Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The most common use for invoking "argument from authority" on the Internet

Is crank self-protection. In this video a mathematician calmly explains why 0! = 1. In the comments, some crank shows up and declares the mathematician doesn't know what he is talking about, and he has offered no evidence at all. When they guy won't listen to anything anyone says, people note, "Well, every mathematician in the world disagrees with you."

And of course he rolls out... "Appeal to authority."

But when someone is so obsessed with some bugbear that he can't grasp the simplest arguments for some point, an appeal to authority is a perfectly valid move.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Jeremy Waldron on liberalism

According to Waldron, liberalism rests on "a requirement that all aspects of the social should either be made acceptable or be capable of being made acceptable to every last individual" (quoted in Liberalism, Fawcett, p. 399).

Waldron gives us two conditions joined by an "or." The first one sounds impossible to me, while the second seems vacuous: anyone can assert that everyone ought to agree with their politics, even though they do not, if only other people were reasonable.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


The writing style of headlines is a frequent source of amusement. Language Log has often drawn water from this well. James Joyce famously cast one chapter of his novel Ulysses entirely in newspaper style, with many very comic takeoffs on the way headlines are written. My favorite headline from that chapter was "KMRIA," which was short for, "Kiss my royal Irish arse."

Tonight I had occasion to recall a headline I once read in a tech publication in the late 1980s: "Sun Eyes Apple Gains." (Sun Microsystems was a major computer-market player at that time.)

Imagine if we could send messages back in time, and we sent that headline to someone in 1960, and asked them to guess what it meant.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Why I try to explain how historical investigation actually proceeds

I posted a quote about the vitality of the High Middle Ages. The person quoted, Robert Bartlett, is Professor of Medieval History at St. Andrews. The book I am quoting won a top history prize. He has written several other books on the Middle Ages, and produced a number of BBC documentaries on the period. And he has spent the last 40 years of his life studying this period. He has spent that time pouring over original documents from the era, and tracking the work of other historians working on the era and of archaeologists excavating the period. He almost certainly can read original documents in at least Latin, middle English, old French, and Italian.

He notes that the High Middle Ages were a period of intense creativity. After I posted that quote, several commenters showed up. One says that he prefers the view of the Middle Ages that he learned when he was young. But this view did not change because, with a given set of facts, historians simply decided to put a different spin on them. Historians do not start with facts, they start with evidence, and deduce the facts based on that evidence. And their understanding of what the facts were has changed based on a wealth of evidence about that time.

Another commentor asks why, if the High Middle Ages were really so vital, did they simply accept what Aristotle had written centuries before on his authority? The answer is that they did not do so. Aristotle's works were lost to Western Europe for many centuries. But as soon as they were rediscovered, although he was recognized as a genius, his works were being critiqued and his conclusions modified. For instance, Buridan and Oresme developed a new theory of motion, that essentially was a halfway point between Aristotle's theory and Newton's. In fact, the Scientific Revolution was well underway in the High Middle Ages. (See, for instance, Grant's The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: note that I am not here citing some fringe work putting forth a questionable thesis like a book that claims the Chinese discovered America: this is a standard work assigned in advanced history of science classes around the world.)

But if that is true, then what happened? Well, it was a little thing called the plague. Europeans in the Late Middle Ages had little attention to devote to science, as they were quite busy dying in droves. by the time you're up recovered, there were "new men" on the scene: the humanists. They reacted against the learning of the High Middle Ages -- not without some justification, as no age is perfect and every one has its characteristic errors -- but, as with most reactions, they went too far. They threw out the baby with the bathwater, and said we must start over again from the Greeks and Romans. So Galileo had to reinitiate the mathematization of physics, which had already been occurring in the Middle Ages. Descartes had to reformulate "Cogito ergo sum," which had already been formulated in the Middle Ages. Napier had to rediscover logarithms, which had already been discovered in the Middle Ages. Francis Bacon had to reassert the importance of empirical investigation, which had been pointed out centuries before by Roger Bacon.

With the Protestant Reformation and the political movement led by the philosophes against the Catholic Church (and by the way, Samson, "philosophes" does not mean the same thing as "philosophers"), this history became politicized. It served the interest of both groups to portray the Middle Ages as a period of unbroken intellectual ignorance. And so arose the myth of the stagnant Middle Ages, which 100 years of historical scholarship has barely been able to budge in the popular imagination.

But back to my original topic: it is the popular misunderstanding of what historians do that leads my commenters to reject their findings based on what they learned from a high school textbook or a TV show featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. If the facts are simply what is written in old books, and all historians do is invent interpretations for them, then why can't I invent my own interpretation?

