Science and Ideology

Georges LeMaitre is, in some sense, the literal father of the Big Bang Theory, in the sense of “father” as a Catholic priest, as he was a priest and a theologian as well as a gifted astrophysicist (even if his PhD is from the wrong institute of technology).  As such, he offers a rare glimpse of the Galileian problem from the opposite perspective:  someone with too obviously “religious” baggage offering up a theory too much at odds with the areligious conventional wisdom.

Einstein, previously a believer in steady state universe, may have been instantly won over by LeMaitre’s model, but other contemporary astrophysicists and cosmologists were not of the same level of genius.  Many reacted to LeMaitre’s argument by noting the similarity between the Big Bang Theory and the concept of creation ex nihilo as per Aquinas:  it seemed to them that LeMaitre, who, after all was a Catholic theologian on top of a physicist, was selling Catholic theology in the garb of modern physics, and was something to be resisted.  Whether LeMaitre intended this is difficult to discern:  at minimum, he certainly recognized the problem, according to those who had personal interactions with him.  If so, however, this redoubled his effort to keep as much distance between his theory and religion, as captured in the following quote:

As far as I see, such a theory [of the primeval atom] remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being. He may keep, for the bottom of space-time, the same attitude of mind he has been able to adopt for events occurring in non-singular places in space-time. For the believer, it removes any attempt to familiarity with God, as were Laplace’s chiquenaude or Jeans’ finger. It is consonant with the wording of Isaiah speaking of the ‘Hidden God’ hidden even in the beginning of the universe … Science has not to surrender in face of the Universe and when Pascal tries to infer the existence of God from the supposed infinitude of Nature, we may think that he is looking in the wrong direction.

Indeed, when Pope Pius XII wanted to refer to the Big Bang as the moment of creation in a public announcement, Fr. LeMaitre advised against it:  it was bad enough that people were seeing religious propaganda in his theory.  It would be worse if the religious leaders actually did use it as part of propaganda.

This underscores a fundamental problem with “selling” science beyond scientists.  We might want to believe that “science” is self-evident truth that stands by itself.  In fact, “science” stands on the bulwark of empirical uncertainty.  Science stands on the strength of the data that undergirds it and the interpretation of that data:  science is true as far as we can see, based on statistical implications of the data in light of the theoretical understanding of how universe works as far as we understand it.  Professional scientists spend lifetimes learning both.  Laypeople do not.  Their understanding of both the data and the theoretical underpinnings of science are full of gaps, misconceptions, and other problems.  These problems do not necessarily mean that laypeople are “dumb”:  they simply have not invested time and effort to learn the ways of science, that is all.  Since they spent their time and energy on other things, they may well be far cleverer than scientists on other matters, even.  Rather, at best, they “know” what scientists say and they believe it as far as they trust the scientists and their motives.

Note that, among LeMaitre’s skeptics, the distrust of his motives as a priest led to undue skepticism of his theory, except for those of exceptional genius like Einstein who could evaluate his theory solely on its merits.  We are not speaking of mere “scientists,” but men of great genius themselves like Fred Hoyle.  If they had trouble buying into theories that offend their existing preconceptions, why should we think laypeople with far less scientific expertise would simply lap up whatever some famous scientist has to say?

The art of persuasion, unfortunately, is not well appreciated by many who fancy themselves scientists:  they believe that they have the truth on their side and the heathens who reject it must be forcibly converted at the sword point if necessary.  If this sounds incredible, this was in fact done in some societies–i.e. the Soviet Russia.  A version of this also captures the essence of beliefs held by people like Richard Dawkins.  Less stringent adherents to this view subscribe the notion that “scientific” findings must be used to influence society and policymaking even in face of opposition by many in society, through propaganda and various skulduggery as necessary, if the issues are “important” enough.

