August 17, 2011
The pursuit of the definition of “terrorism” has proven to be a formidable task that is personally useful for some. The standard dictionary definition,
the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes,
clearly conflicts with accepted usage, for if it were believed then any military activity, or even police activity, would constitute a terrorist activity. Other definitions come closer to the intended meaning:
Terrorism is defined as political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimization and destruction of noncombatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols). [Attributed by Wikipedia to Carsten Bockstette.]
Obviously, military activity would often fall within those terms if it were not for the “asymmetrical” condition. Such activity, when considered legitimate by the speaker, is never referred to as “terrorism”. Read the rest of this entry »
May 8, 2010
I found George Englebersten’s book Bare Facts and Naked Truths in a used book shop and was attracted to it because of the interesting (if often wrongheaded) quotations it contained. My favorites are:
Most writers regard the truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use. -Mark Twain
This kind of thing is frightening to me because it gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world … I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously colored what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘the facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable. -Orwell
We’ve reached a point where, in an orgy of political correctness, everything is true, and nothing is permitted. -Dean Kuipers
Truths are illusions. -Nietzsche
Read the rest of this entry »
January 26, 2010
Paul Krugman, Princeton economics professor, winner of the Nobel prize in economics for 2008 and New York Times op-ed writer is a person worth paying some attention to. Unlike most other mainstream commentators he does not deal mainly in cliches and often shows respect towards his readers by supporting his positions with hard data. He is also willing to take some risk by, on occasion, pushing against the envelope of mainstream propriety and using impolite words toward people with power.
Of course, he is not without faults. Of course, none of us is. The point is that Krugman’s faults are not too different than those of many of his colleagues. In other words, while Krugman is somewhat of an exquisite specimen of the mainstream intellectual, he is still very much such a specimen.
January 28, 2009
As Phillip Davis writes (reprinted in the IMS Bulletin), scholarly authors are driven to publish in journals because that is the way to have their work noticed and readers read journals because these provide some measure of quality assurance. Davis is wrong, however, on multiple counts, when he concludes: “This system is not intended to be fair and democratic, but it saves the time of the reader and functions to help consensus building in science. For those who feel that this perpetuates hegemony, let them eat cake.”
The academic publishing system is intended to be fair; the current system (though better than nothing) performs poorly as a time saving tool for the reader; “consensus forming” (i.e., suppressing non-conventional thought) is not a legitimate function of a scientific communication channel; and, finally, there is no reason to dismiss people who are unhappy with the current system with “let them eat cake”: there is a better way to run the scholarly publishing system.
December 21, 2008
Steven Levitt has risen to stardom by riding on the overblown rhetoric resting on the overblown claims of Freakonomics. It is, unfortunately, in the nature of popular books that they oversimplify and over-claim. Academic literature is supposed to be different: rigorous, cautious and, of course, peer-reviewed for accuracy.
Of course, if all those attributes really applied, a career like that of Levitt would have been impossible, since the econometric methodology he employs is far too weak to be able to produce with any credibility the kind of results Levitt is aiming at. It is clear, therefore, that within the community within which Levitt works, some standards of critical thought have been suspended. However, even when credulity is being stretched and poorly supported statements are taken as proven, one may still hope for the superficial ground rules to apply. Specifically, for example, one hopes that when previous research is cited and summarized the findings of the research are fairly represented.
December 9, 2008
The term “censorship” describes the act of suppressing certain ideas by those who control some distribution channels. Despite regular attempts by interested parties to limit the term to describe very restricted or extreme cases of suppression of ideas, the term is usually, and very reasonably, understood to cover any attempt at reducing the circulation of an idea, by any person or organization. The negative view, which most of the population, as well as official ideology, take of censorship therefore encompasses any such activity. According to this view, the desirable media system is democratic – i.e., one which allows all people an equal opportunity at presenting their ideas and having them considered by others.
The implicit universal rejection of censorship notwithstanding, much of the communication patterns that dominate Western society are inherently censoring activities. The members of the elite group that influences (to varying degrees) the content of wide circulation media – publishers, broadcasters, advertisers, editors and reporters – routinely make decisions that amount to suppressing some communications, containing certain ideas, in favor of other communications, containing different ideas. Those decisions, although usually purporting to reflect only objective accepted standards, are in reality almost completely subjective. They therefore reflect the ideas and biases of the very select and atypical group of people who make them.
September 11, 2008
Below is my page-by-page summary of Kuhn’s 1967 postscript to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
The following points seem to me to contain the essence of Kuhn’s thesis:
- Exemplars (solved problems) are an important component of any specific scientific world-view. Without exemplars the laws and theories have little empirical content. The exemplars teach practitioners how to attach the relevant abstractions to elements of particular problems and how to see a variety of situations as being alike.
- The intuitive knowledge of which situations are alike is analyzable but not by specifying rules since it is perceptual rather than interpretive knowledge. It is similar to other knowledge of perception: e.g., identifying certain light patterns as all representing swans. Perceptual knowledge is selected for “success” – success in survival in the primitive case, success in puzzle solving in the scientific case.
- The situation may be similar in non-scientific schools (e.g., art).
- Scientific revolutions – “a special sort of change in scientific thinking involving a certain sort of reconstruction of group commitments” – occur regularly on the smaller scale (within communities of dozens to hundreds).
