Nature rules … Hammurabi schools.
There’s an essay in Quadrant Online, ‘Post-Truth and the Virtues of Reality,’ that appeals to serfs, dealing as it does with real stuff. Its author, David Shteinman is Managing Director of an Australian consulting engineering company specializing in the application of mathematics and statistics to transport, mining and aerospace, so Shteinman is well aware, working with technology involving transformation of matter and systems of matter, that nature’s feedbacks and judgements must necessarily rule.
In his essay David Shteinman observes the destructive force of post-modernism’s attacks on objective truth and empirical facts, the post-truth phenomenon originating in the humanities departments of our universities but now extending far beyond the academy. Before continuing, herewith a definition of post-modernism (with a serf’s added parentheses.)
Post-modernism is the negation of the Western intellectual tradition of Greek Revolution and Enlightenment thinking. # In place of an objective reality, (without which there could be no science and its physical follow-ons,) post-modernists declare that there is no objective reality. Descriptive and explanatory explanations of science and history can never be true. # Enlightenment thinkers argued that reason and logic are valid means of exposing contradictions in statements and tests. Say post-modernists, no they aren’t, they’re subjective constructs, # Our human development of descriptive and critical language refers to and represents a reality outside itself. Po-mos’ say no, they are always subjective discourses of particular communities. (Note post-modernists own dependency on language and argument in making this claim regarding post-modern ‘truth’.) … Relating to which, # It is possible to construct a general theory to explain aspects of the natural or social world, (think-Copernicus or Darwin or Adam Smith, think also ‘testable’ general theories else how can we prefer one grand theory to another?) Not so, say post-modernists, (though they themselves ascribe to a theory of Marx class-war extended to politics of group-resentments based on race or gender.)
So concerning post-modernism post-truth, one of its major causes, Shteinman argues, comes from the growth of virtual environments involving obsessive screen usage, computer gaming, websites, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media, which together with academia’s post- modernist bias, have formed a pincer-movement against objective truth and testing of assumptions.
Virtual environments are characterised by an absence of reality tests. ‘Virtuality’ says Shteinman, is by definition a detachment from the world of physical matter,’ judged by number of ‘likes’, re-tweets and on-line opinion, whereas an engineer is judged by the laws of physics, chemistry and materials relevant to his or her design; the engineer’s actions have consequences that can’t be disregarded. As the physicist Richard Feynman said in his review of the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster, ‘For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.’
Like the industrial chemist Primo Levi, whose writings Shteinman discusses in his Quadrant essay, Shteinman thinks there is a real philosophical effect, an ethical and epistemological dimension to work, when you are forced to regularly measure yourself against matter and its laws.
Working with matter forces you to be a thorough-going empiricist. When you work in technical professions or trades, there are objective demands which, by daily repetition become habitual in the practitioner so that their effects become ingrained as character. Measurable reality-testing operates. The bridge does or doesn’t fall down, the brick wall is straight or it isn’t, the farmer’s crop thrives or it does not. Shteinman’s own experience covers mathematical modelling of traffic flow and satellite navigation for improvements in existing processes, which involves testing. All models in industry have to include empirical data, data derived externally from the model, and these models are compared to results in reality. Modelling in engineering is still tested and validated via the indifferent medium of physical matter.
Working in technical professions and trades, Shteinman says, also makes you averse to abstract generalisations that cannot be tested. It steers you to precise meanings in language as used in their intended setting. ‘One cannot ‘play’with the meanings of words on a construction site or in a chemical plant.’
Shteinman describes how Primo Levi, in his book ‘The Periodic Table’ recounting some of his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, reflects on his life as an industrial chemist and how his work was an antidote to the unproved affirmations and imperatives of fascist dogma. Below are two passages from his chapter on ‘Iron.’
In the first passage Levi describes the chemical battles of his autobiographical self when he and his fellow students take a course in Qualitative Analysis, a confrontation that took place at the same time as Nazi victories were occurring around Europe and the Fascists in Italy were becoming increasingly repressive.
‘One way or another, here the relationship with Matter changed, became dialectical: it was fencing, a face-to-face match. Two unequal opponents: on one side, putting the questions, the unfledged, unarmed chemist…on the other side, responding with enigmas, stood Matter.’
In the second passage Primo Levi recounts an exchange with a fellow student about their engagement with matter in the context of what is going on around them.
‘Was he not filled with disgust at all the dogmas, all the unproved affirmations, all the imperatives? He did feel it; so then how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our study, how could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidote to fascism which he and I were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers.’…
Primo Levi and David Shteinman extoll the benefits of working with matter that is testable to nature’s feedbacks, in contrast to the dangers inherent in the fuzzy constructs of reality coming from the humanities departments of academia. Unlike engineering models that are subject to universal laws, academic modelling of the economic, political and social behaviour of unpredictable human beings, encompassing human interactivity, human anticipations and strategies involving feedback, is just propagating uncertainty as certainty.
