a blog by josef johann

Thursday, January 26, 2012

the long sleepwalk through politics

Newt Gingrich was caught in a lie. Kevin Drum steps back and observes:

There's an odd de facto standard for political lying: you can mislead people to almost any degree and it doesn't really count against you. It's he-said-she-said. But if there's a clear, smoking gun fact that you plainly misrepresent, no matter how trivial, then it's a scandal. By that standard, Newt ought to be in trouble. His dealings with ABC News may not be all that important in the cosmic scheme of things, but by DC standards this is a flat-out, premeditated fabrication and therefore a scandal. Gingrich told a bald-faced lied and he knew he was lying when he did it.

This all fits Newt's personality. He's always been more brazen than even your usual hardened politico because he knows that nobody really cares about fact checking. But he went over the line this time. I wonder if he'll pay a price? 

There's something almost pleading between the lines here. Kevin Drum knows, I know, you know, your dad knows that no scandal is coming. Why? After all, scandals still happen, right? Newt did lie, didn't he? The lie came in the context of marital infidelity, and that subject that reliably causes scandal, right? Right? Is this thing on? Is anybody listening?

You could carefully check off all the reasons why this ought to concern people, but as you do it you'll imagine some lethargic person shrugging. There are people supporting Newt. There are people on the fence Newt is trying to persuade. There are people reporting on Newt Gingrich for the benefit all these other people. But none of these groups appear to have capacity for outrage in response to the act of lying itself or at least the motivation to draw attention to it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

only real on the first draft

Music tells a story, the very synesthetic, wading-through-forests story I'm looking for, on the very first listen. After that it's hard to listen again as if for the first time. The more familiar you are with a song, the more you are listening to your own anticipation of it, with which you are overly familiar. Not a song but a duller memory synchronized to, and plastered over, the song.

Not x but y

Thankfully, by now the criticism of "he said/she said" journalism is widespread, at least on the blogs. That is admittedly very different from it being acknowledged by reporters as a problem. It comes packaged with an argument on its behalf, namely that it's a way to strike balance between biased sides. A person can be persuaded to believe anything, even the worth of he said she/said reporting, if they think their belief transcends some other still more simplistic belief.

But I think another framing device needs to be criticized: the "It's not X that matters, but Y" said in a context where no criteria has been put forward for what should matter, and where ultimately both X and Y matter to some degree. Alternately phrased as "but the real problem is...."

While I'm here, I'll give one more. I guess I'll call it the transcending device. It's similar to he said/she said in that it pits opposing perspectives against each other and suggests they have equal validity. But it adds a third idea, which transcends the framing of the previous two ideas.

It is common now to want to "revolutionize" or "rethink" something, whether with digital devices or perspectives on politics or whatever. But sometimes pertinent thoughts are not original thoughts, and they suffer for being framed as if they are more original than they actually are. For an example, take a look at Brad Plumer's summary of the peak oil debate. On one side, he says, are the peak oilers, on the other are the skeptics. Then Plumer unveils "a clearer way of looking at matters," which defines peak oil as “the cost of incremental supply exceeds the price economies can pay without destroying growth.” But this is not a new idea. At best, it's compatible with what peak oilers already believe. At worst, it's a restatement of what peak-oilers already believe. So what was the framing for?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Knowing a little more about the mystery

Below is a comment I left, in a comment thread to a characteristically wonderful blog post by Eric Macdonald. It's pretty long so I'm reproducing it here.

Eric, I feel that Daniel Dennet won the argument on sui generis characteristics of subjectivity (or lack thereof) back when he wrote Consciousness Explained. For me, the main takeaway was that philosophers mistake failures of imagination for insights into necessity, and pre-emptively draw up limits to explanatory power of science.

It may be hard to imagine that brain scans can tell me anything important about my own subjectivity. But when I learn that my brain hears, in the violin, the same expressiveness it hears in a human voice, I've learned something about myself and my relationship to the music. Of course Bach did not do brain scans on anyone before writing Air on A G String. But did he know a listener might hear the sorrowful voice of a friend, or a mother? I do not doubt this. His genius, as well as that of Michelangelo, consisted in seeing connections now reflected by our best understanding of biology.

Similarly, when I'm banging my head to the endlessly repetitive rhythms of my favorite metal band Isis, it widens my relationship with the music to know my cerebellum (which regulates motor function) is at that moment furiously active in rhythm processing, and that it has massive connections to the amygdala which is tasked with remembering emotional events. And that the cerebellum is the most primal reptilian part of our brain.

