Thomas Levenson on David Brooks:
With Apologies to … « The Inverse Square Blog: Why oh why can’t we have a David Brooks-free press corps, at least when it comes to bloviating about science? In his most recent column, Brooks writes (under the pretentious and meaning-free headline, “The Luxurious Growth”) that the research community has grown “more modest about what we are close to knowing and achieving.” That is, Brooks is once again channeling what “science” thinks — and he’s wrong, of course. Headline writers may have made the kinds of claims he decries, that genetics would soon explain all of human behavior, but I can’t recall any scientist involved in, say, the genetics of alcoholism, claiming a single gene-behavior connection. Instead, fifteen seconds on Google turns up lots of statements like this.
Alcoholism is a complex, genetically influenced disorder. Multiple phenotypes – measurable and/or observable traits or behavior – contribute to the risk of developing alcoholism, particularly disinhibition, alcohol metabolizing patterns, and a low level of response (LR) to alcohol.
In other words: scientists have known as they do their research that individual studies of particular measurable and or observable phenomena will not produce a synoptic view of any complex behavior. Brooks knows this too. After all, with a magisterial air of explaining the hard truths to resistant materialists, he writes that
It’s now clear that one gene almost never leads to one trait. Instead, a specific trait may be the result of the interplay of hundreds of different genes interacting with an infinitude of environmental factors. must know this too — I can’t believe he’s that bloody ignorant, though perhaps I’m just too much of a polyanna here.
Again — this is a revelation only to those who haven’t been paying attention for years. And I do think that Brooks knows that as well.... [H]e has an ulterior motive for claiming that once arrogant science has learned humility — and he does, the usual one that data-averse ideologues acquire: nasty scientists who seek material explanations are evil:
Starting in the late 19th century, eugenicists used primitive ideas about genetics to try to re-engineer the human race. In the 20th century, communists used primitive ideas about “scientific materialism” to try to re-engineer a New Soviet Man.
And Jonas Salk, that commie, used his “primitive ideas” to invent a smallpox vaccine, the key step in what has become the first ever eradication of a human viral pathogen….and so on; this is an old and stupid back and forth. Brooks wants to say that there are other sources of insight into the human condition — that “novels and history can still produce insights into human behavior that science can’t match.” I’m not sure what he means by “match,” in this case. I suppose we don’t need science to say that happy families are all alike (you sure about that, Leo?) or that England’s Catholic King James II fell not due simply to his religion but because of his political ineptitude. But such insights, no matter how valuable are of a different quality, a different explanatory timber, than that which has investigated, for example, something as material and as essential to the human condition as the evolution of tool use.
But again — I fear it gives Brooks too much credit to engage the debate at this level. His goal is not to examine honestly the power and limits of scientific inquiry into human nature. The goal is to devalue the enterprise to the point that inconvenient facts can be ignored. Brooks gives the game away about half way through the piece. He writes that:
There is the fuzziness of the words we use to describe ourselves. We talk about depression, anxiety and happiness, but it’s not clear how the words that we use to describe what we feel correspond to biological processes. It could be that we use one word, depression, to describe many different things, or perhaps depression is merely a symptom of deeper processes that we’re not aware of. In the current issue of Nature, there is an essay about the arguments between geneticists and neuroscientists as they try to figure out exactly what it is that they are talking about.
Brooks takes as evidence of ignorance the fact that different disciplines argue about terms. By that token, as of 1900, the state of play on the nature of matter would have led us to conclude the issue was intractable. Chemists had used the concept of atoms as real material objects... for a century or so. Histories written from a physicists point of view, by contrast, commonly date the confirmation of the reality of atoms from Einstein’s 1905 papers on molecular dimensions and on Brownian motion. So — I guess for a century all those chemists had no idea what they are talking about.... Cherry picking disciplinary debates may give the appearance of deep disagreement - but doing so, as Brooks does, is really just garden-variety intellectual dishonesty. Put it another way: acknowledging limits to knowledge is not the same thing as denying the power of the same body of knowledge up to that limit. But, of course, that’s what Brooks needs to do if he is to make his real point:
This age of tremendous scientific achievement has underlined an ancient philosophic truth — that there are severe limits to what we know and can know; that the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws.
Nice sleight of hand, eh? Brooks is back to his most comfortable role, masquerading as the honest broker.... The con takes place in incremental steps. Limits to knowledge become “severe” — that is, forseeably unsurmountable. Sez who? Sez Mr. Brooks, of course. Trust him — he speaks so nicely and has a marvelous tan.... Brooks wants to be able to pick and choose, based on criteria known only to him, what change meets some ill-defined criteria of respect and particularity. This is nothing more than a cartoon version of what some conservatives say conservatism is about (though the last few years might give an honest man pause about the incompatibilty of this flavor of conservatism and power). Brooks would rather not have to defend it in detail (see revolution, American)... so instead he comes up with a parody of scientism and hopes that it sounds grand enough to deflect scrutiny...
Glenn Greenwald on Tom Friedman:
Tom Friedman doesn't understand why America is unpopular in the world: Tom Friedman is befuddled. He cannot understand "the decline in American popularity around the world under President Bush" and is specifically upset about the fact that "China is now more popular in Asia than America and how few Europeans say they identify with the United States." Friedman generously allows that "[a]n America that presides over Abu Ghraib, torture and Guantánamo Bay deserves a thumbs-down" -- a "thumbs-down": what a playful movie critic says about a boring film.... Despite that list of America's "mistakes" ("Abu Ghraib, torture and Guantánamo Bay"), Friedman nonetheless pronounces that worldwide disapproval of America is "self-indulgent, knee-jerk and borderline silly." Why? Because Zimbabwe is worse (its dictator stole the last election and represses the country's citizens), as is China and Russia (they vetoed U.N. sanctions against Zimbabwe this week). Friedman thus lectures the world as follows:
Perfect we are not, but America still has some moral backbone. There are travesties we will not tolerate. . . . So, yes, we're not so popular in Europe and Asia anymore. I guess they would prefer a world in which America was weaker, where leaders with the values of Vladimir Putin and Thabo Mbeki had a greater say, and where the desperate voices for change in Zimbabwe would, well, just shut up. Friedman pronounces Russia and China's opposition to anti-Mugabe sanctions as "truly filthy," and says that "when it comes to pure, rancid moral corruption, no one can top South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki."...
