Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner, "The Red Sea Scrolls: How Ancient Papyri Reveal the Secrets of the Pyramids" (2021)

Despite the awful title, this is a book about a major archaeological discovery by two real archaeologists. Unfortunately, the title is not even close to being the worst thing about the book, so I am going to spare you the trouble of reading it by telling you what it says.

The shores of the earth's oceans are mostly rich in life, including human life; most of the non-frozen seas are lined with cities and towns. But not the Red Sea. Until the modern era of canals and steam ships, there were no towns on the Red Sea at all, and hardly anyone lived there. It almost never rained anywhere along its shores; a glance at a map will show you that not a single river flows into the sea. The wind either blew from the north or not at all, making sailing difficult. The Romans found it easier to sail down the Nile for 300 miles and caravan across 200 miles of desert to Berenike rather than try to sail the northern reaches of the Red Sea. 

Old Kingdom Stela Near the Copper Mines of Sinai

But the ancient Egyptians needed and wanted things not found in their own land. Two of the most important to them were copper, from which they made tools, and turquoise, with which they adorned their leaders and honored the gods. Both could be found in large quantities in the southern Sinai peninsula, 150 miles across a bitter desert and then 10 more miles across a bitter sea. Since nobody but a few desert nomads could live on either shore of the Gulf of Suez, no ports or mining settlement grew up. Instead the Egyptians mounted occasional expeditions into that desolation. These were made up of hundreds to a few thousand men. The men were sent across to Suez at the least unpleasant season of the year, there to mine and smelt for a few months until they ran out of food and water. Then they came back, laden with treasure. After, for the benefit of future generations, raising stelae like the one above in which the expedition's leader boasted (always) that his expedition had mined more copper and turquoise than any before him.

All of this has been known for more than a century. A few intrepid 19th-century explorers had even found what they thought were ancient settlements along the western shore of the Gulf, which they thought might be associated with this trade. In 1956 two Frenchmen proposed to make a real study of one of these ports, but then the Suez Crisis erupted and they were expelled from the country. So there things rested until the 1990s, when archaeologists began exploring two sites called Ayn Sukhna and Wadi al-Jarf.

Plan of the Rock-Cut Galleries at Wadi al-Jarf

What they found in those sites has been extraordinary from the beginning. The sites both date to the Old Kingdom, between 2700 and 2200 BC. They consisted of stone building foundations, landscape modifications like terracing and roads, "galleries" carved into the rocks, and, at Wadi al-Jarf, a stone jetty that makes this the oldest artificial harbor yet discovered. 

Jetty at Wadi al-Jarf, 4600 years old

Since, remember, it hardly ever rains here, the galleries contained wonderfully preserved artifacts of wood, fiber, and papyrus.

Artifacts from Wadi al-Jarf

It seems that when an expedition was launched to the Sinai, the whole crew marched to one of these harbors. There they unsealed the galleries, which had been blocked with huge stones, and withdrew the material cached there. This included whole, disassembled boats and various other gear needed for sailing to Sinai. When they were done, they disassembled the boats, put everything back in the galleries, blocked them with with stone again, and marched back to the Nile.

Inscription from the reign of Khufu (2589-2566 BC) at Wadi al-Jarf

One interesting point is that Old Kingdom Egypt needed tons and tons of copper. Sinai copper was naturally alloyed with a little arsenic, which made it harder than pure copper, but still not as hard or durable as bronze. The chisels Egyptians made from Sinai copper were the size of a finger, and experiments show that they were worn half away in just a few hours of work on stone. It boggles the mind to ponder how many chisels were used up building one of the great pyramids – in fact I have not even found an attempt at a calculation. 

Anyway, these discoveries at the Old Kingdom temporary ports were exciting in themselves, revealing a lot about Egypt and providing many fascinating artifacts like these water pots photographed in one of the galleries at Wadi al-Jarf. (The closest spring to Wadi al-Jarf is 6 miles away)

But among the papyrus fragments lodged between two stones at the front of one gallery was a whole bundle of pages covered with similar columns of text. These turned out to be the logs of a work gang from the reign of Khufu, detailing their activities over about seven months, during which they helped to build the Great Pyramid. It's quite astonishing, really, that such a thing should survive. I mean, if you had been at a party with a bunch of historians and they started talking about what lost document they most wanted to recover, and somebody said, "I want the working logs from the building of the Great Pyramid," you would have laughed loud and long at that hubris. But here it is.

These work gangs were a regular feature of Egyptian life; their word was aper. We know about them because they regularly signed their stonework in places where it wouldn't show; dozens of separate gangs have been identified at Old Kingdom pyramids. The crew whose log was found went by the name of "The Escort Team of The Uraeus of Khufu is its Prow." (An Uraeus was a sort of divine snake symbol; it is entirely typical of The Red Sea Scrolls that the authors use the word about ten times before finally defining it on page 185.) The most likely interpretation of the name is that Uraeus of Khufu is its Prow was the name of a ship, and this gang was attached to it.

The gang was made up of four crews. The records are of two sorts, general accounts for the whole aper and records kept by Merer, who was the foreman of the crew known as Great. It is Merer's accounts that are particularly wonderful, since they lay out, day by day, what his men were doing for most of that seven month period. They spent much of it transporting limestone from quarries at a place called Tula to the building site of Khufu's Great Pyramid; the pyramid was once coated with bright white limestone, which was almost all removed in later years. They also spent a month in the Nile Delta working on some kind of maritime construction project, perhaps a jetty or a levee. They spent one day at the royal palace participating in a religious festival, providing some of the cheering crowds needed for great royal events. Then they were sent across the desert to the Gulf of Suez, where they transported supplies to miners. And then, somehow, the log book was lost, ending up trapped between two stones when they were used to seal up one of the rock-cut galleries.

Plan of the artificial harbors and canals at the pyramid building site

From there our attention moves to the building of the Great Pyramid. It seems clear from evidence already found that the building was done by work crews just Merer's. One interesting point is that the dozens of barracks buildings that have been unearthed around the site are divided into sections that seem about the right size for 40 men, so perhaps this was a typical size for work crews.

As for the building of the pyramids, what can one say that hasn't already been said? Calculations done for the quarrying and erecting of all that stone come to around 200 million man-days, at a time when Egypt had about a million inhabitants. And that's just for the pyramid itself; to that you have to add the building of all the associated sub-tombs, temples, processional ways, etc., besides the vast harbor and canal complex (see map above) that was excavated 8m deep, the expeditions to obtain copper for tools, and all the barracks for the workers, the bakeries, the breweries, etc., etc. That might double the total. Khufu reigned for 23 years, or about 8,400 days. Which means that on every day of his reign, about 47,000 Egyptians were working on their king's tomb. If we assume that a million Egytians included 250,000 adult men, it looks like building Khufu's tomb consumed about one fifth of all the male labor available in his kingdom. Remember, also, that this far from exhausts the demands of the Egyptian state; after all Merer's men spent a month on an unrelated project in the Delta, and the pharaohs also conscripted men to fight whenever they needed an army or navy.

