Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Ed Felten of "Freedom to Tinker" notes that in a list of all-time "must read" books selected by a surveyed group of university presidents, science and technology are conspicuous by their absence. Commentators on his blog (and on Crooked Timber's offshoot posting), asked to supply the missing masterpieces of science, draw almost entirely from three categories: (1) works on the philosophy and foundations of science (Popper, Kuhn); (2) Pop-science digests of various interesting topics (Douglas Hofstadter, Jared Diamond); and (3) Books by and/or about the practices of computer geeks.

Why were all these suggested books (Origin of Species might be one exception) so far in stature from the books on the presidents' list (the Bible, Hamlet, the Odyssey, The Prince)? The obvious answer is that the Great Books of science--and they do exist: viz., Euclid's Elements, Newton's Principia--simply don't occupy the same place in the scientific world that the Great Books hold in the humanities and related disciplines. No half-decent undergraduate curriculum, for example, would allow its literature students to escape deep familiarity with Hamlet, its philosophy majors to avoid studying The Republic, its classicists to skimp on the Odyssey, its divinity students not to delve deeply into the Bible, or its budding political scientists to pass on The Prince.

But few geometers feel any need to familiarize themselves with geometry as Euclid explained it; nor do physicists feel incomplete without understanding Newton's original notation for his laws of motion. And I would much sooner encourage students to master a few basic college texts in math, sciences and engineering than push them to grapple with the same concepts by studying the original works that introduced them. The originals, after all, each represented one farsighted individual's brilliant-but-still-hazy insight, which has since been clarified and extended far beyond that first attempt at elucidation.

That's one of the key distinctions between the "two cultures": science seeks to separate its ideas from individual humans, and to place them in an abstract world where not only objectivity but also impersonality reigns. No serious student of literature would argue, like the hero of "Metropolitan", that reading critical essays about great literary works is better than reading the originals. The reason is that the ideas in literary works--or, for that matter, philosophical, historical or religious ones--are bound to the original thinker (and his or her original words) in a way that scientific ideas are not. Plato's Republic stands above any recapitulation of it--even one that many consider brilliant and original in its own right--because Plato's ideas come only from Plato, and understanding them requires as direct a link as possible to him.

I understand the scientist's temptation to line up great classics of science (or excellent popularizations) alongside the Great Books of other disciplines. But science simply differs from the arts in its relationship to its seminal works. And we science-minded folks would all do better to take note of that fact, and point our non-scientific colleagues--just as we would any starting student--at a good, readable, comprehensive textbook, rather than at an original document. After all, if a philosophy professor suggested that I wasn't up to studying his field the way his own students do, and recommended instead that I stick to my scientific ways by studying a "summary of philosophical ideas" textbook in place of the original Plato, I'd be rather offended.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

The most disturbing thing about this story is that it's an approximate description of just about every lecture I've ever given.
Is the undeniable dominance of the left on today's college campuses a result of discrimination against political conservatives in academia? This question has been raised in response to Prof. Robert Brandon, chair of the philosophy department at Duke, and at least one other professor there, who apparently believe that the phenomenon has a different explanation: Conservatives are stupid.

Eugene Volokh, among others, had a good time making fun of this charge. But Andrew Sullivan chose to respond with an implicit countercharge, in the form of a long, familiar of series of anecdotes from the trenches, demonstrating what might be described as a "hostile environment" towards conservatives on campus. His argument was presumably that bright conservatives have been hounded off campus, rather than failing to make it there on their own merits. Crooked Timber's Kieran Healy offered the obvious rejoinder: that conservatives who generally don't accept anecdotal evidence and numerical disparities as proof of racial discrimination shouldn't be so quick to accept these signs as proof of ideological discrimination.

Both sides, however, have tacitly accepted a highly questionable premise: that there are intellectually coherent philosophies that can be described as "left" and "right", and that adherents of the former can therefore be said to be have dominated academia for some appreciable length of time. In fact, much of what would be described as leftist today--racial and sexual separatism, isolationist anti-militarism, protectionism, suspicion of presidential malfeasance and abuse of power, hostility to Israel, environmentalism, even opposition to tax cuts--would at some point in the last fifty years have been described as a right-wing position. A similar list, of course, could be compiled of "conservative" views that were, not so long ago, viewed as incorrigibly liberal.

This legacy of flip-flops supports my long-standing contention that terms such as "left", "right", "liberal" and "conservative" represent coalitions of groups sharing common interests, rather than consistent collections of ideas. The persistent collective allegiance of a particular group, such as academics, to such a coalition is much less mysterious than its adherence to a specific ideology. After all, a group with a particular stable socioeconomic position is more likely to maintain common interests with a more-or-less fixed constellation of allied groups, over time, than it is to maintain a common set of political beliefs.

