Closing the books

by Daniel on January 4, 2008

I have a minor annual tradition (as in, I did it once) of beginning the year with a short list of arguments that I am no longer going to have. As I said when I produced the first such list, while not necessarily claiming to have the definitive truth on these subjects, my views

“Are no longer up for argument, pending absolutely spectacular new evidence. I’ve had a number of arguments on all of these points over the last year; I’ve heard all sides, and I’ve made up my mind. If anyone has an argument which they genuinely believe to be new, go ahead, but don’t expect much. Please note also that I am no longer interested in methodological debates over the merits of statistical studies which purport to prove the matter one way or another on any of these propositions.”

It’s basically a way of clearing the decks of old pointless arguments, leaving room for new pointless and bitter arguments (I hope to post next week a short list of things that I plan to argue about a heck of a lot more, being a list of tacit assumptions made by other people that I regard as highly questionable). If you want to have a last go on any of the short list below, now’s the time, but otherwise it is books closed, I’m afraid; I have made a reasonable donation to the Grice United Fund which ought to cover any genuinely deserving intellectual charity cases. So here’s the list – it’s actually shorter than previous years.

Communist iconography, such as posters and t-shirts of Che Guevara, the equivalent of Nazi insignia. Members and ex-members of Communist parties in Western Europe and the USA, the equivalent of war criminals. In general, the use of inflated rhetoric about Stalinist or Maoist massacres as a debating technique [DISAGREE].

Basically, chaps, the joke has been made, the reds have been baited, the pearls have been clutched and we are all now well aware of how bloody, bloody, fucking awful Josef Stalin was. So the two steps forward we can take are:

  • To repeat the exercise with respect to the British Empire, and all pretend to faint at the sight of the Union Flag, write sarcastic obituaries of old Tories, etc
  • To all grow up a bit.
I am in favour of the second. I might also include in this category the whole “Liberal Fascism” book, but I think I won’t because 1) you can’t stop having an argument that you never bothered with in the first place and 2) I fear that this would tax the meagre resources of the Grice Fund; Jonah Goldberg appears to be in need not so much of intellectual charity as an intellectual Marshall Plan.

Prediction markets, extraordinarily powerful, predictive, useful, generative of epistemic free lunches galore, to be promoted in all sorts of areas as solutions to practical problems, etc [DISAGREE]

As I say, I think I’ve put in the hard yards here and I agree with John (and broadly with this working paper which Henry emailed me, thanks); they are reasonably good at summarising already public information, but not more than that, and I have not, after many attempts, been convinced that there is any particular reason to believe that any of the projected schemes for applying them very widely would have anything like the results claimed. I’m sure this debate will continue, but it will do so ex me.

God, non-existence and/or general perniciousness of as a vital matter for public debate. Moderate amounts of publicly financed god-bothering as an inevitable first step on the road to theocracy. Teaching of evolution to people who don’t want to learn it as a vital goal of public policy. [DISAGREE]

Entirely agree with Jamie here that a sensible man does not spend his precious and decidedly finite waking hours talking or thinking in any great depth about that in which he does not believe. The amount of time and energy poured into this bottomless pit by passionate, intelligent and liberal individuals who could be doing Avogadro’s number of more worthwhile things is enough to make me want to weep. I particularly won’t be reading or discussing any of the books on the subject unless and until I get hold of a series of the original and canonical texts by Oolon Colluphid.

Educational standards in UK, no worse than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago and probably substantially better. [AGREE]

Again, I’ve looked at the evidence on this and more or less made up my mind. In particular, I’m not in the market for arguments which rely on, say, a physics exam being “more difficult” in the past because it used to require the memorisation of a list of formulas. The same exam could be made even more difficult by turning out all the lights and making candidates wear boxing gloves, but this would not have much to do with the standard of physics learning either (I don’t believe that standards of driving have declined due to the obsolescence of double-declutching, or that standards of football have declined due to the invention of laceless balls). Also not in the market for anything based on anecdotal evidence about university graduates who can’t spell, simply on the basis of the number of intelligent, well-educated people who can’t spell.

The Years 1960-69, popular culture, Marxist political philosophy and theories of education prevalent during, not very important for the understanding or analysis of any social trends today [AGREE]

It is “Twenty Years Ago Today” that people wrote their first articles saying that it was “Twenty Years Ago Today” that the Beatles sang that it was “Twenty Years Ago Today” at the start of Sergeant Pepper. Even if you entered the teaching profession as a brand new graduate in September of 1969, you would be reaching retirement age this year. The Vietnam War is now as far in the past as the Second World War was at the beginning of the Vietnam War. There has, basically, been at least one complete political and cultural generation turned over since the 1960s. I therefore declare 2008 to be officially The Year That We No Longer Have The 1960s To Blame. Making a small exception for the purely demographic effects of the Baby Boomers on economic and political issues of relevance, any and all remaining social problems are our own fault. To suggest that German football fans might start singing “Three World Cups and No Gulf War, Doo Dah” at international fixtures is probably irrelevant to this topic, but I like the joke so much I am determined to shoe-horn it in anyway.

And there we are. Next week, I hope, a list of the arguments I intend to be having, in spades.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Closing the books « without proof or evidence
01.06.08 at 1:59 am
1968 at Jacob Christensen
01.06.08 at 10:01 pm

{ 97 comments }

1

alkali 01.04.08 at 6:04 pm

You might clarify some of the wording on these — for example, I take it that you do believe item #1 (Communist iconography is not the equivalent of Nazi iconography), but you don’t believe item #2 (extraordinary claims about prediction markets). I’m unclear which parts of item #3 you do or don’t want to credit.