Old Kingdom carving of an Egyptian ship

An internet fight has broken out lately over the status of the people who worked on the pyramids. Our old stories say slaves, but Afrocentrists have correctly noted that this is wrong. Most of the labor was provided by regular Egyptians who had been drafted to do this work by the state. When I explained to one of my sons that in less cash-dominated societies governments often extracted labor from their people rather than money, he said, "so instead of taxation as theft, it's taxation as slavery." Yes, pretty much.

The whole internet argument about pyramid labor rests on dubious foundations, especially a clear division between "slave" and "free." The model many Americans have, based on North America in the 19th century, is that some people are slaves with no rights, while others are free people who have many rights and indeed a privileged status. That does not apply at all to ancient Egypt, or indeed to almost anywhere else besides North America and the Caribbean between 1700 and 1865. Egyptians were free to work the land their parents had worked, free to hand over much of their harvests to various nobles and officials who lorded over them, and free to spend years of their lives hauling stone for the Pharaoh's tomb. If they objected, they were killed. The hieroglyph for a work crew (aper) was a cow that had been hobbled so it couldn't wander away.

The discovery of Merer's work logs is astonishing, and I love the story of ancient Egyptians mounting expeditions across to Sinai to mine copper. The building of the Great Pyramid is one of history's grandest and weirdest events, and how wonderful to have found a new source showing how the work crews were organized, and even a few of their names. Maybe some day somebody will write a good book about it.

Monday, August 29, 2022

John McWhorter on Language, Race, and Class

John McWhorter in the NY Times, from an article about why Blacks and Hispanics do much worse on New York state's standardized test for social workers: 

One source I’ve always valued is a book published in 1983, “Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms,” by the linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, who compared how language was used with children in a middle-class white community, a working-class white one and a working-class Black one. She found that in conversation, questions were wielded differently depending on the community. A key difference was that in middle-class white ones, children were often asked disembodied, information-seeking questions as a kind of exercise amid general social interaction. Heath wrote:

“Mothers continue their question-answer routines when the children begin to talk and add to them running narratives on items and events in the environment. Children are trained to act as conversation partners and information-givers.”

In the middle-class subculture Heath describes, children unconsciously incorporate into their mental tool kit a comfort with retaining and discussing facts for their own sake, as opposed to processing facts mainly as they relate to the practicalities of daily existence. The same kind of skill development that’s fostered by reading for pleasure or personal interest — as opposed to reading for school lessons — a ritual which preserves and displays information beyond the everyday.

Heath found that while the printed page is hardly alien to the working-class Black community (which she gives the pseudonym “Trackton”; her pseudonymous white working-class community is “Roadville” and her pseudonymous white middle-class community is “Maintown”), and questions themselves are certainly part of how language is used within it, particular kinds of questions about matters unconnected to daily living were relatively rare. A paper published in 1995 by the National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia cited Heath and notes that “the Trackton world is warm, buzzing with emotion and adult communication, an environment to which the child gradually adapts by a process of imitation and repetition.” However, it adds, “the language socialization of the Trackton child is,” in contrast to Maintown, “almost book-free.” One Trackton grandmother described part of the dynamic to Heath in this way: “We don’t talk to our chil’rn like you folks do. We don’t ask ’em ’bout colors, names ’n things.”

Yes, Heath’s book was written some time ago. Certainly, Black kids don’t grow up not knowing their colors or that things have names. But that quote does get at something in a general sense. Importantly, Heath’s study was objective and respectful. She isn’t a culture-wars partisan. Her point wasn’t that Black culture, or working-class culture, is unenlightened or that Black people or working-class white people are in any sense inarticulate. Neither she then, nor I now, say there is some flaw in Black or working-class white culture.

The issue is, rather, how we square what worked for the past with what will work for today. No culture can be faulted for lagging a bit on that. Working-class Black culture was born amid hard-working people in segregated America for whom higher education was, in many, if not most cases, a distant prospect, and language was used to operate in the here and now. 

This makes sense to me from my own personal experience. My sons have had, um, checkered educational careers. But I don't think you would know that from talking to them, and their test scores were always much better than their grades. They grew up with me constantly engaging them on intellectual topics, and trying to turn discussions of stuff they are into toward more general considerations. For example, one of my sons used to be very good at an online team battling game called League of Legends. At that time everybody distributed their teams in the same formation, with the same five roles played in very similar ways. I pressed him about why everybody plays that way, and steered this into a discussion of domain-specific expertise and why it is sometimes overturned by outsiders. (Or by AI, as with AlphaGo.) That kind of training makes a huge difference in how people end up testing.

I think it is important to remember, when you are talking about any specific educational situation, that class is usually more important than race. Within Maryland, 90% of the test score difference between school districts can be explained solely by the average family income, which means that money must be about nine times more important than race. And while the median income for black families is gradually converging with that of whites– for Hispanic families this is happening rapidly–the differences in family dynamic that I am talking about are changing more slowly. It seems to take generations for changes in how people work, and how much schooling they get, to influence how they talk to each other.

That being said, there might still be a problem with standardized tests as a way of evaluating workers. For lawyers, I would say, pass the test or walk; we have plenty of would-be lawyers, and if you can't think abstractly, and understand the kind of language lawyers use in talking to each other, you're not going very far anyway. But for other professions this might not make sense. In Maryland you have to pass state-run standardized tests to become a licensed cosmetologist, massage therapist, or plumber. I think we can all imagine people who would be very good at those jobs without any sort of abstract thinking skills. There ought, I think, to be some alternative way for people in such professions to get certified, perhaps via practical exams. 

About social workers, I am not sure. Certainly a lot of what they do is operate government bureaucracies, and being able to communicate abstractly might help there. I suppose I would need to know more about the test to form an opinion.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Links 26 August 2022

Edward Matthew Hale, Psyche at the Throne of Venus (1883) 

The largest megalithic complex in Spain, with more than 500 stones in alignments and other arrangements, is found during survey of proposed avocado orchard.

Bonkers one-minute video of building demolitions.

At the Met, online catalog of all their publications; pdfs of all the out of print titles are available for free download.

Having already demolished claims that there was a "great resignation" – labor force participation went up during the pandemic years – Kevin Drum now takes on the "quiet quitting" meme.

Recent wargaming of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan sounds like an ugly mess: "all scenarios end in stalemate."

"As India Goes, So Goes Democracy"

Collection of drawings and plans by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The horror of the "Cash for Kids" scandal, in which two Pennsylvania judges "shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of kids would be sent to PA Child Care." Of course "PA Child Care" was really a jail for adolescents, which is just another level of horror.

William Deresiewicz explains that he was too conservative, too focused on teaching, and too pure in his love for literature to survive the careerist, woke groves of academia. He may be right, but on the other hand the insufferable tone of everything I have read by him might also be part of it. (See here)

Review of a stack of books on Millennials and generational conflict.

Societies with strong "kin-based institutions" have slower economic growth.

