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Posts Tagged ‘society’

As this blog has progressed, I’ve gotten farther away from the technical, and moved more towards a focus on the best that’s been accomplished, the best that’s been thought (that I can find and recognize), with people who have been attempting to advance, or have made some contribution to what we can be as a society. I have also put a focus on what I see happening that is retrograde, which threatens the possibility of that advancement. I think it is important to point that out, because I’ve come to realize that the crucible that makes those advancements possible is fragile, and I want it to be protected, for whatever that’s worth.

As I’ve had conversations with people about this subject, I’ve been coming to realize why I have such a strong desire to see us be a freer nation than we are. It’s because I got to see a microcosm of what’s possible within a nascent field of research and commercial development, with personal computing, and later the internet, where the advancements were breathtaking and exciting, which inspired my imagination to such a height that it really seemed like the sky was the limit. It gave me visions of what our society could be, most of them not that realistic, but they were so inspiring. It took place in a context of a significant amount of government-funded, and private research, but at the same time, in a legal environment that was not heavily regulated. At the time when the most exciting stuff was happening, it was too small and unintelligible for most people to take notice of it, and society largely thought it could get along without it, and did. It was ignored, so people in it were free to try all sorts of interesting things, to have interesting thoughts about what they were accomplishing, and for some to test those ideas out. It wasn’t all good, and since then, lots of ideas I wouldn’t approve of have been tried as a result of this technology, but there is so much that’s good in it as well, which I have benefitted from so much over the years. I am so grateful that it exists, and that so many people had the freedom to try something great with it. This experience has proven to me that the same is possible in all human endeavors, if people are free to pursue them. Not all goals that people would have in it would be things I think are good, but by the same token I think there would be so much possible that would be good, from which people of many walks of life would benefit.

Glenn Beck wrote a column that encapsulates this sentiment so well. I’m frankly surprised he thought to write it. Some years ago, I strongly criticized Beck for writing off the potential of government-funded research in information technology. His critique was part of what inspired me to write the blog series “A history lesson on government R&D.” We come at this from different backgrounds, but he sums it up so well, I thought I’d share it. It’s called The Internet: What America Can And Should Be Again. Please forgive the editing mistakes, of which there are many. His purpose is to talk about political visions for the United States, so he doesn’t get into the history of who built the technology. That’s not his point. He captures well the idea that the people who developed the technology of the internet wanted to create in society: a free flow of information and ideas, a proliferation of services of all sorts, and a means by which people could freely act together and build communities, if they could manage it. The key word in this is “freedom.” He makes the point that it is we who make good things happen on the internet, if we’re on it, and by the same token it is we who can make good things happen in the non-digital sphere, and it can and should be mostly in the private sector.

I think of this technological development as a precious example of what the non-digital aspects of our society can be like. I don’t mean the internet as a verbatim model of our society. I mean it as an example within a society that has law, which applies to people’s actions on the internet, and that has an ostensibly representational political system already; an example of the kind of freedom we can have within that, if we allow ourselves to have it. We already allow it on the internet. Why not outside of it? Why can’t speech and expression, and commercial enterprise in the non-digital realm be like what it is in the digital realm, where a lot goes as-is? Well, one possible reason why our society likes the idea of the freewheeling internet, but not a freewheeling non-digital society is we can turn away from the internet. We can shut off our own access to it, and restrict access (ie. parental controls). We can be selective about what we view on it. It’s harder to do that in the non-digital world.

As Beck points out, we once had the freedom of the internet in a non-digital society, in the 19th century, and he presents some compelling, historically accurate examples. I understand he glosses over significant aspects of our history that was not glowing, where not everyone was free. In today’s society, it’s always dangerous to harken back romantically to the 19th, and early 20th centuries as “golden times,” because someone is liable to point out that it was not so golden. His point is to say that people of many walks of life (who, let’s admit it, were often white) had the freedom to take many risks of their own free will, even to their lives, but they took them anyway, and the country was better off for it. It’s not to ignore others who didn’t have freedom at the time. It’s using history as an illustration of an idea for the future, understanding that we have made significant strides in how we view people who look different, and come from different backgrounds, and what rights they have.

