A Radical Take on Science and Religion

An obscure yet still controversial engineer–physicist named Bill Gaede put out a video last year, inspired by Martin Luther, spelling out 95 theses against the current scientific consensus in physics. I’m in no position to evaluate his views on physics, but I find his take on the difference between science and religion fascinating. In this post I’ll try to condense some of his views on that narrow topic. You can watch the whole video here. Fair warning: his presentation style is rather eccentric. I find it quirky and fun, you may feel differently.

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A description is a list of characteristics and traits. It answers the questions what, where, when, and how many.

An explanation is a discussion of causes, reasons, and mechanisms. It answers the question why.

An opinion is a subjective belief. What counts as “evidence”, “proof”, or “truth” is an opinion.

Science is the systematic attempt at providing explanations. Why do planets orbit stars? Why are some people rich and others poor? Why is there something instead of nothing? All questions that can be answered (to varying degrees) with science.

Note well that the experiments and observations per se are not science. The scientist takes those results for granted: they form his hypothesis—literally, that which is without a thesis or explanation. Technicians and assistants may carry out the observations and experiments. But the actual science is the explanation.

Religion is the systematic attempt at shaping opinions. Religion is not mere faith—the belief in things without evidence. Religion works through persuasion—the use of science and faith to appeal to your subjective beliefs about evidence and proof and truth.

Science is not be about persuading the audience. Good science is about providing consistent, logically sound explanations. An individual may have many religious reasons for their incredulity. But religious skepticism is not the concern of the scientist. The scientist is only concerned about logically valid explanations.

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How to fix the journal model? 

Disclaimer: I am not (yet!) published in any peer reviewed journals.

A companion recently posed an interesting proposal to improve the academic journal model: have referees publish their reviews after X period of time. I am sympathetic to the idea as I have always found secrecy to be a strange thing in decision making. What’s the point of ‘blind’ reviews anyway? From conversing with those with more experience in the field, it is rarely a ‘double blind’ process but a de facto one way ‘blind’ process. This seems to be the case more so outside the major journals.

My counter is: why not just get rid of journals altogether? Why not just publish via SSRN and similar websites? Journals seem to have maintained their existence in the digital age as a means of quality insurance, but there’s still lots of junk in the top journals. Surely we can come up with better ways than relying on a few referees? Even relying on citation count would be a better measure of a paper’s value I think.

#microblogging

More on the trap of college debt

I’m writing this short note to point to John Elliott’s article about how student debt is changing the American family. He has mentored young students at both the Institute for Humane Studies and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

The article at times seems to play the idea of going to college against starting a family as two incompatible choices.

Some time ago, though, I wrote a piece on how to avoid student debt, get a degree and even focus on more important things such as work and family.

The article was published here, but as a summary I’m pasting below the “cheap college tips” again:

1. Do well enough at school to get a substantive merit-based scholarship

2. Don’t count on athletics scholarships

3. Start at a community college and transfer

4. Try distance learning at a fraction of the cost

5. Go to a local college and stay with your parents

6. Do your college abroad through distance learning

7. Move abroad and pay much less tuition

8. If abroad, you can still study for a while in America through student exchange

9. Do credit-awarding exams to cut corners – and costs

10. Do French and German for reading (this will save you time and money at Graduate School)

Remembering school

For reasons both inexplicable and ordinary much of my prepubescent memory is off-limits. I can remember leaving Washington for Northern California, in limbo in the back of what might have been a Toyota Highlander, watching streetlights illuminate every fifth second. I remember combing through my mom’s boyfriend’s horror collection, and then biking breathlessly through my neighborhood, conjuring up xenomorphs, Yautjas and Predaliens on my tail for a few hours every day. I remember capturing lizards and salamanders outdoors, sneaking them into my room and losing them in the house, never to be found again.

And, just recently, I remember being extremely bored.

Most of my friends could quote me as claiming that I never get bored. Apparently, I used to be. But it was only one thing: I was bored with school. It got a little better when my teacher suggested I skip third grade. (And a little better recently, when my sister took a year-long break from studying in Santa Barbara: we will now graduate the same year although she’s two years older. I expect to never let her forget it.) But by and large, I wanted out.