Many apparently successful social programs actually only work for girls, and have no impact at all on boys. In one study, offering free college led more girls to attend and graduate but had no effect on boys.

Simple means of reducing traffic deaths.

A new stock character: the morally dubious podcaster.

Republican primary candidates who think Trump won in 2020 are also making accusations of fraud in their own races, whether they win or lose.

Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, and La Republica expose a "socialite" who for years palled around with NATO officials in Naples as a Russian spy; she fled back to Russia in 2018 after Bellingcat published a list of passport numbers that Russia seemed to have issued to GRU agents.

Ukraine Links

Essay by journalist Illia Ponomarenko on how hard it has been to predict the events of the war.

Lessons in drone warfare from Ukraine, courtesy of a post from the DNR drone center.

Fortune story on all the young people leaving Russia: "Seventy percent of my friends, who were in intellectual spheres…like IT, science and engineering, have left or are actively looking for ways to leave."

Interview with a Ukrainian offficer about his combat experience, including the first days of the war in the south.

Statement from the hitherto unknown National Republican Army claiming to have carried out the assassination of Russian journalist Darya Dugina, a far-right figure.

Scary short video of a thermite rocket attack.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Sonora Aero Club

Sometime in the early 1960s – the exact date is unknown – a house in Houston, Texas caught fire. The fire marshall looked at the scorched ruins and told the family that it was all contaminated and dangerous, and nothing could be retained. So they put it all out for the trash. But along came a man named Fred Washington, a "picker" who regularly scoured trash put out on Houston's curbs for possible sale in his junk shop, Washington's Trading Post. He saw 12 notebooks full of cuttings and drawings and picked them up, but then forgot about them.

Or at any rate that was Washington's version, which he told, most likely but not certainly in 1968, to a young visitor. The visitor was an intern from the Menil Collection, an art gallery that mostly houses work collected by John and Dominique de Menil. Some of the many experts in this lore doubt Washington's story of the fire and the trash picking, and they think it is more likely that someone else brought the notebooks to the store and sold them for a pittance. But so far as I can tell it is Washington's version that holds the field.

The first certain event in this whole story is 1969, when the Menil Collection hosted an exhibit of drawings and collages from those notebooks, proclaiming their creator to have been one of America's first and greatest "outsider artists."

The notebooks, near as anyone can tell, were created by a German immigrant named Charles August Albert Dellschau between 1908 and 1921. Dessschau told the census takers he was born in Berlin in 1830. He is first documented in 1860, but he claimed at that time to have entered the US in 1850, and there is no particular reason to doubt the claim. After all, many Germans came to the US in the aftermath of the failed 1848 revolutions. According to his statements, in both 1850 and 1860, Dellschau lived in Texas. Dellschau died in Houston in 1923.

The notebooks tell the story of the Sonora Aero Club. According to the texts, in 1854 a group of men living in the Gold Rush town of Sonora, California formed a club to talk about aviation and their dreams for flight. The notebooks chronicle the club's meetings down to 1859. There is nothing particularly odd about this. The mid 1800s were a sociable age and a great era of club formation, and aviation was very much a topic of discussion. California was also short of women, which was another reason men might have joined an all-male club and spent one evening a week talking about airships. 

Rebecca Rosen writes (in The Atlantic):

The settlement of Sonora, about 130 miles east of San Francisco, was booming. It was there, in the saloon of one of the local boarding houses, that a group of men would get together every Friday night and talk of dreams. Well, just one dream, really: human flight.

They called themselves the Sonora Aero Club and, over time, they counted some 60 members, possibly many more. Their ranks included great characters, such as Peter Mennis, inventor of the Club's secret "Lifting Fluid," later described as "a rough Man, whit as kind a heart as to be found in verry few living beengs," despite being "adicted to strong drink" and "Flat brocke." The Aero Club's rules: Roughly once a quarter, each member had to stand before the gathered group and "thoroughly exercise their jaws" in telling how he would build an airship. 
Most of the illustrations in the notebooks are supposed to show the airships that the members proposed in those talks.

Despite considerable effort, nobody has been able to document that Dellschau ever set foot in California. But records were not great in the Gold Rush towns, and the notebooks do seem to show a detailed knowledge of Sonora and its surroundings, so the best guess is that Dellschau was probably there at some point. As for the other members of the club, they most likely existed only in Dellschau's imagination. (Although there are Dellschau aficianados who believe every word.)

It's a great story, and the effort of tracking down all these facts has inspired two generations of Dellschau fans. As to the art, it is kind of cool, but I doubt it would have attracted so much attention without the lure of the Sonora Aero Club and the fun people have had searching for evidence of its meetings. We humans love a good mystery.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Scott Siskind on Long-Termism

Scott Siskind has a review up of Will MacAskill's What We Owe the Future, a new book that is currently being hyped all over the place. MacAskill is one of the leaders of the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, the people who try to calculate what charitable donations (and other acts) do the most good. In practical terms, I think this is great, because some people want to know what charities are really helping poor people, and now they can find out. Philosophicallly, I think EA is extremely dubious, and I think Siskind agrees.

What We Owe the Future shows the problems that make me queasy. It is an argument for what is now called Long-Termism, which boils down to valuing the happiness of people in the future as much as that of those living today. People into this posit lots of hypotheticals about the hundreds of billions of people in the future, and how a 1% increase in the happiness of those future hundreds of billions is vastly more important than a 1% increase or decrease in our happiness today. I think this is stupid. First, it totally ignores human psychology, and any moral movement that ignores what people are actually like is going to fail; and second, it assumes we know anything about the future, and I say we do not. Consider:

The effective altruist movement started with Peter Singer’s Drowning Child scenario: suppose while walking to work you see a child drowning in the river. You are a good swimmer and could easily save them. But the muddy water would ruin your expensive suit. Do you have an obligation to jump in and help? If yes, it sounds like you think you have a moral obligation to save a child’s life even if it costs you money. But giving money to charity could save the life of a child in the developing world. So maybe you should donate to charity instead of buying fancy things in the first place.

MacAskill introduces long-termism with the Broken Bottle hypothetical: you are hiking in the forest and you drop a bottle. It breaks into sharp glass shards. You expect a barefoot child to run down the trail and injure herself. Should you pick up the shards? What if it the trail is rarely used, and it would be a whole year before the expected injury? What if it is very rarely used, and it would be a millennium? Most people say that you need to pick up the shards regardless of how long it will be - a kid getting injured is a kid getting injured.

Starting with Peter Singer: if you think you can make humans care as much about people they have never seen, met, or heard of as they do about a child drowning in front of them, you are silly, and I will pay no more attention to anything you say.

And now moving on to the Broken Bottle. As an archaeologist, I can tell you that the danger you face from year-old broken glass is almost exactly zero. If your trail is paved or rock, it will long ago have been shoved aside. If your trail is dirt, it will long ago have been trampled down into the soil. In fact, every well-trodden trail in the world is full of artifacts that have been buried in just this way. The soil of every urban park is full of broken glass, and nobody is ever bothered by this.