[hmm, I see what you mean - is this version any better? - dd]

2

Sk 01.04.08 at 6:09 pm

“The Vietnam War is now as far in the past as the Second World War was at the beginning of the Vietnam War.”

1945-1964 (give or take) is 19 years.

1972 (give or take) to 2008 is 36 years.

The Vietname War is now twice as far in the past as the Second World War was at the beginning of the Vietnam War.

Another way to look at it: every time you listen to the Beatles or the Who (or when Paul McCartney plays at the Superbowl, etc), it is as if, in 1970, you were listening to folks from 1932-dressing like a flapper, for instance.

That should give you an idea of how stagnant Western Culture has been since 1969. The Baby Boomers latched on and haven’t let go, 20 years past the time they should have.

Sk

3

armando 01.04.08 at 6:10 pm

Regarding educational standards….

I can’t speak generally, but there is a pretty broad consensus amongst UK mathematicians that part of the pressure for longer degrees comes from the fact that new undergraduates need to be taught at university what was once assumed was taught at A level. While I suspect that this is not confined to math, it also needn’t mean a catastrophe for educational standards. There are more undergraduates than there used to be, after all. But just because the cries of educational woe tend to come from reactionary sources, doesn’t mean we should be ignoring the changes required by our educational system – and I fear the strong response to “education is terrible” tends to be “everything is fine, no need for change”.

Not sure, I totally buy the God thing…by analogy, are we all to stop picking through the rubble of the arguments for intervention in Iraq because we don’t believe there were any?

4

Trevor 01.04.08 at 6:11 pm

I therefore declare 2008 to be officially The Year That We No Longer Have The 1960s To Blame.

Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!

5

dsquared 01.04.08 at 6:13 pm

every time you listen to the Beatles or the Who (or when Paul McCartney plays at the Superbowl, etc), it is as if, in 1970, you were listening to folks from 1932-dressing like a flapper, for instance

The Beatles did, in fact, release a version of “Ain’t She Sweet” (composed 1927) in 1964, on the other hand.

6

Robin Green 01.04.08 at 6:13 pm

Singing what?

[errr umm yes, I took the opportunity to correct that sentence fragment - dd]

7

Bruce Baugh 01.04.08 at 6:36 pm

I really like this concept, and am entertained to find that I agree on the uselessness of one of the topics while being on the other side of it. But then it’s one of those things where fresh evidence is all that would matter about it.

(No, not bothering to say which. Since I don’t have fresh evidence or any new arguments to bring to bear, I’d only be bringing it up to be told “Not interested.” And that’s dumb.)

8

Kathleen 01.04.08 at 6:58 pm

HOORAH for the God/Evolution resolution, yes, absolutely. The vast swathes of otherwise lively and interesting blogs devoted to snarkily affirming God Does Not Exist and Creationism is Stupid, gaahhh. If shooting fish in a barrel is your chosen hobby, great, but to endlessly congratulate yourself for it: oh, hush up.

9

lemuel pitkin 01.04.08 at 7:31 pm

This otherwise excellent post could be slightly improved by adding an explicit swipe at Brad DeLong under the first item.

10

Ben Alpers 01.04.08 at 7:32 pm

Two partial disagreements….

1) Arguments over creationism are not simply about “teaching of evolution to people who don’t want to learn it,” but also about people who do want their children to learn about evolution not having their children lied to in school. There’s also a question as to whether ignorant parents have an inalienable right to keep their children ignorant. At any rate, there’s more here than simply telling people with irrational beliefs systems that they shouldn’t have irrational belief systems, which seems to be the emphasis of your closing book.

2. The Sixties may be dead and gone. But myths about the Sixties remain an absolutely central part of the way many Americans, especially on the political right, understand this country. And those myths, however mythical, are not going away. The Sixties, like World War II and the Civil War, remain enormously culturally powerful, despite the inaccuracy of public memory about them. You can make a good case that the Sixties shouldn’t matter anymore. But they do nonetheless. Perhaps a fall-back position would be to change debates about the Sixties to debates about the memory of the Sixties, which is where the real culture-war action is today.

11

dsquared 01.04.08 at 7:54 pm

8: right on the general principle that this one is in the way of a snipe, wrong on the specific target.

12

P O'Neill 01.04.08 at 7:55 pm

I’m glad you left space for the latest iteration of “The Lancet study was a vast Sorosian conspiracy” argument that’s now spanning keyboards all the way from Glenn Reynolds to The Corner.

13

Stuart 01.04.08 at 8:00 pm

There’s also a question as to whether ignorant parents have an inalienable right to keep their children ignorant.

I agree if you put it that way, in the same way that child abuse is not acceptable even (especially) from parents. The problem is you also have to accept that parents can teach their belief systems to their children without the state intervening. What do you do when those conflict with each other? Are you allowed to teach your children anything that has there is no scientific consensus on (like the existence of God), but not any part of it that is against scientific consensus (like 6 day Creationism)?

14

SamChevre 01.04.08 at 8:06 pm

Would it be possible to add links to the prior versions, so I can have a complete list of useless arguments.

I do think I disagree on the 60’s–like the War for Southern Independence, how to remember them is a big deal.

15

dsquared 01.04.08 at 8:10 pm

Are you allowed to teach your children anything that has there is no scientific consensus on (like the existence of God), but not any part of it that is against scientific consensus (like 6 day Creationism)?

at the end of the day, as with Santa Claus and cannabis, you can teach your children what they like, but in the end they will find out.

