Cut-throat academia leads to ‘natural selection of bad science’, claims study

Hannah Devlin in The Guardian:

2240Getting stuff right is normally regarded as science’s central aim. But a new analysis has raised the existential spectre that universities, laboratory chiefs and academic journals are contributing to the “natural selection of bad science”.

To thrive in the cut-throat world of academia, scientists are incentivised to publish surprising findings frequently, the study suggests – despite the risk that such findings are “most likely to be wrong”.

Paul Smaldino, a cognitive scientist who led the work at the University of California, Merced, said: “As long as the incentives are in place that reward publishing novel, surprising results, often and in high-visibility journals above other, more nuanced aspects of science, shoddy practices that maximise one’s ability to do so will run rampant.”

The paper comes as psychologists and biomedical scientists are grappling with an apparent replication crisis, in which many high profile results have been shown to be unreliable. Observations that striking a power pose will make you feel bolder, smiling makes you feel happy or that placing a pair of “big brother” eyes on the wall will protect against theft have all failed to stand up to replication.

Sociology, economics, climate science and ecology are other areas likely to be vulnerable to the propagation of bad practice, according to Smaldino.

More here.

The NY Times’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton for President

The Editorial Board of the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2240 Sep. 25 22.44In any normal election year, we’d compare the two presidential candidates side by side on the issues. But this is not a normal election year. A comparison like that would be an empty exercise in a race where one candidate — our choice, Hillary Clinton — has a record of service and a raft of pragmatic ideas, and the other, Donald Trump, discloses nothing concrete about himself or his plans while promising the moon and offering the stars on layaway. (We will explain in a subsequent editorial why we believe Mr. Trump to be the worst nominee put forward by a major party in modern American history.)

But this endorsement would also be an empty exercise if it merely affirmed the choice of Clinton supporters. We’re aiming instead to persuade those of you who are hesitating to vote for Mrs. Clinton — because you are reluctant to vote for a Democrat, or for another Clinton, or for a candidate who might appear, on the surface, not to offer change from an establishment that seems indifferent and a political system that seems broken.

Running down the other guy won’t suffice to make that argument. The best case for Hillary Clinton cannot be, and is not, that she isn’t Donald Trump.

The best case is, instead, about the challenges this country faces, and Mrs. Clinton’s capacity to rise to them.

More here.

Thine Every Flaw


Rajiv Sethi over at his blog:

It's glaringly obvious that international trade, migration, and technological progress have brought enormous benefits to many of us. Our handheld devices are more powerful than the computers that launched our first satellites into orbit. Our system of higher education remains a magnet for eager students from every corner of the world, in part because we have attracted and retained the finest research talent. We are on the verge of a revolution in transportation and urban form as driverless cars make their presence felt. Our cultural products—movies and music among them—continue to attract strong global demand. And our Olympic medal winners encompass many different identities, religions, and countries of origin.
But globalization and technological progress have also left in their wake economic devastation and social disintegration across large swathes of the country that were previously prosperous and stable. The kind of deprivation once confined to inner cities—and tolerated for decades by the rest of society—is now pervasive in once-thriving industrial areas. In his recent and acclaimedmemoir, JD Vance laments the decline of Middletown, Ohio from a proud and bustling steel town to “a relic of American industrial glory,” with abandoned shops and broken windows, derelict homes, druggies and dealers, and places to be avoided after dark.
Anne Case and Angus Deaton have reported a startling increase in midlife mortality among white Americans without a college degree, “largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.” Stratification by sexreveals that this phenomenon has hit white working class women especially hard. Trends in criminal justice tell a similar story: the incarceration rate for white women has risen by a staggering fifty percent since 2000, while that for black women has fallen more than 30%. Similar, but much less striking trends are in evidence for males.
All this has led to what Dani Rodrik calls the politics of anger.
More here.

