Ideological Science and the New American Dream

Greetings! Check out the opening of this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education about ideological biases in social science:  

“Last summer in these pages, Mordechai Levy-Eichel and Daniel Scheinerman uncovered a major flaw in Richard Jean So’s Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction, one that rendered the book’s conclusion null and void. Unfortunately, what they found was not an isolated incident. In complex areas like the study of racial inequality, a fundamentalism has taken hold that discourages sound methodology and the use of reliable evidence about the roots of social problems.

We are not talking about mere differences in interpretation of results, which are common. We are talking about mistakes so clear that they should cause research to be seriously questioned or even disregarded. A great deal of research — we will focus on examinations of Asian American class mobility — rigs its statistical methods in order to arrive at ideologically preferred conclusions.”

The article is paywalled, so I haven’t read the rest of it. Still, I find it compelling because (1) I am rather skeptical whenever I encounter self-proclaimed nones who stake their beliefs on the truth claims of science and reason while turning a blind eye to the biases and epistemic limitations which attend these modes of inquiry; and (2) in both college and graduate school I encountered teachers and fellow students who openly criticized anyone foolish enough to believe in religion and yet who seldom if ever recognized, much less criticized, the bias of their own ideological presuppositions. They seemed unwilling to consider how their own beliefs might have motivated their preferred academic conclusions. It was an extremely puzzling contradiction in terms to me, which, in retrospect, was so elitist and absurdly hypocritical that I wish I had had the guts and the wherewithal to challenge it.

Matthew Lee Andersen (from whom I found the above article) has a good bit on the writing process for Christians:

“Out of the overflow of the heart,” Christ says, “the mouth speaks.” Our words betray us, disclosing our selves in ways we do not necessarily intend and cannot control. “A miracle,” Benedict exclaims in Much Ado about Nothing as his love letter about Beatrice is revealed: “Here’s our own hands against our hearts.”

This is good news for the writer, though, at least within God’s economy of grace. God’s plans and purposes exceed and encompass us; they allow us to speak and write freely, in the confidence that all that is good will come to good account and everything that remains will be burned up as dross. “What I have written, I have written” is an invitation to rest in the sufficiency of the Word of God, and to trust that the one who gives good gifts to His children will make our words fruitful in His time. If words come from the overflow of our hearts, then all we can do is purify them before the Lord and get on with it. To modify a line from Eliot, for us, there is only the writing; the rest is not our business.”

In other news, the McKays over at The Art of Manliness wrote about niceness and the saddest epitaph which led me to some much-needed introspection:

Niceness is admirable when it serves as the gilding on a life in which stands were made, chances were taken, influence was magnified, and passions were pursued; niceness is a tragedy when it constitutes your sole legacy.

How sad it would be, as you’re laid in your final resting place, if the only epitaph that could be engraven on your tombstone would read:

Here lies _________.

He never offended anyone.

Meanwhile over in The New Yorker, the eminent professor Cal Newport weighed in on the ChatGPT discussion:

Imitating existing human writing using arbitrary combinations of topics and styles is an impressive accomplishment. It has required cutting-edge technologies to be pushed to new extremes, and it has redefined what researchers imagined was possible with generative text models. With the introduction of GPT-3, which paved the way for the next-generation chatbots that have impressed us in recent months, OpenAI created, seemingly all at once, a significant leap forward in the study of artificial intelligence. But, once we’ve taken the time to open up the black box and poke around the springs and gears found inside, we discover that programs like ChatGPT don’t represent an alien intelligence with which we must now learn to coexist; instead, they turn out to run on the well-worn digital logic of pattern-matching, pushed to a radically larger scale. It’s hard to predict exactly how these large language models will end up integrated into our lives going forward, but we can be assured that they’re incapable of hatching diabolical plans, and are unlikely to undermine our economy. ChatGPT is amazing, but in the final accounting it’s clear that what’s been unleashed is more automaton than golem.”

Speaking of technology and social trends, The Atlantic published an essay on the new American Dream, which evidently is to be a social media influencer. I have what I think is a healthy skepticism of the older American Dream. To keep up with the Joneses, as the saying goes, was never Jesus’ idea of the good life, and so it’s not mine either (though there is of course plenty of room for debate over what it means to follow Jesus in a capitalist context). But so far my feelings about the new American Dream come closer to revulsion, which the essay’s conclusion is enough to provoke:

Influencers occupy a space between traditional and nontraditional paths to success, between an alternative to 9-to-5 American capitalism and an embodiment of it. As Marwick explained to me, a number of people enjoy lifestyle vlogs because “if you have a really difficult life, sometimes you just want to sit and watch someone do something in a pretty house.” It’s a way to remove yourself from the stress of day-to-day life, or even long-term thoughts about your economic stability. But at the same time, Marwick notes, many viewers are holding on to “very real class resentment that is based on very real issues, and that can rear its head at any time.” Influencers are hated and loved for the same reasons—a double-edged sword of the worst kind.

On the reading front, I’m almost finished with The Hobbit, which is always a delight—and is much easier bedtime reading than The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. As I’ve mentioned before, I may yet give up on the latter, but I’m also far along enough to want to finish it. In typical Heinleinian fashion, the book is something of a treatise on political philosophy set within an imagined future (similar to what he does in Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land). Yesterday I read a few chapters while waiting in the assembly hall for jury duty, and the following passages in chapter 14 caught my attention:

“Did I say that Loonies are “non-political”? They are, when comes to doing anything. But doubt if was ever a time two Loonies over a liter of beer did not swap loud opinions about how things ought to be run.” (page 202)

“Must be a yearning deep in the human heart to stop the people from doing as they please. Rules, laws—always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: “Please pass this so that I won’t be able to do something I know I should stop.” Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them “for their own good”—not because speaker claimed to be harmed by it.” (page 205)

I thought: too true. And yet these days, with cancel culture and the censoring of books and the scrubbing of words deemed “oppressive”, I think there is more of a willingness to pass laws, rules, and policies to stop things because the rule-makers claim that they (or those who they represent) are harmed by them. And sadly I think there are too many cases where this approach is not much of an improvement.

Lunar Base Concept Art. Credit: Bartol Rendulic

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