The context that Glenn Beck has used over the last 10 years is that history as a barometer on progress is not linear. Societal progress ebbs and flows. It has meandered in this country between freedom and oppression, with different depredations visited on different groups of people in different generations. They follow some patterns, and they repeat, but the affected people are different. The depredations of the past were pretty harsh. Today, not so much, but they exist nevertheless, and I think it’s worth pointing them out, and saying, “This is not representative of the freedom we value.”

The arc of America had been towards greater freedom, on balance, from the time of its founding, up until the 1930s. Since then, we’ve wavered between backtracking, and moving forward. I think it’s very accurate to say that we’ve gradually lost faith in it over the last 13 years. Recently, this loss of faith has become acute. Every time I look at people’s attitudes about it, they’re often afraid of freedom, thinking it will only allow the worst of humanity to roam free, and to lay waste to what everyone else has hoped for. Yes, some bad things will inevitably happen in such an environment. Bad stuff happens on the internet every day. Does that mean we should ban it, control it, contain it? If you don’t allow the opportunity that enables bad things to happen, you will not get good things, either. I’m all in favor of prosecuting the guilty who hurt others, but if we’re always in a preventative mode, you prevent that which could make our society so much better. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like trying to have your cake, and eat it, too. It doesn’t work. If we’re so afraid of the depredations of our fellow citizens, then we don’t deserve what wonderful things they might bring, and that fact is being borne out in lost opportunities.

We have an example in our midst of what’s possible. Take the idea of it seriously, and consider how deprived your present existence would be if it wasn’t allowed to be what it is now. Take its principles, and consider widening the sphere of the system that allows all that it brings, beyond the digital, into our non-digital lives, and what wonderful things that could bring to the lives of so many.

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Peter Foster, a columnist for the National Post in Canada, wrote what I think is a very insightful piece on a question that’s bedeviled me for many years, in “Why Climate Change is a Moral Crusade in Search of a Scientific Theory.” I have never seen a piece of such quality published on Breitbart.com. My compliments to them. It has its problems, but there is some excellent stuff to chew on, if you can ignore the gristle. The only ways I think I would have tried to improve on what he wrote is, one, to go deeper into the identification of the philosophies that are used to “justify the elephantine motivations.” As it is, Foster uses readily identifiable political labels, “liberal,” “left,” etc. as identifiers. This will please some, and piss off others. I really admired Allan Bloom’s efforts to get beyond these labels to understanding and identifying the philosophies, and the mistakes that he perceives were made with “translating” them into an American belief system that were at the root of his complaints, the philosophers who came up with them, and the consequences that have been realized through their adherents. There’s much to explore there.

Foster also “trips” over an analogy that doesn’t really apply to his argument (though he thinks it does) in his reference to supposed motivations for thinking Earth was the center of the Universe, though aspects of the stubbornness of pre-Copernican thinking on it, to which he also refers, apply.

He says a lot in this piece, and it’s difficult to fully grasp it without taking some time to think about what he’s saying. I will try to make your thinking a little easier.

He begins with trying to understand the reasons for, and the motivational consequences of, economic illiteracy in our society. He uses a notion of evolutionary psychology (perhaps from David Henderson, to whom he refers), that our brains have been in part evolutionally influenced by hundreds of thousands of years (perhaps millions. Who knows how far back it goes) of tribal society, that our natural perceptions of human relations, regarding power and wealth, and what is owed as a consequence of social status, are influenced by our evolutionary past.

Here is a brief video from Reason TV on the field of evolutionary psychology, just to get some background.

Edit 2/16/2016: I’ve added 3 more paragraphs relating to another video I’m adding, since it relates more specifically to this topic.

The video, below, is intriguing, but I can’t help but wonder if the two researchers, Cosmides and Tooby, are reading current issues they’re hearing about in political discourse into “stone age thinking” unjustifiably, because how do we know what stone age thinking was? I have to admit, I have no background in anthropology or archaeology at this point. I might need that to give more weight to this inference. The topic they discuss here, about a common misunderstanding of market economics, relates back to something they discussed in the above video, about humans trying to detect and form coalitions, and how market mechanisms have the effect of appearing to interfere with coalition-building strategies. They say this leads to resentment against the market system.

What this would seem to suggest is that the idea that humans are drastically changing our planet’s climate system for the worst is a nice salve for that desire for coalition building, because it leads one to a much larger inference that market economics (the perceived enemy of coalition strategies) is a problem that transcends national boundaries. The constant mantra of warmists that, “We must act now to solve it,” appears to demand a coalition, which to those who feel disconnected by markets feels very desirable.