Between Experts and Citizens


Jo Guldi in Boston Review:

It is safe to say that the Brexit vote—only the third nation-wide referendum in the history of the United Kingdom—disrupted ordinary political norms and expectations. There was the surprise of the vote itself, and David Cameron’s quick abdication; the baffling disappearance of Boris Johnson, followed by his appointment in Theresa May’s new government; and then the failed coup in the Labour Party, leaving Jeremy Corbyn at the helm. Britain’s systems of representational democracy have traditionally functioned to block popular disruptions of this kind. What historical forces are behind Brexit’s spectacular exception to this rule?

One answer begins in the second half of the twentieth century. Several commentators have read the vote as the result of a 1970s turn toward neoliberalism that left the working class behind in a program of coal pit closures and denationalization. Historian Harold James has underscored that the European Monetary System (EMS) grew out of proposals for an international money market that promised escape from national cycles of monetary expansion and inflation. From 1977 onward, the EMS made cheap credit, backed by European nations, available to private banks. In James’s account, this stability-focused monetary policy created a twenty-first century economy that was unaccountable to the working class, diminishing national and local control.

The identity of the European Union is wrapped up in hopes for peace after decades of war. But the neoliberalization narrative also sees in the EU a symbol of the rise of rule by financial experts and the discounting of class-based, representational politics. The financial management once beholden to local and national politics was placed in the hands of an international body, and national governments lost control—or simply divested themselves—of the levers they once had claimed for raising wages. Among the casualties of this transformation were the nationalized industries disassembled under Margaret Thatcher, which had leveraged the power of the state in bargaining between workers and employers. In short order, CEO pay ratcheted up and wages stagnated, and a landscape of ruins was left behind.

More here.

Rise of the robots: I feedback, therefore I am

Will Self in Prospect Magazine:

GettyImages-53378696_webWritten by Norbert Wiener, an MIT mathematician, and published in 1948, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine is the book which first brought the term “cybernetics” to public attention. Synthesised from the Ancient Greek kubernan (meaning to steer, navigate or govern) the coinage has resonated ever since, giving rise to all sorts of odd, cyber-prefixed neologisms—my personal favourite being the chain of American-style confectioners dubbed Cybercandy. Wiener, a famously eccentric character, had been driven to develop an overarching theory of the machine by two vital problems that had arisen during the Second World War. The first was the need for an automated system that would allow British anti-aircraft gunners to hit German bombers—and by extension make it possible for any gunner to hit a fast and erratically moving target; and the second was the dropping of the nuclear bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima in 1945. Wiener, like many scientists of his generation, responded to the split-second incineration of 125,000 Japanese civilians with horror: he had an epiphany in which he saw a future of deadly conflict dominated—and perhaps even initiated—by sophisticated machines. But again, in common with so many scientists of the era, Wiener had already tried to bring about just such a future, by creating a machine that would massively enhance our ability to locate, aim and unerringly deliver military ordanance.

This Janus-faced—or perhaps, more properly, Manichean—inspiration was thereby encrypted into the cybernetics blueprint from the outset: on the one hand this was intended to be a general theory of how all possible—not just actual—machines might work, with a view to assisting those intent on building them. On the other hand, it was a minatory account of how interaction between humans and human-like machines might lead to the latter becoming firmly ensconced in the driving seat. Given 2016 has already seen the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car, now might seem like the ideal time to take stock and calmly examine the last 70 years of human-machine interaction—possibly with the ulterior motive of discovering whether it’s a “who” or a “what” in control.

More here.

Sodom, LLC: The Marquis de Sade and the office novel

Lucy Ives in Lapham's Quarterly:

SargentIn the mid-eighteenth century, the term bureaucracy entered the world by way of French literature. The neologism was originally forged as a nonsense term to describe what its creator, political economist Vincent de Gournay, considered the ridiculous possibility of “rule by office,” or, more literally, “rule by a desk.” Gournay’s model followed the form of more serious governmental terms indicating “rule by the best” (aristocracy) and “rule by the people” (democracy). Yet bureaucracy quickly developed a nonsatirical life of its own once the French Revolution got under way. The Terror was, of course, infamously bureaucratic, with dossiers the way to denunciation, condemnation, and execution. On July 2, 1789, as legend has it, a voice rang out from the interior of the Bastille into the street below: “They are killing prisoners in here!” Two weeks later, citizens stormed the Bastille, inaugurating the long and complex series of events that would constitute the French Revolution. The alleged yeller, one Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade, had been removed to the insane asylum at Charenton ten days before the siege, thus having miraculously galvanized his potential liberators or murderers and evaded them. It is a singular piece of luck that Sade was not present for the storming, for it is likely that, descending upon the marquis’ luxuriously appointed cell, the sansculottes would have had some difficulty differentiating Sade from his oppressors, much less from their own.

As this series of apocryphal events intimates, the Marquis de Sade occupies an unusual place in French letters. He is at once the paradigmatic aesthete to end all aesthetes, a supreme materialist and spendthrift, an aristocrat determined to organize his life around complexly choreographed orgies (and the eccentrically appointed locations necessary for these performances), and an iconoclast, if not a revolutionary. Though the paper trail that emerges from his early life includes at least three accusations of flaying, stabbing, poisoning, and other unusual forms of physical and emotional abuse—leveled by prostitutes and other women poorly protected by the law—Sade has been held up as a beacon of sexual liberation during an era benighted by Christian repression and hypocrisy. Susan Sontag and Julia Kristeva have praised the freedom of his writing and thought. As the myth of his cry to action from within the Bastille indicates, Sade’s readers are willing, in spite of his title, to receive him as an anarchist hell-bent on upending the feudal order of his day. But for all Sade’s aristocratic indulgence of peculiar whims and profligate spending on whips and whores, he is also one of the first major authors of what we might term modern bureaucratic literature. His writings are extraordinarily, pruriently concerned with acts that can be accomplished only by people working in groups who follow, in an orderly fashion, arbitrary rules and regulations. These secular constraints not only defy common sense but fly in the face of what we usually think of as basic respect for the sensations and lives of others. Thus another neologism: sadism. The writings of the Marquis de Sade describe dispassionate intimacy in the plural. In this sense, they foreshadow the social world of the contemporary office.

More here.

Sunday Poem


It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

by Thomas R. Smith
From Waking Before Dawn
Red Dragonfly Press, 2007


Snap among the Witherlings


Michael Hofmann in the LRB:

The Soft Machine drummer, Robert Wyatt, his Cockney tenor cracking with fervour, once sang:

I’m nearly five foot seven tall
I like to smoke and drink and ball
I’ve got a yellow suit that’s made by Pam
and every day I like an egg and some tea
but most of all I like to talk about me.

The American poet Wallace Stevens liked his tea – he took to it in connoisseurship and prudence, ‘imported tea’ every afternoon, ‘with some little tea wafers’, partly in order to ease himself off martinis (Elsie, his ‘Pam’, disapproved of his drinking) – but otherwise everything is different. He was six feet two, 18 stone, got his identical elephant grey suits from a fellow in New Jersey and then from his son, hated talking about himself, didn’t smoke much after the cigars of middle age, and I don’t know about the balling, or the eggs, which Auden says are the test of bad biography.

But there are bad biographies that tell you nothing about their subject’s breakfast preferences, and The Whole Harmonium is one such. Stevens is one of those apparently fortunate, self-standing poets who are not greatly involved with the styles or personalities of their time, whose work sets no puzzles and makes a sufficiently vivid impression all by itself. It’s hard to disagree with Elsie, who after her husband’s death sold his books and artefacts, destroyed letters and wrote to an earlier would-be biographer: ‘I must say that a critical biography is not needed for the understanding of Mr Stevens’ poetry. Mr Stevens’ poetry was a distraction that he found delight in, and which he kept entirely separate from his home life, and his business life – neither of them suitable or relevant to an understanding of his poetry.’ In particular, Harmonium(1923), Stevens’s scintillating first volume, seems to leap fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus. What is there at the back of it, apart from the French dix-neuvièmeand Shakespeare (and all of Stevens is like a greatly expanded version of the drama and relations of The Tempest: the magic, the tropics, the search for a different earthly orientation or accommodation)? Maybe Browning or Henry James – the Master and onlie begetter, I am increasingly coming to think, of all the great modernist poets, of Pound and Eliot and Moore and Stevens?

