how to think about science


If science is neither cookery, nor angelic virtuosity, then what is it? Modern societies have tended to take science for granted as a way of knowing, ordering and controlling the world. Everything was subject to science, but science itself largely escaped scrutiny. This situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Historians, sociologists, philosophers and sometimes scientists themselves have begun to ask fundamental questions about how the institution of science is structured and how it knows what it knows. David Cayley talks to some of the leading lights of this new field of study.

An impressive series put together by CBC Radio. There are 24 episodes and while I haven’t listened to them all yet I also haven’t been disappointed yet. So, check it out here.

Michelle, Our Belle

From The Root:

Michelle_2 It’s difficult to avoid being completely fascinated with our new First Lady, Michelle Obama. She’s an Ivy League black woman who’s as tall and fashionable as a supermodel. She’s the mother of 10-year-old twist sporting Malia and sassy Sasha. And President Obama glows every time she’s by his side. But The Buzz is not alone in its “Barack & Michelle Forever” fixation. Tim Shipman, a journalist for the British newspaper The Telegraph, details all the aspects of Michelle’s First Lady swagger in an article published last Saturday.

Shipman writes, “Barack Obama would not be where he is today without Michelle Obama. She helped him understand his race and his country. She showed voters that he is a loving father and that he is a mortal man, one who does not pick his dirty socks off the bedroom floor, rather than a messiah.” And it’s obvious that even Barack knows this. From the way that he looked at her during their first dance, and his many testimonies to Michelle’s strength and intelligence, Barack understands that Michelle was his guiding light during a grueling, yet successful campaign.

“I am so in love with them being in love,” says SweetBee, the 35-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, who runs the trailblazer-firstlady website. “For Barack to choose a tall, brown, beautiful woman as his wife means a lot to me. Barack, you single-handedly made it cool once again to love your lady.”

More here.

Friday Poem

“Definition of Stranger”
Idra Novey

Person not a member
of a group. A visitor,
guest, or the breast
that brushes your arm
on the subway. Person
with whom you've had
no acquaintance but who's taken
your rocking chair
from the curbside
and curls up in it
and closes her eyes.
Person in line
behind you now, waiting
for a glass of water,
or of whiskey, of elixir.
Person logging online
at the same second
from the Home Depot in Lima.
Or in search of the Dalai Lama.
Person not privy or party
to a decision, edict, et cetera,
but who's eaten
from the same fork
at the pizzeria
and kissed your wilder sister
on New Year's. Person assigned
to feed the tiger at the zoo
where you slipped your hand
into the palm
of somebody else's father.

Her Brother’s Keeper

Ron Charles in The Washington Post:

Book There are books you recommend to everybody, and then there are books you share cautiously, even protectively. Jayne Anne Phillips's “Lark and Termite” is that second kind, a mysterious, affecting novel you'll want to talk about only with others who have fallen under its spell. On the surface, nothing about the West Virginia family in “Lark and Termite” seems especially noteworthy, except perhaps the consistency of their misfortune, but the author reveals their tangled secrets in such a profound and intimate way that these ordinary, wounded people become both tragic and magnificent.

Phillips has garnered plenty of praise in the past, but she's a slow writer by today's book-a-year standard, and she has made us wait almost a decade since her most recent novel, “MotherKind”. The product of that labor is this strangely discordant story of violence and passion, affection and longing. It takes place during two very different Julys ? 1950 and 1959 ? in two very different places.

The first page drops us immediately into the early days of the Korean War. Devastating losses have pushed Cpl. Robert Leavitt quickly up the ranks, and now, as the North Koreans advance, he commands a thinly stretched platoon charged with evacuating refugees. In the ensuing chaos, American fighter pilots strafe the peasants under his charge and send them scurrying into a tunnel, where they're pinned down by panicked U.S. servicemen.

More here.


ID_NC_MEIS_WYETH_AP_001 Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

I remember seeing a reproduction of Andrew Wyeth's “Christina's World” when I was a child. It disturbed me. I felt that something horrible had happened to Christina and that she was left out there in the field, maybe to die. And what was happening in that lonely house up at the top of the hill?

There is, perhaps, no other American painting as recognizable and as loved as “Christina's World.” The only other painting that comes to mind is “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. But for all his popularity (or because of it), Wyeth has generally been scorned by the critics. He has been called a cheap sentimentalist applying painterly tricks in the service of an empty nostalgia. New Criterion founder Hilton Kramer said simply, “he can't paint.” Dave Hickey said Wyeth's palette was “mud and baby poop.”

I keep coming back to the strangeness, the sense of unease that always bubbles up whenever I look at “Christina's World.” Look at her hands and arms, spindly and wraith-like. Look, in particular, at the strange contortion in her right arm as she holds herself up. Something is wrong. Wyeth himself saw in Christina a kind of heroism. She was a real person living near his vacation home in Maine. She had been crippled by polio as a child but refused to use a wheelchair or to have much help at all. Wyeth admired her.

