From The American Scholar, a short essay by William Deresiewicz. The intro:
I’ve written several posts recently (this one, this one, and this one) about the difference between science and the humanities. Rub those terms together, and you inevitably engender a third: C. P. Snow’s famous notion of the “two cultures,” first articulated in 1959 and a commonplace of educated discourse ever since. Literary culture on the one hand, and scientific culture on the other, Snow lamented, are failing to communicate. A scientifically trained civil servant who also wrote novels (rather bad ones, apparently), Snow left no doubt as to who was to blame: “Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites.” A scientist would be ashamed to admit that he hadn’t read Shakespeare, but where’s the humanist who can explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics?
The breasts have been abeating ever since.
His final recommendation is perfect.
A wonderful piece, from The Chronicle of Higher Education:
They are, in fact, a compatible couple. What they share suggests that science has not completely destroyed our understanding of free will, as so many critics contend. A philosophy of “human meaning” can coexist quite well with a science of “genetic influence.”
And I liked this:
This uniquely human potential to resist our own genes might help explain why people expend so much effort trying to induce others, especially the young and impressionable, to practice what is widely seen as the cardinal virtue: obedience. To recast Freud’s argument about incest restraints, if we were naturally obedient, we probably wouldn’t need so much urging. And yet, on balance, it seems that far more harm has been done throughout human history by obedience—to Hitler’s Final Solution, Stalin’s elimination of opponents real and imagined, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s genocide—than by disobedience.
On the basis of evolutionary existentialism, I would therefore like to suggest the heretical and admittedly paradoxical notion that, in fact, we need to teach more disobedience. Not only disobedience to political and social authority but especially disobedience to some of our troublesome genetic inclinations.
Read the whole thing at the link.
From The Chronicle Review:
A mathematician says the quest for elegance leads too many researchers astray.
From The Economist, The road to renewal:
After centuries of stagnation science is making a comeback in the Islamic world.
Too slowly, in my opinion, but any progress should be welcomed.
For the worry warts, from Edge, “2013: What *Should* We Be Worried About?”
Some examples from various scientists and others with axes to grind:
China has been running the world’s largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China’s ever-faster rise as the global superpower. I worry that this poses some existential threat to Western civilization. Yet the most likely result is that America and Europe linger around a few hundred more years as also-rans on the world-historical stage, nursing our anti-hereditarian political correctness to the bitter end.
…that current tools in economics and econometrics don’t work, whenever there is an exposure to a large deviations, or “Black Swans”.
We are at a strategic disadvantage in the fight against viral infection.
What I am particularly worried about is that humans will be less and less able to appreciate what they should really be worrying about and that their worries will do more harm than good. Maybe, just as on a boat in rapids, one should try not to slowdown anything but just to optimize a trajectory one does not really control, not because safety is guaranteed and optimism is justified—the worst could happen—, but because there is no better option than hope.
In a media landscape oversaturated with sensational science stories, “end of the world” Hollywood productions, and Mayan apocalypse warnings, it may be hard to persuade the wide public that there are indeed things to worry about that could arise as unexpectedly as the 2008 financial crisis, and have far greater impact. I’m worried that by 2050 desperate efforts to minimize or cope with a cluster of risks with low probability but catastrophic conseqences may dominate the political agenda.
The universe is relentlessly, catastrophically dangerous, on scales that menace not just communities, but civilizations and our species as well. A freakish chain of improbable accidents produced the bubble of conditions that was necessary for the rise of life, our species, and technological civilization. If we continue to drift obliviously inside this bubble, taking its continuation for granted, then inevitably—sooner or later—physical or human-triggered events will push us outside, and we will be snuffed like a candle in a hurricane.
…the Internet Drivel Factor can’t be good—and is almost certain to grow in importance as the world fills gradually with people who have spent their whole lives glued to their iToys.
In the past, meaning was only in the minds of humans. Now, it is also in the minds of tools that bring us information. From now on, search engines will have an editorial point of view, and search results will reflect that viewpoint. We can no longer ignore the assumptions behind the results.
The underpopulation bomb: Here is the challenge: this is a world where every year there is a smaller audience than the year before, a smaller market for your goods or services, fewer workers to choose from, and a ballooning elder population that must be cared for. We’ve never seen this in modern times; our progress has always paralleled rising populations, bigger audiences, larger markets and bigger pools of workers. It is hard to see how a declining yet aging population functions as an engine for increasing the standard of living every year. To do so would require a completely different economic system, one that we are not prepared for at all right now.
I worry that as the problem-solving power of our technologies increases, our ability to distinguish between important and trivial or even non-existent problems diminishes. Just because we have “smart” solutions to fix every single problem under the sun doesn’t mean that all of them deserve our attention. In fact, some of them may not be problems at all; that certain social and individual situations are awkward, imperfect noisy, opaque or risky might be by design. Or, as the geeks like to say, some bugs are not bugs—some bugs are features.
We should worry that so much of our science and technology still uses just five main models of probability—even though there are more probability models than there are real numbers.
“science by (social) media” raises the curious possibility of a general public that reads more and more science while becoming less and less scientifically literate.
Gibbon, in describing the fall of Rome, spoke of “the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness” and of “the triumph of barbarism and religion”. Those forces—the diversion of intellectual effort from innovation to exploitation, the distraction of incessant warfare, rising fundamentalism—triggered a Dark Age before, and they could do so again.
From Science News:
Synthetic biologists reinvent nature with parts, circuits.
From The Wall Street Journal, an excerpt on the review of the book The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date:
The point, according to Samuel Arbesman, an applied mathematician and the author of the delightfully nerdy “The Half-Life of Facts,” is that knowledge—the collection of “accepted facts”—is far less fixed than we assume….
Science, Mr. Arbesman observes, is a “terribly human endeavor.” Knowledge grows but carries with it uncertainty and error; today’s scientific doctrine may become tomorrow’s cautionary tale. What is to be done? The right response, according to Mr. Arbesman, is to embrace change rather than fight it. “Far better than learning facts is learning how to adapt to changing facts,” he says. “Stop memorizing things . . . memories can be outsourced to the cloud.” In other words: In a world of information flux, it isn’t what you know that counts—it is how efficiently you can refresh.
My take: “question everything.”
From The Chronicle of Higher Education.—What I find interesting, as gay activist Andrew Sullivan has pointed out in the past, what a conundrum, regardless of your politics, if and when they do find a genetic marker and can detect it in a fetus through prenatal testing. That, and absolute freedom of abortion, will likely result in what has happened to Downs Syndrome births in recent years—the vast majority are aborted. The introduction:
Critics claim that evolutionary biology is, at best, guesswork. The reality is otherwise. Evolutionists have nailed down how an enormous number of previously unexplained phenomena—in anatomy, physiology, embryology, behavior—have evolved. There are still mysteries, however, and one of the most prominent is the origins of homosexuality.
The mystery is simple enough. Its solution, however, has thus far eluded our best scientific minds.
From the Guardian, the introduction:
Philosopher Julian Baggini fears that, as we learn more and more about the universe, scientists are becoming increasingly determined to stamp their mark on other disciplines. Here, he challenges theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss over ‘mission creep’ among his peers