Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

If you are going to read just one article about the limits of science this year, it better be this one.

A somewhat doubtful psychedelic history of philosophy. Bottom line: don’t try it at home.

Narcissists as the anti-Kantians. Does the 21st century suffer from a pandemic of narcissism?

Did Feynman have a simple answer to science-pseudoscience demarcation? Not really, but he played little philosopher anyway. Seems to be an occupational hazard of prominent physicists…

121 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. synred

    more is promised than it supports

    An example is the press release when BaBar experiment discovered CP violation in B-mesons [a].

    It was a master piece of hype. It was not wrong. It talked a lot why CP violation was needed to explain why the observed overwhelming asymmetry of matter over anti-matter. CP violation could allow this to be explained w/o resorting to tuning the initial conditions [a].

    Our discovery of CP violations was widely reported. We had seen CP violation which the experiment was built to find. Most press reports said we had explained the matter-anti-matter asymmetry. Not that surprising as the press release rather harped on this subject, but the release did not say that if you read it carefully.

    Only the Economist got it right! We had discovered what didn’t cause the matter-anti-matter asymmetry. The value was just as predicted by the bloody standard model and not big enough to explain the asymmetry. We had confirmed what was already predicted that the standard model did not have enough CP violation among quarks to explain the asymmetry.

    Doesn’t sound as exciting, does it? HYPE!!!!!

    STANDARD MODEL CONFIRMED — just doesn’t do it!

    [a] I actually worked on this analysis and wrote one of the two codes use to extract CP violation signal from out data. I was not asked to comment on this press release before It went out. I was reduced to whining about it to our former director while eating lunch.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. synred

    High stakes testing causes more suicides. One might argue that a bit of pot saves lives — ‘ chill out; {a].. Stress related acholol consumption likely makes things worse and LSD is likely not a good idea. Of course, nobody knows…

    In Palo Alto they had to put up fences along the Captain tracks to make it harder for students from the nearby Palo’ly high school to get to ’em.

    Letting kid be kids might be more effective…

    [a] That expression betrays my age…


  3. brodix

    On psychedelic philosophy, I would say doing drugs as a youngster just made me dumber. While it was mostly marijuana and alcohol, I found it messed up my linear memory and turned what had been a fairly photographic memory into a jumble of sensations and non linear thinking. Not to mention the concussions and other neurological injuries. The consequence was insightful into how the mind organizes itself. Much like driving a junker will make you a mechanic.
    Probably one of my more insightful experiences was sexual, in that I found myself seeing and feeling through her senses, as she seemed to be doing through mine. This led to the realization the reason we don’t easily recognize consciousness in others is because it is the same as our own, through another form, lens and experience. Having spent my life riding horses, this was a lesson I put to good use.
    Which leads to the article on narcissism. While it only gives a very facile and sore description of how people get inside of each other, often to manipulate them, it does describe the point I’m making, of how we function as conscious entities and groups.
    Much as we have many desires, but only one will, so too do groups of people function as larger organisms by ceding control to dominant personalities, with strongly expressed views.
    Rather than Nietzsche’s supermen, it is those best able to read the crowd and tell them what they want to hear, who ride that bottom up raw energy. Rather than those taking the longer view and sensing the dangers. The corollary to those not knowing history being condemned to repeat it, is those who do know history are condemned to watch it be repeated, a bit in a jumbled fashion. The process doesn’t change, only the point of view.


  4. couvent2104

    The Sarewitz piece is interesting, but puzzling at the same time. He seems to suffer from confirmation bias.
    If science is a failing institution, then were came all that progress from? Perhaps a huge number of MRI experiments aren’t interpreted correctly nor repeatable, but it’s hard to deny that we have MRI scanners now and that we didn’t have them 50 years ago (NMR, the principle behind MRI was discovered by Isidor Rabi in 1938 – and as far as I know he didn’t this application in mind). People with AIDS can live (relatively) normal lives now, thanks to progress in pharmacology. The Brout-Englert-Higgs was predicted and found (by two independent groups – scientists know that experiments should be repeatable, preferably by different methods). Some types of surgery are far less intrusive than they used to be. Not so long ago we had light bulbs that produced more heat than light, now we have LEDs. Even if you want to call String Theory a failure as a TOE, it’s hard to deny it gave new insights in mathematics. Etc., etc.
    It isn’t clear what Sarewitz actually is talking about. Science, or science in the US? What about Germany, the UK, France, Japan, China? Did they have their own Vannevar Bush?
    One could suggest that the way scientific research is organized is failing. But even is this respect, there are success stories. I followed the evolution of micro-electronics research a bit in the 1990s and I noticed that in Belgium the local universities set aside their differences and created one research institute (IMEC), which became a world class center for micro-electronics research in the space of 10, 15 years.
    Sure, there’s a lot of bad or irrelevant science around. But has it ever been different? (And the fact that we know there’s bad science, points to another fact: there’s good science that discovered that other science is bad …)
    Sarewitz seems to want science to be more directed by societal (or other) needs. But who’s going to do the directing? On what grounds? Are we going to have democratic elections about it? Everybody would like to have a cure for cancer, multiple scleroris, Alzheimer … but who’s going to decide what to do? Some super-intellect, hovering high above science?
    (And imagine – the philosophical super-intellect telling philosophers what to philosophize about. I really would like to see that.)
    Is science all that it’s supposed to be? No.
    Is it as bad as Sarewitz suggests? For that conclusion, I need better arguments.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. dbholmes