One of the most frequent desires I’ve heard from those who believe that we are changing our climate for the worst is that they only want to deal with market participants, “Who care about me and my community.” What Cosmides and Tooby say is this relates back to our innate desire to build coalitions, and is evidence that these people feel that the market system is interfering, or not cooperating in that process. What they say, as Foster says, is this reflects a lack of understanding of market economics, and a total ignorance of the benefits its effects bring to humanity.

Foster says that our modern political and economic system, which frustrates tribalism, has only been a brief blink of an eye in our evolutionary experience, by comparison. So we still carry an evolutionary heritage that forms our perceptions of fairness and social survival, and it emerges naturally in our perceptions of our modern systems. He says this argument is controversial, but he justifies using it by saying that there is an apparent pattern to the consequences of economic illiteracy. He notices a certain consistency in the arguments that are used to morally challenge our modern systems, which does not seem to be dependent on how skilled people are in their niche areas of knowledge, or unskilled in many areas of knowledge. It’s important to keep what he says about this in mind throughout the article, even though he goes on at length into other areas of research, because it ties in in an important way, though he does not refer back to it.

He doesn’t say this, but I will. At this point, I think that the only counter to the natural tendencies we have (regardless of whether Foster describes them accurately or not) is an education in the full panoply in the outlooks that formed our modern society, and an understanding of how they have advanced since their formation. In our recent economy, there’s a tendency to think about narrowing the scope of education towards specialties, since each field is so complex, and takes a long time to master, but that will not do. If people don’t get the opportunity to explore, or at least experience, these powerful ways of understanding the world, then the natural tendency towards a “low-pass filter” will dominate what one sees, and our society will have difficulty advancing, and may regress. A key phrase Foster uses is, “Believing is seeing.” We think we see with our eyes, but we actually see with our beliefs (or, in scientific terms, our mental models). So it is crucial to be conscious of our beliefs, and be capable of examining and questioning them. Philosophy plays a part in “exercising” and developing this ability, but I think this really gets into the motivation to understand the scientific outlook, because this is truly what it’s about.

A second significant area Foster explores is a notion of moral psychology from Jonathan Haidt, who talks about “subconscious elephants,” which are “driving us,” unseen. We justify our actions using moral language, giving the illusion that we understand our motivations, but we really don’t. Our pronouncements are more like PR statements, convincing others that our motivations are good, and should be allowed to move forward, unrestricted. However, without examining and understanding our motivations, and their consequences, we can’t really know whether they are good or not. Understanding this, we should be cautious about giving anyone too much power–power to use money, and power to use force–especially when they appeal to our moral sensibility to give it to them.

Central to Foster’s argument is that “climate change” is a moral crusade, a moral argument–not a scientific one, that uses the authority that our society gives to science to push aside skepticism and caution regarding the actions that are taken in its name, and the technical premises that motivate them. Foster excuses the people who promote the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as fact, saying they are not frauds who are consciously deceiving the public. They are riding pernicious, very large, “elephants,” and they are not conscious of what is driving them. They are convinced of their own moral rightness, and they are honest, at least, in that belief. That should not, however, excuse their demands for more and more power.

I do not mean what I say here to be a summary of Foster’s article. I encourage you to read it. I only mean to make the complexity of what he said a bit more understandable.

Related posts: Foster’s argument has made me re-examine a bit what I said in the section on Carl Sagan in “The dangerous brew of politics, religion, technology, and the good name of science.”

I’m taking a flying leap with this, but I have a suspicion my post called “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind,” exploring what Ayn Rand said in her novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” perhaps gets into describing Haidt’s “motivational elephants.”

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The death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, on August 25 got me reflecting on what was accomplished by NASA during his time. I found a YouTube channel called “The Conquest of Space,” and it’s been wonderful getting acquainted with the history I didn’t know.

