Science, Schmience

From Paul Krugman’s newsletter:


. . .  I’ve sometimes regretted having gone into economics, a field in which getting the story right all too often offends powerful players, who in turn intervene to prop up zombie ideas that should have died long ago.
But I also realized some time back that politics can and will intrude into any area of scholarly research where some people have strong motivations for getting the story wrong. This has obviously been the case for climate research, where an overwhelming scientific consensus has had to struggle against a whole industry of climate denial, which is almost entirely supported by fossil-fuel interests and has effectively taken over the Republican Party.
In fact, in some ways the climate scientists have had it worse than the economists; mainstream Keynesian economists (which is pretty much what I am) get a lot of abuse, but as far as I know none of us has had politicians trying to criminalize our work, the way Ken Cuccinelli, now a top official at the Department of Homeland Security, did to climatologist Michael E. Mann [ten years ago].
I used to think, however, that climate change was a subject uniquely vulnerable to anti-science propaganda and intimidation. After all, the effects of greenhouse gas emissions are invisible and gradual, taking decades to unfold; it’s always possible to mock the science because it happens to be snowing today, while accusing the scientists of taking jobs away from salt-of-the-earth coal miners.
Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t be that easy to politicize a science, to claim that all the experts were part of a vast conspiracy, in an area in which experts’ predictions could be validated and the conspiracy theorists revealed as phonies in a matter of weeks.
But I was wrong.
Epidemiology, like climatology — or for that matter economics — involves trying to model complex systems, so that no prediction ends up being exactly right. And the chains of cause and effect are long enough that the consequences of bad policy take some time to become completely apparent: Florida began reopening in early May, but Covid-19 deaths didn’t spike until July.
But we’re talking about weeks, not decades, and the story of the coronavirus is as clear as such things ever get.
Experts warned that a rush to resume business as usual, without social distancing and widespread use of face masks, would lead to a surge in new cases. The usual suspects on the right dismissed these concerns, insisting either that Covid-19 was a hoax or that its dangers were being greatly exaggerated by scientists who wanted to bring down Dxxxx Txxxx. Sunbelt states decided to believe the skeptics, not the scientists — and the result was a huge, deadly viral surge.
So that put an end to the politicization, right? Wrong. Not only are Txxxx officials still pressuring health experts to minimize the dangers, the top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services accused his own agency’s scientists of “sedition.”
The moral here is that there’s no such thing as a safe subject when you’re dealing with people who have a totalitarian mind-set — and that is, in fact, what we’re dealing with. I suspect that in the early days of the Soviet Union plant geneticists imagined that they were working in a low-risk field; I mean, who would politicize that? In the end, however, thousands of them were sent to labor camps or executed for questioning the theories of Trofim Lysenko, a quack who somehow became one of Stalin’s favorites.
The fact of the matter is that we’re now struggling over where there’s even such a thing as objective truth. And staying out of politics is no longer an option for anyone.
I wouldn’t say we’re struggling over whether there’s objective truth. It’s real. What we’re struggling with are people who don’t respect it (like the chairman of the Republican Party who claimed that Biden’s record on the virus is worse than Txxxx’s). But Prof. Krugman is right about not staying out of politics. Voting — and supporting candidates in other ways — matters.
Which reminds me. Has anybody seen my Biden/Harris lawn sign? It still hasn’t been delivered. Maybe the crooked Postmaster General arranged for it to be confiscated?

Enough Is Enough, or A Sixty-Day Vacation

I have various reasons for doing this blog. I enjoy writing. I like to express my opinions. Writing helps clarify what I think. And there’s always a chance that my words may interest or benefit somebody who reads them (it can happen).

Saving the world is definitely a long shot, but the world needs all the help it can get. The post from earlier this month with the email addresses for the Postal Service’s Board of Governors was viewed more than 3,000 times (I hope they got some emails). That puts it in second place between Apple Core! Baltimore! (4,500 views) and The Fendertones Take Us Back To 1965 (1,700) (there’s a message here).

I mention all this because I’m wondering how to continue. Not whether to continue, but how.

We have an election in two months. It’s hard to believe it will be close. Millions of voters who gave the maniac the benefit of the doubt four years ago or couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a woman don’t have the same excuse this time. This is a president who has never had a positive approval rating. The reasons not to give him four more years are overwhelming. But Republicans don’t need a majority to win. They have the Electoral College on their side.

What this means is that some observers are warning Democrats not to be too optimistic. They’re writing articles with headlines like these:

Txxxx’s convention was repulsive and dishonest. I fear it was also effective.

To everyone who thinks Txxxx is a goner: He’s just getting started.

Liberals are quick to dismiss Txxxx. They do so at their peril.

Could It Be Bush v. Gore All Over Again?

Biden’s Loose Lips Could Sink His Chances.