[W]hatever else is true, when it comes to morally reprehensible and threatening behavior -- to use Friedman's righteous terms: "pure, rancid moral corruption" that is "truly filthy" -- is there anything that remotely compares with what Tom Friedman and his like-minded comrades have said and done over the last seven years?... [W]hat would you find more threatening -- the repressive dictator of a small African country, or the world's sole military superpower that continues to listen to and honor a Foreign Policy Expert who utters disgusting sentiments such as this?...
What other country in the world has leading members of its political class who justify unprovoked attacks on other countries -- who casually justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people -- in such depraved and sadistic terms?... If there were a powerful nation (besides the U.S.) that had a leading foreign policy analyst unapologetically justifying the brutal destruction of another country by explaining that its citizens needed to "Suck On This," and had a leading presidential candidate who sung songs about dropping bombs on the U.S. and who told jokes about killing Americans (while his leading ally demands that that country attack even more countries), we would be subjected to an endless array of Op-Eds from Fred Hiatt and Charles Krauthammer condemning them and demanding that "meaningful action" be taken against such a "rogue nation." And Tom Friedman would be righteously and darkly insisting that such a country be "compelled to change its behavior."
In light of that, just ponder the self-delusion required for Tom "Suck-On-This" Friedman and the political establishment he leads to express befuddlement -- confusion -- over our extreme unpopularity in the world over the last seven years. How would a rational person expect our country to be perceived when the face we present to the world is the face that appears on that grotesque You Tube clip -- the same face that, to this day, giddily boasts that "sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head" to get our message across and that we need high-ranking foreign policy officials "quietly pounding a baseball bat into his palm"?...
Clint Hendler on Maureen Dowd:
CJR: Dowd's Colorful False Impression: Today’s Maureen Dowd column tries to make the case that Obama is humorless.... Dowd warms over quotes from herself, The Los Angeles Times, Andy Borowitz, and a New York Times colleague—you wonder if you’re reading a column or some sort of mutant clipping service—before coming to this:
He’s already in danger of seeming too prissy about food — a perception heightened when The Wall Street Journal reported that the planners for Obama’s convention have hired the first-ever Director of Greening, the environmental activist Andrea Robinson.... The “lean ‘n’ green” catering guidelines, The Journal said, bar fried food and instruct that, “on the theory that nutritious food is more vibrant, each meal should include ‘at least three of the following colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple, and white.’ (Garnishes don’t count.) At least 70% of the ingredients should be organic or grown locally, to minimize emissions from fuel during transportation.”
I think we can all agree it’s a cheap shot to attribute the convention’s green-focused catering decisions to Obama, especially when the host committee named its greening director in August 2007, back when Obama trailed Clinton by double digits.... But Dowd... leaves a false impression on a matter of fact... [you] probably think that the fried food ban and the color and sourcing requirements will be the inflexible law of the land come convention time. Well, no, as the convention planners pointed out earlier this month... said “guidelines” exist, frou-frou color requirements and all, but they only apply to foods that vendors offer and label as “Lean ‘n Green.”... So if a Denver caterer wanted to serve deep fried chicken that was trucked across the country, no problem—they just couldn’t call it “Lean n’ Green.” Think of it as little bit of party-enforced truth in labeling.
Another word for that might be accuracy.
With bonus Justin Fox on Howell Raines:
Howell Raines, energy expert: In his newish incarnation as media critic for Conde Nast Portfolio, Howell has written a column arguing that the "children of Reaganomics" now populating newsrooms are way too willing to swallow the oil company line that high gas prices are merely the result of supply and demand. If only, he says, today's reporters would dig deep for explanations the way the great Don Barlett and Jim Steele did in the pages of TIME in 2003.
What did Barlett and Steele find back then?... [H]ere's their explanation for high oil prices:
While the world is swimming in crude oil, it already trades at an inflated price of $30 a bbl., a level essentially dictated by Saudi Arabia with the approval of the U.S. government.
Now... it seems pretty clear in retrospect that (a) $30 a bbl. wasn't an inflated price and (b) it probably wasn't being dictated by Saudi Arabia. By far the biggest story in global oil markets since 2003 has been sharply rising demand from China, India and other emerging economies, coupled with lots of declining big oilfields and more and more questions about whether Saudi Arabia really does have enough excess capacity to manipulate oil prices. In other words, it's a supply and demand story.... [T]he supply-demand thing also happens to be the only credible explanation for why Barlett and Steele were so wrong in 2003 and why oil prices have gone up so much since then. Yes, some of the price premium right now seems to be the product of a futures market feeding frenzy. How much? We'll find out over the next year or so.
ExxonMobil and the other big Western oil companies are of course happy spectators to this price rise. They certainly aren't doing much to thwart it.... But... I certainly can't believe that a company that produces only 3% of the world's oil is capable of pushing prices from $30 a bbl. to $140.... When it comes to the domestic gasoline market, ExxonMobil and its cohorts do have some pricing power.... Raines does make an interesting point about prices at the pump being set by the latest spot prices for bulk gasoline... deliver[ing] a windfall to refiners when oil prices are rising... cut[ting] into profits when oil prices fall...
Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?