16

Toxic 01.04.08 at 8:33 pm

It strikes me kind of … crazy that someone would suggest that listening to 30 year old Beatles records is a sign of cultural stagnation. Only someone who lived in a culture that was in no way stagnant would think 30 years is old enough to put in the rubbish bin simply for being too old. In fact, a culture that is the polar opposite of stagnant, the frigging anti-stagnant.

If people were still reading Beowulf in the original Old English because nothing better had happened in the last 1000 years, that would be a good case. Busting out the White Album once a year cause you like it is not stagnation.

17

Matthew 01.04.08 at 8:42 pm

What’s the big story with Santa Claus?

18

mq 01.04.08 at 8:44 pm

I find prediction markets an obnoxious survival of 1990s market-worship. Down with the Washington consensus!

19

Martin James 01.04.08 at 8:47 pm

It would be interesting to know which if any topics on this or similar list in the past you were convinced to change sides.

If there aren’t many, then it seems questionable that you are learning anything from the arguments although others may be learning from you.

Your world may be improved by others being convinced to drop their questionable assumptions, but it seems more likely that you are being suckered into doing intellectual labor for others by arguing them out of questionable positions yet receiving relatively little benefit yourself. (Certainly out-arguing the ignorant can’t provide much pleasure compared to being enlightened.)

You may want to consider creating this kind of list more frequently, say, with the change of seasons.

20

Barry 01.04.08 at 8:47 pm

Also, the big debate is not on what parents teach children, but what is taught by the schools. In which case the debate is whether or not public schools should teach science in science classes, or trim science education to fit certain factions’ (scientifically unjustified) beliefs.

21

Barry 01.04.08 at 8:48 pm

Sorry, I was posting before comments #15-17.

22

Richard J 01.04.08 at 8:56 pm

With all respect (born 1978) the Beatles have never really played that large a cultural part in my life I know the songs, as does everyone, but in almost exactly the same sense that I know the songs of Flanders and Swann… I don’t really feel a cultural kinship with it, y’know?

23

perianwyr 01.04.08 at 9:17 pm

What’s the big story with Santa Claus?

he is fake

condolences

24

r@d@r 01.04.08 at 9:57 pm

With all respect (born 1978) the Beatles have never really played that large a cultural part in my life

you kids with that noise you call music – why, when i wuzzyer age….grrnbrbleflap…. –> born 1965

soon we will read the following:

With all respect (born 1988) the Clash have never really played that large a cultural part in my life

saints preserve us.

25

magistra 01.04.08 at 9:57 pm

After a lot and convaluted debate on another blog, I’ve realised that not only is it not worth arguing with anyone who believes that ‘abortion is murder’, it’s also not worth arguing with anyone who believes that suggesting any restrictions on abortion whatsoever mean you’re a woman-hating murderer.

26

Tom Hurka 01.04.08 at 10:22 pm

Obvious point: there’s a hell of a lot more kids listening to 40-year old music today than there were in 1967, i.e. listening to the Beatles today (though the White Album is surely one of their worst) than to Rudy Vallee in 1967.

27

djw 01.04.08 at 10:27 pm

Having recently attempted to engage some loud and proud Dawkinsian identity-politics athiests myself, I can’t say I blame you on that one.

28

mq 01.04.08 at 10:50 pm

25: when you really think about it, it’s not worth arguing with anybody.

29

roger 01.04.08 at 11:06 pm

Nick Tosches makes a spirited argument that the master artist of the 60s, the singing stylist who dominated the decade like a colossus, was, of course, the one, the only, the incomparable Dean Martin. There was, of course, Everybody loves somebody – the true phenomenon of 1964, a song written in 1949; there was the top ten tv show, starting in 1965; there were the numerous movies. Like Leonardo da Vinci, the master left his mark on every medium. As the second Mrs. Martin said about her husband, “he’s either the most complex guy around or the simplist. There’s either nothing under there or too much.” I think they said the same about Sam Beckett.

Now there’s an argument for ya.

30

idlemind 01.04.08 at 11:08 pm

at the end of the day, as with Santa Claus and cannabis, you can teach your children what they like, but in the end they will find out.

At least in some parts of the US this is no longer true. Evangelicals have their own news media, their own art and music (which is asymptotically approaching the mainstream in quality), their own educational materials on nearly any subject — even their own peanut butter. One votes at ones church, and the precinct monitors are fellow church members. It’s now possible to live and die with little more direct encounter with the “secular” world than a quadrennial visit to the DMV, unless one is somehow unable to homeschool ones children or send them to a church-run school. By placing well-indoctrinated candidates on the local school board, the danger of encountering hostile ideas even there can be ameliorated. (It’s generally only when efforts to suppress “secular influences” overreach beyond the local level, such as in Kansas, that organized opposition to this occurs.)

I have strong issues with the approach taken by the self-anointed warriors in the fight against God, but that has more to do with what I believe is the highly counterproductive effects of such an aggressive approach — their fears are, I think, justified even though their tactics are often repellent.

31

will u. 01.04.08 at 11:33 pm

With all respect (born 1988) the Clash have never really played that large a cultural part in my life

Finally, we will have:

With all respect (born 1998) Radiohead have never really played that large a cultural part in my life

32

dave heasman 01.05.08 at 12:42 am

“The Beatles did, in fact, release a version of “Ain’t She Sweet” (composed 1927) in 1964, on the other hand.”