I knew about the Apollo program from the time I was a kid in the 1970s. I was born two months after Apollo 11, so I only remember it in hindsight. By the time I was old enough to be conscious of the Apollo program’s existence, it had been mothballed for four or five years. I could not be ignorant of its existence. It was talked about often on TV, and in the society around me. I lived in Virginia, near Washington, D.C., in my early childhood. I remember I used to be taken regularly to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Of all of their museums, it was my favorite. There, I saw video of one of the moon walks, the space suits used for the missions (as mannequins), the Command Module, and Lunar Module at full scale, artifacts of a time that had come and gone. There was hope that someday we would go back to the Moon, and go beyond it to the planets. The Air and Space Museum had an IMAX movie that was played continuously, called “To Fly.” From what I’ve read, they still show it. It was produced for the museum in 1976. I remember watching it a bunch of times. It was beautifully done, though looking back on it, it had the feel of a “demo” movie, showing off what could be done with the IMAX format. It dramatizes the history of flight, from hot air balloons in the 19th century, to the jet age, to rockets to the Moon. A cool thing about it is it talked about the change in perspective that flight offered, a “new eye.” At the end it predicted that we would have manned space missions to the planets.

Why wouldn’t we have manned missions that venture to the planets, and ultimately, perhaps a hundred years off, to other star systems? It would just be an extension of the advancements in flight we had made on earth. The idea that we would keep pushing the boundaries of our reach seemed like a given, that this technological pace we had experienced would just keep going. That’s what everything that was science-oriented was telling me. Our future was in space.

In the late 1970s Carl Sagan produced a landmark series on science called “Cosmos.” He talked about the history of space exploration, mostly from the ground, and how our destiny was to travel into space. He said, introducing the series,

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can…

Winding down?

As I got into my twenties, in the 1990s, I started to worry about NASA’s robustness as a space program. It started to look like a one-trick pony that only knew how to launch astronauts into low-earth orbit. “When are we going to return to the Moon,” I’d ask myself. NASA sent probes out to Jupiter, Mars, and then Saturn, following in the footsteps of Voyager 1 and 2. Surely similar questions were being asked of NASA, because I’d often hear them say that the probes were forerunners to future manned space flight, that they were gathering information that we needed to know in advance for manned missions, holding out that hope that someday we’d venture out again.

The Space Shuttle was our longest running space program, from 1981 to 2011, 30 years. Back around the year 2000 I remember Vice President Al Gore announcing the winner of the contract to build the next generation space shuttle, which would take the place of the older models, but it never came to be. Under the administration of George W. Bush the Constellation program started in 2005, with the idea of further developing the International Space Station, returning astronauts to the Moon, establishing a base there for the first time, and then launching manned missions to Mars. This program was cancelled in 2010 in the Obama Administration, and there has been nothing to replace it. I heard some criticism of Constellation, saying that it was ill-defined, and an expensive boondoggle, though it was defended by Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, two Apollo astronauts. Perhaps it was ill-defined, and a waste of money, but it felt sad to see the Space Shuttle program end, and to see that NASA didn’t have a way to get into low-earth orbit, or to the International Space Station. The original idea was to have the first stage of the Constellation program follow, after the space shuttles were retired. Now NASA has nothing but rockets to send out space probes and robotic rovers to bodies in space. Even the Curiosity rover mission, now on Mars, was largely developed during the Bush Administration, so I hear.

I have to remember at times that even in the 1970s, during my childhood, there was a lull in the manned space program. The Apollo program was ended in the Nixon Administration, before it was finished. There was a planned flight, with a rocket ready to go, to continue the program after Apollo 17, but it never left the ground. There’s a Saturn V rocket that was meant for one of the later missions that lays today as a display model on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center. I have to remember as well that then, as now, the program was ended during a long drawn out war. Then, it was in Vietnam. Now, it’s in the Middle East.

Manned space flight ended for a time after the SL-4 mission to the Skylab space station in 1974. It didn’t begin again for another 7 years, with the first launch of the Space Shuttle. The difference is the Shuttle was first conceptualized towards the end of the Apollo program. It was there as a goal. Perhaps we are experiencing the same gap in manned flight now, though I don’t have a sense that NASA has a “next mission” in mind. As best I can tell the Obama Administration has tasked NASA with supporting private space flight. There is good reason to believe that private space flight companies will be able to send astronauts into low-earth orbit soon. That’s a consolation. The thing is that’s likely all they’re going to do in the future–launch to low-earth orbit. They’re at the stage that the Mercury program was more than 50 years ago.

