Monday, January 19, 2015

We can see the beast....but it's been us!

The unfathomable horrors of what the 'Islamists' are doing these days can hardly be exaggerated.  It is completely legitimate, from the usual mainstream perspective at least, to denigrate the perpetrators in the clearest possible way, as simply absolute evil.  But a deeper understanding raises sobering questions.

It's 'us' pointing at 'them' at the moment, and some aspects of what's going on reflect religious beliefs: Islam vs Christianity, Judaism, or the secular western 'faith'.  If we could really believe that we were fundamentally better than they are we could feel justified in denigrating their wholly misguided beliefs, and try to persuade them to come over to our True beliefs about morally, or even theologically acceptable behavior.

Unfortunately, the truth is not so simple.  Nor is it about what 'God' wants.  The scientific atheists (Marxist) slaughtered their dissenters or sent them to freeze in labor camps by the multiple millions. It was the nominally Christian (and even Socialist) Nazis who gassed their targets by the millions. And guess who's bombing schools in Palestine these days?

Can we in the US feel superior?  Well, we have the highest per capita jailed population, and what about slavery and structural racism?  Well, what about the Asians?  Let's see, the rape of Nanking, Mao's Cultural Revolution, the rapine Huns.....

Charlie Hebdo is just a current example that draws sympathy, enrages, and makes one wonder about humans.  Haven't we learned?  I'd turn it around and ask: has anything even really changed?

Christians have made each other victims, of course.  Read John Fox's Book of Martyrs from England in the 1500's (or read about the more well-known Inquisition).  But humans are equal opportunity slaughterers. Think of the crusades and back-and-forth Islamic-Christian marauding episodes.  Or the Church's early systematic 'caretaking' of the Native Americans almost from the day Columbus first got his sneakers wet in the New World, not to mention its finding justification for slavery (an idea going back to those wonderful classic Greeks, and of course previously in history).  Well, you know the story.

Depiction of Spanish atrocities committed in the conquest of Cuba in Bartolomé de Las Casas's "Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias", 1552.   The rendering was by the Flemish Protestantartist Theodor de Bry. Public Domain. 

But this post was triggered not just by the smoking headlines of the day, but because I was reading about that often idealized gentle, meditative Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor in the second century AD.  In one instance, some--guess who?--Christians had been captured by the Romans and were being tortured: if they didn't renounce their faith, they were beheaded (sound familiar?) or fed to the animals in a colosseum.  And this was unrelated to the routine slavery of the time. Hmmm...I'd have to think about whether anyone could conceive of a reason that, say, lynching was better than beheading.

It is disheartening, even in our rightful outrage at the daily news from the black-flag front, to see that contemporary horrors are not just awful, they're not even new!  And, indeed, part of our own Western heritage.

Is there any science here?  If not, why not?
We try to run an interesting, variable blog, mainly about science and also its role in society.  So the horrors on the Daily Blat are not as irrelevant as they might seem:  If we give so much credence, and resources, to science, supposedly to make life better, less stressful, healthier and longer, why haven't we moved off the dime in so many of these fundamental areas that one could call simple decency--areas that don't even need much scientific investment to document?

Physics, chemistry and math are the queens of science.  Biology may be catching up, but that would seem today mainly to be to the extent we are applying molecular reductionism (everything in terms of DNA, etc). That may be physics worship or it may be good; time will tell, but of course applied biology can claim many major successes. The reductionism of these fields gives them a kind of objective, or formalistic, rigor.  Controlled samples or studies, with powerful or even precise instrumentation are possible to measure and evaluate data, and to form testable credible theory about the material world.

But a lot of important things in life seem so indirect, relative to molecules, that one would think there could also be, at least in principle,  comparably effective social and behavioral sciences that did more than lust after expensive, flashy reductionist equipment (DNA sequencing, fMRI imaging, super-computing, etc.) and the like.  Imaging and other technologies certainly have made much of the physical sciences possible by enabling us to 'see' things our organic powers, our eyes, nose, ears, etc.,  could not detect.  But the social sciences?  How effective or relevant is that lust to the problems being addressed?

The cycling and recycling of social science problems seems striking.  We have plentiful explanations for things behavioral and cultural, and many of them sound so plausible.  We have formal theories structured as if they were like physics and chemistry: Marxism and related purportedly materialist theories of economics, cultural evolution, and behavior, and 'theories' of education, which are legion yet the actual result has been sliding for decades.  We have libraries-full of less quantitively or testably rigorous, more word-waving 'theories' by psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, economists and the like.  But the flow of history and, one might say, its repeated disasters, shows, to me, that we as yet don't in fact have nothing very rigorous, despite a legacy going back to Plato and the Greek philosophers.

We spend a lot of money on the behavioral and social sciences with 'success' ranging from very good for very focal types of traits, to none at all when it comes to what are the major sociocultural phenomena like war, equity, and many others.  We have journal after journal, shelves full of books of social 'theory', including some (going back at least to Herbert Spencer) that purport to tie physical theory to biology to society, and Marx and Darwin are often invoked, along with ideas like the second law of thermodynamics and so on.  Marx wanted a social theory as rigorous as physics, and materialist, too, but in which there would be an inevitable, equitable end to the process.  Spencer had an end in mind, too, but one with a stable inequality of elites and the rest.  Not exactly compatible!

And this doesn't include social theories derived from this or that world religion.  Likewise, of course, we go through psychological and economic theories as fast as our cats go through kibbles, and we've got rather little to show for it that could seriously claim respect as science in the sense of real understanding of the phenomena.  When everyone needs a therapist, and therapists are life-long commitments, something's missing.

Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, condemned to face each other for eternity at Highgate Cemetery in London (photos: A Buchanan)

Either that, or these higher-levels of organized traits simply don't follow 'laws' the way the physical phenomena do.  But that seems implausible since we're made of physical stuff, and such a view would take us back to the age-old mind-matter duality, endless debate about free will, consciousness, soul, and all the rest back through the ages.  And while this itemization is limited to western culture, there isn't anything more clearly 'true' in the modern East, nor in the cultures elsewhere or before ours.

Those with vested interests in their fMRI machines, super-computer modeling, or therapy practices will likely howl 'Foul!' It's hard not to believe that in the past there were a far smaller percentage of people with various behavioral problems needing chemical suppression or endless 'therapy' than there is today.  But if there were, and things are indeed changing for the worse, this further makes the point.  Why aren't mental health problems declining, after so much research?

You can defend the social sciences if you want, but in my personal view their System is, like the biomedical one, a large vested interest that keeps students off the street for a few years, provides comfy lives for professors, fodder for the news media and lots of jobs in the therapy and self-help industries (including think-tanks for economics and politics).....but has not turned daily life, even in the more privileged societies, into Nirvana.

One can say that those interests just like things to stay the way they are, or argue that while their particular perspective can't predict every specific any more than a physicist can predict every molecule's position, generic, say, Darwinian competition-is-everything views are simply true. Such assertions--axioms, really--are then just accepted and treated as if they're 'explanations'. If you take such a view, then we actually do understand everything!  But even if these axioms--Darwinian competition, e.g.--were true, they have become such platitudes that they haven't proven themselves in any serious sense, because if they had we would not have multiple competing views on the same subjects.  Despite debates on the margins, there is, after all, only one real chemistry, or physics, even if there are unsolved aspects of those fields.

The more serious point is this:  we have institutionalized research in the 'soft' as well as 'hard' sciences.  But a cold look at much of what we spend funding on, year after year without demanding actual major results, would suggest that we should be addressing the lack of real results as perhaps the more real or at least more societally important problem these fields should be addressing--and with the threat of less or no future funding if something profoundly better doesn't result.  In a sense, engineering works in the physical sciences because we can build bridges without knowing all the factors involved in precise detail.  But social engineering doesn't work that way.

After all, if we are going to spend lots of money on minorities (like professors, for example), we would be better to take an engineering approach to problems like 'orphan' (rare) diseases, which are focused and in a sense molecular, and where actual results could be hoped for.  The point would be to shift funds from wasteful, stodgy areas that aren't going very far.  Even if working on topics like orphan diseases is costly, there are no other paths to the required knowledge other than research with documentable results.  Shifting funding in that direction would temporarily upset various interests, but would instead provide employment dollar to areas and people who could make a real difference, and hence would not undermine the economy overall.

At the same time, what would it take for there to be a better kind of social science, the product of which would make a difference to human society, so we no longer had to read about murders and beheadings?


Anonymous said...

"Charlie Hebdo is just a current example that draws sympathy"

Sympathy? Looks more like a media psy-op. Even the 'solidarity march' photo is fake.

Incidentally, France has the least 'freedom of expression' among all western countries. You can test it by criticizing a French organization in your blog.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, we all have our turn. Vigilance to prevent it happening here, where it has and easily could again, is needed or our lives will be made miserable.

But where is all the social 'science' we pay for and why can't it or doesn't it lead to policy that prevents this?

A gloomy response would be that nothing like that's possible in this sort of thing. Or that people don't really want policy, world wide, that would prevent it.

Libb Thims said...

The solution to the beheading problem is to establish something akin to the Nightingale Chair of Social Physics, so to work to situate morality on the basis of physical chemistry, as Goethe advised 200-years ago. So while we point fingers at the Muslims, it is ourselves that we have to fix first.

Ken Weiss said...

Reply to Libb
I have no idea what 'physical chemistry' has to do with this. I just Googled the N Chair of Social Physics and see what it basically is. Of course, reductionism to physics hasn't worked despite many similar sorts of ideas since then. The 19th Century was one in which earlier ideas of probability was shown to be highly relevant to social science (see Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance, if you don't know it already).

But this finds mathematical pattern but is nothing like the kind of close causal relationships--or something--that would be needed. If one wants to say that morality is a sense or emotion and hence must have a chemical basis, that isn't very helpful even if true in principle.

I don't know specifically what Goethe suggested. But many, including leaders of his time like Herbert Spencer, tried to reduce humans, evolution, and society to the laws of physics. Again, not very useful as subsequent history shows.

But I agree about the finger pointing. If there is science to be had that would address these issues--real science, not just professors saying so in book after book (and, I speak as a professor, so I am not just casting stones), then we'd all be better off.

Instead, we have too many 'Darwinian' social 'scientists' simply arguing that conflict, merciless acts and the like are the natural way of the world and in that sense OK.

DG said...


I have trouble equating well documented genocides with incidental or negligent deaths in Palestine. Can you explain how you are able to do that?

Ken Weiss said...

Response to DG:
It was, of course a kind of quipped representation of what Israel is doing, systematically, to the Palestinians. But if you think what Israel is doing doesn't qualify for the objectionable list, I doubt I could convince you of it. I guess they're just innocent little angels.

Whether you agree or not, my message is not to pick specifically on any group, and I think that should have been clear. We're all guilty under some circumstances as history shows. And we don't seem to have a good 'scientific' basis, despite a lot of purported investment, in how to stop it.