion akin to love, which is why Truth and Beauty are so often mentioned together.  The question, therefore, is how we should form our beliefs?  Different cultures at different times have used different methods.  As we discussed here, many people when faced with facts that contradict their beliefs experience backfire, that is, they end up holding their false belief more strongly in reaction to what they perceive as an attack on them.  If you view belief as an emotion, this is understandable.  It's as if you told them their lover was ugly, and they responded by saying "take that back!"

The subversive thing about science is that it attempts to hold a dialogue without backfire, a dialogue in which facts trump preferences.  Whereas religion offers the comfort of eternal verities, scientific truth is conditional; it is only true so long as a better explanation does not appear.  Those who prefer the stability of an eternal truth react strongly against this notion of truth.

In The Laws, Plato suggested a society based upon certain truths.  Those who questioned those truths would be brought before the Nocturnal Council, which would attempt to persuade them they were wrong.  If they could not persuade them, they would be required not to speak of their doubts about the truths on which their society was founded.  If they insisted on spreading their doubts, they would be killed.  Thus, the stability of society is preserved.

This seems almost like a parody of the way political and religious truth operates.  Through most of history, rulers have relied upon force and faith for their legitimacy.  The modern form of liberal democracy owes its start to the Enlightenment, with its preoccupation with rational exploration of the truth, as does the modern form of science.

We now seem to be experiencing a sort of counter-Enlightenment, in which everything from fundamentalist religion, New Age beliefs and conservative and Marxist critiques of science, point away from the legitimacy of reason as a way to arrive at truth.  There is even an element of cross-pollination.  Philip Johnson, a retired law professor who has become a prominent figure pushing creationism as more legitimate than evolution, quotes Kuhn in an effort to show that science requires all evidence to fit the dominant paradigm, no matter how wild the contortions, unless another paradigm comes along to replace it.  This seems to me to be a strange interpretation of how science works.  Many things are regarded as unknown, with competing hypotheses attempting to explain the unknown and giving scientists a framework for experiment.  Disproving an orthodox belief and coming up with a better explanation has been the foundation of many a scientific reputation.  As for paradigm shift, when the existing paradigm does not adequately explain the data, those competing hypotheses are the possible new paradigms.  Kuhn maintained that a new paradigm was incommensurable with the old one, that is, it could not be proved by the methods of the old one.

It strikes me a more parsimonious explanation would be that science relies on the integrity of the dialogue for proof of a hypothesis.  First, you think about what the world would be like if the hypothesis were true, then you look at the world and see if it's like that.  Holders of the old paradigm accept or reject the new hypothesis based on the legitimacy of the observations and how well they fit the hypothesis, without backfire -- that is, without the emotional response that you will continue to believe what you wish regardless of the facts.  This is why it's a big deal when scientists cheat, as they sometimes do.  All lies are parasitic on legitimate communication, relying for achieving their ends on the assumption that the speaker is telling the truth.  A lie is the cowbird of declarative sentences, undermining the survival of truth.  Fabricating experimental results is a form of lie, and is particularly destructive because the listener is not protected by the usual reaction of backfire; the listener's part in the dialogue is to be open to persuasion by facts.   The integrity of the dialogue relies on the speaker be providing factually accurate evidence and the listener being willing to change a belief based on evidence.

Why does it not surprise me that a law professor would combat science by instilling doubt that this is how science works?  After all, instilling doubt about science has long been a tactic used by tobacco company lawyers, and the technique of instilling doubt has been exported to other industries.  Casuistry, thy name is lawyer.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The wisdom of crowds, the madness of crowds

by John MacBeath Watkins

Two titles for today:  The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, and Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay.

Can crowds be both wise and mad?  Well, yes.  I look to the metaphor of the ant colony and the ant mill.

Naturalists have long been fascinated by the self-organization of ant colonies, all the more impressive because individual ants aren't all that bright.  For example, when they find a source of food, they quickly start a line of ants transporting it by the most direct route.  How do they do that?

Well, each ant lays down a scent trail.  The pheromones that make up the scent fade fairly quickly, so the ants tend to follow the more recent trails.  As a result, the original track followed by the ant that first found the food is not the one they all follow.  It followed its own scent back to the nest and led the other ants along its trail, but the other ants sort of cut the corners, making a trail that is a little closer to being straight, and those following them also cut the corners, and those get the idea.  Pretty soon the track to the food is straight.