More here.

The Camus Investigation

Camus Invest

Ryu Spaeth in TNR:

The English-language publication of the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation in the summer of 2015 occasioned a wholesale reassessment of Camus’s reputation in the mainstream press. Daoud’s novel, which is told from the perspective of the brother of the nameless Arab that Meursault kills in The Stranger, became an instant classic of post-colonial literature, rendering vividly Camus’s blind spots and latent biases. The Moroccan-American novelistLaila Lalami suggested that whereas The Stranger had erased Algerians, Daoud made the country “more than just a setting for existential questions posed by a French novelist.” The Guardian reported that Daoud’s novel had revived criticisms of Camus’s “inability to see violence through a non-white, non-colonial prism.”

Camus’s complex relationship with Algeria is one of the central themes of Alice Kaplan’s new book, Looking for “The Stranger,” which attempts to reconcile Camus’s dueling legacies. It is a historical account of how Camus’s novel came into being, starting with the famous opening sentence—“Today, Maman died”—scrawled in a notebook marked “22” in the fall of 1938 in Algiers. But, like the characters in Daoud’s book, Kaplan is also conducting an investigation. She searches for the creative origins ofThe Stranger in the strained relationship between Arabs and Europeans in Algiers’s lower-class neighborhoods of Belcourt, where Camus grew up, and Bab-el-Oued. And as her investigation deepens, she is drawn into the real-life story behind the unnamed Arab who, like Camus’s shadow, lives on as a silent rebuke to his creator.

More here.

The Schooldays of Jesus

Alex Preston in The Guardian:

JesusJM Coetzee is my favourite living author. I need to say this at the outset to offer some context to the battle I fought with The Schooldays of Jesus, his 13th novel. I spent three happy years writing my PhD on Coetzee, and my love for his early work survived meeting the man in person (like a wet weekend in Grimsby) and a run of several baffling “novels” (since his Man Booker-winning Disgrace in 1999) which seemed bent on stripping away all of the satisfactions we look for in fiction. The Schooldays of Jesus follows on the heels of its predecessor, The Childhood of Jesus. In that novel, we met Davíd and Simón, arriving memory-less in a Spanish-speaking city named Novilla. Novilla was a vast refugee camp operated on the most enlightened and benevolent lines – people were fed, housed and found employment; children were educated (although Davíd fought all attempts to make him conform). With a subtle touch, Coetzee conveyed how sinister the passionless world of Novilla was, where humans were treated as objects to be measured, ordered and controlled. As Simón put it: “You know how the system works. The names we use are the names we were given there, but we might just as well have been given numbers. Numbers, names – they are equally arbitrary, equally unimportant.”

Eventually, Simón, Davíd and Davíd’s mother, Inés, fled Novilla, heading for a town called Estrella. It is here that we pick up the story in the second novel in the series, with Simón and Inés arguing over how best to educate the six-year-old Davíd. Finally, after the intercession of three wealthy sisters, Davíd is sent to the local Academy of Dance, run by a Juan Sebastián Arroyo and his elegant wife, Ana Magdalena (many of the names in the book are obscurely significant). The education at the Academy is unusual – students learn maths by “dancing down” numbers – and yet Davíd, who’s a precocious and exasperating child, appears to flourish, forming a particularly close bond with Ana Magdalena.

More here.