The point is that Will MacAskill simply does not know enough to predict what actions will have bad future consequences. In this case I do know, and in many other cases somebody else will know. Mostly, though, we have no idea. Which makes worrying too much about the future a big waste of time.

There are, of course, exceptions. Reducing our use and wastage of chemical poisons seems like a no-brainer to me, given the likely future effects. Most of us would agree that pandemics pose a future hazard bad enough that we should invest more in pandemic preparedness; this seems to me like a reasonable investment based on what we know and what we can do. The threat of greenhouse gases seems less certain to me, but real enough that I support moving to a carbon-neutral future. 

But consider: most of us would also agree that nuclear war would be very bad for the future, so we should avoid it. But to those who say that the risk of nuclear war with Russia is so terrible that we should just surrender Ukraine to awful despotism, I say, to hell with you. There are things I will not stomach to avoid a 1% chance of catastrophe.

I think worrying about even a hundred years in the future is silly; we simply have no intellectual basis for it. Over the next few decades, I believe that the biggest threat facing humanity is despotism. I think if people's lives are worse in 20 years than they are now, that will be because governments are worse; what is happening in Russia is Exhibit A. So the most important thing we can do for the future, now, is to defend democracy. And telling people they should do a lot of sacrificing for people they have never seen, or who have not even been born, is a great way to get them to vote for authoritarians who will shut you up.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Colleges that Don't Seem to Help

The New York Times just published a follow up on this 2019 study:

Last year, 16 million students enrolled in an institution of higher education. Their number one reason for doing so: to get a good job that provides for a financially secure future. In practical terms, that means earning more than they would have if they never pursued a postsecondary education in the first place. Yet, employment data from the US Department of Education (Department) show that many institutions are failing to meet this expectation for most of their students. Last year alone, more than half of institutions left the majority of their students earning less than $28,000—the typical salary of a high school graduate. 

"Institutions" includes every sort of school for which you can get a federal loan, including 4-year colleges, community colleges, and trade schools. The survey point for this study was 6 years after entering the institutions, so two years out for students who finished a four-year college in four years.

There are a couple of caveats to make here. One is that the average time to complete a four-year degree is now over five years, so six years is not that far along in their careers. I haven't seen any recent numbers but I imagine many community college students also take extra time to finish. Another is that while a degree might not help right away, it might eventually help graduates rise higher in their companies or agencies. And this is what the New York Times found; measured ten years after entering school, more than 70 percent of schools had raised the salaries of more than half their graduates. Still, that means that nearly 30 percent of institutions did not meet this threshold. It's easy to blame the schools for this, and no doubt many of them are awful. But I suspect a bigger factor is the students; as far as I can see, the bottom line is that many students who pursue higher education in America are not interested or well prepared enough to get anything out of it. Where trade schools are concerned, it turns out that the main thing many students learn is that they don't want to do that kind of work. (I have two acquaintances who graduated from accredited massage schools but decided they hated doing massage.)

I think this is one of the main factors driving dissatisfaction in America. The system has been screaming at kids for decades that they need to get more education so they can have a good career, but in fact many people find that education doesn't help and they still end up in low-paid, dead-end jobs. With extra debt. Others find that they hate school too much to finish, or to put in the work needed to really get anything out of it.

There is simply a huge mismatch between what our economy demands and what many people want and are able to do. 

Conscientious Objectors in the Lanternfly War

Since the spotted lanternfly first appeared in North America in 2014, the governments of the US and the affected states have launched a campaign of extermination against it:

To fight back, state and local officials in infested areas have enlisted their constituents in an anti-lanternfly militia. Authorities in battlegrounds such as New York, New Jersey and in particular, Pennsylvania, the insects’ apparent ground zero, have framed the campaign against the creature as an act of civic duty.

Calls to action to civilians to stamp out the invaders— literally — have been enthusiastically met; in New York, Brooklyn summer campers engage in lanternfly hunts and the state park preserve on Staten Island hosted a squishathon in 2021. Last year, a New Jersey woman threw a lanternfly-crushing pub crawl; one Pennsylvania man developed an app that tracks users’ kills called Squishr. . . . The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture runs a hotline to report the bugs at 1-888-4BADFLY, and asks people to “Kill it! Squash it, smash it … just get rid of it,” on its website.

In an intriguing NY Times story, Sarah Maslin Nir describes people who have taken stands against the annihilation:

Mr. Weiss is among an emerging group of conscientious objectors to the open-season on the insect. Their reasons differ: Some are vegans who find killing even pests wrong. Others doubt the threat lanternflies pose or have been repulsed by the glee surrounding lanternfly annihilation. Some people are faced with a flurry of lanternflies, despite years of dedicated squishing, and have just given up.

Still another few think lanternflies are too cute to kill. . . .

Jody Smith, 33, a software developer, so far has declined. Mr. Smith is vegan, yet not an absolutist: he will exterminate cockroaches in his apartment in Manhattan’s Union Square, he said. But the state-endorsed bloodlust when it comes to lanternflies, and the sense that they are disposable, makes him uncomfortable. “If someone was like, ‘Oh, we have to kill all the Pomeranians,’ people might feel a lot differently about it.”

I mention this because a number of people I know have qualms about all our wars against “invasive species.” The language of invasion just feels too militaristic to them, and the campaigns of extermination too violent. Plus, there are deeper qualms: who are we to decide which species should live where? Especially when you consider that when it comes to threatening local ecosystems, the most destructive species by far is us. Some of those I know who worry about this are professional ecologists who understand the changes an alien species can bring, but are skeptical that any effort of ours is really going to make things better.

I think we really have no choice; we are in control of the planet now, and pretending that we are not doesn't help much. It is true that we are unlikely to eradicate the lanternfly or any other insect species, but we can probably manage them for better or worse outcomes. This applies equally well to native species like deer. We have too much power for pretending to “let nature run its course” to really be a neutral act.

Friday, August 19, 2022

John Reader, "Africa: A Biography of the Continent"

If you're looking for a one-volume introduction to Africa and its history, I suggest John Reader's 680-page epic, published in 1997. It is readable, rich, and full of fascinating information. But especially, and most impressively, it is coherent. Until I read this book my knowledge of African history was highly fragmentary, with nothing but the borders of the continent holding it together. Reader's book made it more unified for me than anything else ever has. 

Reader's argument in the first half of the book is that Africa lagged behind Europe and Asia because Africa is a really tough place for people to live. Until after 1950 Africa's population density was much lower than those of the other continents, because a combination of disease, poor farming conditions, and shifting weather patterns kept it that way.  You have often heard about some plant or animal that exploded after migrating to a new place because it lacked natural enemies; Reader thinks this applies to humans as well. Africa, where we evolved, has the most predators of various kinds that evolved to trouble us. The most important is malaria, but there are many others. Between this, lousy geology (see below), and then the enormous tragedy of the slave trade, Africa entered the nineteenth century far behind the European powers that proceeded to divy it up and loot its various valuable commodities.

