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My Thoughts on Science, Technology, Freedom, and Stuff
Updated: 18 hours 53 min ago

Book Review: "The Invention of Science" by David Wootton

Monday 2nd of September 2019 12:10:00 PM
I've recently read the book The Invention of Science by David Wootton, after seeing it pop up on the SMBC comic reading list a few years ago. This book puts forth a comprehensive attempt to answer the question of when the modern practice of science can definitively said to be born, and comes up with the response that it was "invented" between 1572 and 1704 in Europe through a series of changes that can be viewed as a single transformation, on par (and in many contexts in tandem) with the Industrial Revolution. Far from being a quick overview, it provides a detailed history of the linguistic and philosophical developments surrounding various aspects of the scientific method, including the basic ideas of "facts", "experiments", "hypotheses", "theories", and similar terms by tracing through the experimental apparatuses early scientists constructed, the debates they and other philosophers had among their own groups and between each other, and the effects of new technologies like the printing press, steam engine, and others. Among its key aims is to comprehensively critique the strongest forms of relativism in the modern history of science (to which I will refer with phrases of the form "of relativism", because for a physicist like me the term "relativistic" means "of/pertaining to [Einstein's theory of special and general] relativity"), which posits things like science being an entirely social enterprise where theories become ascendant only through societal power structures and the power of persuasion while notions of the power of evidence are entirely misleading, and to a lesser extent to critique the strongest forms of realism, which contrarily posits that scientific theories are an exact reflection of reality. In opposition to these, the book argues that science as a whole can be said to objectively progress as new theories can both continue to properly explain evidence that old theories can while also explaining new evidence that old theories cannot adequately explain, and that scientific developments are path-dependent and do to some degree depend on cultural context.

The book is very well-written but, as I mentioned earlier, it is a significantly heavier (literally as well as philosophically) tome than a typical popular history of science. It deeply contextualizes a lot of different, seemingly disparate, aspects of the development of scientific research between 1572-1704 in Europe in view of linguistics, philosophy, religion, and interpersonal relationships. Given that I'm a layperson when it comes to philosophy, there were a lot of passages that I found difficult to follow even after multiple careful readings simply because I was unfamiliar with many of the people and texts quoted. For example, for a while when reading, I thought that the author's criticisms of Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigm shifts (whose seminal work on the subject I've reviewed here) were in a general sense; it took me a while to realize that the criticisms were more specific to the context of the development of the scientific method as opposed to developments since then, and even after that I needed reassurance from the concluding section that this was indeed the author's intent. However, there were a lot of things that I appreciated learning from this book. Foremost among them is the idea that the notion of inevitable progress really only originated in the 16th century, and before that the dominant view of history was that it developed in cycles, so there really was no sense that anyone could discover things unknown to their predecessors and peers; this really made me better appreciate why the mentality of a glorious past that must be returned to is still so pervasive in circles outside of scientific fields. Plus, the argument that the voyage by Christopher Columbus to Hispaniola catalyzed this new notion of "discovery" in itself was new to me, and I was surprised by how compellingly it was argued. I also appreciated the explanation of the emergence of a linguistic distinction between "physics", whose practitioners are "physicists", and "physiology", whose practitioners are "physicians".

