This is not the republic of my imagination.
–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)
This is not the republic of my imagination.
–Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)
This weekend’s film recommendation, Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora, is one of those films that’s so hard to sell to people that I’ve never successfully persuaded a friend to sink two hours into it. This is a terrible shame, because it’s a wonderful film. Continue Reading…
The following letter (updated, expanded and edited for this reissue) was posted in late 2010 (many comments there, worth a read). In the last several weeks, I’ve been asked by a variety of friends and colleagues to post it again. I wish I could report that it’s out of date, but the trends it discusses have worsened if anything, as more states accelerate the destruction of their greatest assets–Jefferson wanted most to be remembered for creating his state university–and half of our two-party machinery degrades into fact-free, willfully ignorant armies competing to sow hate, fear, and spite.
You’ve been admitted to colleges, and chosen Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Next fall, you’ll meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere. The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because that’s what I’ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits. And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine. This letter is an apology, and more usefully, perhaps a signal to start demanding what’s been taken from you so you can pass it on with interest. Continue Reading…
I agree with Eugene Volokh that the charge of “hypocrisy” – literally, playing a role – is way overused in political debate. Whether someone else sincerely believes what he says is not, generally, relevant to the question. Often enough, what seem like inconsistencies in an opponent’s position reflect no more than one’s own reluctance or inability to enter into the other’s thought and find the principle or interpretation that reconciles two apparently inconsistent views.
Still, consistency remains a bedrock logical principle, and pointing out genuine inconsistencies remains a legitimate form of criticism. For example, people who defend the “religious freedom” of employers to deny their employees insurance coverage for reproductive health, but not the freedom of Muslim congregations to build houses of worship, may reasonably be charged with twisting the idea of “religious freedom” all out of shape. If what they mean is that they want the freedom both to practice their own religion and to prevent other people from practicing theirs, then (despite the precedent set by the Puritans) their views may properly be called “un-American,” and their pretense to be defending “religious freedom” in the generally accepted (and Constitutional) sense of the term stands unmasked as dishonest.
From Pope Francis’ Christmas Day homily – emphasis added:
Only God’s mercy can free humanity from the many forms of evil, at times monstrous evil, which selfishness spawns in our midst.
The paragraph does not mention ISIS (or whatever the label of the month is), but much of the homily is concerned with violence in the Middle East and in Africa. In context, Francis is blaming terrorism and other forms of political violence and coercion on selfishness.
Sorry, no. Coming from a Jesuit, this is astonishingly sloppy. It’s on a par with attacking the 9/11 terrorists as cowardly, a mistake which Tim Noah and Paul Krugman correctly called out: a suicide bomber is necessarily very brave.
The medieval typology of deadly sins allows a better classification of al-Baghdadi’s as pride and anger. Anger may depend partly on pride – excessive self-esteem – but its expressions are often reckless and self-destructive.
The Seven Deadly Sins only get us so far and do not account for the core of jihadi or other religious fanaticism: the paranoid world-view, unlimited and unrealistic revolutionary agenda, and jettisoning of normal moral restraints.
Modern social science may not have a full explanation, but it has developed at least two pieces of it. One is the mechanism of confirmation bias, the universal tendency to seek out evidence fitting a preconception and disregard evidence that does not. In the strong form, in arrogant and credulous personalities, this can create a positive feedback loop and lead us from a common prejudice (such as social and economic antisemitism), with some distorted basis in fact, to a radical dogma (the Jewish conspiracy for world domination) entirely detached from reality. Another insight applies to the followers: social pressures of group conformity and the psychological process of habituation can easily transform quite ordinary people into monsters. See Milgram’s fake torture experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and Browning’s Ordinary Men, a study of an SS battalion recruited from unremarkable reservists, not enthusiastic former brownshirts.
These two factors do not explain everything. In particular, the European recruits to ISIS chose the movement over other Islamic, even radical Islamic, authority figures. Still, I think the case is clear that we cannot account for the movement’s rise by any appeal to simple selfishness. The Devil has many other tunes.
Selfishness, in the form of common greed, accounts perfectly for the irresponsible marketing of prescription opioids, as much as the political variant explains Herod’s alleged Massacre of the Innocents. I’m not defending it like Ayn Rand.
When Kevin Drum and Jeb Bush agree about something, one of two grossly implausible events must have occurred: either Kevin is wrong or Jeb is right. Since Jeb’s wrong-headedness is more reliable than even Kevin’s good sense, a devout Bayesian in this situation will start out suspecting that Kevin has made one of his rare mistakes.
Some time ago – sorry, real life has been interfering with my blogging – the New York Times asked what seemed like a remarkably silly question: “If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?”
Answers: 42% Yes, 30% No, 28% Not sure.
The Huffington Post picked this up and asked it of JEB! by email. Bush (sensibly) ducked it until he was asked on camera, at which point he emitted a characteristically inarticulate grunt of affirmation. “Hell yeah, I would! You gotta step up, man.”