Restoring Black History

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The New York Times:

BlackFor years, the issue was whether black people were fit to be more than slaves. “Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. “I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” The connection between humanity and history was central to this debate, and in the estimation of some Enlightenment thinkers, blacks were without history and thus lacked humanity. The German philosopher Hegel argued that human beings are “human” in part because they have memory. History is written or collective memory. Written history is reliable, repeatable memory, and confers value. Without such texts, civilization cannot exist. “At this point we leave Africa,” he pontificated, “not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” Black people, of course, would fight back against these aspersions by writing histories about the African-American experience. In the 1880s, George Washington Williams, whom the historian John Hope Franklin called “the first serious historian of his race,” published the “History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880”; he confessed that part of his motivation was “to call the attention to the absurd charge that the Negro does not belong to the human family.”

About a decade later, W.E.B. Du Bois became the first black person to earn a Ph.D. (in history) at Harvard, followed by Carter G. Woodson, a founder of Negro History Week, who wanted to make history by writing it. “If a race has no history,” he wrote, “it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Arthur A. Schomburg, the famous bibliophile, posited a solution: “The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future.” History “must restore what slavery took away.”

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

It’s Jane Jacobs’s World We Live In

23book-cover-blog427Dwight Garner at The New York Times:

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was a heroic figure of intellectual life in the second half of the 20th century, and she is nearly always instructive and cheering to read about.

On the page, she gave us “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), a pioneering book that was a flaming arrow — it travels still, across the decades — through the heart of soulless and arrogant urban renewal projects.

Off the page, she fought against the worst of these schemes, including Robert Moses’s plan to run a 10-lane elevated superhighway through much of what is now SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Without her, New York City might resemble Los Angeles.

Her Greenwich Village house, on Hudson Street, was her war room. So many people came in and out that Jacobs and her husband disconnected the ringer and left the door open at night. She offered guests what she called a West Village martini — gin and vermouth and ice and an olive in any mismatched glass that was handy. “You put your finger in it,” she wrote, “and go swish, swish, swish.”

more here.

the fiction of David Constantine

Life-writerRohan Maitzen at The Quarterly Conversation:

David Constantine’s fiction is full of ghosts. Not the supernatural kind that lurk in gothic mansions or scare unwary visitors in graveyards; rather, his novels are haunted by people whose presence persists though they are absent, who are undead because they live on in memories or stories. Theirs is a quietly human, not divine or heroic, immortality: they have no fame, no public memorials, no grand accomplishments, only their own singular experience. In Constantine’s hands the poignancy of their passing is mitigated by their intangible persistence, which creates uncanny but often comforting continuities between past and present.

These continuities are at the heart of Constantine’s novel The Life-Writer, published in the U.K. in 2015 and just released in North America by Biblioasis. It begins abruptly, as Eric is dying—his identity and circumstances only gradually come into focus. Eric’s is a good death, as far as that is possible; he and his wife Katrin are able to spend the necessary time focusing “on where and who they were and what they were doing in the present tense.”

more here.

amos oz on judas

Cover_judasJonathan Freedland at The Guardian:

The man who for decades has been Israel’s best known literary voice is proclaiming his “deep love” for “one of the greatest Jews who ever lived”. Amos Oz recalls falling for “this Jew” many years ago, when, as a teenage kibbutznik, he became enchanted by “his poetry, his humour, his compassion, his warmth, his simplicity”. Oz’s sweet hymn of praise is addressed to Jesus Christ.

If that comes as a surprise, it’s not only because Oz is an Israeli Jew. It’s also because he’s written often – and fiercely – of the role centuries of Christian persecution played in nurturing the Jewish longing for a homeland. But whatever anger he harbours toward Christian Europe, for Jesus, Oz expresses only fond admiration. Even if, the writer adds with a smile, “he and I disagree on many things – like any two Israelis”.

Now aged 77, his spectacles attached to a cord around his neck, he is still blessed with the rugged good looks and spellbinding English that have made international literary audiences swoon since the 1970s. This autumn cinemagoers might join them, thanks to the release of Natalie Portman’s film adaptation of A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz’s bestselling memoir-cum-novel. But for now he is in London to promote his latest novel, the first for more than a decade: Judas in English, it was published in Hebrew as The Gospel According to Judas.

more here.