In some cases, the people expressing these opinions want to come across as hard-headed realists. If, god forbid and against all reason, the maniac wins, they can say they got it right. Nobody will remember if they got it wrong.

Thus, Michael Moore, who warned us what would happen in 2016, is back:

Michael Moore warns that Dxxxx Txxxx is on course to repeat 2016 win. Film-maker says enthusiasm for president in swing states is ‘off the charts’.

Although the same publication has this as well:

Txxxx must win the Midwest. But out here his breezy reelection gambit falls flat.

I don’t think I can handle this for another two months: the “watch out, it’s gonna be bad” stories, even when they’re counter-balanced by a few “good times ahead”.

Something else I don’t want to take until November is all the lying.

Fortunately, I’m not one of those people whose job requires them to pay attention to the maniac’s pronouncements or those of other Republican politicians. Being exposed to one ridiculous lie after another is stressful. I imagine a White House reporter dreaming of grabbing Txxxx’s press secretary by the throat, screaming at her to just shut her damn lying mouth. Consider the poor (but highly-paid) reporters who had to keep the sound on during every minute of the Republican convention.

From Margaret Sullivan:

Daniel Dale met President Txxxx’s convention speech with a tirade of truth Thursday night — a tour de force of fact-checking that left CNN anchor Anderson Cooper looking slightly stunned.

The cable network’s resident fact-checker motored through at least 21 falsehoods and misstatements he had found in Txxxx’s 70-minute speech, breathlessly debunking them at such a pace that when he finished, Cooper, looking bemused, paused for a moment and then deadpanned, “Oh, that’s it?”

So, so much was simply wrong. Claims about the border wall, about drug prices, about unemployment, about his response to the pandemic, about rival Joe Biden’s supposed desire to defund the police (which Biden has said he opposes).

Believe it or not, Republicans lie more than Democrats. One big reason is that they have an unpopular agenda. They want to cut taxes as much as possible for the rich, so they have to say they’re doing it for the middle class. They want to stop Democrats from voting, so they say they’re doing it to fight voter fraud. They’re in court trying to kill the Affordable Care Act’s protection for people with pre-existing medical conditions, while claiming to be the ones who will protect us from the insurance companies. The president has no interest in providing health insurance to the uninsured, but keeps promising to announce a wonderful healthcare plan two weeks from now. It’s always two weeks from now. Republicans want to privatize Social Security and Medicare, but claim to be those programs’ biggest supporters. The list goes on.

In fact, way back in 2003, Al Franken published a book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The next edition will come as a five-volume set. (That’s a lie, but not a bad one.)

Being lied to is stressful. It’s even worse when you can’t confront the liar. I want to avoid some of that stress for the next two months.

These two considerations, the pessimistic warnings and the constant lies, have convinced me to take a news vacation. I want to back away from the daily news cycle. Since politics has been this blog’s biggest topic, that will probably mean fewer posts or less pressing subject matter. But breaking the internet news addiction until after the election is worth a try. I already know who to vote for. So should you. Besides, the world will still be here to save after November 3rd.

There Is No “Congress”

It is true that the Constitution of the United States of America created a legislature. Its principal function is to make laws. It comprises the legislative branch of the federal government, the other two branches being the executive and the judicial.

The authors of the Constitution called this legislative branch “Congress”. They also divided this “Congress” into two parts.

Article I, Section 1:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

When a law or a change to a law is proposed, the Senate and the House of Representatives must both endorse the proposal in order for it to become official, i.e. “the law of the land”. (The Executive branch, embodied by a “President”, also gets to participate in the process. Sometimes the Judicial branch does too.)

So far, so good.

The Constitution nowhere mentions political parties, but it only took a few years for a “two-party system” to develop.

The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. . . .  Alexander Hamilton and James Madison . . . wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first president, George Washington, was not a member of any political party . . . Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation . . .

Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system merged from his immediate circle of advisers. Hamilton and Madison . . .  ended up being the core leaders in this emerging party system. It was the split camps of Federalists, given rise with Hamilton as a leader, and Democratic-Republicans, with Madison and Thomas Jefferson at the helm . . . that created the environment in which partisanship, once distasteful, came to being [Wikipedia].

How does the two-party system affect Congress? If the majority in both the Senate and the House belong to the same party, it doesn’t make that much difference. If, say, the Racoon Party has the majority in both houses, there is general agreement on which laws to adopt (since senators serve for six years and representatives only serve for two, the members of the two houses sometimes have different priorities even when they belong to the same party).

But what if the Racoons are the majority in the Senate and the Otters are the majority in the House? Or the other way around? It is more difficult for the two majorities to agree on what the country’s laws should be. Sometimes it’s almost impossible.