Git real !
Two writers, Nassim Taleb and Thomas Sowell, are highly critical of intellectuals as purveyors of dreams and utopia-building and as formulators of national Five Year and Ten Year Plans, all entailing flawed predictions based on fuzzy criteria and having wilful disregard for consequences.
Nassim Taleb has written two books regarding the complacency and lack of accountability of inhabitants of academia whom he labels ‘Platonists,’ a school of intellectuals who mistake their theories, formulated in the sheltered world of academia, for descriptions of reality.
They think they can predict, observes Nassim Taleb in his book ‘The Black Swan,’ but they’re subject to the narrative fallacy of over simplification and our predilection for compact stories over complexities. And, says Taleb, they are blind with respect to those outliers and ‘unknown unknowns’ people can’t predict, that Taleb calls ‘Black Swan Events.’ Black Swan Events are unforeseen occurrences that happen even amid nature’s regularities, the rogue wave, the rogue meteor impact or complex interaction of atmospheric and ocean systems that prevent us from foretelling Earth’s weather events ten days out. Black Swans are the never envisaged impacts of innovation, from the inventions of the wheel to the internet, they are the unforeseen effects of human interactivity, such as length of engagement in world wars or those invisible hands clapping in the market place.
The world is more complicated than we think. People are not good at predicting and it seems that Platonist theorists come out the worst. In The Black Swan, Taleb cites a study by Philip Tetlock* testing the predictions of a large group of ‘experts’ and non -experts regarding future political and economic occurences within a specified frame time. The study found that the ‘experts’ error rates were many times higher than the experts themselves estimated. 😊 And not only that, the study showed that those with the highest reputations were worse predictors than the non-experts. (Say, intellectuals must really, really not care much for Philip Tetlock. Bet they’d be happy to banish him to one of those deserted islands you read about in literature, or to a gulag, maybe.)
So to continue. Philip Tetlock then decided to dig further into the mechanisms by which his subjects generated post-hoc explanations, Explanations they came up with involved not blaming their own skills but telling themselves that they were playing a different game, for example, ‘Social scientists failed to predict the Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union because crucial economic information had been withheld by the Russians.’ Another excuse involved invoking the outlier, the situation was to blame, ‘No one could have predicted this…’
*Ref: P Tetlock. 1999 ‘Theory- Driven Reasoning about Plausible Pasts and Probable Futures in World Politics.’ American Journal of Political Science 43(2) p335-366.
Taleb finds this habit of focus on a narrow game and linking performance to a given script is a common flaw of nerdy behaviour and in his second book, ‘Anti-fragile,’ he argues that one of the encouragements to this behaviour is that they usually do not have to pay a price for making flawed predictions.
In Chapter 10, ‘Skin in the Game,’ relating to complex modernity, Taleb sees an increasing problem of privilege without obligation, whereby intellectuals and makers of policy in large bureaucracies and corporations, protected by ‘modernity’s connectivity’ and ‘new found invisibility of causal changes,’ may cause harm to others without, themselves, being exposed to risk.
Taleb presents a Triad Table of decision makers in society, the first group, those with no skin in the game who receive benefits without risk to themselves, a second category, those with skin in the game, responsible for their own actions, – and a third category, those who take harm for the sake of others – the heroic, who may or may not be misguided. In the first category Taleb includes theoreticians in academia, bureaucrats and politicians, consultants, corporate executives, bankers and journalists who make predictions. In the second category he lists citizens, lab experimenters, authors, small business men, merchants and speculators. In the third category are knights, soldiers, maverick scientists, artists, innovators and investigative journalists.
Taleb sees a growing trend of ‘experts’ transferring fragility to others and he would welcome addressing asymmetries of risk, enforcing ‘skin in the game, as in the ancient Code of Hammurabi. He calls the phenomenon of causing harmful action without accountability the Stiglitz Syndrome after Joseph Stiglitz, who without ‘skin in the game,’ made a public assessment regarding the government-sponsored mortgage association, Fanny Mae, that the risk to the government from a potential deficit in GSE debt was effectively zero, Says Taleb, had Joseph Stiglitz been obliged to invest his own funds in Fanny Mae he might have been more critical And while the collapse of Fanny Mae cost the taxpayers billions of dollars, Joseph Stiglitz, with selective amnesia went on to publish a ‘told ya’ so ‘ book post Fanny Mae’s demise. Academics seem not designed to recall their failed predictions. Think Paul Ehrlich.
Grand mastery of all we survey.
Thomas Sowell in his book ‘Intellectuals and Society’ agrees with Nassim Taleb on the growing influence of intellectuals in modern affluent societies, and their disastrous record in predicting and managing society’s ills. Intellectuals, creators of ideas divorced from the feedback restraints of working with matter, are prone to error, though they seem unaware of the fact that the easiest persons to fool may well be themselves.
