Monday, July 27, 2015

Do Universities Need Departments Of What The Hell Is Going On?

I assign pretty contemporary stuff in class, so I was surprised and amused recently when my students recently started complaining that the texts I was assigning were too old -- so old, in fact, that they were having trouble reading them at all. "We can't read this!" they said. "It's written in a style we can't understand! Help!" I didn't say this out loud but I thought to myself, "We are not talking about Middle English or something here. These are articles from the 1970s! WTF."

Beyond just the complexities of understanding, I feel like there's a broader thing going on, a thing about wanting to learn about there Here and Now.

It's a trend away from learning old languages and deciphering old handwriting, away from studying the culture of Byzantium, away from curiosity about the writing system of the Shang Dynasty. It's a trend toward the study of, say, "American films of the 1980s," a trend toward interviewing English-speaking 60-year old living people as a kind of human primary texts.

In certain obvious ways, the study of the here and now is, well, easier than the study of the far away and the old -- and there's a certain kind of person who always gets a little eye-roll-y about this sort of thing. Sure, doesn't it seem like less work and more fun to go around interviewing people with questions like "And when you first saw Casablanca, how did you feel?" than it is to learn a new language or new way of thinking or whatever.

But I think there are actually good reasons for the surge of interest in the here and now. The main one is a widely shared feeling that these days, the here and now themselves feel foreign, obscure, confusing, and strange -- our own culture feels like something you'd need to really buckle down and do some serious research before you'd get a glimpse into what is happening and why.

As always with this sort of thing, I don't know if things are more complicated, or if they just seem more complicated because we know more, or if we're setting the bar higher, or what. But I do have a thought, which is that more than ever, "understanding what is going on" is not something you can outsource.

There used to be a sense that if wanted to know what is going on, you could look at an encyclopedia or the news. But now we're acutely aware of the ways in which various starting points, biases, and blind spots figure in. In fact, it might be in part the easy access we now have to the knowledge sources of the past that gives us pause about the knowledge sources of the present. It wasn't that long ago that we were measuring people's heads for racism.

Sometimes it seems like the deep complexity and elusive objectivity of thinking undermines the humanistic project, but in my mind it's exactly the opposite. The more complicated things are, the less likely that data and facts are going to help you understand, and the more you're going to need judgment and thinking.

If that's right, then to understand what the hell is going on in the here and now, you need to actually learn things, study up, read opposing views, get a backstory, ask some people, and think about things.

From that perspective, the obsession with the here and now would be a sign not of laziness or screen addiction but rather a proper recognition that we really don't understand what is hell is happening and someone better get on it.

Since higher education these days is all about catering to the customer base, how about it? Personally, I think a major in WTF Is Happening would sell like hotcakes.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Economic Concepts And Normative Entanglement

Don't you think it's kind of weird from the economic point of view "exercise more" could be a preferred weight loss strategy to "eat less"?

I feel like economics should have nothing to say on the subject. And in one sense, I'd say economics agrees with me: as a study of what causes what, as a set of theories or models about what happens when you do X or Y, economics just sits there. It can't have any particular normative content -- that is, it can't, by itself, say that one thing is better than another or that we should or ought to do something rather than something else.

In this way of seeing things, economic theory itself is neutral: it doesn't recommend any particular course of action. It's not until policy makers articulate goals that you can then put the theory to use in figuring out how to achieve those goals.

Theoretically, I think this is correct, but I'm often struck by how tangled up things get in practice and how difficult it is to keep the descriptive and the normative apart. It's a complex matter, but I think at least one important part of it has to do with concepts like "rational" and "efficient." Yes, in a sense you could use these concepts merely as descriptive terms, as devoid of evaluative or value-laden content. But it's not easy. How is calling something "rational" or "effiicent" not a way of recommending it? Or, even more strikingly, how is calling something "irrational" or "inefficient" not a way of criticizing it?

One reason it's very difficult, in practice, to use those concepts in the neutral descriptive way is that they are actually ordinary language concepts with deep connections to our lives. If a physicist says that the table is made of atoms, that doesn't give me any feelings about tables, particularly. I mean, it's interesting and maybe useful but I don't have any deep historical personal relation to the concepts involved. But if my mortgage broker tells me that preferring a fixed-rate mortgage is "irrational" -- how can I possibly interpret that as a neutral statement?