I remember excelling on my tests but having essentially zero interest in what the board had determined to be necessary cirricula. And the classes that they pressed on me, I only wanted to snoop the outskirts. Although math is probably my weakest subject now in middle school it was my best. My professor, Mr. Sharp, would play Apocalyptica until everyone took their seats. He wanted to expose us equally to the Pythagorean theorem and the versatility of the cello. I would challenge him to explain the philosophy behind what we were learning, to just below his breaking point. In the beginning I would ask questions because I thought mathematics was too abstract to be saying anything at all useful or real; in the end, I would ask questions mostly because my classmates got a kick out of it. Much of the time I was trying to understand the context of the formula, an approach which, I think, made reading Thomas Kuhn so fulfilling to me later. Mr. Sharp both loved and loathed me. Once a week we wouldn’t complete the lesson. Nothing quite compared to that environment and I haven’t enjoyed a math class since.

What I remembered just this morning was the real sense of a lack of freedom. Not only in school but in pre-adolescence as a whole. I was allowed to watch R-Rated films, sure, and go on the computer to play Neopets. I could ride my bike at night sometimes, and if I wasn’t allowed I could sneak out. But what I wanted was that radical freedom, the kind that Sartre says I already had. There were too many authority figures and not even the freedom to choose between them. Choice is limited, and American democracy itself didn’t extend to me. And where were my representatives? I couldn’t vote for them. They governed me regardless of my input.

Maybe it’s a good thing that 9 year olds don’t vote. That would be a massive voting bloc for whichever candidate is willing to promise an extra hour of television before bed. Yet I remember feeling powerless as a kid, and astonished that no politicians were out trying to represent us. I realized that people must forget as they get older, and they must think, erroneously, that it’s good that children don’t have the same set of freedoms as the adult population once they join the latter. I remember promising myself with as much moral force as I could muster that when I became an adult, I wouldn’t forget: I would represent kids and fight for their freedom from the servitude of parents and teachers.

Well, I forgot. Until now. And my younger self was right — it now seems perfectly right to me that the youth be granted less freedom than the elder. Does this make me a class traitor of sorts? So be it.

But, what I do see now is that the education system is not serving young people very well. The people in my classes still do not want to be there. The incentives are all messed up for test-taking. Although I went to a very creative and nurturing high school, much of my time in higher education has been “unlearning” things I was taught in lower levels and am being taught concurrently. This has not been so much learning that what I was taught was false, though there has been some of that, but moreso learning that what I was taught was an incomplete picture, open to questioning, and often tainted with ideological bias. The things I have studied outside of class have made me better informed and, I would say, more genuinely knowledgeable than the textbooks inside of class.

The story David gives about “unschooling” his children provides one alternative to the standard model. I have friends, though, that demonstrate the non-universality of this option. Part of the solution lies in fostering an independent mind, and part of it on behalf of the child. David describes learning more about English from reading Kipling’s poetry in his free time than in class. I had read the entire Stephen King pre-2011 corpus before entering high school, and I don’t think any sort of class on writing could have improved on that. David also criticizes the idea that there is a single subset of knowledge that ought to be taught to all people, as our education system performs now. For a more extensive criticism of this, and even more radical, I suggest Feyerabend.

I don’t share the sentiment of my much younger self in radical freedom for children. I have effectively broken that promise, but a promise to oneself is, I have to think, less binding if one person is 10 and the other is 20 and the two persons are the same. The solution to the problem, though, at least of boredom in education, is much clearer now. Though of course, the clarity came from reading material outside of school.

In Praise of Academia

This week I got the happy news that my article on Ayn Rand’s views on international relations was accepted for publication. Once it is posted ‘online first’, I shall write a bit about its content. For now I would like to make a two other points, though.

One of the reason for my happiness is that this article took an exceptional time to get accepted. I started working on it in 2010, doing the initial reading (in this case all published works of Ayn Rand). The actual drafting started in 2011, I solicited commentary, and came to an acceptable first version in 2013. To be sure: I did not work on the paper on a full time basis, and there were many other distractions, not least my day time job, other academic projects, and family affairs. Still, the article kept nagging in the back of my head, perhaps not daily, but certainly on a weekly basis. I got the first few rejections by journals in 2013, then again a few in 2015, and another one this summer. So reason enough to be happy to get accepted and all the more exciting to see it through the production phase in the coming months, with actual printed publication still in the somewhat distant future.