But that is not at all how historians work. What was written down at some time may be self-serving propaganda, mistaken memories, or simply a lack of understanding on the part of the writer of what was really occurring. Historians use this evidence that did survive to ferret out the facts of a past that has not survived. Augustus claimed that he was restoring the Roman Republic, but we know that he in fact was ending it, not because of what was written at the time, but because of what historians have concluded based on the evidence surviving from that time. The claims of Augustus were propaganda.

Imagine someone rejecting all of quantum mechanics, because in school he had learned the Bohr model of the atom as a little solar system, because he learned it in school, and he really likes it. Surely, anyone who is passingly familiar with modern physics would tell him, "But there has been a massive amount of evidence unearthed that demonstrates that that model is too simple!"

But, when it comes to history, the idea that it is merely the historian's interpretation of "given" facts blocks such humility when confronted with new historical findings.

Those dreary, stagnant Middle Ages

"and from the 11th century until the slump and crisis of the 14th and 15th centuries stretch the High Middle Ages, and epoch of economic growth, territorial expansion and dynamic cultural and social change.

"The vitality of European society between the late 10th and early 14th centuries can be seen in many spheres of life. The scale and speed of production and distribution were transformed: the population grew, the cultivated area expanded, urbanization and commercialization restructured economic and social life. Alongside the spread of money, and of banking and business devices, there developed in some areas a level of manufacturing activity that had never previously been attained. The same creativity is found in social organization. in many areas of life fundamental institutions and structures were given their decisive shape in the centuries: the incorporated town, the university, central representative bodies, the international orders of the Roman Catholic Church--all date from this epoch." -- Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe, p. 2

Old Reviews Discovered Online

While compiling a book review resume, I found online versions of reviews of mine of two books on Galileo, and one on Kepler.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Practice and science

Ken B., this may make clearer what I have been saying about the relationship of the historical investigation and practical concerns.

Imagine that I am motivated to study computer science in order to get a high-paying job, or in order to impress the smart girl in my computer science class. While one of these factors may motivate my study, it should be clear that neither my plan to get a high-paying job or my dream of dating the girl are any part of computer science itself. And if I actually want to get the job or date the girl by this means, at some point I had better stop paying attention to the job market or the girl and start paying attention to computer science.

So it is with history: of course, an historian may be motivated to study some episode in the past because of some present concern. But if that historian actually wants to understand what occurred in the past, at some point, he must set his concern with the present matter aside, and focus upon the past.

Formalizing Fukuyama

Fukuyama posits a tripartite model of good government: it balances a strong state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. It seems we might make a trigonometric model of government types to formalize this. We take the element of the three that is strongest, say, the rule of law, and make that hypotenuse. Then the relative strength of that factor and the two remaining ones can be expressed with the trigonometric functions. So we could say, for instance, that the sine of mainland China is much greater than that of Nigeria (depending, of course, on which other leg we put a strong state and which democratic accountability).

And, of course, if we venture into generalized trigonometry, we can even drop the requirement that we pick out a hypotenuse, and deal with all possible relationships between the three factors.

In any case, that is what I woke up thinking about this morning

Sometimes, you just haven't been noticed

I just found 19 unposted comments in my queue. For some reason, some comments get placed in my spam bucket instead of my inbox, and I only see them when I go into Blogger. And how often I do that variously enormously based on my schedule: today, for instance, was the first time in at least a week I got a chance to do this.

But it does make for amusing moments: today I discovered that "Robert," responding to my post discussing Bob Roddis's comments at Murphy's blog (so I am assuming "Robert" is Roddis) had an entire argument with me, in which he became increasingly angry, and finally wound up calling me a "pathetic piece of sh*t," without my knowing he had ever posted anything.

The disturbed are perfectly capable of working themselves into a rage all on their own, without any involvement by a second party.

For your reading pleasure

A great post from Adam Ozimek.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mobile web versions

There must be rooms full of executives who sit around and declare, "I know what mobile users of our website want: A really half-assed version of the site with most of the features missing!"

The art of the book review

1) You will have many thoughts about topics brought up in the book, pet peeves about what the author claims, and opinions on the topics he discusses. These are an important part of your review, and give it its unique flavor. But your main job is to convey to your readers a sense of the book. Your unique insights on its subject matter should be like spices in a stew, and the bulk of your concoction should describe the book.

My favorite book reviewer who flouted this principle was Michael Oakeshott, who, when reviewing a book on topic X, would often spend the first 10% of his review noting that the author addresses X, the next 80% offering his view of X, and the last 10% discussing how the author's view fell short of his own.

But Oakeshott was a genius, and what he had to say on a topic was often more interesting than what the author under review had to say. We mortals should spend more time describing the book itself.

2) The table of contents is your friend! Keep referring to it. It will help structure your review, and alert you to important sections of the book you might be neglecting.