Some neutrality defenders I've spoken to have pointed out that each of these terms has a technical definition in economics which means they're not the same concepts as the loaded, normative ones we use when we're arguing with each other about whether it makes sense to eat cake or go to the gym or whatever.

I get that -- and theoretically, I think it's correct. But the problem is this: if the technical concepts aren't in some way connected to the ordinary concepts -- if they're really formal technical definitions like "atom" that have nothing to do with our lives, then how can we use the conclusions? There has to be some way of explaining how the formal definitions are related to things we want to do, like bringing about prosperity and justice and liberty through rational and efficient methods -- where these concepts are the ordinary concepts, not the technical ones.

So one thing I think happens -- and this happens not at the site of economic theory but out in the world where we're all just talking and thinking about what to do -- is that instead of thinking through the possibly fraught and complex relationships between the technical concepts and the ordinary ones, we just substitute in as if they're the same.

And that's where the strange things happen. If you think economic efficiency is good, and economic activity tends to produce it, you look at weight loss and you see immediately that, other things being equal, exercise tends to increase economic activity while eating less tends to decrease it.

Exercise often means gym memberships, special shoes, etc etc., while eating less tends to mean not buying extra cupcakes at the store. Weirdly, even following food guidelines for healthy eating seems to mean feeding yourself with less economic activity -- since you're eating less processed food and eating at home.

So, yes, in a sense, from the economic point of view "exercise more" could be a preferred weight loss strategy to "eat less." Given that there seems to be converging agreement that eating less might actually be a more successful strategy, it might be the case that what is good from the economic point of view might be opposed to our own individual good.

This is, of course, but the tiniest example, but I think similar mechanisms are at work in the large ones as well. Efficiency measures how things are overall and says nothing about individual rights or justice or whether the status quo is itself acceptable. If you take a society of rich people and poor people, and you just make the rich people better off, you have, in a sense, increased "efficiency."

Sure -- theoretically, you can use the term "efficient" in the technical sense in which it's a formal, value-neutral, concept and to say that something increases efficiency isn't a way of recommending it, and then you could go on to have a whole discussion about whether increasing overall efficiency by increasing the well-being of the well-off is a good thing to do in the given case or whether other things should happen.

But, for all kinds of reasons, that's often not how it goes in reality.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What Happened In The 80s, Anyway?

From the 1970s.

The other day a friend of mine mentioned they had something to show me: it was an economics text, they said, from the 70s, and it presented as obvious things like "economics is a moral science" -- meaning, I take it, that economics is inherently concerned with well-being and distributive justice and so on.

I immediately thought "Oh, yes -- of course. That was the 70s I knew." And then I thought, "What happened to that world, anyway?"

I mean the world with ads like the one at the top of the post, showing a little girl in overalls interested in building stuff with lego.

That's the world in which people talked about peace and justice all the time, dressed in goofy clothes like bell-bottoms for fun, and thought that, even though there were a lot of problems, it was possible things were going to get better and that someday we'd all be able to live in diverse neighborhoods in happy prosperity.

This might just be me, but I feel like now in 2015, after so many political and economic problems of the last few years, it's easy to slip into thinking of the narrative as essentially a simple expansion and contraction sort of thing. Like: idealism, following by tough times, producing widespread grasping self-centeredness.

But it's pretty obvious that that isn't it at all. In fact, there's that huge time in between: the 80s and 90s. It's crazy to me now to remember that when I quit math to do a PhD in philosophy in 1997, the world was in the middle of its dot com craze -- people acted like even pursuing a safe-course secure quiet job in scholarship was kind of nuts when you could make a fortune doing something else. Someone in my grad program actually quit to make money day trading.

No, the end-of-the-70s mood was something more complicated. I was born in 1966 and I went off to college in 1984, so I was the wrong age to be a reliable narrator. But what I remember most about that time was the sense that massive social forces had decided that Fun Was Over and it was time to Get Serious.

Hanging around the dorm one day, someone showed me an image that had been going around. It showed one Brooks Brothers' ad from the late 70s and one from the early 80s. They both showed a well-dressed white man from the back, and they were virtually identical, except that the earlier one had slightly longish rakish hair and the 80s one had a perfect, clipped, conservative cut. I remember we all thought, "Oh yeah: that about sums it up."