Recorded and released in Germany in 1961. The same year Shane Fenton & The Fentones did “Five Feet Two, Eyes of Blue” (composed 1925).

33

dave heasman 01.05.08 at 12:46 am

“Obvious point: there’s a hell of a lot more kids listening to 40-year old music today than there were in 1967″

Didn’t have to be Rudy Vallee. Could have been Bix, Blind Lemon Jefferson..

34

Crystal 01.05.08 at 12:56 am

@30: Evangelical peanut butter? If I make a sammich from it, does that mean I could walk on water?

And yes, the self-congratulatory blithering on about how “I don’t believe in God therefore I am soooooo smart and sooooo kewl” gets old, fast. I find it productive of a happier disposition and lower blood-pressure to concentrate on talking about things I like and believe in.

35

rea 01.05.08 at 1:08 am

the War for Southern Independence

825–Egbert of Wessex defeated Beornwulf of Mercia, right?

36

Matthew Kuzma 01.05.08 at 1:14 am

Why should we not teach evolution to people who don’t want to learn it? What makes that okay for evolution but not history or geometry?

Or are you merely saying that teaching evolution to people who don’t want to learn it isn’t a vital goal of public policy? Then I might agree with you, although I would still say that not “teaching” Intelligent Design as if it were actually knowledge should very much be a vital goal of public policy.

37

David Kane 01.05.08 at 1:22 am

Am I a masochist [... snip - dd]

Maybe you are, may be you aren’t, but what you are, Kane, is banned from my threads on Crooked Timber. Do you not remember me banning you? Love, Dd.

38

Phill Hallam-Baker 01.05.08 at 1:52 am

What about that disgusting little ceremony they force on US school kids where they all salute the flag? Isn’t the essence of totalitarian ideology that it be imposed by state decree?

I don’t just find the idolatrous worship of flags offensive on religious grounds, it is offensive on political grounds as well.

Take the famous Abu Ghraib Crucifixion photograph, swap the black shroud for an American flag. Isn’t that what the Bush administration has made it stand for?

39

SG 01.05.08 at 2:18 am

dsquared, you seem to imply with this list that you are willing to continue arguing about IQ and race. Was that an oversight on your part? Do you consider that argument still open? Or is it just that you have a certain masochistic streak which requires occasional satisfaction?

40

Brett Bellmore 01.05.08 at 2:46 am

Why wouldn’t it be open? It is, however the idea may trouble some, an empirical question, and we’re on the verge of having the tools to settle it on that basis. Declining costs of gene sequencing and improving data analysis are going to reinforcing/overturning a lot of conventional wisdom in the next couple of decades. And we’ll be better for it in the end. But for now it’s all so much sturm und drang.

41

Consumatopia 01.05.08 at 3:00 am

God, non-existence and/or general perniciousness of as a vital matter for public debate. Moderate amounts of publicly financed god-bothering as an inevitable first step on the road to theocracy. Teaching of evolution to people who don’t want to learn it as a vital goal of public policy. [DISAGREE]

It’s unfortunate to group all of those together. It’s perfectly reasonable to be annoyed by both New Atheists and theocrat creationists. I’m with you in the first one but against you on the latter two.

Admittedly, that might be comparatively more reasonable from an American point of view, in which Christianity is culturally dominant but church state separation and public teaching of evolution are more or less the status quo, so people attacking it from either side are the troublemakers, so the default “goddam im so sick of hearing about this crap” position is in the middle.

42

bad Jim 01.05.08 at 3:28 am

The amount of time and energy poured into this bottomless pit by passionate, intelligent and liberal individuals who could be doing Avogadro’s number of more worthwhile things is enough to make me want to weep.

Yeah, it’s almost as ridiculous as following a sport.

43

idlemind 01.05.08 at 3:44 am

Crystal, I don’t know if that peanut butter provides any magical powers, but it does taste almost sickly sweet to me.

44

Matt McIrvin 01.05.08 at 4:28 am

Teaching of evolution to people who don’t want to learn it as a vital goal of public policy. [DISAGREE]

This is, I think, a misunderstanding of the usual situation. In the US, what happens more often is that, following a concerted stealth campaign by the Discovery Institute or some such organization, a local school board gets packed with sleeper agents who then try to institute the teaching of creationism to people who don’t want to learn it. If this happens in my district I am not going to shut up about it.

I also think it’s important to provide some kind of counterargument when the “creation science” folks try to muddy the waters with misleading pseudoscience. I am not much of a New Atheist type and have a generally live-and-let-live attitude toward other people’s metaphysics, but when they spread bullshit about science I can’t stand it, regardless of whether my time would be better spent on redistributionist economic arguments (a subject on which I sadly lack any sort of expertise). If this is a character flaw so be it.

45

Matt McIrvin 01.05.08 at 4:31 am

…Of course, you may have been talking about some situation concerning religious schools in the UK instead, in which case I plead insufficient knowledge.

46

nick s 01.05.08 at 6:15 am

Am I a masochist–

Stick your balls in a vice, then tell us. And phone up a few journalists to see if they’ll quote you on it, because you seem to do that pretty fucking well.

47

John Emerson, 01.05.08 at 6:39 am

I may disagree with Mr. Davies about his specific conclusions about this question or that, but I will fight to the death to protect his right to refuse to argue about these questions.

Also, I would ask him to strangle the last freakonomist in the guts of David Kane.