Still, I don't see much heroism in the painting. If this is nostalgia, it is not the nostalgia of wistful and pleasant longing. It’s a nostalgia closer to its Greek roots. The “algia” part of nostalgia comes from the Greek word “algos,” meaning pain and grief. The pain and grief, the longing for a home, is not necessarily a curable condition. Wyeth has often been criticized for his nostalgia for a pre-modern, rural America shot through with Puritanism and a fundamental simplicity. I think the case is slightly different. Wyeth was fascinated with those kinds of solitary American scenes because they evoked for him a feeling, a not-quite-tangible sense of painful longing that is always gnawing at the corners of our experience.

A trumpet with an uncertain (but compelling) sound

In Evolutionary Psychology, Michael Austin reviews Jonathan Gottschall's Literature, Science, and a New Humanities:

My first concern with Gottschall’s approach is that it does not draw a clear distinction between using a scientific methodology to interpret a literary text and using a literary text to support a scientific theory. Both are worthy goals, but only the first falls within the job description of a literary critic. I would argue that the primary failure of some of the critical schools that Gottschall attacks in his first section is that they have neglected their responsibility to interpret literary texts and instead see literature as evidence for their larger social, cultural, and ideological claims. But this is precisely what Gottschall does in his folklore studies. None of his analysis gives us tools for interpreting the stories themselves. Rather, the tales become pieces of evidence for larger claims about human nature and the biological basis for behavior, such as the concluding claim of his second study that his findings “challenge what has been the central dogma of the dominant brand of feminist scholarship in the humanities: that chromosomal sex and socially constructed gender are, at most, distantly related” (p. 125).

There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, it does not really produce any new knowledge. The claim that gender conventions have a biological basis is a cornerstone of modern evolutionary psychology and has been supported time and again with much more impressive data than Gottschall marshals. If the objective of a “new humanities” is simply to demonstrate how literature supports the foundational claims of evolutionary psychology, then I fear that this new field of study will soon run out of useful work; there are only so many times that these claims need to be tested and proved. To remain vital for very long, quantitative literary theory will have to develop interesting ways to interpret literature.

Norms, Minorities, and Collective Choice Online

Henry Farrell and Melissa Schwartzberg in Ethics & International Affairs (via bookforum):

We believe that the case studies outlined above [Daily Kos and Wikipedia]—brief and preliminary though they surely are—support our basic claim that we can learn a lot about the consequences of collective projects on the Internet by looking at how the specific rules of these projects structure collective choice. In particular, we argue that it is revealing to look more closely at how these rules structure relations between majorities and minorities in both epistemic and political contexts.

First, it is clear not only that the rules of these communities structure relations between majorities and minorities, but that the problem of majority-minority relations is key to their internal governance. In contrast to many offline political communities, the most important problem in Wikipedia and the Daily Kos is often to prevent the tyranny of the minority from consistently overwhelming the majority. More generally, many forms of social activity on the Internet are much more open than their offline equivalents; it is extraordinarily easy to become a member of Wikipedia or the Daily Kos, to start commenting on a blog, and so on. This bias toward openness is part of what gives the Internet its “generative” character.22 However, it also means that collective online projects are vulnerable to disruption by outsiders who do not share the goals of the project, because they do not agree with them, because they enjoy being “trolls,” or because they have harmful economic incentives (for example, they can profit by publishing spam comments).

Second, we suggest that different collective projects, with different collective goals, may reasonably look to different balances of majority-minority relations. Here, Scott Page's account of the benefits and drawbacks of diversity is a useful starting point.23 Page suggests that heuristic diversity (differences, roughly, in points of view) is very valuable to knowledge generation. However, he also notes that diversity of final goals may make group coordination more difficult, and that heuristic diversity often tends to be correlated with diversity of goals. Thus, it is highly plausible that such collective projects as Wikipedia, which stress knowledge generation, ought to be more tolerant of minorities, even when those minorities have goals that are at odds with those of the majority, as long as those minorities bring different heuristics (and thus different forms of knowledge) to the collective project.

Denis Dutton on Colbert

What do these enigmatic women want?

Neroanthro Greg Downey over at the blog neuroanthropology:

In this week’s The Times Magazine of The NY Times, Daniel Bergner has a piece on women’s sexuality and research that’s already in preprint causing a bit of controversy as well as a convulsion of 1950s era humor in the online response. The title, ‘What do women want?’, that nugget of Freudian wonder, no doubt will raise the readership, as will the pictures of models simulating states of arousal (Greg Mitchell is in a bit of snit about them in, Coming Attraction: Preview of ‘NYT Magazine’ With Semi-Shocking Sex Images on Sunday. ‘Semi-Shocking’? I can imagine how that goes… ‘Are you SHOCKED by these photos?’ ‘Well, I’m at least SEMI-shocked, yes!’)…

In particular, Bergner gives us thumbnail portraits of women engaged in sex research: Meredith Chivers of Queens University (Kingston, Ontario), Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, and Marta Meana from UNLV, although there’s also commentary from Julia Heiman, the Director of the Kinsey Institute, and others. As with so much of contemporary science writing, we get researchers as characters, with quirky personal descriptions and accounts of meeting the author, each one standing in for a particular perspective in current scientific debates.