    Hi Michael, I’m not sure I understand your comment. You do live in my world, and that of Synred (who gave his own example), and that of the author who gave some accurate descriptions of problems that exist (even if missing on the causes and solutions).

    I am not advocating publishing bad data, actually the exact opposite, just explaining the forces underlying why it sometimes occurs (rather than simply blaming the egos of scientists like the author did–or ignorance of ethical principles).

    I should be clear that I didn’t mean to insult your idea of having ethics courses. It’s just that I think resolving the sources of temptation is a more efficient measure. For example when corporations are found to have engaged in damaging business practices, because people making decisions were operating in a system that rewarded bad/risky choices (including by not losing their jobs), I would advocate regulating the industry to make sure the system did not contain such incentives in the first place, rather than having budding business students take ethics courses and hope they learn (and stick by) those lessons… or stricter punishments for failure.

    Measuring the quality of scientists and science research by number of publications and citations, and the quality of science journals by numbers of citations, is mistaken and creates the wrong incentives. This effect is amplified when funding and the very existence of careers is tied to those errant measures. At least that is my concept.

    If you meant you are glad you are not in a position where you face such choices… then I am glad to hear it! 🙂


  6. synred

    Perhaps a huge number of MRI experiments aren’t interpreted correctly nor repeatable, but it’s hard to deny that we have MRI scanners now and that we didn’t have them 50 years ago (NMR, the principle behind MRI was discovered by Isidor Rabi in 1938 – and as far as I know he didn’t this application in mind).

    Science is a process not a collection of current results. fMRI problems will be sorted out.

    In the when while you can have your brain checked by sitting in a claustrophobic noise tunnel or 20 mins or so. Beats the hell of exploratory surgery like my father had to have for some unexplained seizures. They never did figure them out, but they stopped.

    We always thought they had something to do with his brother Hartland dying at age 49, but the neurosurgeon didn’t buy it. The man with a hammer…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. SocraticGadfly

    Garth, your snark doesn’t rise to the level of Harvard-approved life extension. Unless you’re both a gnu AND a cosmic dualist (maybe there is that degree of self-knot-tying) the consensus is in for both the consciousness, or lack thereof, of the universe AND gnus.

    Oh, and “fun guy”? Geez, that’s stale.

    And, like Coel on “eugenics,” your definition of “drug” doesn’t fly.


  8. synred

    I> would advocate regulating the industry to make sure the system did

    It would help if Jamie Diamond and a few others went to Jail now and then.

    Punishing the corporate ‘person’ is pointless. Fines only hurt the relatively innocent stockholder and are not big enough or happen often enough to discourage crime.The ‘persons’ actually committing the crime should be punished.

    Get caught honestly selling weed and go to jail for 20 years; get caught selling fraudulent contracted derivatives to little old ladies pension fund and get a bonus.

    “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas (Delaware?) executes one.” –Robert Reich

    Forbes claims Texas does execute corporations

    They say “It’s called bankruptcy”. BS. Bankruptcy is a way for them to weasel out the debts and screw their retired workers. Ask IBM. Ask GM. Ask the Donald!

    Death is having their charter revoked. Mostly only Delaware can do that.

    Outright cheating should be punished in science to. It can be and has been, both by losing jobs and even criminality. Of course you have to find it which ain’t so easy.

    Hype is a harder case. We might not have been able to discover B-meson CP violation w/o some hype to get it off the ground. However, the press release was however over the top.