Reader's map of the fertility of African soils

Reader's book begins in the Precambrian, laying out Africa's geological origins. This sounds random, but with Reader everything ties together. Through the course of the book he refers several times to the bedrock of Africa, which explains why agriculture remained so primitive across most of the continent (above) and also the presence of gold, diamonds, and other minerals that radically changed African history in the 19th century.

Reader gives some attention to human origins and the Paleolithic, but the book really gets going in the Neolithic. Obviously a book on a whole continent can't give equal attention to every area, and Reader's eye wanders around. For the Neolithic he focuses on the Nile Valley and the adjacent parts of the Sahara, which was much wetter in some periods than it is these days. During periods when the Sahara was wet enough it was inhabited by three different groups of people: hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers, who seem to have lived fairly peacably side by side and traded with each other. In fact our first evidence of herding in the region is cattle bones found on the camp sites of hunter-gatherers.

I already wrote here about the remarkable society that developed in the Interior Delta of the Niger River, which I found fascinating. Otherwise much of Reader's attention during the Classical and Mediaval periods is focused on Ethiopia. A rich Christian civilization emerged there, with productive agriculture based on a combination of Middle Eastern and African plants (wheat, teff); among other things it produced sub-Saharan Africa's only native script. The Ethiopians carried out diplomatic relations with the Byzantines, trying but never succeeding to ally against Muslim enemies. There isn't much on the medieval empires of the Sahel (Songhai, Mali), partly because Reader thinks the sources about them, almost all Arab, are suspect. Reader has an excellent section on the spread of the Bantu peoples, who developed their system of mixed agriculture, cattle raising, and iron making in the area of modern Nigeria and then migrated across all of Africa's southern cone.

The slave trade gets a very long and rich section. Reader lays out slavery's early roots in African cultures, the trade to the Middle East via the Indian Ocean, and then the European trade in the Atlantic. Reader thinks slavery became a major part of many African societies because agriculture was so difficult. He cites calculations showing that in many areas the labor of two adults was not enough to reliably feed a family. (Even when they were healthy, which in Africa they often were not.) In much of western Africa there was no ownership of land, because land was effectively valueless without enough labor. Everyone was constantly struggling to find workers. The wealth of prominent families was measured entirely in terms of how much labor they could command; hence, various forms of slavery were well entrenched by the time of our first records and probably since the origins of agriculture. Even so, the profit earned by an agricultural worker was so low that when traders appeared offering valuable goods, the temptation to just sell people instead of working them was too great. But the export of millions of people only made the labor shortage worse; this, Reader argues, kept Africa from developing in the slave trade era. The curse spread to all of sub-Saharan Africa, since raiders working inland from the Atlantic coast eventually penetrated so far east that they ran into raiders working for Muslim traders on the east coast. Reader thinks that many of modern Africa's ethinc groups were created by people who fled from slave raiders into highland zones, or banded together to fight them. The whole continent was shaken up, and all its other industries wrecked, because of the profits those strong enough could earn by stealing people and selling them to the ships. 

By way of an alternative, Reader has a chapter on the island of Ukara in Lake Victoria. On this small island, highly fertile soils, the absence of mosquitos and tse tse flies, and the availability of markets accessible by boat created perfect conditions for high-intensity agriculture. The 16,000-18,000 residents (all free) responded by creating a system that would make Dutch gardeners proud, with extraordinary crop yields wrung from small plots. Ukara is also an exporter of people. Under the right conditions, Reader is saying, Africans could create efficient agricultural and other systems, leading to high populations and technological progress. It's just that the conditions were mostly terrible.

Reader lived for several years in South Africa, and he has a long section on the development of white settler societies in that region. It is a thoroughly sordid tale of land theft and enslavement, made even more nauseating by the cloak of do-gooding language nineteenth-century Europeans felt compelled to cast over their wicked deeds. When African communities were attacked, their men killed or driven off, the women and children brought to labor on white farms, this was called "Christianization." Again, the driving force behind many of these crimes was the need for labor. Europeans trying to farm in southern Africa constantly needed more workers, and the trickle of European immigrants was never enough. Various plans to separate the races (leading eventually to Apartheid) always failed, because there were just not enough white people to do the necessary work. 

Then the whole region was shaken up by minerals, first the astonishing riches of the Kimberley diamond mines and then the gold of the Rand. I very much enjoyed Reader's account of the early days of Kimberley in the 1870s, when many whites and even a few blacks got rich from 3x4 meter plots of ground. At Kimberley the diamond fever phase lasted a decade, before the mines got too deep for solo work and a consortium of investors led by Cecil Rhodes took over the whole shebang. And proceded, as you would expect by now, to employ a labor system little different from slavery. The greed of our species never ceases to amaze me. Kimberley was such a rich place that the company could have paid good wages and still made vast profits, but instead they used their political clout to get the government behind schemes of vicious exploitation that earned them a return of nearly 50% per year for decades. The same system of compounds and labor passes was then extended to the gold mines, becoming a fixture of 20th-century South Africa.

From there Reader's attention moves to the Belgian Congo, where King Leopold II's mad desire for colonies set off the "Scramble for Africa." The Belgian Parliament refused to support the king's schemes, so he had to finance his venture himself, which led to intense pressure to harvest wild rubber to cover the payments on the massive debts he ran up. Rumors about the brutality of the rubber trade made it back to Europe, but Leopold managed to deflect them until photographers made it to the Congo and brought back images so grisly they forced the King to give up his colony. But by that time the European powers had already divvied up the rest of the continent, except the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, launching the colonial era.

The depressing thing to me about this period is the minimal resistance offered by Africans. As Reader shows, this had a lot to do with the aftermath of the slave trade. Slave raiding taught Africans hate and fear each other, so there was no chance they could work together. In fact many kingdoms and peoples welcomed European overlordship, seeking protection from slave raiding states. The slave trade had also created a demand for foreign goods that was hard to satisfy without other exports; hence, many African leaders were eager to support colonial development schemes. Resistance mostly erupted later, after Africans came to understand that they had been lied to. But by that time the colonial powers were entrenched, and their mostly African, machine-gun equipped armies easily put down revolutionaries armed with muskets.

To me the most interesting part of the colonial chapters concerned education. Various government boards in Britain, France and Germany kept finding that Africans should be given an education appropriate to their own situation. This was easy to implement at the elementary level, but once students had learned to read and write, nobody knew what African things to teach them. So the elite secondary schools that all the powers set up taught European literature and history, including a heavy dose of the classics. The leadership of Africa's revolutionary generation was drawn largely from the attendees of these schools, and many of them had also attended university in Europe. In their memoirs they all wrote about the divided self that this experience created; they tried to lead Africa, but they understood full well that they were no longer entirely African. When educated Africans wrote about the "colonial experience', this is what they meant: not just oppression, but the weird psychology of being torn between the art and science of Europe and love of their homelands. Many ended up living in Europe, especially those who lost out in the power struggles that followed independence.