Chivers is portrayed as arguing that women are existentially divided ‘between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective,’ Diamond is made to stand in for the ‘female desire may be dictated… by intimacy, by emotional connection,’ and Meana stands in for the argument that women are narcissists desiring to submit. Whether or not these are accurate portrayals—and they might be—the model is prevalent in science writing: get characters to represent lines of thinking, even though many of us are not so clearly signed on with a single theoretical team. Here, we know the score: Diamond arguing women want intimacy, Meana that they want a real man to take them, and Chivers that women want it all, even if they don’t realize it and contradict themselves…

Read more »

John Updike’s “Requiem”

Requiem A poem from John Updike’s forthcoming collection, “Endpoint and Other Poems,” in the NYT:

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

joyce carol oates on updike


JOHN UPDIKE’S GENIUS is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. Perhaps it is out of a general sense of doom, of American expansion and decay, of American subreligions that spring up so effortlessly everywhere, that Updike works, or perhaps it is something more personal, which his extraordinarily professional art can disguise: the constant transformation of what would be “suffering” into works of art that are direct appeals to the her of the above quotation, not for salvation as such, but for the possibly higher experience of being “transparent,” that is, an artist. There has been from the first, in his fiction, an omniscience that works against the serious development of tragic experiences; what might be tragedy can be reexamined, reassessed, and dramatized as finally comic, with overtones of despair. Contending for one’s soul with Nature is, of course, the Calvinist God Whose judgments may be harsh but do not justify the term tragic.

more from Oates’ 1975 essay here.

Woolworth’s shrine to commerce


At 7.30 on the evening of April 24, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button on his desk in Washington, DC, sending a telegraphic signal to New York where it set off an alarm bell in the engine room of a skyscraper and set in motion four mighty Corliss-type engines and dynamos. In an instant, some 80,000 incandescent bulbs flashed on, illuminating for the first time the world’s tallest skyscraper – the Woolworth Building. Thousands of spectators had gathered in City Hall Park and along lower Broadway to witness the dazzling electrical spectacle that marked the opening of this fifty-five-storey addition to New York’s skyline. On the New Jersey shore, people caught their breath as the tower appeared, shimmering against the night sky, a gleaming beacon of modernity visible from ships a hundred miles away. As the 792-foot tall skyscraper was bathed in electric light, the news was being transmitted from its pinnacle by Marconi wireless to a receiver on the Eiffel Tower. From there it was beamed around the world. This modern media event was, as one commentator said, “the premier publicity stunt of this or any other day”. It was a fitting opening for what would become the most famous office building in the world.

more from the TLS here.

Like a Guest That Won’t Leave, BPA Lingers in the Human Body

From Scientific American:

Bpa-lingers-in-human-body_1 A new study indicates that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in plastic bottles and can linings that has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and liver failure, may linger in the body far longer than previously believed. Environmental health scientist Richard Stahlhut of the University of Rochester Medical Center and his colleagues discovered that even those who had been fasting for 24 hours still had high BPA levels in their urine, using a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of 1,469 adults.

Stahlhut says that it appears that the amount of BPA in the body drops relatively rapidly from four to nine hours after exposure, but then levels out. “After the nine hours or so,” he says, “it stops doing what it's supposed to and the decline goes flat.” Previous research had suggested that levels of BPA, which mimics the female hormone estrogen in the human body, declined by 50 percent every five hours after it was ingested in foods or water it had leached into from plastic containers. But the new research indicates that the chemical declines initially but then sticks around, making it potentially more harmful.

More here.

Stock-Surfing the Tsunami

From The New York Times:

Trader090205_560 In recent months, as the stock market has virtually spun off its axis, most people—the reasonable ones—have fled for their economic lives. But like a big-wave rider or a tornado chaser, Peter Milman dives in and out of the market’s sickening maw, riding the explosions of panic and greed and trying to snatch victory—profits—from the jaws of worldwide financial defeat. As a day trader who follows every tick of the Dow, he has a visceral view of the most manic-depressive stock market in recent history.

It is precisely the terrifying volatility—the VIX, the ticker symbol for the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, has reached its highest recorded levels in recent months—that has made day traders suddenly hot again after years in the wilderness following the dot-com bust of 2000. (In fact, they don’t call themselves “day traders” anymore, preferring the term “active,” or “professional,” traders.) Downswings of hundreds of points on the Dow followed by equally large reversals offer great opportunities for the short-term investor. One need only jump in and chase a stock or an index for a few points: Buy in, sell off, repeat. Traders try to make money on the upswings and the downswings, in the latter case by short-selling—temporarily covering a long position for another party on the bet that his stock will go down. But Milman prefers to hitch a ride on the rebounds, the style of trading he learned during the bull market.

More here. (Note: Thanks to Dr. S.T. Raza)