And it is hardly surprising that academics, as members of the educated, professional white-collar middle class, have over the years allied themselves with other members of that class, even as their actual positions on all sorts of issues have changed radically. (Members of, say, the modestly educated, blue-collar working class, or the property-owning investor class, show a similar consistency of affiliation and volatility of concrete political position.) No accusations of stupidity or discrimination are necessary--the simplest explanation is that professors are liberal because liberalism is defined, to a large extent, by the views and preferences of professors and people somewhat like them.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Crooked Timber's Henry Farrell supports an, er, interesting proposal for helping to democratize the Middle East. The plan, apparently being peddled by the US State Department, is modeled on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the organization that oversaw the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union, and later helped encourage democratic movements in former East Bloc nations. Of course, there are differences between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. For example, the main alternatives to the latter region's ruling autocracies are not pro-democratic dissident movements, but rather Islamic fundamentalist theocrats. But Farrell suggests what he considers a suitable "trial run": Israel.
For all its flaws, Israel is the one country in the region that approximates a real democracy. However, its internal tensions have demonstrably had a destabilizing effect on the region and helped corrupt autocrats elsewhere to shore up their rule....A genuinely multilateral initiative to help solve the Israel-Palestine problem could help push both the Israelis and Palestinians into making some real concessions, while providing an external framework to help ensure that any agreement stuck, thus alleviating the fundamental problem of distrust between the two sides.
Now, the Crooked Timber folks, while unabashedly of the left, are fairly thoughtful academic types, so this kind of truly stunning nonsensicality requires a bit of explanation. How does the CSCE, which ratified the Soviet Union's colonial domination of Eastern Europe before volunteering its friendly advice to Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel et al., become a model for democratizing benighted Arab despotisms--after first resolving the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict? How can anyone sane calmly compare the conquered-but-restive nations of the Warsaw Pact with the tribal tyrannies of the Middle East--or with a functioning parliamentary democracy like Israel--and then prescribe the same political process for all of them?

The answer lies in Farrell's remarkable--and instructive--recasting of the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980's.
The CSCE helped to secure the democratic transition in Western Europe in two important ways. First, it created a normative framework that enabled democratic activists in Warsaw Pact countries to have their protests heard.....As time went on, the Helsinki commitments proved to be a potent weapon for democratic activists within Eastern bloc countries; they could now use their governments' failure to live up to international commitments as a tool to embarrass them in public. The US and other democratic states provided a sympathetic audience.

Second, the CSCE created a set of instruments designed to allow a limited form of collective intervention within CSCE participating states in order to shore up democracy. It's usually difficult to get states to agree to allow outsiders to intervene in their internal affairs. However, the states participating in the CSCE had previously made an internationally binding commitment to democracy. Furthermore, many of them were interested in joining the EU at some stage and wanted to show their willingness to reform. This meant that many CSCE states were prepared to allow the CSCE to become involved in internal disputes as a sort of honest broker, representing the collective interests of other states in ensuring a secure neighborhood.
The idea that the Soviet Union collapsed after decades of cynical casuistry (not to mention far-reaching conquest, brutal oppression and mass slaughter) because it couldn't take the embarrassment of failing to live up to the Helsinki accords is simply absurd. As for the notion that Western European diplomats made the difference between democracy and dictatorship in Poland, Hungary and Estonia (while failing in Serbia, Belarus and Bulgaria, and being entirely irrelevant and unnecessary elsewhere)--well, perhaps the sunrise, as well, depends on European diplomatic encouragement. But given that numerous factors--active local dissident movements, economic development, even northerly latitude--ended up correlating much better with post-Soviet democratization than CSCE involvement, the case for the latter's importance is pretty weak.

On the other hand, although Farrell claims his view "wasn't popular" when he proposed it several years ago, I believe he understates its appeal. Certainly the use of the Helsinki process as a rallying point by Soviet dissidents during the 1980's caused many Western analysts to credit it with an important role in the downfall of the Soviet regime. The current plan's supporters in the State Department apparently also endorse that interpretation of history.

This conclusion may have been somewhat less implausible in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the sudden dissolution of a powerful empire seemed so mysterious that pundits were grasping for any explanation they could find. In retrospect, though, it's clear that the Soviet Communist Party was in such a state of political decay by the late 1980's that it couldn't resist the obviously fatal Gorbachev-Yeltsin "reforms" until the coup of 1991, when it was too late. The diplomatic embarrassment associated with the Helsinki Accords was a minor symptom--and certainly not a significant cause--of Soviet decay.

But if you want to find the source of European diplomats' (and some US State Department officials') ludicrous faith in "soft power"--diplomacy, economic measures, "embarrassment"--to solve everything from Iraqi democratization to the Arab-Israeli dispute, you need look no further than the primal mirage of "soft power" as an effective tool: the fall of the Soviet Union. If earnest committees of chattering Western European bureaucrats can bring a superpower to its knees, after all, then there's no telling what else they might accomplish. And why would an earnest, chattering Western European want to think otherwise?

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The Volokh Conspiracy's David Bernstein invokes a standard argument for America's superiority over her Canadian and European allies: the direction of emigration is primarily towards America from these other countries, rather than vice versa. For all I know, the numbers may back him up, but his reasoning is faulty.

Consider, for example, cemeteries. By Bernstein's reasoning, they are truly magnificent places--after all, people move into them at a prodigious rate, but the number exiting is negligible. Obviously then, the people therein must be content, while those elsewhere pine for its comforts.

A similar bias infects Bernstein's argument about countries. America is famous as a "land of opportunity"--a place where the ambitious can go and improve their lot through hard work. Other countries promise instead a safe, stable, comfortable life, with fewer demands and smaller maximal rewards. The result? The ambitious from all over the world--restless by nature--flock to America in search of opportunity, while the more easily contented, by definition, stay where they are--whether they are in America or elsewhere (and whether they would be happier elsewhere or not). The result: a net influx into the US, which Bernstein mistakenly takes for a proof of America's preferability.