48

Chris Bertram 01.05.08 at 8:22 am

_Obvious point: there’s a hell of a lot more kids listening to 40-year old music today than there were in 1967, i.e. listening to the Beatles today (though the White Album is surely one of their worst) than to Rudy Vallee in 1967._

Depends on what you’re measuring Tom. An awful lot of kids in 1967 were listening to recycled blues (via the British blues revival) and folk music of uncertain date either given semi-“authentic” performance or adapted.

49

alexis 01.05.08 at 10:38 am

So what are we still allowed to be Grumpy about? Do tell.

50

bernarda 01.05.08 at 12:04 pm

What percentage of recent American college graduates know who fought in the Vietnam War and what the outcome was? Maybe each one here can do their own personal survey.

Other myths that are beyond debate: the “success” of Reaganomics; America is a xian nation; Reagan “won” the war against the Soviet Union; trickle down works; welfare mothers; Iraq’s WMD’s; Cheney is a human being; cutting taxes for the richest is good for the economy; the “free market” and the invisible hand. Oh, the list is much longer.

51

notsneaky 01.05.08 at 12:30 pm

“Communist iconography, such as posters and t-shirts of Che Guevara, the equivalent of Nazi insignia. Members and ex-members of Communist parties in Western Europe and the USA, the equivalent of war criminals. In general, the use of inflated rhetoric about Stalinist or Maoist massacres as a debating technique [DISAGREE].”

Alright I’ll take the bait on this one. Obviously context matters. And yeah most of it is just silly kids taking off a Bart Simpson shirt and putting on a Che Guevera shirt. But would you really want to wear a hammer and sickle or a portrait of Lenin in the house of someone who’s brother got disappeared by the NKVD, who’s husband was tortured because he belonged to the ‘wrong’ socialist party, or who’s cousin was a mechanic hence a “bourgeoisie” who belonged in the coal mines of Vorkuta?
There’s certain matters of just common plain good taste here. And yeah, that’s how your choice #2 is relevant. Just like you don’t wanna go marching through Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland all in orange or flying the tri-color in Algeria. Also, don’t name your bowling league after a bunch of folks who killed a whole lotta people. Yeah, the Union Jack IS very inappropriate (or at least in very bad taste) in certain circumstances. Even if you think puns are funny (which they’re not).

See, this is where all that post modernism stuff is relevant.

52

FrancisT 01.05.08 at 1:41 pm

In re: educational standards. I think they have slipped slightly and for evidence I present the current Cambridge Maths Tripos Part IA

When I took this just over 20 years ago it included an introduction to Special Relativity and to Quantum Mechanics. The former is now a strictly optional course and the latter appears to have disappeared from the syllabus. It looks like these have been replaced with a Mechanics class that is intended as a remedial for people who didn’t have that in their A level studies. And I think something else must have been added because I recognise the contents of at least one of the Part IB course despite switching to CompSci at the end of Part IA

Given that just about everything else is the same I think I agree that standards (at the top at least) have not slipped much BUT they must have slipped slightly because otherwise it doesn’t make too much sense that these topics would have been moved.

53

Barry 01.05.08 at 1:41 pm

“dsquared, you seem to imply with this list that you are willing to continue arguing about IQ and race. Was that an oversight on your part? Do you consider that argument still open? Or is it just that you have a certain masochistic streak which requires occasional satisfaction?”
Posted by SG

I second this, and was surprised not to see this in your list, given the sheer quantity of Bellmore spread in other CT threads about this.

54

Barry 01.05.08 at 1:44 pm

Brett Bellmore: “Why wouldn’t it be open? It is, however the idea may trouble some, an empirical question, and we’re on the verge of having the tools to settle it on that basis. “

So far, the record is very close to 100% abuse of existing tools by you and yours. Given that (a) your side couldn’t tell the truth to save your lives and (b) ignores any new information which contradicts your arguments, I don’t anticipate your side’s arguments improving; just being spiced up with new buzzwords.

55

Zxcvbnm 01.05.08 at 2:47 pm

I spend time thinking about God and how to oppose the religious right, even though I am an atheist. Most people do believe in God, and that is interesting from a psychological standpoint. Moreover, the evidence for evolution is so strong, that I cannot take anyone who denies it at this point seriously. I don’t want the evolution deniers making policy in any area involving the natural sciences in any way. I recognize that in the USA any political alliance will have to contain these people, but I at least want them out of *science* policy and *science* classrooms.

Likewise, I think about various flavors of libertarianism and anarchism even though I don’t believe in them either, and I probably come closer to understanding the average person by thinking about religion than I do thinking about Alfred Jay Nock for example.

56

Zxcvbnm 01.05.08 at 2:59 pm

I should of course have written Albert Jay Nock instead of Alfred.
I guess I’ve been thinking too much about either Anglo-Saxon England or Batman recently.

57

dsquared 01.05.08 at 2:59 pm

I would never dream of closing down the IQ/race debate – it offers far too many opportunities for my enemies to humiliatie themselves.

58

dsquared 01.05.08 at 3:01 pm

51: well exactly. You would actually have to search quite a long way (or at least you would if you started at my front door) to find someone whose family had been victimised by the NKVD, whereas more or less all decent people would be offended by a swastika.

59

Ben Alpers 01.05.08 at 3:48 pm

Interestingly here in Germany, where displaying the swastika is illegal, it often shows up in leftwing anti-Nazi youth insignia (e.g. a jacket patch featuring a Swastika with an enormous raised middle finger in front of it). My guess is that the negated swastika is a lot more powerful–and harder to argue against–than much of the old symbolism of the left, which especially here in the former East has an air of kitsch and “Ostalgie” about it.