Kevin was more thoughtful but equally decisive: “I’m not an especially bloodthirsty guy, but hell yes, I’d do it. Sure, maybe World War II would happen anyway, though that’s hardly inevitable. Maybe the Holocaust too. But even a reasonable chance of stopping either one of them would be well worth the life of a baby who would otherwise grow up to be a monster. What am I missing here? I wouldn’t even hesitate.”
I’m pleased to report another success for the Rev. Mr. Bayes. In my judgment (which I would be glad to pronounce ex cathedra if someone would just build me a cathedral) both Bush and Drum are obviously and catastrophically wrong.
Forget about time-travel paradoxes, forget about the risk that something even worse would happen, and assume that your powers of foresight are perfect. You still shouldn’t kill Baby Hitler, for the simple reason that the Baby Hitler you’d be killing wouldn’t have done anything wrong, and intentionally killing innocent people is wrong, the same way torture and slavery are wrong. End of discussion.
Logically, of course, the Right-to-Life crowd should be up in arms about Bush’s expressed willing to intentionally take innocent life. And logically, of course, Bush himself couldn’t really hold his expressed position on abortion and also his expressed opinion about baby-killing. But, of course, logic has nothing to do with it.
If you still aren’t sure about how completely big-money sports have corrupted universities, today’s WaPo rundown on how the University of Missouri–which is full of philosophers, sociologists, organizational behavior professors, furious students, and what-all other sources of insight–figured out it needed new leadership should knock some scales from your eyes.
Geoffrey Marcy is resigning from the Berkeley faculty. [15/X/15: the Daily Cal has a good long wrapup here] Mark Kleiman has noted that more people are fired by their subordinates than by their superiors, and I would add …”and by their peers.” The Astronomy faculty’s public statement, copied at the end of my previous post, along with similar sentiments from the students and post-docs, obviously made it impossible for him to stay, even though the university authorities had no way to make this happen.
I take no satisfaction from this worst possible outcome. Cal has lost an important, productive scientist, careers of other scientists (especially the women Marcy abused) were damaged or ended before they began, Berkeley is enduring pessimal PR, and everyone feels just wretched about the whole thing.
What went so wrong here, and who are the authors of this episode? Simple: there were many moments at least a decade ago when some members of the astronomy faculty, perhaps clued in by students, were aware that they were harboring a ticking bomb. That was when a chair or dean, or maybe just a peer pal, should have taken Marcy aside and drawn a diagram:
Everyone knows what you are doing. You have to stop, now, forever, because you are damaging not just these young women but all of us and yourself as well. If you don’t, here are a series of things that will happen to you, in sequence of increasing severity, and to show how serious this is, I expect you to ask for an unpaid leave from teaching next semester. That’s half your pay. Next step will be to inform the department of the reasons, and so on.
Instead, one after another of his friends and colleagues decided that it was more important to avoid an awkward moment than to (i) try to save their friend from a suicidal path (ii) protect their young colleagues. Marcy was thus given a ten-year lesson that he could get away with it, and that his peers and superiors would not only not protect the junior people, but would cover up for him and assure his continued access to prey and personal comfort. Indeed (see my last post), that club of powerful friends continued to operate in that way until it became impossible.
A systematic contributor to this outcome is cultural: because there is so much of this (sexual and other harassment) going on, and we know it, students and others are increasingly enraged and act out by expecting atom-bomb sanctions for the few violations that come to light, initiating a positive-feedback cycle that suppresses appropriate and humane guidance out of fear of a disproportionate result. One colleague just told me that if he saw a faculty member pat a student’s rear end he would not take it up with the violator but go immediately to a formal report. The more common response in fact is of course to do and say nothing. That’s not how healthy societies enforce and implement norms of behavior; that’s how organizations are managed for the short-term comfort of their managers, usually with bad outcomes on many dimensions.
The chancellor and provost are working on “different and better options for discipline of faculty.” OK, but if they aren’t also working in different and better ways to acculturate, teach, and guide faculty (yes, and randy frat boys), they will leave a lot of value on the table and set us up for the next humiliating and tragic episode.
[15/X/15: last word on this here]
One of W. Edward Deming’s 14 points for quality assurance is “drive out fear,” and Deming is one of my moral and intellectual heroes. It runs like a river through all the reporting on the Marcy affair (see the links in my previous post), and also on reporting sexual abuse on campus generally, that we have not driven out fear at Cal: victims of abuse, by men who can damage their lives and careers, are broadly afraid to stand up for their rights; witnesses are afraid to step up and drop a dime. Fewer than one in twenty rape victims in college report or complain formally. We’re in court now defending ourselves against the justice department for mishandling sexual assault cases. Students in astronomy are not OK with things as they are.