Half our class was going off to work for Goldman Sachs. Is it any wonder so many Gen-Xers became slackers?

So what happened? What was so great about Hungry Like the Wolf and Dirty Dancing that we had to give up KC and the Sunshine Band?

I'd been pondering these questions lately while listening to some disco, and I happened to read Arthur Chu's excellent essay linking the old anti-disco movement to the new #gamergate one.

Chu reminds us that that even in an era in which Christians "literally believed rock bands were Satanic cults who used backward masking to hypnotize people," the worst and most destructive violence against music "was wrought by guys who just didn’t like disco."

Indeed, people freaked out against disco. Chu mentions us of record burnings and the event in 1979 at Comiskey Park where disco records were burned and the crowd got so riled up they trashed the stadium and the cops had to be called in.

I remember at the time being confused. I wanted to be cool, and the anti-disco people were positioning themselves as the cool kids. But I loved disco. I thought disco was fun and great for dancing and an expression of the Life Force. I was concerned and upset: how could cool figure into my life if cool required being anti-disco?

Chu argues in his essay that the anti-disco force was in a deep sense a force of angry white guys, enraged at the empowerment of women, black people, and gays, and targeting disco because it was a vehicle of expression for just those forces.

The 70s, Chu says, were a time of great conflict and change, and were thus deeply disturbing to the people who stood to lose out somehow through those changes. Those who had a social status to lose lashed out, struck back, not because "disco" was somehow "fake" but because they didn't want the change they thought was coming.

I think he's right. And I think that if he's right, part of the answer to what happened in the 80s has to do with fear and hatred.

It's less a story of tough times leading to renewed self-interest, and more a story of rage and backlash -- a story of people desperate to hold onto and reassert their relative importance over other people.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Dream Of The Fundamental Law Of Human Behavior: WTF?

One of the trends in modern thinking that really mystifies and annoys me is the dream of the simple fundamental law of human behavior. What is up with that?

In fact I'm mystified and annoyed both by the credulity -- the belief that there is a simple fundamental law of human behavior -- and also by the desire -- the hope that there's a fundamental law of human behavior. What kind of person sees humanity this way?

I mean, it's one thing to think we're like overgrown mice -- the kind of animals whose behavior might be well understood through a massive data-oriented approach with mazes and observational studies and NHS funding. Though I've always had my doubts about the fruitfulness of this style of thinking, I don't find it alienating. I mean, in some ways we are like overgrown mice. I understand the appeal of an animalistic self-conception.

But the dream of the simple fundamental law seems to requires seeing humans not as overgrown mice but more like ... I don't know, planets or something. Large, inanimate bodies whose movement through space and time can be charted with trigonometry and laws like F=ma.

What kind of person wants to see humans -- wants to see themselves -- this way?

In a recent Facebook Q and A, the physicist Stephen Hawking asked Mark Zuckerberg which of the big questions in science he most wanted to know the answer to. Zuckerberg said, reasonably enough, that he was interested in questions having to do with people, like how they learn.

He then went on to say this:

"I’m also curious about whether there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about. I bet there is."

He's surely not alone with his dream. But WTF?

For one thing, why think there's a law like this? While it's true we have some simple fundamental mathematical laws in physics, the fact that such simple laws work is widely regarded not as commonsensical but rather as a kind of miracle.

In 1960, Eugene Wigner wrote a classic article "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Science." Toward the end, he says:

"The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve."

If it's a mystery and a "miracle" that mathematics works so well in describing things like planets and F=ma, why would you think it'll work in the same way for people, who seem so complicated?

But for another thing, why is this someone's fantasy or dream? I don't even get what's appealing about it. Suppose you did find some law like that. Now you see humans not just as part of the machine of the universe, but as a predictable part of the the machine -- a part you could use a pencil to work out where we're going from where we've been.

What's to like? Suppose you did find some basic law, so that what seems like the vast multiplicity of human feeling and culture and motivation, what looks like the incredible fabric of life, it really all comes down to the X factor. You go about your day, and instead of seeing kindness and anger and art and food and cooperation and conflict and music and flirting, you say smugly to yourself, "well, sure -- but it's really X, X, X, X, X, X, X, and X."

Who can see this as a dream come true?