There are a few criticisms that I have from my perspective as a lay reader. The first is that the author spends a chapter discussing the emergence of a notion of "facts", and distinguishes different kinds of "facts" when discussing the building of scientific knowledge in order to argue against the claims of strong relativism that all scientific theories are ultimately equally acceptable. However, the presentation of these distinctions is quite muddled from the beginning, which not only harms the intelligibility of the arguments for settling science through "matters of fact", but gives an opening for arguments from relativism that all "facts" ultimately depend on the existence of a shared language and cultural context for interpretation. The second is that some of the arguments against even weaker forms of relativism (like Thomas Kuhn's ideas), suggesting that theories being underdetermined by the facts at hand means that any number of theories could be equally valid, seem somewhat weak. One particular example discussed is that once the terraqueous theory (that the Earth was composed of land and water in a single "sphere" as opposed to two "spheres") was established thanks to certain findings (like the European rediscovery of the American continents and consequently acknowledging the possible existence of antipodes on land), last-ditch alternative theories were already seen in their day to be problematic, which led to the swift and relatively uncontroversial abandonment of such alternatives. The problem with that example is that it conflates the inability of thinkers of that time to come up with a viable alternative with the lack of existence of a viable alternative, and the latter is a much stronger statement which isn't actually proved by that example. (As an aside: the way I see it, the construction of scientific theories is like optimizing a fit function to a set of values that are outputs for input points sampled in a very large high-dimensional space. Paradigm shifts occur when newly sampled input points produce output values that are very far from what existing fit functions predict, while new fit functions that can accurately predict values at existing points and these new points would look quite different in form. In this context, the possibility of other cultures or even sapient alien species developing entirely different scientific theories could be explained by sampling very different sets of points to begin with, due to very different experiences, and consequently coming up with very different-looking fit functions, with perhaps only a few common sample points where different theories come close to each other.) The third is that there isn't much discussion of other cultures outside of Europe, with the exception of Arabic writings on astronomy and other sciences, and the little discussion there is seems to be casually dismissive, glibly describing such societies as "hierarchical" rather than "egalitarian" without getting into the subtleties of those terms in context; initially, I gave the author the benefit of the doubt in wanting to keep the scope of the book focused, but considering how much was said about religious philosophy and linguistics, I think a fuller picture would really have benefited the book. Related to this, I would have liked to see a somewhat clearer discussion of the extent to which the emergence of the scientific method affected and was affected by shifts from church-focused hierarchical communal philosophy to individual-centered humanism; there was some of that, but there are probably other parts of the book where that relation could have been clearer. Finally, I got the sense that the writing and the message of the first few chapters as well as the last few chapters were fairly clear, but the arguments of the middle chapters were harder for me to follow in themselves and in the broader context of the book overall; perhaps each of the middle parts could have been a separate shorter book in a series, so that readers wouldn't feel compelled to read all of those parts in order, and the author could have felt more free to restructure and explain further as needed.

This was definitely an interesting read and was unlike the last several books that I've read given its deep look at the subtleties of European philosophy in the mid-2nd millennium. I wouldn't recommend it as a light jaunt through the historical development of science, but I would recommend it to those who want a deeper look at the various philosophical factors guiding its development.

Book Review: "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt

Monday 5th of August 2019 11:33:00 AM
Before I get into the review, I'd like to point out that it has been exactly 10 years since I published my first post on this blog. I've significantly matured since then, and my general interests and specific goals for this blog have shifted, but writing here is still something that I enjoy doing. No matter how many people read this blog, if it's a positive number, I'll be grateful for each and every one of you.

I've recently read the book "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt: this was a book I saw on the SMBC reading list a while ago. This book is about the human psychology of morals at individual and group levels, and is divided into three parts. The first part is about how people's rational minds are actually driven by their emotions and intuitive views of the world, as opposed to the other way around, so any discussion of morals with people of different worldviews must start at the level of values, emotions, or intuition, not calculated reasoning. The second part introduces the framework of "fundamental flavors of morality" in a historical context and describes how this can be used to explain the ongoing tensions particularly in politics in Western countries. The third part, in contrast to the first and second parts focusing on individual behaviors and thought processes, focuses on how people can be so driven to partake in group activities, why this means religion could have a useful place even in contemporary society, and how this leads to more tribal & polarized politics too.

The book is fairly well-written and is a rather engaging narrative; I especially liked the overall division into three coherent parts as well as the summaries at the end of each chapter. Additionally, I found it interesting to see just how many beliefs and symbols even supposedly rational, atheistic, or otherwise "modern" liberals hold with a similar intensity to conservatives. There is one overall major issue, along with some minor quibbles, that I will state here. The major issue is that while the author does a good job of presenting a variety of studies in different situations to support his points, it isn't clear how robust those studies really are to changing conditions: I would have liked to see a clearer acknowledgment of the crisis of replication in experimental psychology (and in fairness, I should also apply this critical view even to things like the stereotype threat effect which may align with my political views, as was expounded in the book Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele which I reviewed here, as well as to popular psychology books I read in the future). This is related to the minor quibble that especially in the first part, but also at various points throughout the book, the narrative seems to fit together a little too neatly without necessarily considering alternative explanations as carefully; this may be fine given that the book is meant to convey a particular message to a general audience, and to his credit, the author does acknowledge the likely incompleteness of this book in this regard, but even though I agree with the author's praise of Hume's idea of rationality serving emotion rather than the other way around, it would have been nicer to not feel like I was in an epistemic bubble. Another quibble is that in many parts, the author seems to be comfortable using casual superlative language; again, this may be fine given that the book is meant for a general audience, but in some places it struck me as a somewhat less than evenhanded treatment of the historical context. Finally (and this is a very minor quibble), the author claims originality in the metaphor of reason as a rider sitting atop the elephant of intuition: even the author makes reference to Plato's metaphor of the rider of reason steering the horses of emotion, and the Bhagavadgita (which the author does not reference) uses the same metaphor, but even here I must credit the author for novelty in the use of an elephant rather than horses to show how this much bigger animal will more likely steer the rider than the other way around.