Since 1857, when the Republicans joined the Democrats as one of America’s two major parties, there have been eighty-two sessions of Congress. By my count, the same party has controlled both houses of Congress sixty-six times, leaving sixteen sessions in which Congress has been divided. We are living through one of those sixteen sessions now, since the Democrats control the House and the Republicans control the Senate.

As we would expect, with two different parties in charge, things are not going well.

For example, the Democrat-led House agreed on legislation in May, almost three months ago, in order to deal with the suffering and disruption caused by Covid-19. Among other things, House Bill 6800 (unfortunately called “The Heroes Act”) would extend the $600 weekly increase in unemployment insurance, make another round of direct payments (up to $6,000 for a family), provide $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service and increase aid to state and local governments.

The Republican-led Senate has not taken a vote on the House’s bill. Nor has the Senate proposed its own version of legislation to address the same issues (which would then be subject to negotiation with the House). The result is that the $600 increase in unemployment insurance agreed to earlier this year has lapsed. A moratorium on housing evictions is also ending.

So the country is in quite a pickle.

Now here’s what motivated me to express myself today. It’s a headline in The Washington Post.

Congress deeply unpopular again as gridlock on coronavirus relief has real-life consequences

Here’s one from USA Today.

Congress leaves town without a coronavirus stimulus deal, allowing $600 unemployment benefit to end

Here’s a classic example of the problem from an experienced New York Times reporter:

A conservative Republican House member profanely accosts a Democratic congresswoman as she strides up the Capitol steps to do her job during multiple national calamities.

With expanded jobless benefits supporting tens of millions of fearful Americans about to expire and a pandemic raging, Senate Republicans and the [Republican] White House cannot agree among themselves about how to respond, let alone begin to bargain with Democrats.

In a private party session, arch-conservative Republicans ambush their top female leader and demand her ouster over political and policy differences.

And that’s just the past few days.

By nearly any measure, Congress is a toxic mess . . .

Jonathan Chait is a columnist for New York Magazine. He referred to the problem twice in the past month:

If I could change one thing about political coverage, it would be the practice of attributing actions by one party to “Congress” [June 27].

The single worst practice in political journalism is attributing decisions by one party to “Congress” [July 26].

I’d make it “actions or inaction by one party”, but he made a very good point.

My suggestion is that when two different parties are in charge of Congress, people who write about politics for a living should make an effort to specify which party in which house is doing (or not doing) something. That would help readers understand where the dysfunction usually lies (hint: it’s not the Democratic side).

Since my suggesting this will have no effect, I’ll alternatively suggest that when we readers see references to Congress in times like this, we keep in mind that Congress has two parts and that one of those parts (same hint) is totally screwed up.

In fact, in times like this, “Congress” doesn’t really exist.

Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation by Cheryl Misak

Cheryl Misak is an expert on America’s pragmatist philosophers (Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, et al.) and a practicing pragmatist herself. This book grew out of her doctoral thesis. It argues that the philosophical position known as pragmatism best explains how the idea of truth applies to ethical judgments. This is a “cognitivist” position in ethics, as opposed to the “non-cognitivist” view that ethical statements merely express feelings or preferences and should never be considered true or false (non-cognitivists think that saying something like “Generosity is more ethical than greed” is like saying “I prefer generosity to greed and I want you to feel the same way”).

On the face of it, it isn’t obvious that ethical statements can be true or false. Most of us think of truth as correspondence to reality (this is the “correspondence theory”). “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the cat really is on the mat. But there doesn’t seem to be anything real for ethical statements to correspond to. How can they be true (or false)?

However, there is more to truth than correspondence. After all, what do true statements of arithmetic correspond to? And how about logical statements like “it is not the case that P and not P”? Pragmatists like Professor Misak don’t accept correspondence as the basis for truth. Instead, they view truth in terms of successful inquiry:

It is not that a true belief is one which will fit the evidence and which will measure up to the standards of inquiry as we now now know them. Rather, a true belief is one which would fit with the evidence and which would measure up to the standards of inquiry were inquiry to be pursued so far that no recalcitrant experience and no revisions in the standards of inquiry would be called for. Only then will pragmatism preserve the kind of objectivity that might suffice to attract those philosophers and inquirers who insist that truth is more than what we happen to think correct [68].

The basic idea here is that people (which people depends on the case) can try to figure out if a statement is true, whatever kind of statement it is, using appropriate methods (direct experience, scientific research, philosophical discussion, etc.) and if it looks like they wouldn’t be able to proceed any further in their inquiry, without it being a complete waste of time, the statement is true.

It’s easy to see how this approach can be applied to simple factual statements like “the cat is on the mat”, but also to statements of mathematics and logic, as well as judgments of value, such as deciding which is the most practical course of action in a given case, the ethical thing to do or the best economic policy to adopt. What isn’t easy is to know when all reasonable avenues of inquiry have been exhausted, so that no further inquiry would make a difference.