Thomas Sowell, like Nassim Taleb, examines intellectuals’ track record in the policies they prescribe and also analyses the incentives and constraints that have influenced their views and visions for society’s ills. While intellectuals are skilled in manipulating symbols and creating conceptual systems their abstract creations are too often at variance with reality. Not much kudos in reformulating the hard won wisdom of experience, more kudos in donning the mantle of superior insight and adopting the high moral ground.
Unfortunately, the flawed policies they promote, top-down macro and micro interventions in the economy, pacifism and uni-lateral disarmament in international relations, moral relativism and social justice activism to create socialist utopias, have shown that intellect and wisdom are not synonymous. Thomas Sowell cites a number of examples of failed policies of intellectuals that he calls ‘visions of the anointed’ as compared to ‘the tragic vision,’ one vision, ‘the tragic vision’ an emphasis on nature, recognising the flaws of human beings…power’s corruptive, easiest person to fool, etcetera, therefore build institutions resistant to power, – the other vision’, ‘vision of the anointed,’ the emphasis is on nurture, the person as construct, utopian idealism the go, at its most visionary, your Platonist, your guru or philosopher king who has the answers to everything.
For example, F.D. Roosevelt’s interventionism in the Great Depression, that exacerbated unemployment. Before this intervention, following the stock market crash, US unemployment had peaked at 9% but had already fallen to 6.3% when Roosevelt intervened with his ‘New Deal’ in June, 1930. Six months on, unemployment rose to double digits, later to reach 25%, and never came down for the rest of the decade.
Another example of intellectuals’ getting it wrong: in the 1920’s and 1930’s intellectuals promoted pacifism and disarmament campaigns that played a major role in creating the military weakness and political irresolution within the democratic nations, which made a war against these nations appear more winnable to the leaders of the Axis dictatorship. The intelligentsia in Britain and France were reluctant to recognise the essential threat that Hitler presented. While Germany was already rearming, they were making rearming in their own nation political poison. They portrayed Adolf Hitler as a reasonable leader, instead Hitler exploited the moral disarmament campaign, violating international treaties, remilitarizing the Rhineland and annexing Czechoslavakia. An opportunist, Hitler tailored his aims to what he thought he could get away with. On the eve of marching in Poland, addressing the leaders of his armed forces, he predicted that Britain and France would not help Poland.
One of the problems Sowell sees with intellectuals is their hubris in thinking their competency extends beyond their own range of experience. Being an expert in Mayan Culture or Linguistics does not equip you with the consequential knowledge to survey society and provide solutions to the problems of the rest of us. Sowell offers examples of central planning failures and of Harvard initiated activist programs that exacerbated unemployment in the black community, citing actual data ignored by those promoting the activist policies. Sowell observes that the fancier the schooling, that being in the gifted student program and told how cool they are, the more they seem to think that nothing’s beyond their ken. This cleverness makes up for lack of experience. They advocate rule by the 1% over the 99%. Say, do they not pause to consider that no one individual or class can even possess a fraction of the social knowledge that is dispersed throughout society? Nope!
The Virtue of the Anointed,
With regard to virtue, ‘renouncing war,’ ‘ending poverty,’ Obama: ‘We are the change we are waiting for,’ there’s exultation in solving humanity’s problems, it gives you a role, even if it turns out that you’re exacerbating problems. You can renounce war, but others may not, you can create social engineering programs but they are likely to lead to unforeseeable problems …so it’s important, if you are an intellectual, that you don’t – do – checks.
Thomas Sowell observes that Intellectuals have very little interest in testing. Not only do they not have to face the consequences of their claims but there’s no payment in finding errors. The reputation of an intellectual depends on your being seen as the expert, why would you examine the data? Better to use your considerable language skills to support your case. Rhetoric good, empirical data bad.
A serf’s view regarding all of the above. Look, I enjoy a good story as much as the next serf, but when it comes down to ‘did Alice really have adventures in Wonderland or venture behind the looking glass, well! …What appeal to serfs are the dramas of the old Greek tragedies where despite those deux ex machina gods and goddesses getting in the way, you had your actor with the Achilles heel, usually hubris, taking liberties with Nature and wham, bam, you suffered the consequences.
Now these intellectuals of Nassim Taleb’s first triad, it’s all very well they’re creating their narratives and making themselves the leading protagonists, but I ask you, why do I have to be party to their virtual realities, when really, (in reality that is,) a serf’s well-being, sometimes the whole chorus’ and cast’s well-being, sometimes our very lives, depend on functioning well pertaining to fight and flight stage directions in NATURE’S DRAMA, which happens to be fact and not fiction.
The Mock Turtle’s lessons: ‘Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with, and then the different branches of Arithmetic – Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision.’(‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Lewis Carroll.)