The first part went over ideas that I've seen before in other contexts, touching upon epistemic closure, values-based conversations to bridge political divides, post-hoc rationalization, and so on. I didn't feel like I necessarily learned much from that part, but it was still nice to see those ideas again. One issue I had was about the discussion of how upon hearing a story that may generally invoke moral revulsion even in the absence of victims in the story, people from more liberal or educated backgrounds would admit to revulsion but still tolerate it, while people outside of such backgrounds would invent victims to justify their intolerance of such behavior as a post-hoc justification for their revulsion. Yet the same discussion seemed to also suggest that the differences between those two groups grew larger after controlling for the possibility of "invented victims". The section may have just been poorly written, but even if that is the case, it seemed to give the wrong idea. Another issue I had was with the author's accusation that Marxist psychological theorists from a few decades ago were essentially exhibiting post-hoc rationalization of their own beliefs when criticizing evolutionary psychologists, yet he demonstrated no self-awareness in his own lavish praise for evolutionary psychology (unless his willful blindness was a deliberately ironic example of such post-hoc rationalization, in which case this book is a work of genius).

The second part felt a lot more novel to me in its introduction of "fundamental flavors of morality", discussion of how broad labels like "utilitarianism" or "deontology" focus almost exclusively on one of those "flavors" to the detriment of others, and how in Western countries, liberal politics tends to focus exclusively on one or two specific "flavors" while conservative politics tends to appeal to all of them, explaining why conservative politics may tend to be more deeply rooted in the broader population. This was an eye-opening introduction to how modern Western liberal/progressive politics may need to work with rather than denigrate alternative flavors of morality if it is to succeed more broadly, though it is also hard for me to see how that would work if progressive politics aims to tear down oppressive power structures that conservative voters appreciate for inspiring loyalty and obedience to authority that they see as keeping their communities functioning smoothly. Perhaps the solution is to listen with an open mind to people who may have been oppressed by those in power abusing the moral "flavors" of loyalty, authority, or sanctity, and recognize their own oppression while still valuing those "flavors" more broadly; this may allow liberals to more concretely mesh well with those "flavors" instead of dealing with oppression by proverbially throwing out the baby with the bathwater. My only quibble in this regard is that the author consistently describes Western society as a monolith which prizes autonomy above larger group virtues while simultaneously showing how poorer communities in developed Western countries have more in common with more community-oriented mindsets outside of the West.

The third part described links social behavior in humans to eusociality in bees in order to show why humans may be so prone to prizing group interactions far above what they can do individually, and how this can explain a lot of the observed behaviors and potential benefits of tribalism in religion and politics, but I felt that the way the author tied these ideas to evolution as well as political history made this the weakest part of the book. In particular, in the discussion about group-level selection versus individual selection, I felt the analogies to bee eusociality were undercut by the lack of clarity regarding the extent to which bees in one hive are actually related to each other (so a lot of the behavior could be explained through kin selection — presumably the point of eusociality is to transcend this, but it would have been nice to see a clearer explanation bolstering the analogy), how comparable human division of labor & tribal identity really are to the rigid caste division & hive mind of bees, and why the author didn't consider the perspective of taking individual human behaviors as the results of kin selection among constituent cells. There's probably a lot of basic evolutionary biology that I'm missing here, but I would have expected to see such explanations if these analogies are so important to the main argument. Additionally, the author argued that it is a logical fallacy to say that fascism and other ugly political outcomes could possibly be an endpoint of hive-like group instincts among people, but I completely disagree with this, given the long history of large nationalistic or smaller corporate "hives" with leaders who create the illusion of equality & moral rectitude to lead constituents to do horrible things in the name of an abstract ideal while covertly ensuring that they (the leaders) ultimately unfairly benefit. Finally, the author seemed to use a lot of motivated strawman reasoning in defense of the benefits of religion. One example would be the use of college football to then claim that "rational liberals" argue against sports in general and are therefore blinding themselves to the potential benefits of tribal belonging, when from what I've seen, the arguments are more against American football (for the injuries) and the current collegiate athletics setup in particular. Another example would be his retort to the claim that the Catholic Church is exclusionary by pointing to how many colleges are more exclusive in their acceptance rate; this obtuse remark completely ignores how many organized religions have cultivated group cultures which, one way or another (whether between "nonbelievers are sinners who will be damned to hell" all the way to "the righteous believers must kill the infidels"), systematically sees out-groups as lesser than the in-group, whereas college admissions committees don't cultivate these sorts of attitudes in admitted student bodies.