A few random things I learned from Reader:

  • The shortage of people that Reader documents at such length explains, he thinks, the obsession with sex and fertility in western African art and society that shocked western visitors.
  • The first Italians visited Ethiopia in the early 1400s, but this was a century later than the first Ethiopians to visit Italy, who are recorded in 1316.
  • One reason that cities did not develop across most of Africa was that the areas suitable for farming kept moving around with changes in the weather. In most of Africa, any place that was reliably wet was infested with malaria, so farmers worked on the margins between wet forests and dry deserts; as the climate changed, these areas shifted, and the people had to move with them.
  • Monarchical stability was not an African speciality; in the BaGanda language, "the closest thing to a word for reign is mirembe, which means a period of peace between succession struggles."
  • Across much of Africa human settlement was limited by a constant war with elephants; "for centuries, much of Africa's potential farmland was a continuously changing patchwork of mutually exclusive human and elephant occupation zones, with the elephants limiting opportunities for agriculture."
  • The usual accounts of the reign of Shaka Zulu (1816-1828) are misleading – this includes the one at wikipedia – because they ignore the events that created the chaos within which Shaka acted. Turmoil was created by a resurgence of slave trading through the Indian Ocean port of Delagoa and the eastward expansion of white settlement from Cape Colony; according to Reader, British accounts emphasized Zulu violence to cover up their own part in destabilizing southern Africa.

If you want to know more about Africa – and really, how many Americans or Europeans really know very much about Africa? – Africa: A Biography of the Continent is the best thing I know.

Links 19 August 2022

Anadoumenos - First century BC. Classical head from
full-length statue, restored and placed on a modern base.

The US government keeps trying to channel funding toward places with lots of poor people and a shortage of jobs, and they are trying again with the CHIPS and Science Act, which includes billions for "regional technology hubs" etc. But the track record of these efforts is abysmal, always overwhelmed by the social and economic forces that lead to concentration of industry in the first place.

Tyler Cowen interviews Will MacAskill of the Effective Altruism movement, lots of very theoretical argument about hypotheticals.

We underrate the pleasure of sitting and thinking: "Participants (university students; total N = 259) were asked to sit and wait in a quiet room without doing anything. Across six experiments, we consistently found that participants' predicted enjoyment and engagement for the waiting task were significantly less than what they actually experienced."

Why aren't smart people happier? This piece argues that we define intelligence as the ability to solve well-defined problems, but happiness rests a lot more on the ability to solve ill-defined problems like "how can I find a good spouse" or "what career should I pursue." Interesting but I think this answer ignores mental health and genetic predisposition and also what I think is one of the biggest ingredients in happiness, acceptance.

Using algae to make lime for concrete greatly reduces the carbon footprint, but it's a long way from being commercially viable.

Treasure of the Maravillas, a 17th-century Spanish shipwreck in the Bahamas.

Twitter thread on the Aka ("Pygmies") and how their lives have been changed by world economic forces, even when they were mostly hunter-gatherers.

The old hangar at Miramar Naval Station that used to host the Top Gun school is supposed to be haunted.

We have so many clothes that disposing of them has become a big problem for the first time in human history. Most "donated" clothes end up in landfills.

Interesting conversation at Vox about what "postmodernism" is and how it was captured by capitalism, aka "neoliberalism."

NY Times story on the feral donkeys of Death Valley, which the National Park Service would like to exterminate. But a new study says they cause the most trouble in the parts of the park where there are a lot of people; in the remote areas their numbers are controlled by mountain lions. Ungated article here.

Jennette McCurry (Sam from iCarly) has written a memoir about the miseries of being a child star titled I'm Glad My Mom Died.

Using Philip K. Dick's fiction to understand our current information dystopia.

In the early 20th century working class people from London used to go down to Kent for a week or so to pick hops for cash, earning money and getting out of the city for a while. Spitalfields Life has numerous photos from the 1950s.

Ben Pentreath's summer in Dorset.

Clear crystal quartz found at a Neolithic ceremonial site in Britain, and evidence that the stone was worked at the ritual site. As if making tools from this special stone was a ritual in itself.

These days some American liberals have had it with the Constitution and want to jettison it; after all, why should be governed by rules dreamed up by rich men in the 1780s? Why argue over the interpretation of a document manifestly inadequate for our times? Against this you might offer that very, very few governments have lasted as long as ours has, and that stability has a real value. I think what really bothers these critics is their inability to translate their slim electoral majorities into policy change (NY Times).

Ukraine Links

As of August 12, at least 1,000 Russian officers have been killed in Ukraine, all confirmed by funeral notices and other Russian sources. The actual number is much greater, since new names are still being added from as long ago as March.

Excerpts from the memoir of a Russian soldier who fought in Ukraine but has turned against the war.

Russian reporter posts photographs of a Wagner group headquarters to Telegram with the geolocation tags still in them; Ukraine destroys the building with a missile two days later.

New strategic situation update from Jomini of the West.

Ukrainian psyops aimed at causing panic in Crimea.

Ukrainians crowdfunded access to a satellite that can produce hi-resolution radar images of the battlefield.

Statistics on the artillery war. Commentary here.

Christian Esch of Der Spiegel on wartime Moscow.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Slenderman Schizophrenia

From a NY Times review of a new book about the 2014 Slenderman attack; it turns out, as with most hard-to-understand human behavior, that mental illness was at the root:

Three sixth graders — Payton “Bella” Leutner, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier — went into a wooded park to play hide and seek. While Anissa watched and offered encouragement, Morgan stabbed Bella 19 times with a kitchen knife. Bella, left for dead, managed to stumble and crawl to a nearby road for help; Morgan and Anissa were soon taken into custody by the police. 

What had happened? What drove two 12-year-olds to try to kill one of their friends? Morgan, it turns out, had become obsessed with a website called Creepypasta.com, a wiki of scary stories and urban myths; the ones which gripped her were about a murky figure called Slenderman. Hale writes, “When [Morgan] came across Slenderman, she was captivated. She had seen his face before. Not on the internet, but in her home. He was the spitting image of It, the tall, faceless man who had plagued her since she was young.” As the site and the stories were crowdsourced, information about Slenderman spread all over the internet — kids made new photos, posted new stories. There was even a video game.
But a key part of the story is what happened after the kids were arrested:

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Morgan, whose father has schizophrenia, is showing signs of the illness herself. To her, Slenderman is both a threat and a hero, someone who understands her terrifying visions and fears: “Every hallucination that had ever scared her, thrilled her or comforted her became projected onto Slenderman.”

It’s unclear whether it was Morgan or Anissa who first came up with the idea of becoming proxies for Slenderman, because “if they didn’t do his bidding” — that is, murder for him — “he would kill everyone they loved.” Bella, an eager-to-please girl, was the ideal target. Morgan said she knew Bella would follow them into the woods, even if it was spooky: “People that trust you are very gullible.” Anissa insisted, “We thought we had to for real kill someone.”

In jail, “the trauma of the stabbing sent Morgan’s symptoms into overdrive,” Hale writes, describing the child’s unfocused eyes and her conversations with people no one could see. Morgan believed that Slenderman would come to rescue her and help her puzzle out the strange, violent thoughts that filled her head. 