  9. Philosopher Eric

    Is playing “little philosopher” an occupational hazard of physics? Well I do hope so! Who here, and regardless of their credentials, doesn’t also enjoy philosophical contemplation? I can’t imagine that there’s anything wrong with us partaking, and even though credentialed philosophers may not generally be able to do much with physics. It’s simply natural for the weakest (philosophy) to be tested harder than the strongest (physics). And what if now quite board physicists, do help philosophy finally develop its own generally accepted understandings? Hey let’s give these quite successful outsiders a shot as well!

    As far as the demarcation problem goes, I think in the last video Massimo mentioned that he doesn’t give astrology two seconds of his day, and therefore the topic isn’t something which wastes his time. Nevertheless the subject of pseudoscience itself does seem to be quite a concern in philosophy in general, so I can’t say that astrology and such are nearly so resource benign as implied. Yes there is this demarcation problem that seems (perhaps) impossible for us to overcome. But this suggests that energies might be better implemented elsewhere. While I don’t disagree with the goal of lessening the prominence of pseudoscience and the supernatural in humanity, I have no hope that this will ever be accomplished through arguments alone. Why? Because the masses are, after all, asses. I’d hope for philosophers to instead straighten out their own house before thinking they can improve the lot of the masses. Let’s put the horse in front of the cart, and then take it somewhere useful!


  10. Massimo Post author

    Lots of interesting comments, but I was out all day, hiking.

    Still, dbholmes, the problem with rats-obsessed research has a different root, also mentioned in the OP: the culture of science has evolved into a rat race (pun intended) that rewards easy and frequent publication, regardless of the irrelevance of the research to the problem at hand. Which in this case is well known. Which means scientists are willfully engaging in a game for the sole purpose of advancing their career, not pertinent knowledge. And that game is very expensive.


    Society at large gets to decide what goals science should pursue. So the scientists should be at the decision table, obviously. But so should be a number of other constituencies, since it is the public’s money that is being freely and abundantly being spent.


    No need to federalize the NAS or the AAAS, though for instance Italy has an interesting model where the National Research Council decided on research priorities and funding. And that Council is responsive not just to scientists.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. synred


    Science has to give way to relgion? Huh?

    From Nature:

    The Higgs, of course, has been labelled the ‘god particle’ because it accounts for the existence of mass in the Universe. But the term (coined by physics Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, perhaps to the regret of some of his colleagues) also signals the ambition of science, or at least of certain branches of physics, to probe the origins and meaning of existence itself — which, to some, is the job of religion. Science may seek a theoretically and empirically sound explanation of such origins and religion may not. But this distinction is less clear than it seems.


  12. michaelfugate

    So I get to vote on the research goals for the NSF and NIH? Or do I just get to write letters to Congress while lobbyists control the votes?


  13. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    “Isn’t the whole point of puns that they are bad?”

    Good point. “Torquemada, do not implore him for compassion. Torquemada, do not beg him for forgiveness. Torquemada, do not ask him for mercy. Let’s face it – you can’t Torquemada anything!” – Mel Brooks.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. synred

    So you dnn’t trust your representatives?

    I’d like to replace the house with randomly chosen ‘representives’? Yeah, I know many would be idiots, but so are many we have now. There’d likely be fewer crazies.
    I should be done nationwide with districts chosen of equal population selected at random every 10 years.

    If selected we’d make you rich, but if you took a penny from anybody else you go to jail. I forget the name for this system, but it would be much more ‘representive’ than we have now.

    We could keep the senate elective (w/o non-talking filbabuster) to balance out passing popular enthusiasms).


  15. brodix

    Astrology shouldn’t be so readily dismissed. As an object lesson.
    It is astro logos. Theorizing about the universe. Just that too much bad research was taken seriously. Correlation is not always causation. Now they have to call it cosmology. Cosmo logos. Though instead of seeking human fate in the stars, they assign a narrative to the universe and you better believe, if you want a job in the field.
    Of course all the patches holding it together are good science, because they are necessary to tie theory to observation.


  16. Massimo Post author


    As I said before, I try really hard to consider people’s writings on their own merits, regardless of what those same people write elsewhere, or of the outlet they write it in. I thought the OP was right on target at the least 80% of the time, which is more than I can say from mindless defenders of science like the new atheists…


    I really don’t understand what’s so scandalous about having science and scientists more accountable to society at large, considering that they get most of their money from taxpayers. No, the idea isn’t to vote by referendum on individual research projects, but rather not to leave the scientists themselves as the only judges of what to pursue and what not to pursue.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. synred

    <try really hard to consider people’s writings on their own merits

    I don’t. It may be a logical fallacy in formal debate, but is a pretty good short cut. If people have an agenda, the best take what they say with the proverbial ‘grain’.