60

Maynard Handley 01.05.08 at 6:26 pm

Regarding educational standards:

(1) Independent of how stupid most students are, it tells us something about how stupid most pundits, journalists and the chattering classes are that not once in my life have I ever seen this issue discussed in terms of distributions.

What is the goal here and what is the claim?
Are standards supposedly slipping across all students, good and bad, or only at the low end or only at the high end? And are we interested in fixing them at the low end (the US fixation on “special needs”) or in the middle or at the high end?

Which leads me to
(2) If you don’t address point 1, then anecdotes about what is or is not happening at universities are irrelevant since you may well now be talking at cross purposes. Obviously what happens at universities only tells us what is changing wrt the upper 20..30% of students, and even there we have distributional issues:
would it matter that fewer students could perform basic calculus if more students at the extreme high end are capable of truly original PhD and post-PhD work?

Do students know less math on their 1st day of university because they spent their teenage years playing XBox, or because the pie of school time marked “science” has grown so much larger (mainly biology, but some earth science and a little physics) that math had to be squeezed out in school?

61

Marcus Vitruvius 01.05.08 at 6:31 pm

I guess it depends on what you mean by, “To all grow up a bit.”

I myself think that no longer wearing t-shirts glorifying Communist murderers would be an excellent show of faith in that regard. By context, I guess you mean that people should stop commenting on it when other people continue to do it.

62

Maynard Handley 01.05.08 at 6:33 pm

“With all respect (born 1988) the Clash have never really played that large a cultural part in my life

Finally, we will have:

With all respect (born 1998) Radiohead have never really played that large a cultural part in my life

It would be nice to believe that by the time this second comes to pass, we (society as a whole and specifically those who write teen-directed movies and TV) will have finally moved beyond the ridiculous trope that a person is defined by the music they listen to — an idea that became inane even before listening to music became the intensely private exercise defined by walkmans.

63

Gdr 01.05.08 at 7:35 pm

Teaching of evolution to people who don’t want to learn it as a vital goal of public policy

Who exactly makes this argument?

If you’re referring to opposition to the teaching of creationism in science classes in public schools, then that’s a very tendentious way of putting it. It’s almost as if you’re trolling for the argument that you say you don’t want to have.

64

peter ramus 01.05.08 at 8:12 pm

@26 tom hurka:

It’s not at all obvious to me that today’s kids listen to more 40 year old music than kids did back in 1967.

This point may or may not be worth arguing endlessly, but, as it isn’t on dsquared’s list, here.

65

notsneaky 01.05.08 at 8:39 pm

re 58. Actually you’d probably have an easier time starting at your front door than starting at my current front door. But if you spun the globe and randomly stopped it with your finger it’d be a different story. And that’s sort of the point. The reason communist iconography is acceptable and nazi ain’t is because we all look at it from a very American/Anglo perspective. Even those of us who aren’t. Dominant cultural world view or whatever.

66

Backword Dave 01.05.08 at 8:52 pm

Francist at 52: I studied physics at a poly (sorry, didn’t make Cambridge), so I at least have some understanding of the issues here. I think there’s a case that neither Special Relativity nor Quantum Mechanics are appropriate undergraduate studies. They’re both recondite, difficult, and of limited application to the real world. If you’re arguing something like quantum mechanics underpins modern computing, so it would be good if graduates understood why semiconductors semiconduct (that is, understand understand rather than repeat-formulae understand), I’m inclined to agree. It took 300 years for physics to get there, however. There’s a lot of mechanics one can learn first, and that’s the stuff which put men on the moon and Voyager into interstellar space. Roughly, my position is: both subjects are post-graduate material for prospective specialists. One wouldn’t need them for most graduate jobs. They may have been dropped not because of declining school standards but because the pass marks had to be embarrassingly low.

67

Adam Kotsko 01.05.08 at 9:02 pm

64: Is there widespread revulsion at Stalin and Mao in Russia and China, respectively? Is there the same deep-seated sense of shame as with Hitler and Germany? My guess is no.

68

Thrymyr 01.05.08 at 9:21 pm

65: Certainly Mao is still officially revered – his embalmed body is on public display in Beijing, much as Lenin’s is in Moscow. Stalin’s was next to Lenin for a time, but removed & buried by Khrushchev in 1961.

69

Frank Evans 01.05.08 at 10:57 pm

Glad to see that Daniel sticks by his word and doesn’t even nibble at the multiple baits peppered throughout this comment-list that would re-open the book on pointless arguments.

Found this blog over the holiday period, one of my new companions for 2008.

70

Mrs Tilton 01.05.08 at 11:30 pm

Daniel @58,

You would actually have to search quite a long way (or at least you would if you started at my front door) to find someone whose family had been victimised by the NKVD

See, whilst I certainly agree with your broader point — indeed might well have an old Che shirt in a box in the attic — notsneaky is right: context does matter. Notsneaky, for example, would probably be done with his search much, much faster than you would be.

Ben @59,

Some German prosecutors have in fact tried to use the Hakenkreuz-ban to punish antifascists using the antinazi symbols you describe. See, e.g. (The Stuttgart court’s decision has, you will be pleased to learn, since been overturned.)

71

Mrs Tilton 01.05.08 at 11:31 pm

(Wooh, there was an HTML effect I wasn’t expecting! Let’s try again:)

Some German prosecutors have in fact tried to use the Hakenkreuz ban to punish antifascists using the antinazi symbols you describe. See, e.g. (The Stuttgart court’s decision has, you will be pleased to learn, since been overturned.)

