Sunday, July 29, 2012

Browne on Kuhn

Gregory M. Browne is the author of Necessary Factual Truth (University Press of America, 2001), the inspiration for the title of this blog.  He offers these comments on my recent reviews here and here of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Kuhn makes some good points, most of which are a reaction to the philosophy of science of the Logical Positivists.  But both the Logical Positivists and Kuhn share faulty assumptions that lead them to misunderstand what I call “Deep Kinds”. 

In short, they are unaware of the existence of Deep Kinds, or at least are unaware that some kinds have deep essences—that is, deep sets of necessary attributes, more than what one may be aware of any given time, more than what one learns when one learns the meaning of the term referring to them, more than what one may put in a short definition or concept.  Such are most kinds in chemistry and biology, such as gold and horses.   These have attributes that it took as much investigation to discover—the atomic structure of gold and the DNA of horses—which nonetheless were as necessary to the kinds as the known attributes we had put in our dictionary definitions.  Aristotle understood this, but this was forgotten in the reaction to Scholasticism and not rediscovered, by most philosophers, until the work of Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke in the 1970s.  Ayn Rand realized this truth independently, and, through Leonard Peikoff, influenced me to elaborate the idea and gives this type of kinds a name.

In the interlude, the doctrine that only defining attributes are necessary, and that definitions are just the short “Nominal Definitions” that we find in dictionaries, whose function is merely to express meaning and not summarize knowledge, prevailed by the early 20th century reign of the Logical Positivists.  So “All triangles have 3 sides” was considered necessary (but non-factual, because it expressed a conventional definition), but “Gold has 79 protons” was not considered necessary (though admittedly factual).

But by the 1930s it was seen that this simple model was inadequate, even by many disciples of the Logical Positivists.   The Ordinary Language philosophers came up with “cluster concepts” and “family resemblance concepts”, and in general “open textured” concepts, W. V. Quine came up with a holistic view of knowledge, and others extended this to a holistic theory of meaning.  Meaning and knowledge came to be widely seen as relative to a conceptual scheme.  And Kuhn concluded that scientists with different conceptual schemes or different “paradigms” could sometimes not communicate, because what was said in one scheme or paradigm was incommensurable with what was said another, and that they were not talking about the same things, because the meanings and references of their terms differed.

However, the later Putnam and Kripke rejected this, as he said that the scientists in different paradigms were talking about the same things, that their terms had the same referents, the “natural kinds” (Deep Kinds) even though their definitions might differ.  So scientists from ancient Greece on down who talked of gold were talking of the same kind of thing, the same natural kind with the same essence.
And Rand avoided the mistakes too, since she did not consider that what was excluded from the definition was not necessary, and insisted that new discoveries need not invalidate old theories but rather can add to our knowledge.

Nonetheless, Kuhn deserves credit for exposing some of the weaknesses in Logical Positivist philosophy of science.

Dr. Browne and I met at Eastern Michigan University.  I was walking the halls waiting for a criminology class to begin and I saw “Ayn Rand” written on the blackboard at the end of a couple of columns of philosophers starting with Thales.  Over the semester, I stood outside and eventually took a seat to watch the lectures.  He now teaches online for Yorktown University in Denver.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Pretense of Sociology

The Pretence of Knowledge: Of What Use is Sociology?

On the OrgTheory blog Jennifer Lena (bio here) replied with some numbers to Fabio Rojas’s continued complaint that people who do not major in STEM (science technology engineering mathematics) are wasting their tuition dollars because liberal arts majors have no job prospects.  But, of what use are sociology and economics?

True, large organizations hire some kinds of economists, but if economics really were useful, then you could get an associate’s degree in it and find a $40,000 a year job with a local employer.  After all, engineering, science, and technology work that way:  get a master’s in civil engineering or a doctorate in electrical engineering and you are only in a different place than your colleague with an associate’s in civil technology or industrial controls.  But you all have jobs at your level.  With sociology and economics that is not true.  No one (except colleges and universities) hires people with sociology degrees to work as sociologists.  By that standard, it is a useless field.