I had written about the controversy surrounding the findings by Michael LaCour before.  Recently, Science has published another article that seems to affirm his findings, ironically authored by those who debunked the original article.  What does this really say, though?  At first glance, it might appear that the article is saying that those who are bigoted against transgender people can be persuaded to change their mind via personal contact that offer them an alternate perspective.  So a victory for progressive social tolerance demonstrated via science(tm), yay, right?  Well, wrong!  What it does show is that those who think they have a strong opinion about a topic that they don’t know a great deal about via personal experience in fact do not have very durable opinions on them, even if the opinions might be extreme.  In fact, this might be seen as an illustration of how extreme views are not the same as durable views, and some people, under some circumstances, can change their views all over the place–in fact, Phil Converse found a version of this, in terms of more conventional political matters, in landmark research in public opinion back in 1960s:  he was rather contemptuous of those who did, as weak-minded spineless lot without real sense of politics, or those lacking “ideologies.”  In a sense, this is not untrue even for the Brockman and Kalla study:  those who reported prejudice against the transgendered don’t really know anything about transgender people.  So what if they had extreme views?  It’s founded on nothing of import and can be shifted even with relatively little input.  The logic can be illustrated quite simply, using a Bayesian probability model.  The durability of the opinion change uncovered in the study is new, but it is also true that they were not given an impulse, say, in via counterpropaganda, to change their opinion in opposite direction as is often the case in politics.  In other words, all that the research has shown in that people’s opinions, even when they seem “strong,” (in terms of extremity) are quite malleable, garbed in the politically touchy lingo.

The political sensibilities of today are, in some sense, the Catholicism of Fr. LeMaitre that shaped the perception of Big Bang Theory to his skeptics, or, indeed, the Jewishness of Einstein to the Nazis.  The findings by Brockman and Kalla are about public opinion and their malleability, not gay science, no more than Big Bang Theory is Catholic science or relativity is Jewish physics.  Yet, this is how it might be perceived by those with, eh, different socio-political viewpoints.  Those who are heralding this finding are not doing any favors by draping the theory in rainbow colors, any more than Pius XII did by claiming the Big Bang as the Biblical moment of Creation.  Science has do abandon politics and ideology, social (and especially political) science even more so.  The more “political” it gets, the more it moves into the realm of propaganda, away from science.  As one might say, even if you think you are shilling for the truth, if you are shilling, you are still a shill.  Even if what you are shilling is the truth, nobody trusts a shill, and they are right not to.

PS.  Shilling for truth undermines the truth rather than elevate the shilling because “shilling” depends on the conclusion, not the process.  A shill is an advocate for a cause:  he believes some cause to be “true” and is using the truth to bolster his cause, perhaps not unlike the Devil quoting the Scripture to make his case–if you do not share the shill’s cause.  That the Devil is quoting the Scripture, if anything, if you know you are talking to the Devil, is all the more reason NOT to trust the Devil.  If you are trying to sell the Bible to a Christian, you don’t want to come off as the Devil.


The Smugness of Ideological Elitism

I’d been busy and didn’t have time to write much lately, but this is a fantastically insightful piece.  I do think that the author is erroneous to assume that the problem of smugness is particularly unique to “liberals,” assuming there are such things as “liberals” to begin with.  Rather, it is the central characteristic of those who are locked in a self-reinforcing echo chamber without willingness to think outside the bubble.  This is true of conservatives and liberals, multiculturalists and racists, atheists and religious fundamentalists alike–and the greatest enemy of science.  (In fact, I am known to rant that Richard Dawkins, as the advocate of “scientism,” is a greater enemy of science than creationism.)  Of course, this is how the Qing dynasty China fell, as did many other civilizations that thought themselves at the apex of the universe as they knew it.  Something that we should think about very very carefully.

There is only one counter to this smugness:  genuine curiosity untarnished by prejudice.  If you see someone doing something that you would not normally and naturally expect, don’t judge them as being irrational or silly for it:  think why they are doing what they are doing.  This reminds me of a joke that I heard about Russians and the Chukchi (the native people in Eastern Siberia, across from Alaska):

A Chukcha and a Russian geologist go hunting polar bears. They track one down at last. Seeing the bear, the Chukcha shouts “Run!” and starts running away. The Russian shrugs, calmly raises his gun, and shoots the bear. “Russian hunter, bad hunter!” the Chukcha exclaims. “Ten kilometres to the yaranga, you haul this bear yourself!” (h/t to Wikipedia)

