Good riddance, Allison

She pulled the last election out of the fire with a vicious attack on some politically unsophisticated but otherwise decent people. She won’t be missed.



I’d recommend reading Ross Douthat as a matter of routine just because he’s a sharp writer. This post on liberalism and pluralism is no exception:

But this is where the problem comes in. Because as Bazelon’s blithe (and increasingly typical) dismissal of current religious-liberty concerns suggests, it’s precisely when people in liberal societies see themselves as out on the vanguard of history that they’re least likely to concede that they might, just might, be making a mistake, and most inclined to feel instead that the thing to do is shatter the shield wall around the remaining bastions of unenlightenment rather than permit them to persist. It’s when a consensus is at its most self-confident, in other words — and therefore most vulnerable to the errors of overconfidence — that the kind of pluralism that might serve as a corrective becomes hardest for that consensus’s exponents to accept.

The cult of empiricism

A sensible rebuttal to the Nate Silvers of the world from Leon Wieseltier:

An opinion with a justification may be described as a belief. The justification that transforms an opinion into a belief may in some instances be empirical, but in many instances, in the morally and philosophically significant instances, it will not be empirical, it will be rational, achieved in the establishment of the truth of concepts or ideas by the methods of argument and the interpretation of experience. A certain kind of journalistic commentary, when it is done rightly, is a popular version of the same project, an application of thoughtfully (and sometimes wittily) held principles to public affairs, and is therefore an essential service to a free society.

The pursuit of happiness

To be sure, it does not automatically follow that a man is happy, just because he enjoys what he has set his heart on; many are miserable because they are in love with things that should not be loved, and they become even more miserable when they enjoy them.

Augustine. City of God VIII.8.

Modern mythology

Richard Lehman, from his weekly summary of the medical journals:

When it all began, it seemed so promising. Our fate, we were told, is written in our genes, so if we could read our whole genome we would be able to predict illness with astonishing accuracy. This delusion continues to sustain a research effort consuming billions of dollars and billions of hours of scientific time. Here is a summary of progress to date: “In this exploratory study of 12 volunteer adults, the use of whole genome sequencing (WGS) was associated with incomplete coverage of inherited disease genes, low reproducibility of detection of genetic variation with the highest potential clinical effects, and uncertainty about clinically reportable findings.

Science is useful, but you should regard its publicists with the skepticism appropriate to someone trying to sell you one of those miracle exercise gadgets on television at 2 am.

For a more detailed look at the current state of genetic science as she is peddled to the public, there’s a longer piece from The New Atlantis here.

Ghosts and the multiverse

The inevitability of scientific progress is regarded as nearly axiomatic. And looking back at the last century, who could argue that we don’t now have a subtler, more detailed understanding of particles and forces and all their attendant interactions than before? But it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the stories physicists (and others) tell are themselves a strange amalgam. One distilled in part from the genuine successes of careful theorizing and experimentation, and in part from the peculiar fads of the age. From an essay by Philip Ball:

Scientists working at the forefront of the invisible will always be confronted with gaps in knowledge, understanding, and experimental capability. In the face of those limits, they draw unconsciously on the imagery of the old stories. This is a necessary part of science, and these stories can sometimes suggest genuinely productive scientific ideas. But the danger is that we will start to believe them at face value, mistaking them for theories.

A reflective examination of the history of ‘science’ might suggest that certain theories, declaimed with great gravity by people with impressive credentials, may someday reveal more about contemporary culture than the secrets of the universe they purport to uncover.

Scientists, familiarized now to the concept of invisible fields, had begun to speculate about non-material beings that inhabit unseen planes of existence. Maxwell’s friends Peter Guthrie Tait and Balfour Stewart, both professors of physics, published The Unseen Universe (1875), in which they presented the ether—supposedly the rarefied fluid that carries Maxwell’s waves—as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, both of which they considered to be populated with intelligences. Some of the pioneers of the telegraph had already drawn parallels with spiritualism, which they called “celestial telegraphy.”

Recognizing at the time which aspects of contemporary theory will hold up, and which will look eccentric or just wrong is the hard part.