As for explanations, well, crazy people sometimes do crazy things.

The other part of the story needing explanation is the behavior of the state of Wisconsin, which charged two clearly messed-up 12-year-olds as adults, jailed them for years, and refused to treat Morgan's budding schizoprenia.

This case fits into our society's fears in the same horrible way that Slenderman fit into Morgan Geyser's fantasies. We are afraid that the disturbing stories and images we consume for fun will have terrible real-world consequences, that somehow we will be punished for our dark obsessions. We fear the violence and disorder that we sense all around us, lurking behind closed doors, behind the faces of people on the street. We hear it in Black Metal music, or gangstah rap, or in the theme from The X-Files. We worry that the internet is spreading some kind of insidious poison. So when the darkness we fear did break out we reacted with punitive violence, directed as much against ourselves as against two 12-year-olds.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Eyvind Earle

Eyvind Earle (1916-2000) is best known for his artistic contributions to Disney films in the 1950s; in fact he is a Disney Legend™, a designation the existence of which I had not suspected until this week. The work over which he had the most control was Sleeping Beauty. But before he worked for Disney he was a young modernist who had a solo New York show in 1937 that led to one of his paintings being purchased by the Met, and afterwards he painted these lovely works. (Land of the Midnight Sun, 1983) 

Backgrounds from Sleeping Beauty.

And more works of the 1980s-1990s

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

American Credibility

Kevin Drum has had it with pundits arguing that the withdrawal from Aghantistan damaged American "credibility."

The rest of the world doesn't believe in this alleged issue of credibility. They believe that the United States acts in its own self interest. We enter wars if we think they're in our interest. We leave wars if we think that's in our interest. And everyone knows we have the power to make our threats good if we feel like it. We hardly have to prove that more often than we already do.

Figurehead of a Sailor Found off the Netherlands

Dutch shrimp fishermen pulled in this fellow off the Wadden Islands. Based on his Phrygian cap, the first guess is that this dates to the period of the 80 years war (1566-1648), when the cap became a symbol of Dutch freedom.

Splendid. Via The History Blog.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Roxanne Gay, Hammers and Nails

I just discovered this Roxanne Gay essay from last year (NY Times):

When I joined Twitter 14 years ago, I was living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, attending graduate school. I lived in a town of around 4,000 people, with few Black people or other people of color, not many queer people and not many writers. Online is where I found a community beyond my graduate school peers. I followed and met other emerging writers, many of whom remain my truest friends. I got to share opinions, join in on memes, celebrate people’s personal joys, process the news with others and partake in the collective effervescence of watching awards shows with thousands of strangers.

Something fundamental has changed since then. I don’t enjoy most social media anymore. I’ve felt this way for a while, but I’m loath to admit it.

Increasingly, I’ve felt that online engagement is fueled by the hopelessness many people feel when we consider the state of the world and the challenges we deal with in our day-to-day lives. Online spaces offer the hopeful fiction of a tangible cause and effect — an injustice answered by an immediate consequence. On Twitter, we can wield a small measure of power, avenge wrongs, punish villains, exalt the pure of heart.

In our quest for this simulacrum of justice, however, we have lost all sense of proportion and scale. We hold in equal contempt a war criminal and a fiction writer who too transparently borrows details from someone else’s life. It’s hard to calibrate how we engage or argue. . . .

My online following came slowly, and then all at once. For years, I had a couple hundred followers. Those numbers slowly inched up to a couple thousand. Then I wrote a couple of books, and blinked, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people were seeing my tweets. Most of them appreciate my work, though they may disagree with my opinions. Some just hate me, as is their right, and they follow me to scavenge for evidence to support or intensify their enmity. Then there are those who harass me for all kinds of reasons — some aspect of my identity or my work or my presence in the world troubles their emotional waters.

After a while, the lines blur, and it’s not at all clear what friend or foe look like, or how we as humans should interact in this place. After being on the receiving end of enough aggression, everything starts to feel like an attack. Your skin thins until you have no defenses left. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish good-faith criticism from pettiness or cruelty. It becomes harder to disinvest from pointless arguments that have nothing at all to do with you. An experience that was once charming and fun becomes stressful and largely unpleasant. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. We have all become hammers in search of nails.

I don't participate in those parts of the internet; I left Facebook to get away from angry political ranting and just use Twitter to follow war news. But I think there is something to Gay's argument. I agree that the horrible stuff that happens online is in expression, an emergence, a breaking out of the boiling awfulness that people carry inside them. Some people think this is because of something uniquely bad about our own time, but of course that is not so. Online violence feels shocking mainly because in most ways our society has become so polite. I have read a lot of oral history from the early 20th century and one thing that sometimes amazes me is the level of violence: most parents beat their children, kids fought each other all the time – I remember one man saying that he got into fist fights every day coming home from school – grown men and some women also got into regular fights. Labor disputes almost led to some level of violence. In many times and places riots have been regular events, and often the main limit on the power of the government to collect taxes and enforce laws has been the violent resistance of the people. (See here on all the kinds of violence in Britain around 1800.)

But although we behave much more politely in person, we feel the same things as our ancestors. Back then, boys consumed with frustration got into fist fights; now they become online trolls. It is, morally speaking, the same act, the same surrender to what is base.

We live in a different world from out ancestors, but have the same bodies and the same brains. We face the same struggles: to be polite despite our anger, to keep our dignity in the face of frustration and failure. What to do with our monstrous feelings has long been a central concern of ethics; what to do after they burst forth a central social problem. Stoicism is one sort of response. Remember the famous words of Marcus Aurelius:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness.

I have tried to take that as my watch word: not to be implicated in ugliness. Sometimes, I guess, the only response to a punch is to punch back. But I find that giving vent to anger only breeds more anger, spiraling toward who knows what. Better to go in some other direction.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Susan Haack, "Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate" (1998) Or, why intellectual integrity matters

From my old web site:

Those of us who debate the truth value of science or history sometimes have our days ruined by a certain sort of smug post-modernist armed with a line of trendy academic scorn. Putting on his most condescending smile, this cad will scoff at us, quote Foucault, Rorty or some other enemy of reason, and say that no real epistemologist takes "truth" seriously any more (people like that can talk in sneer quotes). Next time this happens to you, say, "Susan Haack does."

Susan Haack is a philosopher who cares about the search for truth, and in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate she defends the genuine quest for knowledge and understanding against the assault on rational thought emanating from America's universities. Each of the essays that make up her book is a carefully reasoned defense of the possibility of real knowledge and a refutation of some line of cynicism or unreason. Richard Rorty once dismissed those who think an honest search for the truth is possible or desirable as "old-fashioned prigs", and Haack proudly takes up the label: the first essay in this collection is titled "Confessions of an Old-Fashioned Prig." Besides Rorty, her favorite foil, she takes on sociologists of science, feminists, multiculturalists, relativists, and academic life in general, and I think almost everything she says is brilliant.