  18. SocraticGadfly

    DB, besides driving, I also noted suicides (which, yes, don’t harm others physically, but certainly can mentally), smoking in bed (which if you don’t live alone, a fire from that harms others), the medical costs of the addictions (tobacco and alcohol among the biggest), which harms a family economy., etc. In addition, alcohol and some illicit drugs both contribute to many workplace accidents, which also harm others.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. wtc48

    Coming in late, I mostly zeroed in on the eugenics discussion. I think the point should be made, not just that you can’t transfer selective breeding to humans, but also that there are good reasons why you can’t. To start with the most elementary, what we know of selective breeding applies exclusively to domestic animals. We know nothing about selective breeding of wild animals, because as soon as we try, our subjects are no longer wild. It would probably be misleading to describe humans as “wild” but it is helpful to think of them in this way, because the process of a selective breeding experiment would disqualify them as normal human beings by severing the connection between them and their environment. If you had a pair of tigers in cages and unlimited time and money, you might get them to breed, but would the resulting creature still be a tiger? I suggest not, because the parents stopped being tigers as soon as they were put in cages.

    To pursue this analogy with humans, our environment is human culture itself, and we are, in a sense, wild creatures within it. As animals, we have evolved on the same time scale as horses and raccoons, that is to say, not very fast. But our culture has taken off with the speed of thought and surrounded us with a conceptual fabric of unbelievable complexity. No one can understand it in totality, but we spend our lives learning how to cope with our own area within it. In this context, the idea of eugenics — selective breeding for some supposedly superior trait — becomes absurd.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. dbholmes

    HI Massimo,

    “the problem with rats-obsessed research has a different root, also mentioned in the OP: the culture of science has evolved into a rat race (pun intended) that rewards easy and frequent publication”

    On that I totally agree. It was the largest underlying cause I’ve been arguing here which I mentioned the author did touch on but failed to explore.

    “Which means scientists are willfully engaging in a game for the sole purpose of advancing their career, not pertinent knowledge.“

    This I think is going too far, especially when the author is trying to tie it to a premise that this is the result of scientists working “freely” on their “personal interests”. I don’t think I ever met a scientist who said “I wish I could get this incomplete or inaccurate data set out right away”, instead of “I wish I could have more time, more money, and better materials to make the case solid”. Granted many career scientists have become cynical and learned to work within the system that exists now, seeking publications for fame at cost of knowledge, but scientists did not choose or build this system all by themselves in a vacuum.

    To be honest the article read like a religious text demonizing scientists (who, when left to their own devices, should be conceived as “idle hands are the playground of the devil”) and so must be controlled, put to useful, real “work” by the “pure” non-scientists who will know better than them! Puritanical anti-intellectualism playing to a conservative populist audience (an impression I see is supported by the source Synred pointed out).

    Liked by 1 person

  21. dbholmes

    Hi Massimo (part 2),

    On rodent use in particular, ask many scientists working with mice and they will gladly tell you they wish they could work with something else (many are shifting to ferrets). But they have to work within limits. These can be funding limits, material availability, or ethical requirements drawn up by others, and publishing often is usually based on the funders’ expectations for quick headlines which is a societal problem hurting not just science.

    Even assuming the authors’ thesis is true, how would a manhattan project style neuroscience project on human brain development, function, and disorders avoid using mice/rats/ etc at all? Conscripting prisoners for research? Forcing patients to donate material at will? Until we have actual human models, animal surrogates will be required… unless we are going to throw up our hands completely? Sometimes models with known limits are better than nothing at all. And I should add it isn’t like all these scientists working with rodents aren’t coming up with good scientific results of some kind, just not what is hyped… a definitive, analogous, model for humans.

    It was a sacrifice on my part holding out for a position that would largely if not exclusively work with human tissue. That is very hard… because human tissue or subjects for many research topics is very very difficult to come by. The author is dreaming if he thinks it isn’t. My kind of research (using stem cells) is starting to make that easier, but it is a long way off and requires less “goal-oriented” expectations, deadlines, and publication demands.

    Heck, are the laws banning or restricting stem cell research coming from scientists working “freely” on their “own interests”, rather than the populous “directing” it? The people that won the Nobel for coming up with induction of pluripotency did a lot of work (note: started with mice as proof of principle because it is faster/easier) which could not be assured at the start would be possible. Another one of those “rare” cases that the author missed in biology.

    Your acceptance of the author’s thesis raises the question if you felt like you needed to be reigned in by non-scientists or you’d have chosen patently wasteful subjects and experiments with the wrong materials in order to publish bad data fast for personal fame? Somehow I don’t think so. 🙂


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