What I ask is do we have anything beyond this in mind? Do we have a sense of building on the gains in knowledge that have been made, to venture out beyond what we now know? I grew up being told that “humans want to explore, to push the boundaries of what we know.” I guess we still are that, but maybe we’re directing that impulse in new ways here on earth, rather than into space. I wonder sometimes whether the scientific community fooled itself into believing this to justify its existence. Astrophysicist, and vocal advocate for NASA, Neil deGrasse Tyson has worried about this, too.

I realized a few years ago, to my dismay, that what really drove the creation of the space program, and our flights to the Moon, was not an ambition to push our frontiers of knowledge just for the sake of gaining knowledge. There was a major political aspect to it: beating the Soviets in “the space race” of the 1960s, establishing higher ground for ourselves, in a military sense. Yes, some very valuable scientific and engineering work was done in the process, but as Tyson would say, “science hitched a ride on another agenda.” That’s what it’s often done in human history. Many non-military benefits to our society flowed from what NASA once did, none of which are widely recognized today. Most people think that our technological development came from innovators in the private sector alone. The private sector did a lot, but they also drew from a tremendous resource in our space and defense research and development programs, as I’ve documented in earlier posts.

I’ll close with this great quote. It echoes what Tyson has said, though it’s fleshed out in an ethical sense, too, which I think is impressive.

The great enemy of the human race is ignorance. It’s what we don’t know that limits our progress. And everything that we learn, everything that we come to know, no matter how esoteric it seems, no matter how ivory tower-ish, will fit into the general picture a block in its proper place that in the end will make it possible for mankind to increase and grow; become more cosmic, if you wish; become more than a species on Earth, but become a species in the Universe, with capacities and abilities we can’t imagine now. Nor do I mean greater and greater consumption of energy, or more and more massive cities.

It’s so difficult to predict, because the most important advances are exactly in the directions that we now can’t conceive, but everything we now do, every advance in knowledge we now make, contributes to that. And just because I can’t see it, and I’m an expert at this, … doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And if we refuse to take those steps, because we don’t see what the future holds, all we’re making certain of is that the future won’t exist, and that we will stagnate forever. And this is a dreadful thought. And I am very tired when people ask me, “What’s the good of it,” because the proper answer is, “You may never know, but your grandchildren will.”

— Isaac Asimov, 1973, from the NASA film “Small Steps, Giant Strides”

Then as now, this is the lament of the scientist, I think. Scientists must ask society’s permission to explore, because they usually need funds from others to do their work, and there is no immediate payback to be had from it. It is for this reason that justifying the funding of that work is tough, because scientific work goes outside the normal set of expectations people have about what is of value. If the benefits can’t be seen here and now, many wonder, “What’s the point?” What Asimov pointed out is the pursuit of knowledge is its own reward, but to really gain its benefits you must be future-oriented. You have to think about and value the world in which your children and grandchildren will live, not your own. If your focus is on the here and now, you will not value the future, and so potential future benefits of scientific research will not seem valuable, and therefor will not seem worthy of pursuit. It is a cultural mindset that is at issue.

Edit 12-10-2012: Going through some old articles I’d saved, I came upon this essay about humanity’s capacity for intellectual thought, called “Why is there Anti-Intellectualism?”, by Steven Dutch at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. It provides some reasonable counter-notions to my own that seem to confirm what I’ve seen, but will still take some contemplation on my part.

There’s no science in the article. In terms of quality, at best, I’d call this an “executive summary.” Maybe there’s more detailed research behind it, but I haven’t found it yet. Dutch uses heuristics to provide his points of comparison, and uses a notion of evidence to provide some meat to the bones. He asks some reasonable questions that are worth contemplating, challenging the notion that “humans are naturally curious, and strive to explore.” He then makes observations that seem to come from his own experience. Overall, he provides a reasonable basis for answering a statement I made in this article: “I wonder sometimes whether the scientific community fooled itself into believing this to justify its existence.” He comes down on the side of saying, in his opinion (paraphrasing), “Yes, some in the scientific community have fooled themselves on this issue.” He discusses the notion that “humans are naturally curious,” due to the behavior exhibited by children. He concludes by saying that children naturally display a shallow curiosity, which he calls “tinkering.” The harder task of creative, deep thought does not come naturally. It’s something that needs to be cultivated to take root. Hence the need for schools. The question I think we as citizens should be asking is whether our schools are actually doing this, or something else.

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