An ant mill occurs when a group of ants get split off from the main party.  This is usually observed with army ants, which march forth as a colony looking for lebensraum and foraging for supplies.  A group splits off, and the lead ants of the splinter group have lost the trail, so they go looking for a scent trail to follow.  Going in a circle, they come upon the trail of their own group.  They then might follow that trail back to the main body, or follow the ant trail of their own group in a circle.  The fresher scent will be that leading them in a circle, and the more that follow the circle, the fresher this becomes.  Soon, the group of ants is walking determinedly in a circle, and continues to do so until they die of exhaustion.

The very thing that made them seem wise has made them seem mad.

Humans are more complex than ants, but it's not a bad metaphor.  The 'wisdom of crowds' refers to the fact that if, say, you ask many individuals how many jellybeans are in a jar, most people will give you an estimate that doesn't come close, but the average of all the judgments will be surprisingly accurate.

Sometimes, though, this fails to happen.  MacKay's 1841 book focused on events like the South Sea Bubble of 1720 and the Dutch Tulip mania that peaked in 1637.  In both cases, people saw something increasing in value and didn't want to get left behind.  Eventually, a single bulb for a particularly sought-after tulip was selling for a price that would have bought a farm.  Instead of following a signal that took them to the mean, investors were following signals from other investors that took them away from the actual value of the object being traded.

Markets are supposed to arrive at a value based on the wisdom of crowds; some people thinking a thing is worth more, some less, but soon those who charge too little have no product and those who charge too much have no customers, so each follows the signals to the proper value.  In a bubble, people don't buy based on the value of a thing for use, they buy based on the assumption it will appreciate.  Of course, if you recognize value others don't, you really can make money on such an assumption.  In a bubble, too many people think they've found such an investment, and as the value keeps going up, investors follow the signal that there is something of value here, until, like the ant mill, it will obey Stein's Law: If something can't go on forever, it will stop.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Flight of the Euphemism

by John MacBeath Watkins

Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structuralism, believed that every language creates its own reality.  Language isn't just the sound of words, it's the structure of meaning that underlies the words, the signs that the words signify.  It's not just a way to communicate, it's a web of meaning that enables us to think.

So what if you want to change the way people think?

One of the first books on anthropology I read was written in the early 1930s and referred to people with large heads and underdeveloped mental faculties as "macrocephalic idiots."  It was a technical term, but it drew to it (and embodied within it) the attitudes people held at the time toward mental disabilities.  It was a little more technical than the term "low-grade moron" which was also applied to this group, in that it referred to a specific disability.

Suppose you wanted to change the way people thought about the mentally disabled, what would you do?  Well, you'd probably notice the contempt with which people said the words with which they referred to these people, and decide to change the words.  Some people referred to these kids as 'backward.'  A more technical and therefore less obviously judgmental term would be 'retarded.'  So the new word was chosen to take the place of 'low-grade moron.'

But the sound only represents the meaning.  In time, much of the old meaning attached to the new word.  Perhaps a little progress was made, a little change in attitude, but soon 'retarded' became an insult.  So a new word was chosen, 'developmentally disabled.'  This meant the child did not develop as quickly as its cohorts.  In fact, the plane meaning of the term  is 'backward' or if you prefer the more Latin term, 'retarded.'

Each time, the new sign acquires at least most of the meaning of what the old sign signified.  Still, I can't fault the effort to change the underlying meaning.  It can be done, but it isn't easy.

Once, in graduate school, I made a powerless enemy.  A friend of one of my house mates told me she had struggled mightily to change the name of the office for helping disabled students to the 'challenge office.'  She wondered what I thought of that.  I argued that what I thought made very little difference, and she was the real expert on the matter, but she insisted that I render judgment.

So I told her quite honestly that I thought it would make very little difference to the meaning of the office if she changed the name.  I did not explain de Saussure's theories about language, because I'd already said enough that she was yelling at my house mate.  She had, after all, insisted that I render judgment, so she chose to strike out at a convenient target other than myself.

Later in my life, cynic that I am, I thought that if a blind man is differently abled -- able to not see!  Perhaps my unfaithful lover was 'differently faithful' -- faithful not to be...