72

Steve LaBonne 01.06.08 at 1:40 am

There’s a lot of mechanics one can learn first, and that’s the stuff which put men on the moon and Voyager into interstellar space.

I’m a biologist and my knowledge of even basic physics is more than a little rusty, but I’ve long had a feeling that the basics of QM would be more easily learned by students who had first been taught the Hamiltonian formulation of classical mechanics. Does that make any sense?

73

SG 01.06.08 at 1:57 am

backword dave, quantum mechanics and special relativity have been dropped from undergrad courses? When I studied physics 12 years ago they were in every year from 1st to Honours. Is this phenomenon a special English thing, or were you talking about generalist physics courses?

74

Matt McIrvin 01.06.08 at 3:49 am

gdr@62: The more I think about it, the more I think he’s talking about the British controversy over government funding of religious schools that may teach creationism, not the American push to teach creationism in legally secular public (that is, government-run) schools. Some of the same issues come up as in the American case, but the context is all different.

75

Matt McIrvin 01.06.08 at 3:51 am

I’ve long had a feeling that the basics of QM would be more easily learned by students who had first been taught the Hamiltonian formulation of classical mechanics. Does that make any sense?

Yes. It’s probably true. And the Lagrangian extremal-action formulation might be useful too.

76

Kevin Hayden 01.06.08 at 7:39 am

Also, had Lee Harvey Oswald lived to pass on his Free Huey! trading cards to his grandchild, Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain would never have gotten depressed, Nirvana would be viable, we all would have reached it by now, steroids-free, and Isreal would have no reason to stage 9-11, Letterman would still have his hair and Hillary Clinton -who’s always secretly loved him – would not have to choose lesbianism over Presbyterianism. She could then keep her love-child and raise her to be a wholly different Britney Spears, who rescues dolphins and vagrants, including Paul Wolfowitz, before he was recruited by Scoop Jackson’s robot zombie terror cell and went on to launch his murderous rampage utilizing irresistible brainwave ions that compelled an entire political party to start doinking each others eyes out, in the manner of Moe Howard.

But then, I guess Jack Ruby’s mom wouldn’t have had it any other way.

77

Helen 01.06.08 at 8:34 am

I fear that this would tax the meagre resources of the Grice Fund; Jonah Goldberg appears to be in need not so much of intellectual charity as an intellectual Marshall Plan.

ZzzzzzzzzinggggOwwwwwwww!

78

FrancisT 01.06.08 at 11:12 am

sg, Matt & Backword Dave (@ 65),

Sg makes me go back and look at the course list I posted and the relateted part 1B course list. I’m pretty sure hamiltonian stuff was in the first year syllabus and for sure the Part IB Eletromagentism course was. So yes Cambridge has certainly dumbed down its Maths tripos a bit. The logical assumption is that this is because it’s students simply don’t have the background from A levels that they did when I took mine (A levels in Maths, Further Maths & Physics plus S Level Maths).

To go back to Dave’s point about relevance. The point of the Cambridge Maths Tripos is not exepcted to be 100% practical. It is supposed to be the top end of mathematics courses for people who will probably become very rich hedge fund people, research in to maths at graduate level etc. etc. Direct practicality and applicability to a “regular job” is not its intention.

And yes this is elitist. That should be a good thing. Because the alternative is that you think that we should all somehow accept that a degree in West African Basket Weaving entitles one to become a rocket scientist.

I should note that I switched from Maths to Computer Science at the end of my first year precisely because I realized that the Maths course was neither what I wanted nor needed.

79

SG 01.06.08 at 11:53 am

I’m no expert Francis but that looks like a pretty good first year maths course to me. I can’t see anything there to complain about.

I think choices of particular topics can be made to defend either view. For example I didn’t learn about Lagrangians until 2nd year, and when I was introduced to them they were like a bolt from the blue. Why couldn’t we do this in first year? I thought, because doing all those dynamics problems from first principles was hell. So I could argue that not having encountered them in first year means I had a crap education. But alternatively there is some Newtonian purist out there (bless his or her cotton socks) who thinks that Lagrangians are a short cut which shouldn’t be taught until everyone can solve any dynamics problem from first principles. For such a person, teaching Lagrangians before third year represents a dumbing down of the system (like calculators for 12 year olds!)

Maybe the important thing is the quality of the teaching and the level of rigour in the particular choice of material to be covered?

(And I would add that the tripos as presented in that link is pretty much 0% practical)

80

SG 01.06.08 at 11:53 am

sorry, francist

81

lemuel pitkin 01.06.08 at 3:47 pm

You know, if some bright person could get rid of the hyphens-mean-striketrhough “feature” of the Crooked Timber comments stylesheet, a lot of formatting catastrophes could be averted.

82

Gdr 01.06.08 at 4:27 pm

The more I think about it, the more I think he’s talking about the British controversy over government funding of religious schools that may teach creationism

In the UK just as in the US the argument is about whether it’s right to use public money to teach creationism in science classes, not about whether all pupils should have to study evolution whether they like it or not.

If this is indeed the argument dsquared is referring to, he’s chosen a very misleading way to frame it.

83

Jon H 01.06.08 at 9:55 pm

“The reason communist iconography is acceptable and nazi ain’t is because we all look at it from a very American/Anglo perspective. “

Alternatively, it could be because today’s neo-nazis are still nasty thugs, whereas the Communists you’re likely to run into are more pathetic hippies; some of today’s hardcore socialists might go for violent rhetoric, but if you’re getting curb-stomped in Moscow it’s probably a neo-Nazi doing it.

