Plato’s suggestions: New Year’s edition!

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

What is the point of scientific journalism? That’s the question asked by a thoughtful piece by Brooke Borel at The Guardian. Science journalists are not just cheerleaders for science, and investigating a scientist’s conflicts of interest ought to be part of the job.

A brief history of public monuments and how they fall, sometimes for good reasons — like the statues of tyrants — sometimes representing a loss to humanity — as in the case of the Taliban destruction of Buddha statues and ISIS inflicted damage to archeological sites in Syria.

Mark Judge thinks the new Star Wars movie signifies the end of culture. I think people like Judge need to take a deep breadth and focus on more important issues than a mediocre movie exquisitely crafted in order to make Disney a bundle of money.

Does old age bring wisdom? Not necessarily, though you can’t become wise without aging. An interesting article in the New York Times, interviewing six New Yorkers in the Winter of their years about what made their lives meaningful and how they are dealing with their short future.

Harry Frankfurt, the philosopher who wrote On Bullshit, has published a new book On Inequality. Interesting review of it in the LA Review of Books.

23 thoughts on “Plato’s suggestions: New Year’s edition!

  1. brodix

    Science and journalism both seek to extract signal from the noise, from and for slightly different frames and ends, so there would be both cooperation and competition. Possibly though, science journalism needs to better study both the history and philosophy of science, in order to better understand the larger context. For instance, they might express far more skepticism with such ideas as mathematical universe theory, if they realized this one to one correlation between mathematical models and physical reality was exactly the same fallacy made with epicycles. Yet that would call into question many of the basic physical assumptions on which modern physics currently rests and one would quickly be shown the door, to try that.

    As for inequality, this is all bullshit, to reference the authors prior work. The concept which needs to be taken into account is efficiency, but that would call into question the underlaying process by which capitalism effectively siphons all extractable value out of everything, even the industrial base on which it rests. A hundred years ago, even Henry Ford understood the workers needed to earn enough to buy the products they made, in order for the system to be sustainable, not just have it loaned to them, in order to extract even more value, but that idea has been effectively erased and replaced with concepts like charity and equality, which make it seem as though the workers are just being given a break by the society at large. It’s safe to say the gap between reality and rhetoric has become quite vast and it is much more likely that events will precede any intellectual enlightenment, given the current situation is a bubble of financialized wealth that is multiples the size of the actual economy on which it rests. Now for those of us who do sense our modern industrial economy is unsustainable and unless stopped, will wreck the environment, the fact that it is about to have a self induced coronary, as its economic medium of exchange becomes completely clogged by the megalomaniacal greed of those in charge, it is all poetic justice.

    Happy New Year.


  2. Philosopher Eric

    As a rebellious voice myself, I most certainly do appreciate this first article. Criticism is surely part and parcel of the scientific method itself, but given that we’re all naturally subjective, science journalism must play an important role in helping scientists do what they can’t be expected to sufficiently manage themselves. Therefore perhaps those critical voices which can seem quite disrespectful, do sometimes come from those who love science the most. Without such critical voices, how else might it be lifted out of its natural ruts? I particularly enjoyed the following line:

    “…scientists aren’t science.”

    Exactly. The institution of science is far greater than any of us.

    Massimo, do philosophers of science consider this to be their role as well? Could you explain your role just a bit?


  3. Daniel Kaufman

    Oy God, that Star Wars piece.

    One should always check one’s poseur-early-warning system after seeing T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Homer, Nietzsche, Picasso, Rembrandt, Seurat, Chekhov, O’Neill, Ibsen, and Brecht all mentioned in a single sentence. Some posturing just *might* be going on.

    In fact, The Force Awakens is a quite entertaining movie and most importantly, it did what it was designed to do, and that is reboot the Star Wars franchise in the wake of the damage done by the godawful prequels, in the hope of capturing the imagination of the next generation of young people. To do so, it went back to the source material and to the characters, situations, and mythos that caused the original trilogy to so profoundly affect the imaginations of kids growning up in the 70s and early 80s — kids like me.

    Whether, ulitmately, it is the success it could potentially be, as an artistic achievement will depend on what comes after it. That it is nonetheless an artistic success on its own is pretty clear to anyone who hasn’t drank a pitcher of snob-juice.

    For those who are interested in something that actually addressess the film and the franchise for what they actually are (as opposed to something whose purpose seems to be laying down cultural markers), I just filmed a video dialogue on The Force Awakens and more generally, on the cultural impact of Star Wars, for BloggingHeadsTV, with the site’s managing editor, Aryeh Coehn-Wade. While it is not up yet, it will be in the next day or two.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Daniel Kaufman

    And Massimo, don’t worry. It’s not for Sophia, but for Aryeh’s own show, “Culturally Determined.” The Sophia Brand will remain untainted by mediocre movies exquisitely crafted in order to make Disney a bundle of money.