Something like this (moron/backward/retarded/developmentally disabled)  transference of prejudice to new terms has happened with the term for people descended from sub-Sahraran African ancestors.  There was a Portuguese word, negro, which means black, which came to be applied to them when the Brazilian slave trade was particularly important.  There was a euphemism for negro, which was 'colored,' as if the specific color dare not speak its name.  (Could it be golden?  Purple? Puce or chartreuse?  The color of a ripe red potato or a fresh green tomato?  Striped like that special tulip that would make a Dutchman swoon?  Pale against a midnight sky, like a sliver of a silver new moon?)

There were two common insults, black and nigger.  I thought the most ingenious effort to deal with the stigma attached to being African-American was the 'black is beautiful' idea.  This tackled the underlying problem of changing the meaning without the usual flight to a new euphemism.

Nigger has become one of the few non-sexual obscenities in the American lexicon.  I'm fine with that.  Some complain that blacks continue to use it, but for a black to use it is transparently ironic.  For a white to use it, there is no presumption that the use is ironic.

I am, of course, always fascinated by language.  A few years back, a Washington, D.C. official lost his job for using the word 'niggardly,' which those listening thought was a racial slur, although it's based on an old Norse word that was invented before the Norse were in contact with sub-Saharan Africans.  The mayor eventually hired his aide back, presumably after a little quiet time with his Oxford English Dictionary.

A friend worked at a gas station with a Cajun woman who had a '100% Coonass' bumper sticker.  The woman was accused of racism because of the bumper sticker, even though it referred to her own ethnicity.  A coonass, or Cajun, is a person of French descent, whose ancestors were part of the Arcadian colony in what is now Nova Scotia.  The French king didn't like them, because they would pledge no allegiance to him, and the English, when they conquered Canada, didn't trust them because they wouldn't pledge allegiance to the English king either.  They shipped most of them to the other big French colony of the time, the Louisiana territory.

This is the problem with the sign and the signified.  With a little ignorance, the sign can be mistaken for another signified. Sometimes these communication accidents reveal how the structure works. In both cases, people used the proper sign to send the signal they wanted to send, but people ignorant of the sign (and perhaps even of the meaning signed) assigned meanings of words that sounded close to the one used.  It's as if they were part of a different reality.

But the more usual problem is the flight of the euphemism, where new words try to flit to new meanings, but keep settling on the old one.  The structure of language, and the structure of thought, are not entirely inflexible, but they are resilient.  They bend, they don't break, and they eventually change shape to accommodate the pressures of a changing society.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More on the emotion of belief

by John MacBeath Watkins

An article in the Boston Globe by Joe Keohane pulls together a lot of the research that's been done on 'backfire,' the tendency of people of firm belief to become only firmer in their belief when faced with facts that contradict those beliefs.

It's a basic tenet of democratic political theory that a well-informed electorate will make wise decisions.  But there is a body of research in political science that most people, faced with a news story that contradicts what they already believe, will instead of changing their minds become more firmly set in their belief.

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, subjects were presented with a news article containing provably false claims that had been made by political figures, and presented with corrected information.  Neither conservatives or liberals changed their minds based on the corrections.  The conservatives became more firmly entrenched in their ideas, while the liberals continued to believe their misinformation with unchanged intensity.  The more firmly held the belief, the more backfire you get from presenting corrected information.

Keohane quotes Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study, saying “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong.”  Interestingly, another study shows that self-esteem exercises before receiving the corrected information make people more open to changing their minds.  Those who feel threatened or insecure are the most resistant to admitting they were mistaken.

All this makes sense if you think of belief as an emotion akin to love.  Telling someone their belief is wrong is akin, then, to telling them their lover is ugly.

Which goes a long way to explaining why Fox News viewers regard Fox as the most credible possible source of news, even though it has been shown that those same viewers are the most likely to be factually mistaken about the great events of the nation.  Fox tells them what they want to hear, and doesn't contradict what they already believe.  Strangely enough, a credible news source will occasionally tell you something that is, well, news to you.

Which makes at least some people -- perhaps most -- uncomfortable.  And many will choose to not believe the media rather than change what they think they know.