As a final comment, given my own liberal predisposition, I noticed that the author spoke of his growing reverence for traditionally conservative moral "flavors" being sparked by his long-term stay in India conducting moral psychology experiments and surveys. It's hard to say whether people in lower positions in such cultures (like maids or street sweepers) truly like being in such positions as opposed to feeling like they have no choice but to accept their lot in life, and it is easy to project Western ideas of individual liberation onto people in such circumstances, but even so, I was struck by how little he directly reflected on the circumstances of such people in the context of respect for societal hierarchy and how easily he came to accept the existing power structure there, because he was in a position where that would have no negative consequence for him. (This critique of his seeming conservative disposition leaves aside some of the other US policy-specific arguments he made, such as about health care, where it seems clear enough to me that the inherent properties of human health and its treatment are fundamentally incompatible with the characteristics needed to sustain a truly free competitive market.) At the same time, being of Indian descent, I know that when I visit my relatives there, I feel the need to suppress any discomfort with how household help and other people in lower stations in life are treated mainly to avoid friction with relatives (especially given that I didn't grow up there, so there's a good chance that any contrary words I say will be met with references to that fact).

Overall, this is an interesting book of great relevance to the current political climate. Given this, I'd recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about why we think the way we do.

My Time in Luxembourg and at the META19 Conference in Lisbon

Monday 29th of July 2019 11:58:00 AM
This is an update from my recent travel to Luxembourg and Lisbon. I had the privilege of traveling to Luxembourg to deliver an invited talk to my collaborator's group; we have published 2 papers together, are about to have a third published (for which I'll write a post once the publication is official), and are working on a fourth. It was productive to meet with my collaborators to hash out the details of our fourth paper together, and I think I did reasonably well delivering my talk, for which the first part was about the work with my collaborators modeling fluctuational electromagnetic phenomena at the interface between small objects that have to be treated at the atomic scale and large objects that can be treated as continuous, and the second part was about my more recent work purely within my group putting upper bounds on thermal radiation and heat transfer. Additionally, I appreciated the interesting conversations I had after my talk with various members of that group.

I also got to go to the META19 Conference in Lisbon, which is centered around research in nanophotonics and metamaterials; there, I presented an invited talk about the aforementioned work on upper bounds to heat transfer, which my advisor graciously let me do in his place. It was great to meet people that I knew associated with my advisor but hadn't seen in a few years, and we got to discuss each other's work in great depth; I got to also meet a few other people for the first time, and had some good conversations with them about our respective projects too. That said, while I think the delivery of my presentation there was good, I did feel like I could have done a better job of preparing my presentation in a way that better fit the context: my presentation may have been too theoretical, so for an audience of engineers who care more about using metamaterials and nanophotonic architectures to make new devices, I could have been clearer about broad physical insights and done a better job connecting the findings in my work to ideas of interest to such researchers. Additionally, I could have probably done a better job networking, though my reticence was in part due to uncertainty on my part regarding my future plans.