I am not writing this to congratulate myself in public. My reason for this blog is to show young (aspiring) scholars, that it is completely normal to work on a project for ages, and to get rejected a few times. Yet the reward is sweet. As long as you persevere, are ready to change and edit your text, overcome your anger when you get unjust blind reviews (and believe me: writing on Rand regularly solicits angry, malicious and/or erroneous responses, also from editors and reviewers of high ranked reputed journals), and keep the faith in the possible value of your modest contribution to the world’s knowledge base.

This is a lesson I learned from experience in the past decade or so. But early on, I also greatly benefitted from one of the best and useful guides to PhD research and academic life I have ever come across: LSE professor Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring a PhD. It realistically describes what to expect of academic life, it’s ups and also it’s downs. So get it, if you are still unsure what to expect of academic life.

The other remark I would like to make is about the unique and open character of academic publishing. It is really great, as a part-time academic, to be able to get published in reputable journals. I am sure the editors of journals and presses are more keen to see academics from highly reputed universities submitting papers and book manuscripts. Yet they first and foremost value content. If you have something interesting to say, and live up to the academic standards, you will get the same chance and treatment as everybody else. That is pretty unique, compared to many other professions.

So: academia be praised!

A feast of classical liberal thought: Mont Pelerin Society in Stockholm

Last week, Stockholm hosted a special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) on the populist threats to the free society. MPS meetings are held under Chatham House rules, which means I cannot report in any detail about the proceedings. Yet a few impressions can be shared.

I have been a MPS member since 2010, when my nomination was accepted at the end of the general meeting in Sydney. In those days the old rules still applied, which meant you had to attend three meetings before you could be nominated for membership. However, this strict rule led to the erosion of the membership base (the MPS was literally starving out), so the rules to join as a member have been made easier.

My first MPS meeting was in Guatemala City, in 2006. I had participated in the essay contest for young scholars which is always organized in the run-up to the bi-annual General Meetings. As a runner-up I won free entry to the meeting. I happened to be in the south of the USA in the weeks before, doing PhD research at the Mises Institute in Alabama, so could easily make the trip to Central America. Because I lived in Manila during those years, I could also easily attend the 2008 meeting in Tokyo.

I had are number of reasons for wanting to join the MPS. First of all, the quality of the meetings offer a great chance to listen to and speak with the leading scholars within current classical liberalism. Increasingly multidisciplinary (back in the old days the economists dominated), the programme committees of the MPS Meetings always succeed in attracting an impressive crowd of high quality speakers and commentators from across the globe. I always find this a great intellectual treat. Second, the meetings are characterized by extremely pleasant and open atmospheres. Everybody mingles with everybody, you can talk with everybody, no matter your age, or academic background. Thirdly, the meetings take place across the globe, so they offer a great opportunity to travel and see places. Although it must be added that even when you do not stay at the conference hotel, the meetings are never very cheap, so it remains an investment. Fourth, for a Hayekian like myself, it feels very good to be a member of the society founded by the master himself, which had and has such an illustrious membership, ever since its beginnings 70 years ago.

Besides the big one week General Meetings held every two years, there are shorter regional or special meetings in the other years. Last week’s MPS meeting in Stockholm was a special meeting, very well-organized by the Ratio Institute. The theme was discussed from numerous angles, through sessions on Russia’s foreign policy, the economic issue of secular stagnation, or the danger of political Islamism. Two sessions were focused on new classical liberal ideas to counter the threats. At the opening day there was a session for young scholars to present papers. This was of course also a way to attract new talent and interest in the MPS. And at the end of the second day there was something different: beer tasting while listening to Johan Norberg. A rather splendid combination!

The speakers and commentators were high level, including MPS chair Peter Boettke (George Mason), David Schmidtz (Arizona), Deirdre McCloskey (Illinois), John Tomasi (Brown), Leszek Balcerowic (former president of Poland’s Central Bank), Russia specialist Anders Aslund, German thinker Karen Horn, Jacob Levy (McGill), Mark Pennington (Kings College London), Paul Cliteur (Leiden), Amigai Magen (Hoover Institution), and the energetic Ralf Bader (Oxford). A lineup like this guarantees a number of new insights, solid arguments, and general intellectual stimulus. Many answers were provided, yet in true academic fashion, many questions remain.