Misak discusses many issues that her position raises, and many possible objections. I found her explanations and arguments to be quite convincing. I think her hopes for the book are fulfilled:

What I hope to have shown is that there are some good reasons for thinking that we can make assertions or have genuine beliefs about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, cruel and kind; that we can inquire about the correctness of those beliefs; that our moral deliberations aim at the truth. And I hope to have shown that if we are to make sense of this, we must conduct ourselves via democratic principles — ones which encourage tolerance, openness and understanding the experiences of others [155].

If we want to answer questions in the most effective way, and have good  reasons for our answers, we need to look at issues from different perspectives. That is how the pragmatists believe we should search for truth.

I want to mention one other thing. It’s common to think that the best way to find out what is true is to confront reality head on. Is the cat truly on the mat? Look at it. Make sure other people see it. Verify that it’s a cat — not a mouse — and that underneath it is a mat. Does the cat purr? Will it run away if you bother it?

Reading this book, I wondered what kind of reality can be confronted when deciding if a statement of ethics is true. It’s harder to say what the reality would be to make true a statement like “generosity is generally more ethical than greed”. Isn’t that a statement about how the world should be, how people should behave, and not how the world is (or how some mystical, supernatural realm of ethics is)? Misak’s answer is that if we try to figure out whether an ethical statement is true, we eventually get to a point where we can’t think otherwise. We end up being confronted with the brute reality of what our ethical beliefs are in the given situation. We will eventually say to ourselves “that’s simply right, it’s as simple as that” or “that’s just wrong, and there are no two ways about it”. I don’t recall hearing anyone give that answer before. It’s worth thinking about.

The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

This is an entry in a series called The Oxford History of Philosophy, written by an expert on the philosophical school known as “pragmatism”. Here’s how Oxford University Press describes the book:

Cheryl Misak presents a history of the great American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, from its inception in the Metaphysical Club of the 1870s to the present day. She identifies two dominant lines of thought in the tradition: the first begins with Charles S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright and continues through to Lewis, Quine, and Sellars; the other begins with William James and continues through to Dewey and Rorty. This ambitious new account identifies the connections between traditional American pragmatism and twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, and links pragmatism to major positions in the recent history of philosophy, such as logical empiricism. Misak argues that the most defensible version of pragmatism must be seen and recovered as an important part of the analytic tradition.

According to Professor Misak, “the most defensible version of pragmatism” is the version initiated by C. S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright in the 19th century and carried forward by C. I. Lewis, W. V. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars in the 20th. She argues that it is more defensible because it considers truth to be less subjective. In the caricature or simplification of pragmatism as set forth by William James and criticized by G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, true statements are those that “work for us”. If religious beliefs make your life better, for example, they’re true. By contrast, the tradition that began with Peirce treats truth more objectively. Statements may “work for us” even though they’re false. The Peircean pragmatists see a stronger relationship between truth and how the world is, regardless of human goals or interests.

It isn’t easy to briefly explain what pragmatism is, but Prof. Misak gives it a try in the Preface:

Pragmatists are empiricists in that they require beliefs to be linked to experience. They want their explanations and ontology down-to-earth (natural as opposed to supernatural) and they require philosophical theories to arise out of our practices. As Peirce put the pragmatic maxim, we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order to understand them….

[But] pragmatists reject the part of empiricism that says that all of our beliefs originate in experience and that our beliefs can be linked in an atomistic way to discrete experiences…. They reject any naturalism that gives ontological priority to matter or physicality — they want to consider whether value, generality, chance, etc. might be part of the natural world. They are holists, taking their view to encompass all of science, logic, mathematics, art, religion, ethics and politics. Unlike most of their empiricist predecessors, they fence off no realm of inquiry from the principles they set out.

In the Conclusion, she adds:

The core pragmatist thought is about the human predicament. We must try to explain our practices and concepts, including our epistemic norms and standards, using those very practices, concepts, norms and standards. This is the pragmatist’s task and we have found that, within the pragmatist tradition, there are different ways of trying to fulfill it.

I’ll finish with a brief example of pragmatist thinking. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume is sometimes viewed as a skeptic (e.g. he believed there is no rational basis for ever thinking that one event causes another). The pragmatist John Dewey, however, saw Hume as a predecessor:

While in his study, Hume finds skepticism compelling, but as soon as he leaves that secluded place of theoretical philosophizing, skepticism loses any force it might have had. The skeptic’s doubts, as Peirce would put it, are paper doubts [107].

According to the pragmatists, what matters, even from a philosophical perspective, is how our ideas connect with our lives outside the philosophy class.

Update (January 2020): Without realizing I’d already read it, I read it again. More here.