  5. SocraticGadfly

    I’m not a Star Warfs fan, so, I’ll pass on it.


    I’d read the Guardian piece before Massimo posted it, and largely agree. And, it’s not just science journalism. Journalists in general aren’t supposed to be cheerleaders, or otherwise editorializing, in news stories.


    Touching, thoughtful yet serious piece on the super-elderly.


    And a total ugh on Frankfurt’s book. He ignores many things. They include
    1. The overall power that attaches to money in a capitalist society
    2. The loss of societal benefit to income parked in tax shelters, etc.
    3. Per the Marxism part of the review, how such disadvantages, when not checked, tend to perpetuation and even increase, thereby exacerbating No. 1.


    The monuments article is not American, but, of course, with the Black Lives Matter movement, has huge importance in the U.S. South. And, it’s not just monuments. As the New York Times noted in a piece about 18 months ago, we have places like Fort Hood and Fort Lee named after … well, named after traitors, if we’re going to call a spade a spade.

    I also like the part in the piece about artists themselves sometimes being caught in this battle.

    And, yes, artists bring politics to the table of their creative work. Look at David’s relationship with Napoleon, for example. You can’t really discuss artists, in my opinion, without that being part of the discussion at times.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. brodix

    And to possibly tie together the science journalist as skeptic and the complete logical charade that economics has become, it should be noted that when the financiers need mathematicians to construct their derivatives structures to store such massive amounts of surplus notational wealth, they went to physical theorists, not their own accountants. Was that because the theorists were just that much smarter, or because accountants are taught too much funny math will get you in trouble, while the theorists think entire universes spring from every thought bubble?


  7. ejwinner

    I’ve no interest in Star Wars. As to Judge/Vargas Llosa – well, we’ve been hearing similar critiques for more than a century. Surprisingly, when taken on their own terms, they are all true. However they all share similar problems. First, their definition of ‘culture’ is obviously very narrow and class-dependent. It is true that the culture of the Bourgeoisie and of the Aristocracy is intellectually more stimulating and more complex, emotionally more enticing and more rewarding than the culture Modernity now mass-produces. But accessing that ‘higher’ culture requires education, patience, and desire for the good it provides. The greater number of people simply don’t have time for this – but they have cultural needs for stimulation and satisfaction that cannot be denied. One might criticize the avaricious nature of those who cater to those needs, or the cynicism implicit in many of their products. But it is narrow minded to claim that no one should do anything to cater to those needs.

    This opens out into another problem with end-of-civilization theorizing. Despite that such theories are arguments concerning history, their narrow understanding of culture leads to an impoverished, blinkered view of how history, especially cultural history, unravels. for one thing, cultural artifacts are very dependent on the technology used to produce them -Joyce’s Ulysses, as cultural artifact, is more dependent on the printing press than on Joyce’s pen. This also means that certain artifacts can become outdated, or even disappear, as technology changes. Collectors, scholars, and museums do what they can to use current technology to preserve artifacts left over from previous technologies – but they cannot recapture the cultural gestalts that originally gave these artifacts meaning. I love movies; but admit I find it ever harder to sit through the old silents and early talkies. It’s simply in the nature of culture to change – and in our natures to change along with it.

    But there is a trend I would like to complain about – the loss of articulation. In a culture that is healthy – that is, interesting, involving, participatory – cultural artifacts are not simply produced to be ‘consumed’ – that is, sat through uncomplainingly, experienced without challenge, absorbed without question. In a healthy culture, people living in it participate in cultural production by developing a means of articulating what there is in their culture that they like or do not like; of discerning and discriminating between levels of value and differences in kinds and qualities of satisfaction. This is the origin of the language of criticism and review, of discussions of aesthetic taste, and of the agreement in a given culture concerning which artifacts are to be most valued, disseminated, and preserved.

    But what I hear and read from young people today, indicates a loss of this necessary articulation. The critically rich language of value seems now replaced with impoverished exclamations of sense stimulation. ‘Awesome!’ – ‘epic!’ – ‘too many feels!’ Young people seem less and less able to articulate their responses to their cultural enjoyments. If so, they are losing the ability to participate in the production of these enjoyments; they become as sheep feeding at the trough of slop poured to them by greedy entrepreneurs with no sense of artistic integrity, and no interest in quality, since all they need to do is tweak the right nerves in their audiences to free them of their wealth.

    (A fuller development of this comment can be found at my blog.)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Callum Hackett

    Massimo, I hope you don’t mind me cross-pollinating your blogs by bringing up a question about stoicism in relation to your links. I genuinely wonder how you approach reading and sharing things like the article by Mark Judge, his article being a poorly-thought, quite arrogant and miserly piece. Not that I am at all criticising you for including the link here, but often I read articles of a similar tone and feel the temptation to tell a friend, “Look at this silly thing this silly person wrote,” but then stop myself in the belief that it is a form of idle chatter to share specious nonsense so that we all might be indignant and better-opinioned together.