Recognizing this was part of the genius of Richard Nixon.  He went to war against the press, and benefited greatly from doing so.  He also started the Republican party's Southern strategy, recognizing that the most threatened and insecure people would be Southern whites uncomfortable with the changes wrought by civil rights legislation.  The culture wars have been a mainstay of Republican campaigns since then.

The Republican party was not always the party of conservatism.  It started as an abolitionist party, and only after years of entrenched power did it become the conservative party.  Now that it is a conservative party, its appeal is primarily to people who are made uncomfortable by change.  This may explain the difference in backfire between liberals and conservatives.  Many conservatives are defined by the feeling that the form of society they prefer is threatened, so their reaction tends to be defensive.

 Because of the backfire problem, those who tell convenient lies to support what their followers wish to believe are rewarded rather than punished.  The question is, how to we overcome this problem?  Confirmation bias and backfire are so common, it seems sometimes as though our political discourse bears little resemblance to reality.  This can only end when those who mislead pay a price, and there's little sign of that on the horizon.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Koran Burning? How about a Bishop Burning Bibles?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The recent spate of conservative Chritians wanting to burn copies of the Koran brought to mind a time when a conservative Bishop chose to burn as much of an entire print run of Bibles as he could lay hands on.

In the 1530s, the Catholic Church was concerned with suppressing William Tyndale's translation of the Bible, the first English translation to go back to the Hebrew and Greek texts. It was also the first English translation to be printed in large quantities.

In a society where the church was the absolute arbiter of truth, even the king's authority relied upon the church's interpretation of the writ of God.  The church's writ was undermined by its own behavior, so few things could be more disruptive than for the common people to think they understood the Bible. With this belief came questions about the ways the authorities conducted themselves.

The printing press helped bring about the Protestant reformation, and with challenges to the authority of the church came challenges to the authority of government. Imagine how the authorities must have felt when their efforts to prevent the printing of Tyndale's Bible failed – they nearly captured him at the printer's establishment with the sheets of his English New Testament, but he escaped and had the work printed in Worms. He printed it in the usual format, but also in a small format that could more easily be concealed, and began shipping them "In boxes, in barrels, in bales of cloth, in sacks of flour..." according to Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

The Bishop Tunstall of London had all the copies he could locate burned. Then he came up with a new scheme to suppress the book, and enlisted a merchant to help him buy up all the copies that had been printed and not yet distributed. This windfall enabled Tyndale to get out of debt and print an edition with some corrections he had wanted to make.

The Church authorities eventually captured Tyndale, tried him and convicted him of heresy. He was strangled while tied to a stake, then his body was burned to prevent him from being resurrected on Judgment Day.

If some Christians will burn not only their own holy book but the translator as well because they fear it will be understood, should we be surprised some of them might want to burn other people's holy books?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Words of the Big-Footed Giants.

by John MacBeath Watkins

Forgot to include in my previous post one of my favorite titles of all time, Words of the Big-Footed Giants, by Antonio Pigafetta.  He accompanied Magellan on his voyage around the world, and was one of the few to survive it.  The book in question is his dictionary of the language of the people of Tierra Del Fuego, who by the standards of a 16th century European, were mighty big.  Before they met them in person, Magellan's men discovered very large footprints in the sand.

Pigafetta was an Italian scholar who wrote an account of the voyage, parts of which were published in Italian in 1525.  The entire manuscript was not published until the late 18th century.  And Words of the Big-Footed Giants is little known.  I ran into the title while reading Over the Edge of the World, a great account of Magellan's voyage by Lawrence Bergreen. I'm not even sure copies of  Words of the Big-Footed Giants still exist, but it certainly belongs in the annals of remarkable titles.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Great book titles

by John MacBeath Watkins

I have before me a book titled An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke. The title of a book is an important aspect of marketing, which may have crossed Jincy Willett's mind when she titled her second book Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather. Her first book, Jenny and the Jaws of Life, got good reviews but sold less copies than expected, so she may be forgiven for a bit of self-promotion in titling her second. Besides, it really was about someone trying to win this award.

Bookseller magazine gives out an annual award for oddest title. The first winner, 1978's Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, was the most unintentionally hilarious, though Bombproof Your Horse, the 2004 winner, comes close. Full list here.

There are, however, so many titles that can't make the list. Louis Althusser, perhaps the most depressing Marxist philosopher ever to strangle his wife, titled his autobiography The Future Lasts Forever (L'Avenir dure longtemps.) It's a better title for a science fiction anthology, but then he was probably more worried about self-redemption than book sales.