This whole vile episode did not begin in a drunken frat party, but with a peer group of senior faculty protecting one of their number–whether because of his charming wit and lively presence, or his management of a Niagara of research money we do not know–from the discomfort of a serious talk with the chair or dean, and documents in a file, when he started his campaign of abuse. All of them are obligatory reporters under UC rules, by the way; but there’s no talk of going after them for ducking that duty. Anyway, there’s always another student sending in an application (docility in a labor force is surely a virtue, which fear usefully furthers), and seriously, Geoff is One of Us! Think how awkward this will be (for us) if it gets out (of our senior common room), not to mention if Marcy decides the hunting is better at MIT. We’re serious scientists here, not social workers, and everyone needs a hobby. Continue Reading…
[15/X/15: last word on this here]
Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is a big deal in big science, apparently on the Nobel Prize short list. A Sirius-level magnitude star in Berkeley’s constellation. For a decade, at least, he’s also been a serial harasser of women and on notice about it, in a field that has a big problem treating women as colleagues. Not a careless act or slipup: a long-time hobby. Everyone knew about it; women had a whole network to warn each other about him. You will, however, be pleased to know that Cal deeply deplores this behavior, and after six months of finding out what, apparently, any one in the exoplanet trades could tell them, he has been given a sharply worded admonition and told to not do it any more! His department chair, who presides over a faculty of 21 men and 3 women, counsels them that the episode is “hardest for Geoff in this moment”. No, really; this guy thinks this is something that happened to Marcy! and in case you think the god of irony is on travel today, that chair is also our Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion.
Marcy is so contrite and abashed that he has personally written a uniquely mealy-mouthed letter of apology and posted it on his own web page, where we can learn that even a Nobel Prize candidate can be clueless enough to need ten years of “deep and lengthy consultations” to figure out what any woman over the age of six could tell him, and indeed what many of his adult victims have been telling him in “complaints…going back more than a decade“.
Now, this is a good opportunity to all calm down and not get emotional, and do a little cost-benefit analysis. And let’s be sure to keep our eye on the ball, which is doing more better science for the benefit of all humanity, plus getting more bigger grants at Cal. How serious is this, really? On the one hand, Marcy undoubtedly published more brilliant papers, and found more planets, on account of the emotional support he appropriated for himself from his female grad students. Sort of like the Japanese victories that wouldn’t have happened without the “comfort women” who nourished the soldiers’ morale, right? If he had been fired or driven away early in his tenure here by an administration more concerned for our own women’s dignity and morale than his comfort, he would have done famous things somewhere else, which is at least as bad as doing less of it here. So there was great scientific value created by letting him do his thing his way as long as possible. Slapping his wrist gently, as we have, assures several more years of high-powered scientific achievement, maybe even that Nobel Prize, before having to upset him again, even if he should backslide immediately, because these investigations cannot be rushed. Best of all, any women inclined to blow a whistle and upset Marcy or another Big Man groper will be suitably abashed and discouraged by seeing how little their abuse counts, and not make waves.
So the scientific benefits of letting this skeeze skate as long as possible are enormous, one could say cosmic. On the other side, what were the costs? Well, at least three of his victims dropped out of astronomy entirely, so whatever discoveries they might have made are gone. There’s the science other women in the department aren’t doing day by day, because they are enraged, afraid, anxious, and demoralized as they see, year after year, that the senior people who are supposed to be taking care of them and mentoring them are OK with a big shot treating them like toys [only one? I have no evidence, but I know organizational culture is usually a pervasive thing].
Some number of women who could be probing the cosmos in our shop didn’t come and are doing it elsewhere. And this is not just a “women’s issue”: every man on the Cal faculty, and in science everywhere, is suffering some degree of harm as women we work with, quite understandably, are giving us the fisheye because of stuff like this. Not to mention men being hit on by gay, or female, profs, and yes, that happens too.
On balance, I don’t think coddling Marcy had net benefits in science: we don’t even have to examine all that mooshy stuff about human dignity and a safe workplace and equal rights!
We have a Vice Provost for the Faculty in charge of this stuff. Obviously not VP for the students, as her office mission statement confirms, but one can’t do everything. Janet Broughton is a philosopher specializing in theories of mind (to be fair, that might well leave little time for theories of heart, or ethics). And when you’ve spent your career in the field with the smallest percentage of women faculty of any of the humanities, I guess you could get to think that’s the way it s’posed to be.
Now we have a PR disaster. When you cover up and enable outrage for the comfort of Important People, better wear a hat, because sooner or later It’s Going to Start Coming Down. [minor non-substantive edits 10/X/15]
[more here 12/X/15]
[added 10/X/15] If you don’t think it should be this way, there is a (very gently worded) petition you can sign here.
[added 12/X/15] a couple of people have criticized what they took to be an implication that John Yoo is a sexual harasser. I do not mean that; as far as I know Yoo is a perfect gentleman in all his personal and professional relationships. I meant to use him as an example of a professor with whom no colleague should share so much as a cup of coffee. Yoo is a war criminal who enabled and justified torture in our name (that didn’t even obtain useful intelligence). As a government lawyer, he violated his professional obligations, dissserved his client, shamed my country, and implicated me as a citizen in those crimes. To my knowledge, he has never retracted his torture memo.
The Berkeley law school dean’s office suite is decorated with paintings of Abu Ghreib.