It may be hard to imagine how we might separate out legitimate experiences of religious euphoria (if any) from erotic fantasies. But, presumably we'd do science on this the same way we do science on other things: with attention to detail, with control subjects, with creativity. Attending to the specifics of subjective reports, and the details of brain activity, we can compare what the nuns feel to actual sexual fantasy, explicitly tested for in other subjects, or actual experiences of euphoria from atheists. Do you think we would not tease out differences? Or do you think that, having failed to spot differences, this in itself wouldn't be positively interesting as opposed to neutral? We could find that experiences explode into a dozen or a thousand different categories, or that they are the same.

On correlations: it appears to me the history of science with respect to any phenomenon, is a history of encroaching correlations that eventually infiltrate the phenomenon itself. When this happens, they are no longer correlations but simply a description of what the phenomenon is. Why should it be the case that we can map out the physiological basis for chills in response to music, as Zatorre and Blood have, but not the higher-order circuitry that preferentially responds to qualitative aspects of music to induce those chills? Where exactly is it, in the interpretation of art, that science isn't supposed to be able to get to?

We suffer from an impoverished language that rarely ever does justice to our euphorias, or religious experiences. This I think, together with the fact of our being drenched in 2000 years of human culture where the only attempts at language-making with respect to aesthetics and euphorias have come from people wholly ignorant of brains, has constrained our intuition and our ability to form hypotheses that might relate these experiences to the objective world (i.e. to brains). Even since the scientific revolution brain science has only just come of age, or maybe hasn't even.

The history of religious (and philosophical!) retreat in the face of scientific explanation has not finished, and atheists are wrong to concede the point with respect to aesthetics. It's not that we would wipe out art (a misguided fear that I think is not unlike religious fear of losing their humanity if they become atheists) but that we would come to greater understanding of ourselves. Feynman said it like this: "It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Neuroscience denialism

If you polled people on what anti-scientific belief they thought was most widespread, I think most would reply creationism, followed by global warming skepticism and vaccine skepticism. I hesitate to include astrology because I don't know to what extent horoscope readers believe what they're reading.

I think, however, that the most widespread anti-scientific belief is not any of the above. Instead, I think it might be what I can best describe as neuroscience denialism. It consists in denying that there is, or ever can be, a neuroscience that accounts for various subjective human experiences, such as pains, pleasures, musical experiences, loves, lusts. It denies that there can be a common neurological organization shared across people, across humanity that accounts for these things, in virtue of which we can come to objective knowledge about them.

It's motivated, I think, by people's fear that they lose power over their individuality if they concede such things to science. In my experience atheists are no less likely to make such claims than theists.

Monday, October 3, 2011

I want people to be able to describe music the same way they might describe walking through the woods. Mist in their face, the light glinting off rocks, that rock!, the moving shadows.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Confidence Men starring Anita Dunn

Democracy Now is a fine program. Some of its recent guests recent guests include Daniel Ellsburg, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ron Suskind, Troy Davis' sister, Larry Cox executive director of Amnesty International, Benjamin Jealous president of NAACP, and Noam Chomsky. That roster of guests compares favorably against any morning news program.

But sometimes I'm embarassed for Amy Goodman. Like here, when she interviews the aforementioned Ron Suskind about his book Confidence Men.

AMY GOODMAN: And former White House communications director, Anita Dunn, has flat-out denied Ron Suskind’s claim that she said the White House is a "hostile workplace to women." Speaking to the Washington Post Friday, Dunn said she had point-blank told Suskind that the White House was not a hostile environment.

Ron Suskind, your response? And talk about why you’re saying that.

RON SUSKIND: Yeah, well, Anita Dunn, of course, talked to me extensively about especially the gender issues in both the campaign and in the White House. Her quotes are in the book. Again, the women’s issue is not central, I don’t think, to the flow of the book. It’s important.

AMY GOODMAN: It may not be central to you, but to many it is.

RON SUSKIND: To many people, it is white-hot stuff...

With this interjection, Amy Goodman imagines herself to be standing up for the importance of  gender equality. But that has nothing to do with what Suskind is saying, who was about to put the quote in context. If taken literally, Goodman is advising him that the "central" flow of his own book is, at least in part, the Anit Dunn comment.

That's a pretty basic divergence from the simple issue of what Suskind's book is about, and it didn't need to turn into a gender-equality non-sequitur.