Moreover, Prof. Lena provides survey numbers to indicate that some to many fine arts majors – painting, sculpture, theater, dance – do at least nearly as well as STEM majors, and better than humanities majors at finding work in their fields after graduation.  The close ties between universities and museums, for instance, provides one path.To me, however, the most telling part of Jenn Lena’s work is reflected in the individual comments that show the lack of correlation between how the person feels about their fine arts education and where they are working today.  Whether a lawyer benefited from drama class depends on the lawyer, not the class. 
"Those most likely to work as professional artists at some point were majors in design, dance, music performance, and theater. The largest gaps (between those who intended to become artists and have never worked in this capacity) are among creative and other writing majors (28% gap) and architecture (14% gap). Of course, the higher a student’s degree, the more likely they are to work as a professional artist: 86% of those with an arts-related master’s degree do so, compared with 71% of those with an arts bachelor’s degree." ("Paid in Full" by Jenn Lena here.)

Perhaps the bottom line of whether and to what extent arts (and humanities) “pay off” by whatever measure can be derived from the biography of Steve Ditko on Wikipedia here:
Stephen J. "Steve" Ditko (born November 2, 1927) is an American comic book artist and writer best known as the artist and co-creator, with Stan Lee, of the Marvel Comics heroes Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

Following his discharge [from the US Army], Ditko learned that his idol, Batman artist Jerry Robinson, was teaching at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later the School of Visual Arts) in New York City. Moving there in 1950, he enrolled in the art school under the G.I. Bill.
The ultimate question may be what science fiction author L. Neil Smith calls “Asimov’s Fallacy.”  In his Foundation trilogy, Isaac Asimov posited a science of psycho-history whereby the huge numbers of humans in the Galaxy allowed statistical predictions of future events.  The fallacy is that all such numbers depend on the actions of individuals with free will.  It may well be true that 47% of fine arts majors earn 61% less than 79% of business majors, but that says nothing about the success of any single artist … or of those who do not complete their college education at all, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, though granted that the founder of Cypress Semiconductor, T. J. Rodgers earned his doctorate in electrical engineering by inventing MOSFET chips.

No sociologist or economist in 1950 predicted that there would be good jobs in comic books.  Moreover, the modern curricula in computer graphics and web design definitely raise serious questions about the predictive value of sociology and economics.

On this same subject here on Necessary Facts, is The Value of a Liberal Education.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Austin Tech Republicans

Usually on the third Friday of most months, the Austin Tech Republicans meet at the Brick Oven in Gateway Plaza across from Arboretum on Research Drive at I-183. [They now meet at "Big Daddy's on Burnet and 183.]

The July 20 meeting featured guest speaker Mario Loyola who authored the National Review cover story on the Supreme Court ruling on “Obamacare.”  Mario Loyola granted that when the ruling came down conservatives expressed instant indignation and liberals expressed instant elation.  However, he said, “instant indignation and instant elation are indicative of inverse understanding of the issues.” 

Mario Loyola works for several think tanks, among them the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  At the meeting, we were given offprints of his National Review cover story and his two papers for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  In an interactive engagement with the audience, he addressed the premises and problems of both“Obamacare” and the recent Supreme Court decision. 
  • When is a tax a penalty for inaction?
  • Can the government punish the choice not to act?  (As a practicing Catholic, Mario Loyola hinted at a lot of subtext on free will and choice.) 
  • Given the powers of the sovereign, what is a penalty for non-compliance?
  • What is “severability” and can it be valid?
Loyola offered his opinion that “three quarters of the dissent” was written in the chambers of Chief Justice John Roberts.  My estimation is that Loyola apparently believes that like Justice John Marshall Harlan, the “great dissenter” famous for his devastating rebuttal of Plessy v. Ferguson, Roberts intended to lay the groundwork for a reversal of Obamacare, while nonetheless at the same time being bound by conservative constitutional theory to honor the 200 years of precedent in support of his majority decision.