I also had a day in each city to explore, but there were issues in each case. For one, neither Luxembourg nor Lisbon are especially tourist-oriented cities compared to places like London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, or Berlin, as far as I've heard: both cities have a lot of nice restaurants and cafes as well as many nice viewpoints and other areas to simply hang out and relax, but there aren't so many specific attractions, as Luxembourg is known more for housing EU governmental offices as well as international finance companies, while Lisbon seems to generally not have invested in tourism as much. I did hear in each place that the surrounding countrysides are beautiful, so perhaps that is where more tourism happens and where more interesting things can be seen. (Also, it didn't help that I was in Lisbon on a Monday, when many things are closed.) For another, both cities are not especially good for people like me in power wheelchairs who want to travel independently; people who are able-bodied, in manual wheelchairs, or have disabilities that require them to be assisted by partners or personal care attendants full-time may be better served. In Luxembourg, I didn't feel like I missed too much because it's a fairly small city anyway, and the public transit buses were accessible (though there were some issues even there). In Lisbon, I felt like I missed more because it is a bigger city, yet its Metro rapid transit train system, which is supposedly accessible, actually has large gaps between the train floors and platforms, and most of the buildings have large steps to enter. I do hope to visit Europe again, but when I do, I hope to make sure it will be a city/area that is more friendly to people in power wheelchairs.

Book Review: "Capitalism Without Capital" by Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake

Monday 3rd of June 2019 09:39:00 PM
I've recently read the book "Capitalism Without Capital" by Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake. I found out about this book from a reading list by Bill Gates that was circulated by various media outlets online, which suggested that this book would have a lot to say about the currently relevant issue of people's personal data held by large online companies like Facebook & Google. This turned out to not be the case, as there was only a single brief mention of this point later in the book. Instead, this book is a discussion about how companies in many developed countries rely more on intangible assets than tangible assets, how associated trends can explain many issues faced by societies in those countries today, and why governments need to take notice of these trends. The authors start by carefully defining their notions of investments & assets, along with tangibility (essentially physical goods that can be valued & traded relatively easily) versus intangibility (things like institutions, rules, know-how, intellectual property, and social relationships that are much harder to quantify & trade), and then discuss why the values of intangible assets are harder to measure and how various econometric organizations are trying to improve this situation. They then describe their central thesis, which is that intangible assets have much greater scalability, sunk costs, spillover effects, and synergistic effects compared to tangible assets, and this leads to qualitatively different economic & political outcomes. This leads to discussion of specific points, including the role of intangible assets in secular stagnation (low business investment levels despite low interest rates) as well as income & wealth inequality, the issues associated with creating infrastructure for as well as financing investment in intangible assets, the role of intangible assets in promoting a cult of management and the greater role of management in turn as intangible assets become more important, and the questions governments will have to face with respect to managing this growth in intangible assets.

I thought this book was meant for lay readers, but it seems more meant for policymakers, entrepreneurs, and the like, and it is a bit dense. Nonetheless, it is quite well-written, and I enjoyed gaining more perspective about these aspects of the economy that I wouldn't have consciously considered otherwise. I particularly appreciated the summaries at the end of each chapter, as the authors seemed to implicitly acknowledge the density of information in their book and wanted to refresh readers' minds after going through each chapter. Moreover, I really liked the fact that the authors were more interested in laying out the facts as they interpreted them instead of making bold, sweeping proclamations about the generality of their analysis: they really tried to avoid the golden hammer fallacy of trying to contort their explanation to fit every possible problem. As a particular example, one of the features of intangible goods being synergy would seem to suggest that as synergistic/agglomeration effects are correlated with dense urban development, then policymakers should promote dense urban development to promote the formation of synergy/agglomeration clusters and that this should be a guaranteed way of growing a local economy; however, the authors take pains to mention at multiple points in the book that the empirical evidence for this is sparse in general, and where it does exist, the results are mixed, thereby providing a testable & falsifiable scenario that leads to a failure to reject the null hypothesis. As another example, both this book and the book Radical Markets by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl (which I have reviewed here) discuss Friedrich Hayek's anecdote of pencil-making to illustrate how markets efficiently communicate information via prices, but while the authors of the other book uncritically praise and extend that notion, the authors of this book are quick to show how in practice, gathering price & other information as well as conducting bargaining can be quite costly, which is how Ronald Coase concluded that people organize into firms with hierarchies in order to lessen these costs and uncertainties. Also, in the chapter about what governments should consider doing, the authors explicitly state that they are not trying to suggest the existence of quick fixes, but are instead laying out the challenges in full and suggesting possible general approaches that governments can tailor to their specific needs. Overall, I would need to read a lot more to more seriously evaluate the claims in the book, so I wouldn't be able to recommend this to lay readers, but specialists in the field may find this book interesting & thought-provoking.

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