84

dsquared 01.06.08 at 10:14 pm

No, I mean the teaching of creationism in schools. Fun fact – I was taught creationism in my school, also the authenticity of the Turin shroud. It didn’t do me any harm, because, like many other kids, I had sources of information other than my teachers. Perhaps (although I doubt it) there were other kids in my class who didn’t have access to libraries and whose parents sheltered them from the dreadful knowledge of evolution and are ignorant of it even today, but I have to observe that the sky has not fallen in.

85

Steve LaBonne 01.06.08 at 11:18 pm

Now that I think about it, I suppose physics majors in the US as well as the UK probably are exposed to Hamiltonian and Lagrangian mechanics before tackling QM. But as a biochemistry major I went straight from strictly Newtonian mechanics in intro physics to the rudiments of QM in physical chemistry. I think this was non-optimal to say the least- it’s unnecessarily confusing to encounter Hamiltonians first in their QM form.

86

Steve LaBonne 01.06.08 at 11:21 pm

Perhaps (although I doubt it) there were other kids in my class who didn’t have access to libraries and whose parents sheltered them from the dreadful knowledge of evolution and are ignorant of it even today, but I have to observe that the sky has not fallen in.

I can buy this as far as the UK goes, but the situation in the US is a good deal more worrisome. There is a significant number of such kids, and international comparisons of science knowledge suggest that the sky si at least a little bit wobbly here.

87

SG 01.07.08 at 12:18 am

I would say the sky didn’t fall in because hordes of state-school-educated plebs are holding it up with their knowledge of the truth of these things. I certainly know people from “independent” (Australian for “religious but cheap”) schools who, being uninterested in science, didn’t look up the alternative views and so left school with the idea that “evolution is just another theory”. Cute, but only if a very small number of people think so.

I suspect you have added this issue to your fuck-off list because you are making the assumption that there will always be a large and healthy state school sector in the UK, and that the influence of religious forces on schooling will continue to decrease, so the issue is of minor and decreasing importance. That certainly is the case in Australia, but I wonder if some of the American readers here find it hard to be so sanguine about the fundamental stability of their school system?

88

Chris 01.07.08 at 3:03 am

If we’re looking at the general issue of lack of progress since the sixties, the fact that we’re still listening to many of the same songs seems less telling than the fact that we’re still flying many of the same military aircraft. The F111 fighter, bought in the 60s and introduced in 1973, will be in the armoury of the Australian airforce until 2010 or possibly 2012 – nearly forty years; the equivalent of flying the Focker triplane in Korea, or the original Wright Brothers model in WWII. The English Electric Canberra (despite its name, an RAF rather than RAAF thing) did even better, cracking the big 5-0.
Even more impressively, the B52 bomber has now notched up 55 years – Wright flyers in Korea, soon in Vietnam – and no end in sight.
The last time we saw this kind of stability was ship design 1700-1850.

89

Pyre 01.07.08 at 8:01 am

Toxic @ 15: “If people were still reading Beowulf in the original Old English….”

Hwæt are you talking about? Beowulf is not meant to be read in Old English — Beowulf is meant to be heard recited in Old English, as you sit in a mead-hall drinking from a horn.

Which is why one of the SCA’ers I’ve met has invested the time and effort to learn it by heart, in that language.

90

Pyre 01.07.08 at 8:28 am

As for the Communist vs. Nazi symbolism issue: the USSR lasted an order of magnitude longer than the Third Reich and killed many more people, the Korean and Vietnam wars are still bitter memories to many Americans whose loved ones were killed or tortured by Communists, while the Tiananmen Square massacre is a quite recent and well-recorded public event.

(And “Americans” includes immigrants from Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, Eastern Europe,….)

Anyone who thinks adopting any of those symbols is funny or innocuous may simply not care about the emotions they’ll provoke. A cold but silent disapproval doesn’t make headlines; and getting shut out from a shop or such is just an opportunity to sue, right?

91

Tracy W 01.07.08 at 9:20 am

That should give you an idea of how stagnant Western Culture has been since 1969. The Baby Boomers latched on and haven’t let go, 20 years past the time they should have.

It’s even worse than that. I attended two plays by Shakespeare last year – the Elizabethans latched on and haven’t let go, 400 years past the
time they should have.

92

dsquared 01.07.08 at 11:52 am

If we’re being picky about this, Beowulf was in Anglo-Saxon; people might have listened to it in Old English in Geoffrey Chaucer’s day but not before or since.

93

Steve LaBonne 01.07.08 at 2:15 pm

If we’re being picky about it we might as well get it correct. Old English = Anglo-Saxon. Chaucer’s language = Middle English. As Yogi Berra would say, you could look it up.

94

Gdr 01.07.08 at 2:21 pm

“Anglo-Saxon” and “Old English” are two names for the same language. The English of Chaucer’s day is generally known as “Middle English”.

I was taught creationism in my school, also the authenticity of the Turin shroud. It didn’t do me any harm

This is rather like saying “I was beaten as a child, and it didn’t do me any harm.” It might be true, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about corporal punishment as a matter of public policy.

95

s.e. 01.07.08 at 8:22 pm

I was taught American Exceptionalism in my school and it never did me any harm either.

96

SG 01.08.08 at 9:47 am

the Korean and Vietnam wars are still bitter memories to many Americans whose loved ones were killed or tortured by Communists

I presume by this logic, anyone who wears a US flag symbol in Vietnam is fair game…?

97

notsneaky 01.08.08 at 8:03 pm

It would be potentially obnoxious.

Comments on this entry are closed.