That last was the iceberg under the water.  Mario Loyola said that he went back and laboriously re-read every one of the Supreme Court decisions on severability back to Marbury versus Madison.   Severability is the doctrine that the Supreme Court can rule a single clause of a law unconstitutional, while keeping the rest of the law intact.  To Loyola, as to constitutional conservatives, that actually creates a new law, not passed by Congress and not signed by the President.  I asked a question:  “Given that the law is the statement of social contract between the citizen and the state, is it not true that in contract law, the fact that a single clause is invalid does not invalidate the intent of the agreement.”   Mario Loyola said that this question caught him off guard and he would address it later, for which he did not get the opportunity.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation here and physically at 900 Congress Ave #400  Austin, TX 78701 (512) 472-2700. Read "Obamacare:  A guide to the Issues" here.  And read about the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, a guide to the issues here.

Republican Rebels
Republicans for Voldemort
Liberty's Kids
"Alongside Night" to Run in Austin

Friday, July 13, 2012

How much is that in our money?

"Medium One Topping 899” Of course, they dropped the decimal point and of course everyone knows that: $8.99 is a reasonable price for a one-topping medium pizza.  But it is only a matter of time until that is $899.00 and the average part-timer makes $1,000 per hour. 

Working on some documentation for an international market, I came across a table of prices for wine: 24.99 and 21.99… and it seemed OK for good wine.  Then, I remembered that this was not in US Dollars, of course, and this really is your $5.99 and $6.99 bargain.  But again, it is only a matter of time. 

I remember Mars, Snickers, and Three Musketeers for five cents.

This article from The Financial Times (2001), pegs historical prices to Mars Bars.

The U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Labor Statistics offers more facts (and less whimsy) here.

The Morris County, New Jersey, County Library built a database from newspaper advertisements, 1900-2012, here
“Whenever possible, we selected items/brands (Hershey's cocoa, Bayer aspirin, Sears Kenmore refrigerator) that are still being manufactured. This makes it possible to take a 1920 "shopping list" to your local supermarket or department store and compare prices.”
The only real change has been in the value of the US Dollar.  The government spends more than it takes in from taxes, and the difference is inflation.  The dollar gets smaller.

Of course, productivity and technology bring more value to money.  Last night, at dinner with friends, we marveled at the true price of a $3,000 Apple II in 1980.  Today, the Goodwill has stacks of Dell laptops for $199 each.  But if not measured in today’s inflated money, they would be twenty dollar items... or two dollar, because these changes are only in my lifetime.  Look over the course of a century and you realize that the dollar has lost about 90% to 99% of its value: what costs a dollar today – candy, for instance – used to cost one cent in 1912.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Great Scientific Experiments

Thomas Kuhn’s work focused on paradigm shifts.  (Reviewed on Necessary Facts, here.) To Kuhn, paradigms define the puzzles that “normal science” pursues.  Kuhn stated that it is not the program of normal science to seek out troubling anomalies.  However, the pursuit of puzzles inevitably leads to just that: the more we discover, the deeper our new questions.  Rom Harré’s overview, Great Scientific Experiments (Phaidon Press, 1981) at once supersedes and supports Kuhn’s thesis.

Of the perhaps millions of discrete experiments recorded in the past 2500 years, what makes some “great”?  Different criteria recommend the selections here. Harré builds several structure to group these twenty experiments by what they demonstrate about methods, theories, and techniques.  Induction, inference, accident, null results, decomposition, and unification are subheads for the experiments of Faraday.  Pasteur, Berzelius, and the others.  Four aspects of Kuhn’s “normal science” appear here.  Harré first grants importance to experiments that are culturally famous to us.  Michelson-Morley is entwined with a paradigm shift in physics.  The second kind “were influential in their own times … and which have continued to reverberate through the subsequent development of a field of study.” Aristotle’s embryology of the chick and Theodoric of Freibourg’s investigation of the rainbow are among those. Elegance is represented by Robert Norman’s discovery of the magnetic field.  Finally, no experiment is truly isolated because all are part of the daily working life of a scientist. Therefore, the works of Faraday and Rutherford are offered as examples of the results of long lines of many small experiments.

Horace Romano Harré (Rom Harré)
is an adjunct professor at Georgetown.
Read his Wikipedia biography
Immersed in the sociology,
Rom Harré has a Facebook page 
and is on LinkedIn.