While well represented in this program, International Relations are normally a minor topic at MPS meetings, and there are not many IR scholars around (nor are sociologists or legal scholars, by the way). Personally I am convinced that the future appeal of classical liberal thought also relies on taking into account world affairs. So there is a need to keep on writing and publishing about it, to expand the basis for thought, also in the MPS. To hear about the concerns and insights of other classical liberals in other disciplines helps my thought process, besides remaining up to speed with current classical liberal issues in general.

So it was a great meeting again, And for all you young scholars out there: if you are interested make sure to regularly check the MPS website (www.montpelerin.org) to see if there are opportunities to participate in one of the upcoming meetings.

“The Impossibility of a University”

I was just reading David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. He published the first edition in 1973. Amidst the wild ride of the contemporary American university (Evergreen State College being the most heinous single episode), one passage seems especially prescient.

From chapter twelve in the third edition:

The modern corporate university, public or private, contains an implicit contradiction: it cannot take positions, but it must take positions [sides]. The second makes the demand for a responsible university appealing, intellectually as well as emotionally. The first makes not merely the acceptance of that demand but its very consideration something fundamentally subversive of the university’s proper ends.

It cannot take positions because if it does, the efforts of its members will be diverted from the search for truth to the attempt to control the decision-making process. If it takes a public position on an important matter of controversy, those on each side of the controversy will be tempted to try to keep out new faculty members who hold the other position, in order to be sure that the university makes what they consider the right decision. To hire an incompetent supporter of the other side would be undesirable; to hire a competent one, who might persuade enough faculty members to reverse the university’s stand, catastrophic. Departments in a university that reaches corporate decisions in important matters will tend to become groups of true believers, closed to all who do not share the proper orthodoxy. They so forfeit one of the principal tools in the pursuit of truth — intellectual conflict.

A university must take positions. It is a large corporation with expenditures of tens of millions of dollars and an endowment of hundreds of millions. It must act, and to act it must decide what is true. What causes high crime rates? Should it protect its members by hiring university police or by spending money on neighborhood relations or community organizing? What effect will certain fiscal policies have on the stock market, and thus the university’s endowment? Should the university argue for them? These are issues of professional controversy within the academic community.

A university may proclaim its neutrality, but neutrality as the left quite properly argues, is also a position. If one believes that the election of Ronald Reagan or Teddy Kennedy would be a national tragedy, a tragedy in particular for the university, how can one justify letting the university, with its vast resources of wealth and influence, remain neutral?

The best possible solution within the present university structure has been not neutrality but the ignorance or impotence of the university community. As long as students and faculty do not know that the university is bribing politicians, investing in countries with dictatorial regimes, or whatever, and as long as they have no way of influencing the university’s actions, those acts will not hinder the university in its proper function of pursuing truth, however much good or damage they may do in the outside world. Once the university community realizes that the university does, or can, take actions substantially affecting the outside world and that students and faculty can influence those actions, the game is up.

There is no satisfactory solution to this dilemma within the structure of the present corporate university. In most of the better universities, the faculty has ultimate control. A university run from the outside, by a state government or a self-perpetuating board of trustees, has its own problems. A university can pretend to make no decisions or can pretend that the faculty has no control over them, for a while. Eventually someone will point out exactly what the emperor is wearing.

With an activist culture in place, the university endures more and more blows to its truth-seeking abilities. UC Berkeley spent an estimated $600,000 on security for Ben Shapiro a couple months ago, after the chaos and protests of the past year. Staff cut seating in half, worried that protesters would dismantle chairs and throw them onto the audience on the bottom floor. Now, so I hear, student clubs are having difficulty hosting evening meetings on campus, as the administration makes up for the expenses by cutting down on electricity usage and janitorial services. Club stipends, of course, are down. All of this damages the educational environment.

My friends went to see Ben, and watched a woman with a “Support the First Amendment! Shalom Shapiro!” sign get dragged into a crowd and beat up. (Not reported by major media; falsely reported as a knifing by right-wing media.) David identified the internal problem of the corporate university, which I believe we see escalating; the external problem is when outsiders — most of the violent rioters in Berkeley since the beginning of 2017 — understand the political power of the university and the speech that goes on there, and seek to control the process of intellectual conflict through physical force. Both are advanced in accordance with the political involvement of the students as well as the teachers.