- Crisis is the usual mechanism inducing revolutions. Crises supply a self-correcting mechanism which ensures that the rigidity of normal science will not forever go unchallenged.
- Judgments of scientific values – simplicity, consistency and compatibility – can vary greatly from individual to individual. Therefore, debates on theory-choice cannot be decided in a formal way. Still, those values constrain the dominant group view. This explains why competing world-views are rare in science but are common in other human activities.
- Because the commitment by scientists to puzzle-solving success shapes the long-term structure of scientific development (even if the application of this commitment in any particular case is ambiguous and subjective), scientific development, like biological development, is unidirectional and irreversible. When comparing scientific theories held by various scientific specialties to theories held by the specialty from which the former had their origins, “an uncommitted observer” would be able to consistently distinguish the newer theories from the older. The newer theories will enable more accurate, quantitative, predictions, in a wider variety of situations and they will be more esoteric. Differences in simplicity, scope and compatibility with other specialties are not as telling.
- Scientific progress is therefore well defined, but, like biological progress, it cannot be said that science comes closer and closer to a certain goal – “reality”. There is no objective reality which stands outside a specific scientific world-view.
August 26, 2008
The Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Stanley Fish, writes in his New York Times blog about the difference between what he calls the “colloquial” sense of the term “censorship” and what he calls the “philosophical and legal” sense of that word.
According to Fish, according to the colloquial sense,
censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences, or because we feel that what we would like to say is inappropriate in the circumstances, or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior.)
while according to the “philosophical and legal” sense, censorship has the characteristics that
(1) it is the government that is criminalizing expression and (2) that the restrictions are blanket ones.
Fish’s entire basis for the post is the unexplained assumption that the latter sense is the correct one, while the former one is simply a mistake. This, of course, in itself, is a major flaw, since, accepting Fish’s premises, he is criticizing a speaker for using a word in its accepted sense.
Going beyond this point toward more substantial matters, much of Fish’s thinking is resting on false notions.
July 8, 2008
The latest issue of the IMS bulletin contains a letter in which a reader, Anirban DasGupta from Purdue University, lays out his thoughts regarding Ning-Zhong Shi’s MLE conjecture. Evidently, DasGupta’s comments were considered of higher relevance than my own letter to the bulletin’s editors regarding the conjecture, a letter which described the same counter-example to the conjecture that appears in the post linked above.
July 2, 2008
This post presents a substitute to the peer-review system: a method to regulate the publication of scholarly work in journals. For background see: Academia as the industry of self promotion and Taking the self promotion out of academia.
Notification of intent to publish, waiting period, publishing quota
A person who intends to engage in research in a field and may wish to publish results, or who already has material he wishes to publish, will submit an indication of intent to publish to a central repository tracking research activity. In that indication of intent, the person submitting will indicate a field, or a small number of fields (up to, say, 4) in which he will be active. Each field is associated with a set of journals – the sets may overlap.
A person may, at any time, revise the set of fields in which he is active – but leaving the number of fields of activity below or at the limit (i.e., 4).
Once an indication of intent to publish in a certain field is given, a waiting period is in effect – say, 18 months. After that period, the researcher may publish in the journals covering that field at any time. A researcher may not publish more than a fixed amount of papers, say, 3, in a fixed amount of time, say 10 years. A multiple-author paper counts toward the quotas of each of the authors as 1/2 of a paper.
Rationale: The rationale for the imposition of a quota is discussed in the background documents above. The imposition of a wait period is aimed at minimizing abuse of the system by people who are not committed to sustained contemplation of a field of research, such as activists of various sorts.
Once an author or a group of authors decide to publish in a certain journal, and if all the authors are within their quotas and beyond their waiting period, they submit a manuscript to the editors of the journal. If the authors so wishes, they may choose to go through a process of refereeing. The authors can choose a set of referees (up to, say, 3) from a list provided by the journal. The referees’ must excuse themselves promptly or write their reports within a set period. The authors may introduce changes to the paper after receiving the referees’ reports. If both the authors and referees are willing, further communication may take place.
Referees’ reports and any communications between the author and the referees are published together with the paper. If these are too long, a prefix is published together with a link to a full version.
Rationale: In the suggested scheme refereeing is seen as a service rendered by the research community to the individual researchers active in the field. Its role is not to block unworthy papers but to help authors produce better papers. Publishing referee-author communications benefits readers by providing third party comments on the paper, and guarantees that referees receive appropriate credit for their work.
Form of publication, page limit, automatic redaction, link to full version
The refereed manuscript (or the unrefereed manuscript, if the authors declines to take advantage of the refereeing process) is truncated at a certain amount of pages (say, 20) and scanned automatically for discouraged patterns (say, profanities or unpleasant typesetting), which are redacted. The author can then resubmit a corrected version or accept the automatically edited version as is. This final version is published in the journal chosen by the authors. If the author so wishes, he may provide an opt-in link (i.e., a link which requires a certain amount of attention to follow) to a full version of the paper which he would host and which is not constrained by the page limit and the pattern prohibitions.
Rationale: The rationale for the guaranteed publication is discussed in the background documents above. The page limit in the centrally hosted version is meant to encourage authors to make their points succinctly.