How to Avoid Huge Ships became part of the title of Joel Rickett's book about 'implausibly titled books,' although it is actually quite a good book to have if you operate a small yacht anywhere near the shipping lanes.

There is a bookstore not so far from mine, Glands of Destiny: First Edition Books, in Kenmore. The owner is a fan of odd titles. I believe it was he who purchased a copy of Scouts in Bondage from me. The name of the bookstore comes from the title of a book, of course.

I have at the moment in my window a paperback hinged at the top, titled for whom the Cloche Tolls, by Angus Wilson. I have no idea why the first two words aren't capitalized, and the title would make more sense to the modern reader if the cloche, a hat that looks like a bell, were still in fashion.  Of course, cloche is French for bell, but Wilson meant the hat.  As a bell.  Oh, hell, read the book.

Any favorites of your own? Do tell.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Language, the structure of thought, the printed word, and the electronic word

by John MacBeath Watkins

Jim Al-Khalili, in his wonderful BBC program (okay, it's British, so I suppose it should be 'programme') on science and Islam, suggests that Islamic culture stopped dominating science in part because science tends to follow wealth, and the New World colonies made Europe wealthier, and in part because printing was slow to catch on in Muslim countries.  I'm guessing there are many more causes.

I'd not heard that second argument.  He said that Arabic is so much more complex typographically, it was challenging to typeset the language.  Of course, movable type was invented in China, where they have a different word for everything -- not just verbally, but typographically.  When you have a different character for every word in the language, moveable type becomes a major industrial operation, capital intensive and easy for the state to control.  When you have 26 characters, the printer's box is pretty small, and the whole operation doesn't cost that much to start.

The more minds you can bring in contact with each other, the more complex a structure of thought they can construct.  In my essay Thoughts on Structuralism and the death of 'Ghosts,' I mentioned that evidence of symbolic thought shows up 90,000 years ago and possibly as long ago as 160,000 years, but disappeared and reappeared until the Upper Paleolithic culture finally 'took' about 45,000 years ago.  This apparently is because of events that caused population to fall to the point where there were not enough minds in contact with each other to maintain such a complex structure.  Something similar happened to Tasmanian culture when the land bridge to Australia was cut off, and I suspect something like this may have played a hand in the Neanderthal extinction, as I argued here.

Photolithography and offset printing made it easier to typeset these languages, making printing books inexpensive and spreading knowledge more widely.  With the electronic word, any language that can be represented through a keyboard can be cheaply and easily transmitted; the remaining barriers are economic and governmental.  There remains, of course, the barrier of language itself.  A scientific paper published in Serbian will have less immediate impact on science in general than one published in English, because until it is translated only Serbian speakers can read it.

There are other effects of how we write.  The Western alphabet has an established order in which the letters appear, which makes it easy to organize a phone book.  Chinese has no such order.  You can organize a phone book based on the number of strokes in a character, but more than one character has a given number of strokes.  Of course, with an electronic database, you can search for a specific name, so this advantage disappears.

Will growing wealth and easier transmission of knowledge allow Islamic countries to again be central to the development of science?  That depends on those 'many more causes' I referred to earlier.

It depends on what kind of learning these cultures value, on what kind of communication their governments allow, and on how much ideas are able to mix.  I'm sure we'll see contributions from Islamic countries, but the scope of those contributions will depend on how free their peoples' minds are to think and communicate.  Technology can change cultures, and book helped do that in Europe, but the effects are not at all predictable.  Socrates worried about the written word, which might keep a teacher from transmitting knowledge to a soul of the right sort; Hell, just anybody could read stuff once it was written down!  The Catholic Church, at first backed by Henry VIII, tried to keep the English people from reading the Bible in English.  They supposed, perhaps rightly,  that reading what the Bible actually said would cause people to question how the clergy used it.

In both cases, the fear was of a diminution of control.  In both cases, they failed to see the wider benefit of a wider spread of knowledge.  Quicker and less expensive transmission of knowledge has got to have some good effects, the most obvious one being an increased pace of innovation.  Of course, to those who resist change (as a wooden boat guy, I have to admit some resistance to change myself) an increased pace of change is a threat.