Haack is not the sort of blustering conservative fool who regularly appears in the pages of Time or The Wall Street Journal whining about academic nonsense and insisting that the truth is as obvious as the superiority of capitalism. She is enough of an epistemologist to know that, as she puts it, "the questions of the epistemological tradition are hard, very hard." She is indeed a moderate. Rather than dismissing the problems raised by knowledge skeptics from Berkeley to Foucault, she acknowledges them and seeks a basis for knowledge that is robust enough to survive all their attacks. She makes no claim to have succeeded in her task. What distinguishes Haack from the anti-rationalist crowd is that the difficulty of the challenge does not daunt her, and she refuses to abandon the search for truth.

Haack begins by introducing the distinction between genuine inquiry and what she calls "sham" inquiry. She writes:

Nobody seriously doubts the possibility, or the usefulness, of finding things out; that is something we all take for granted when we inquire about plane schedules, or the state of our bank accounts, or the best treatment for our child's illness, and so forth. Nobody seriously doubts, either, that sometimes, instead of really trying to find things out, people fudge, fake, and obfuscate to avoid discovering unpalatable truths; that is something we all take for granted when we ask who paid for this reassuring study, who stands to gain from an Official Inquiry minimizing that scandal, which party this expert witness works for, and so on. 

Among the cynical errors that bedevil our time is the confusion of genuine inquiry with the sham kind, and it is against this confusion that Haack takes her stand. From sociologists of science who think that all scientists ever do is re-affirm their own ideologies to the infamous Steven Stich, who once said that "once we have a clear view of the matter, most of us will not find any value in having true beliefs," it has become almost commonplace to assert that all inquiry is a sham, and to use examples of bogus knowledge (e.g., racist science) to discredit the whole enterprise of rational investigation. Against this background, Haack's agenda is to articulate a clear view of what it means to care about the truth, what the difference is between genuine inquiry and the various kinds of pseudo-inquiry to which we sometimes succumb, why we value intellectual integrity, and what has gone wrong in the thinking of those who denigrate concern for truth. In these words Haack offers a creed for the party of truth, a manifesto, as she says, for those of us who are passionate in our devotion to reason. The rest of the book does not entirely live up to the stirring promise of these words, but it comes close enough to be about as thrilling as it is possible for a work of philosophy to be.

Haack's main method in these essays is the same as that of Aristotle and innumerable thinkers since: she makes careful distinctions between ideas that others have blurred and seeks definitions for words that others have used as if they had no particular meaning at all. To the average Wall Street Journal editorialist, "relativism" is just another word for immorality and unreason. Haack knows better, and when she takes up relativism she produces a two-column table with the format "A is relative to B" laying out a range of possibilities. Her table has nine terms in the first column and eight in the second and can therefore generate 72 different brands of relativism, from "meaning is relative to language" to "moral values are relative to community." Each of these relativisms, she explains, has strong and weak forms, weak meaning that A is influenced by B, strong meaning that A is determined by B. Equipped with this precise understanding of the word she analyzes the works of contemporary skeptics about science and the like, showing how they shift their terms as the mood strikes them and slide back and forth between strong and weak forms of relativism as their arguments require.

Notice also Haack's faith in what we generally call common sense. "Nobody seriously doubts," she writes, or "most people would agree." These rhetorical devices, I think, point toward something important in Haack's thinking. In the heat of their intellectual passions philosophers often say things that, upon reflection, are absolutely and obviously false. One of my favorite examples is Aristotle's statement that the female mammal contributes nothing to the form of the offspring. Surely he, and everyone else in Greece, knew many women who looked exactly like their mothers, but he was so taken up with his interest in equating dichotomies like male/female and form/matter that, for a moment, he forgot the obvious truth. As George Orwell once noted, "to see what is right in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." Nobody works harder to see what is in front of her nose than Susan Haack. Her epistemology is based on the obvious (or so it seems to me) truth that in some sense we do know things. If philosophers have trouble explaining exactly what it means to know something, or how it can be that we do it, that must a problem with the philosophers, since it seems that we manage somehow. Science, likewise, cannot be as corrupt as some feminists and radical sociologists say it is, since, after all, it works pretty well. Haack quotes C.S. Peirce on this matter: "a man must be downright crazy to doubt that science has made many true discoveries."

If epistemology seems like a dry and useless occupation to you, a way for tenured airheads to waste their time, consider the issues Haack raises in "Reflections of an Old Feminist." Since she is a feminist and an epistemologist, Haack writes, you might assume that she is a feminist epistemologist.

Wrong. On the contrary, I don't believe there is any such connection between feminism and epistemology as the rubric "feminist epistemology" requires. 

After showing how little self-proclaimed "feminist epistemologists" have in common, philosophically, and noting the great contradictions among all the pronouncements about "women's ways of knowing," Haack takes up what seems to me the crucial matter: the deep and deadly danger of politicizing the meaning of "truth." Various feminist writers have argued "that feminist values should determine what theories are accepted" and called for "rubbing out the boundary between science and values" and waging "intellectual guerilla warfare." Sandra Harding reached the Stalinist end point of this line of thought when she called for "politically adequate research and scholarship," announcing that "the model for good science should be research programs directed by liberatory political goals." What, asks Haack, would "politically inadequate research" be? The abandonment of intellectual freedom and honest inquiry called for by Harding and her ilk, Haack writes "would not help women; it would hurt humanity." Indeed it would, and without brave and rational people to challenge such monstrous ideas there is always the danger that they will escape from the academic world and spread like mutant viruses across the earth.

Given her interest in actually learning the truth about things, it is hardly surprising that Haack is disgusted by the atmosphere that pervades contemporary academic life in Britain and the US. In an essay titled "Preposterism and its Consequences" Haack describes an item in the official newsletter of Warwick University announcing a "Major Research Success" for the physics department. As it turns out, Warwick's physicists had not actually discovered anything; their "success" was in winning a large research grant. This definition of success can stand as a metaphor for modern academic life. Universities value work that brings in research funding or results in prestigious publications, regardless of whether it advances knowledge or understanding. The predictable result is a deluge of publications and a frenzied competition for research grants, all carried on in near indifference to whether any of the work being done is valuable or true. Haack peruses another university brag sheet, this one issued by the University of Miami, and notes that while it describes the university's rising rankings in various lists and the numerous grants won by its faculty, it says not a word about "what anyone found out."

If, like me, you are dismayed by how little sense there seems to be in so much of our intellectual life, and by the low regard for truth in our universities, read Susan Haack and take heart. As long as there are people who think like she does, there is hope for our civilization.

May 21, 2001 

Update, August 14, 2022. I actually sent this to Susan Haack when I first posted it, and she sent back a gracious note with a small correction. I did this after discussion the question with the most eminent scholar I know well, who told me that he would not the least bit mind being bothered by admirers.

Obviously I would write this differently now than I did two decades ago. These days the people undermining the whole notion of truth are just as likely to be the right as the left, and it is generally liberals who shout "trust the science." But the basic lesson of Haack's book stands: figuring out what is true is very hard, and if you let ideology get in the way you will never get there.