    Is it of any aid to any reader that did not previously know of Judge’s article to become aware of it? Forgive me if that sounds like a banal or accusatory question.


  9. Philosopher Eric

    Socratic with that last John Horgan piece, thanks for reminding me that journalism is still simply a business rather than a savior for science. Most people do seem a bit simple, and so require bold headlines and provocative stories (even when misleading or false), in order to become interested.

    Nevertheless I must observe that this “news man” did actually expose his own rookie mistake, and apparently today does generally oppose the naturally skewed interests associated with entertaining the masses. Furthermore you yourself did bring this to our attention, and reside in the same profession. So perhaps my original observation above does hold? I suppose that it would help if people were able to achieve a bit more of that “sorting paradigm” stuff that we were discussing a week ago. In practice however, this may be somewhat ambitious.


  10. Massimo Post author


    No offense taken at all. It’s just that sometimes I feel like looking at bad pieces, especially when published by prominent sources that I usually trust, is a good reminder of just how difficult it is to intelligently navigate news and commentaries.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. SocraticGadfly

    Eric, as John showed, journalism is in part a snapshot, not a movie. Or, on a complex issue, it’s a move shot from one point of view. Or, it’s pulling on one or more threads, on a tangled skein, while not pulling on all the threads that are tangled together.

    Related to that, 100-200 years ago, print media was itself, arguably, “social media.”


  12. brodix


    ” The critically rich language of value seems now replaced with impoverished exclamations of sense stimulation.”

    I would certainly agree this generation is awash in a flood of sensory and intellectual input like no other in history, but only time will tell how they end up processing it. I don’t think it will totally burn all their circuits, but it will affect them in ways which cannot be foretold.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. SocraticGadfly

    EJ, sounds like a critique of modern non-appreciation of the arts, as critiquing the “user” driven by a mix of neoliberal capitalism values and Internet (and especially social media) driven “hurry up.”

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Philosopher Eric

    Massimo, I did very much enjoy your provided 2008 paper regarding the relation which exists between science and philosophy of science. My interpretation is that you do consider your field to provide needed criticism to science (as I suspected), as well as two other features — deriving its definition, and assessing its methodology. I found it all quite readable and sound.

    Furthermore regarding those two other attributes, I’d have been quite disappointed if you would have proposed theory which I personally claim. Fortunately you did not suggest that the method of science does represent the only means by which the conscious entity is able to figure anything out (beyond “faith” it would seem), or suggest that “science,” “philosophy,” and all terms can merely have “useful” rather than “true” definitions. Apparently you left the credit for the discovery of such principals for someone else, and I do mean to take this once I’m able to demonstrate their potential importance to you and others.


  15. Robin Herbert

    Just saw the Star Wars film with my kids. I am pretty sure that it won’t end culture. It’s not Chekov, but then neither were the original Flash Gordon seriasl, in which tradition this film is.

    And, basically, if you could kill off culture with bad movie, I think that Adam.Sandler would have managed the trick long before now.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. SocraticGadfly

    I want to add something to my earlier comment on Frankfurt’s book.

    And, that is that we’re assuming the reviewer is reviewing the actual book. With the biggest of the bigs in magazines and newspapers, this is an assumption that is not always warranted.

    For example, I am currently reading “The Reproach of Hunger.” While it doesn’t buy into every condemnation of the neoliberal development trio of World Bank/IMF/co-opted NGOs, it takes said criticisms at face value.

    The New York Times got an Oxford prof who also is involved with a neoliberal international development NGO to be the book reviewer. Based on the review, I can only conclude Prof. Collier was chosen to do a deliberate hatchet job, because that’s what he did.

    In short, sometimes, there are books that seem important enough that the consensus media feels they have to be reviewed, but wants to “handle” them as part of said reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. brodix

    Socratic, Robin,

    Which raises an interesting question of what they seek to divert attention away from.

    Yes, there is global banking system which has escaped its regulatory restraints and is doing its best to siphon all value out of every nook and cranny of the world economy, for both personal wealth and political control, yet finance is an integral part of the global economy and any basic understanding of physical dynamics, as well as history, suggests this will not end well, for either the global economy, or the global banking system.

    Are they simply this blind? Do they somehow think they can escape with the cash, when everything really starts to fall apart? Suffice to say, the political weathervane will shift from greed to fear and suddenly those with the guns and the armies and their political tools will find themselves the next masters of the universe and likely go all patriotic on a fair number of scapegoated bankers hides. When the system crashes, they will find themselves unnecessary. You would think as smart as they are, they wouldn’t want to cook their own golden goose.

    The world might be very complex, but there are still some basic laws of nature they should start teaching in elementary school and possibly some of this idiocy would not gather quite so much momentum.


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