Missing Voters vs. Infrequent Voters

This article in the New Yorker is one of more perceptive summaries of the goings on in politics today and how it meshes with the research in political science in recent years–and how the latter has informed campaigns.  What political science supposedly taught campaigners is the art of micro-campaigning, of designing campaigns aimed at voters with specific proclivities, backed by “data science,” and attempting to hit their specific triggers that would bring them out.  That a vast number of American voters simply don’t care to vote, and that they are broadly characterized by certain commonly held characteristics and viewpoints did not enter into calculations.  Thus, much has been made of the careful data-based ground game waged by the likes of Barak Obama and Ted Cruz and how they achieved marginal gains with these small groups of non- or infrequent voters, and how, after spending much money going after many of these different groups, they could mobilize the voters in large numbers.

In case of the Trump campaign, in particular, the absence of the ground game has been much spoken of.  In case of the Sanders campaign, the ground game is both extensive and very careful, but it is definitely true that the focus is as much on the big message targeted at broad audiences as microtargeting small audiences.

The logic of microtargeting is, of course, hardly new in American politics:  as David Brady noted, the defining feature of American parties is that there are made up of hundreds of small parties, centered around individual candidates catering to smallish local audiences, with the overall party reputation playing a relatively small role.  The greater irony of the modern microtargeting, in a way, is that this has been deemed to be important even as the party reputations have grown ever so important and politics nationalized, leaving very little wiggle room as to how these varying audiences can be approached.  Technology does make it possible to target them more precisely, but what messages can these technological innovations deliver beyond the party reputation?  There may be some cute slogans and exhortations, but not really the kind of goods of substantive value to the voters delivered as Jamie Whitten did with dozens of pork barrel projects benefitting his Mississippi district.  In other words, a lot of cheap talk, personalized for specific audiences and delivered via high tech, but still cheap.  Not exactly a game changer, except in cost of campaigning.  Agenda setting and nationalized party reputation–basically, the conventional politics–did most of the mobilization.  Technology and money added only to the margins.

It is not so much that the presence of the many missing voters was actively ignored.  Rather, catering to them was just too inconvenient for them.  Low tech–in other words, poor and undereducated–voters would not have been so impressed by fancy high tech gimmicry–even if they could be targeted by such things effectively.  Having to address their policy desires would upset many, eh, more “important” people in politics.  So successful mobilization of thousands at millions per pop is lionized as grand achievement of the new age while millions of nonvoters are ignored–until, that is, people who don’t care much for the conventional politics, as they themselves have not been at the core of the agenda-setting elite find the opportunity to enter the fray.  Typical.


Elites and Democracy–Bismarck and Today

A few disclaimers:  Billmon is a famous liberal anonymous blogger from years ago who still “blogs” occasionally through extended tweets.  While I don’t necessarily agree with his viewpoints, I’ve always found him thoughtful and insightful, and this is another of his tweetstorms that deserves further thoughts.

I am not exactly a “believer” in democracy:  voters, even a majority of voters, want many things, sometimes even contradictory things, certainly not always moral, wise, or noble.  If Arrow has taught us anything, it is that democratic choices are often schizophrenic, illogical, and sometimes can be manipulated in support of all manner of political agendas.  If anything, Arrow imposed too many restrictions in his assumptions and downplayed the possible manipulative recourse that agenda setters can take.  Yet, the core of Arrow’s insight was not that democracy is manipulable, but that it is unpredictable.  No amount of agenda setting short of too overt rigging can ensure that the institutions builders can always get what they want via procedurally “democratic” means.  Far from showing that democracy is infeasible, this inherent unpredictability and resistance to institutionalization is probably the greatest virtue of democratic rule.  Successful political leaders can embrace this instability to do great things.  Not so successful ones try to stifle it through overinstitutionalization and pay a price.

Political success in an unstable environment, however, is not an easy task.  A simple institutional “autopilot” that reacts predictably is doomed to fail.  Some form of “adaptive intelligence” that can intervene continuously, via vast a network of “underground gnomes” who work tirelessly for maintenance of the political process (to borrow Mayhew’s description) is necessary, in the manner of a modern fly-by-wire system that channels aeronautical properties that should make a plane normally uncontrollable not only flyable, but supremely agile.