Kuhn says that often no agreed standard differentiates theories because scientists adhering to different paradigms talk past each other.  Harré offers three examples of experiments that helped us select from rival hypotheses: Robert Norman on the dip of the magnetic field; Stephen Hales on circulation in plants; and Konrad Lorenz on imprinting.  We know that happy accidents sometimes propel science. Pasteur's famous quote, "In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind." places his work here, along with Ernest Rutherford's study of transmutation.

(That last, too, reflects Kuhn's theory.  According to Harré, we do not know precisely when scientists abandoned attempts at transmutation of the elements.  In Kuhn's terms, the changes in culture we call the Enlightenment reinforced a new view in science that atomic corpuscles are elementary, in a new sense of the word "element.")

Harré’s Introduction explains three broad philosophies of science: inductivism, fallibilism, and conventionalism. The projects here also are evidence of these three in action.  Galileo’s inclined plane is one example of the inductive method (and also but one step preceded by a long line of previous experiments and reasoning).  The insightful experiments of Jacob and Wollman on the direct transfer of genetic material also exemplify the development of a theory by teasing out the causes of known events.

Harré relies as much as possible on original material, quoting heavily, while explaining for conciseness.  Life sciences stand with physical sciences. 

For all of its intended value, I personally found pleasant surprises in several of the works: science as we know it was practiced in the Middle Ages.  (See, also, Stephen McCluskey’s Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe, Oxford, 1998.) Harré points to the theories and practices at Merton College, Oxford, 1328-1350, which served as the basis for Galileo’s investigations.  Even more, characters in modern science fiction often speak of “fields” but the term goes back to Robert Norman’s The Newe Attractive, published in 1581. 


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Around Austin

Texas has no income tax. Sales tax is 8.5% here in Austin because 1% goes for CapMetro, the bus and rail lines.  Dell, Motorola, and a dozen more are here, hundreds of small high tech firms and design studios dot the economic landscape which is dominated by the University of Texas and the state government.  Then, there are cinema, music, and fine arts. KMFA-FM plays no NPR or other news; and Composer's Datebook reminds us that "once all music was new." (The NPR affiliate is KUT-FM, which also launched an alternative format KUTX-FM.) I live in a Mexican neighborhood (no surprise), but a mile up the road, two banks have signs in Chinese.

5th floor near 6th and Lamar looking north
(Whole Foods HQ not visible at far left).
Note all the trees.
You don't see a lot of people getting speeding tickets here. In fact, as a Michigander, I find it downright frustrating to be behind two enormous SUVs each doing 25 in a 40 MPH zone, along the main drag, Lamar Boulevard.  (The street honors Mirabeau Lamar, second president of the Texas Republic.  Houston Street is a small lane, easy to miss.  Sam Houston wanted the capital someplace else.)  Freeway ramps are longer than the roads between towns back East.

The Bar Crawler caught in broad daylight.
But business is booming and bursting and reforming and reformulating.  You will find real estate, minerals, computer chips, computer games.  The culture - music, cinema, fine art, theater - is an economic sector, of course. NPR-affliate KUT-FM provides a deep playlist of local and contemporary music. In addition to Whole Foods, Schlotzsky's home office is here.

The McCombs College of Business at UT is one of several
to have received an antique stock exchange station.
Michael Dell began building personal computers in his dormitory room at UT.  The town as seen busts: people turn nostalgic about the good old days of the 1980s.  An Austin American-Statesman article last year offered hand-wringing because recovery from the Dot Com Meltdown still might not yet have reached the gaming coders.

The Goodwill stores have a computer museum,
funded in part by Dell.
A Cray stands among the vintage machines.
The land is diverse, more like Ohio than it is like New Mexico.  We went through a drought last year with record highs for record days, but that, too, is one of the environmental textures.  When it rains, it pours.  We just passed the apex of cricket season.  You get so many in one place, you can smell them.  Same with grackles.

At the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Austin offers much.  Nearly two million people agree.  Housing is disproportionaltely expensive as a result.  The city owns the electric power company and rates rise as their operating costs fall.  Taxicabs are regulated and all charge the same rates.  Pedicabs are regulated differently.  In a lot of ways, Texas is very much like Massachusetts.... but don't tell them that.  The Texas flag flies at the same height as the American flag; and the Texas flag is larger than the American flag. You don't get that in Massachusetts.

Also on Necessary Facts
Austin at Night
Stadtluft Macht Frei
South by Southwest 2013
Images from SXSW 2013
South by Southwest 2012

Monday, July 2, 2012

Independence Day 2012: The American Political Tradition and Profiles in Courage

The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter. (Preface for the Hebrew edition, September 29, 1967.) 

“… no society can function at all unless there are certain very broad premises, moral and constitutional, on which the overwhelming majority of its politically active citizens can agree at any one time.”  page xxviii

“Americans may not have quarreled consistently enough over profound ideological matters, as these are formulated in the history of political thought, but they quarreled consistently enough over issues that had real pith and moment.” Page xxix

“When competition and enterprise were rising, men thought of the future, when they were flourishing, of the present.  Now – in an age of concentration, bigness, and corporate monopoly – when competition and opportunity have gone into decline, men look wistfully back toward a golden age.”  Page xxxiv

“Such heroes of the progressive revival as Bryan, LaFollette, and Wilson proclaimed that they were trying to undo the mischief of the past forty years and recreate the old nation of limited and decentralized power, genuine competition, democratic opportunity, and enterprise.” – page xxxv

“Although it has been said repeatedly that we need a new conception of the world to replace the ideology of self-help, free enterprise, competition and beneficent cupidity upon which Americans have been nourished since the foundation of the Republic, no new conceptions of comparable strength have taken root, and no statesman with a great mass following has arisen to propound them. Bereft of a coherent and plausible body of belief – for the New Deal if it did little more, went far to undermine old ways of thought – Americans have become more receptive than ever to dynamic personal leadership as a substitute.  This is the secret of Roosevelt’s popularity, and since his death, of the rudderless and demoralized state of American liberalism.” Page xxxvi

“… the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man. Even when some property right has been challenged – as it was by followers of Jefferson and Jackson – in the name of the rights of man or the rights of the community, the challenge, when translated into practical policy, has actually been urged on  behalf of some other kind of property.” – page xxxvii.

“The sanctity of private property, the right of the individual to dispose of and invest it, the value of opportunity, and the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion, within broad legal limits, into a beneficent social order have been staple tenets of the central faith in American political ideologies; these conceptions have been shared in large part by men as diverse as Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Bryan, Wilson, and Hoover.  The business of politics – so the creed runs – is to protect this competitive world, to foster it on occasion, to patch up its incidental abuses, but not to cripple it with a plan for common collective action.  American traditions also show a strong bias in favor of equalitarian democracy, but is has been a democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity.” Page xxxvii

“That culture has been intensely nationalistic and for the most part isolationist; it has been fiercely individualistic and capitalistic. In a corporate and consolidated society demanding international responsibility, cohesion, centralization, and planning, the traditional ground is shifting under our feet. It is imperative in a time of cultural crisis to gain fresh perspective on the past.” – page xxxix

“A democratic society, in any case, can more safely be overcritical than overindulgent in its attitude toward public leadership.” – page xl.

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy.

“A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or reward that quality in its chosen leaders today – and in fact we have forgotten.  We may remember how John Quincy Adams became President through the political schemes of Henry Clay, but we have forgotten how, as a young man, he gave up a promising Senatorial career to stand by the nation.  We may remember Daniel Webster for his subservience to the National Bank throughout much of his career, but we have forgotten his sacrifice for the national good at the close of his career. We do not remember – and possibly, we do not care.”  - page 1.

“Of course, the acts of courage described in this book would be more inspiring and would shine more with the traditional luster of hero-worship if we assumed that each man forgot about himself in his dedication to higher principles. … It was not because they ‘loved the public better than themselves.’ On the contrary it was precisely because they did love themselves – because his desire to win or maintain a reputation for integrity was stronger than his desire to maintain his office – because his conscience, his personal standard of ethics, his integrity or morality, call it what you will – was stronger than the pressures of public disapproval – because his faith that his course was the best one, and would ultimately be vindicated, outweighed fear of public reprisal.”  Page 203

“The stories of past courage can define that ingredient – they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage. For this each man must look into his own soul.”  Page 210