The transformations of the electoral landscape in 1980s and 1990s represented a stroke of political genius:  the Demcocrats became too preoccupied with the pursuit of their own political agendas, ironically, in a manner foreseen by Mayhew in 1974–the aspect which gets too often overlooked.  Hung up on their excessive partisanship, they wrecked their own institutional checks in the House that helped maintain the balance until 1970s in the name of party reform, by dismissing Speaker McCormick and destroying the committee system.  Odysseus was thus unbound, free to rush towards the sirens that would assuredly wreck his ship, and they did, electorally speaking.  Whether the choices made by the Democrats in 1970s were normatively moral or not is not a question here, assuming they were even able to systematically make a coherent choice.  (Recall that it was the schizophrenic fight between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in 1980 that alienated the working class white voters.  In 1980, the working class voters were in favor of allegedly “liberal” Kennedy, NOT supposedly moderate Carter during the primaries, only for many of them–not that many, incidentally, based on exit polls that show increase of about 10% in support among the working class voters from Ford in 1976 to Reagan in 1980–to desert to presumably “conservative” Reagan.)  Maintaining the balancing act, without alienating a significant chunk of the electoral support base is something that people like Rayburn excelled at, and this is increasingly a lost art, as can be seen among the modern day Republican Party.

It is worth remembering that the first modern socialist welfare state was the German Empire of the Kaiser, the singular achievement of its archconservative chancellor Bismarck who remained hostile to socialist politicians until the very end of his life.  He did so by recognizing that political intent and ideological consistency mattered little for great many of the masses:  as long as they were granted material benefits of socialism and political and social stability in which to enjoy them securely, they were content to play along with the game in which he set the agenda to the exclusion of everyone.  He understood, in other words, that agenda setting power in a democratic or quasi democratic state is a privilege granted by a majority who did not feel that they were being taken advantage of by the agenda setter.  If a majority–whichever majority it might be–feels that they are being systematically exploited, they would consider a chaos or a madman acceptable to the institutional status quo, nevermind the outcomes themselves, as witness the history of German after Bismarck himself.

Incidentally, Mayhew–and apparently, ONLY Mayhew in recent years–recognized this:  the idea of “universalism” that he propounded as the secret behind successful party politics in US Congress until 1970s echoes the Bismarckian principle:  establish a stable political environment in which everyone gets most of what they really want, and the agenda setter gets enough leverage to advance his political goals up to a point.  The greedier the agenda setter gets, the more exploitive he becomes of the majority–however it may be defined–the potentially unstable the political order becomes.  If the institutions are twisted to help achieve the agenda setter’s aims by renouncing the implicit guarantees that have been granted, as the House committees were in 1970s and the developments in other political institutions in US have followed since then, the potential for an institutional breakdown grows, and no amount of institutional rigging can forestall this–because, when institutions are already broken, institutional rules are nothing but scraps of paper with no significance.  If anything, attempting to stop an angry majority with further institutional rigging can only break the system down even further.

Bismarck’s successors took the the fruits of his labor for granted, accepted the stability that his institutions created as part of the natural state of politics, and proceeded to rig the institutions too cleverly for their own good.  Within a generation, they gave the world a Great War and subsequently destroyed their own country in defeat and revolution.  One might say the same about the old Antebellum American politicians who got too clever in 1840s and 50s, which ruptured both parties by 1860 and produced the Civil War.  Much less a rupture came in 1910-1912, which began, a generation after adoption of Reed’s Rules, too clever an application by half of its provisions by Joe Cannon broke the Republican Party for a decade–although the incompetence and heavy-handedness of Woodrow Wiilson coupled with the genius of Nicholas Longworth brought about its resurrection.

Memories of these revolutions are far behind us.  The genius of the likes of Longworth and Rayburn is dismissed as bunkums of history long buried irrelevant for today.  Kaiser Wilhelm, no doubt, said the same of Bismarck in 1914 or President Buchanan in 1859.  Let us hope history does not repeat itself on such huge scale.