Blunt But Accurate

Jeff Maurer takes down a progressive fantasy in exactly 25 words:

Fair play to him. (Sorry, I'm in the middle of reading Tana French's latest.)

Also of note:

  • Blame it on the Bossa Nova. Megan McArdle requests that we point our shaky fingers elsewhere: Don’t blame the Supreme Court for universities’ stunning reversal on DEI.

    After a decade of ever-escalating commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion, elite campuses are reversing course.

    Many Ivy League admissions offices reinstated SAT requirements, even though doing so will make it harder to evade stricter Supreme Court scrutiny of racial preferences. MIT rescinded its requirement that aspiring faculty provide DEI statements explaining how they would advance its principles. Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences soon followed, and the rest of the Ivy League will likely come trailing behind. Harvard also announced it would no longer be taking positions on matters outside the core functions of the university, while Stanford’s faculty voted to reaffirm principles of academic freedom and exercise restraint on institutional pronouncements.

    It's amazing to watch such an abrupt volte-face. What’s even more amazing is how far things went beforehand and how long the correction took to arrive.

    Ms. McArdle oh-so-gently notes that DEI was built on well-meaning prevarication; but as time went on, the lies took on their usual sitcom course, snowballing until the whole rickety structure became unsupportable.

    Classical reference. Why don't they ever play that song in my supermarket? Probably because people would be dancing in the aisles.

  • Why make up conspiracy theories about the Deep State, when the simple truth is so outrageous? James Taranto writes at the WSJ on The Deep State vs. Taxpayers. Quoting a Washington Times story:

    The IRS is struggling to get its employees back to work in person at least 50% of the time, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the agency’s labor union is the chief hurdle.

    In striking testimony to Congress, Ms. Yellen suggested that the department may have to renegotiate contracts to get those employees back to their desks more often.

    “Some of the employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements. They are members of a union, and to enforce those rules requires an agreement with the union,” she told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.

    Apparently, Federal "workers" have been allowed to unionize since the Jimmy Carter administration. That, to put it mildly, was a mistake.

  • Really trying to win Michiganistan, I guess. John Podhoretz writes of four "clarifying moments" that occurred recently: Heroism and the Biden Brainless Trust.

    It was a clarifying weekend both in the Middle East and in Washington. Clarifying in the first place because Israel got some of its mojo back in the staggering rescue of the four hostages in broad daylight from separate buildings in the Nuseirat refugee camp—which is technically under UN control, let us not forget. And one of those buildings was an UN refugee school. In other words, the UN was being used as a hostage prison. So we had four Israelis being used as slaves and household workers in territory controlled by the the world’s “peacekeepers.”

    Those of us who have long advocated literally blowing up the UN buildings in Turtle Bay in Manhattan—one of the first covers of the long-defunct magazine Insight, which I edited beginning in 1985, depicted the UN tower being dismantled, so that’s how long ago this idea has been percolating—now have renewed reason to press our case. The UN pays no taxes. Tear it down and there’s a huge development site in the most desirable spot in the city that could return billions in lost revenue. Meanwhile, the UN could be relocated to someplace that could use its commerce and doesn’t mind how it sheds blood and treasure in the name of Israel-hatred, like Lagos or South Sudan, and where there are no boutiques for the wives of monstrous dictators to buy stuff marked up especially for them. Rid my city of this organization that employs out-and-out neo-Nazis like UN “special rapporteur” Francesca Albanese, a person (I hesitate even to call her a person) whose views on Israel might cause Josef Goebbels to say, “Well, now you go a little far.” Not to mention one of the world’s greatest villains at the moment, UN General Secretary Guterres, a man who demonstrates the way in which a lifelong commitment to socialism now practically requires all-but-open Jew-hatred to maintain its purity as an ideological calling.

    You'll have to click over for the other clarifying moments. JPod's on fire.

  • Confirmed. At Power Line, Steven Hayward notes Facebook Censoring Climate Dissent Again.

    We’ve often cited the work of Roger Pielke, Jr. of the University of Colorado, who science Substack, The Honest Broker, is essential reading. What you should know about Roger (whom I know quite well) is that he is a centrist-liberal Democrat, believes climate change is a genuine future risk, and supports a carbon tax and other measures to fight it. But he also calls bull—- on a lot of climate extremism and exaggeration. His work has been cited by the “official” “consensus” scientific reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and he even forced Al Gore to change some of the claims Gore used to make about thermageddon.

    Hayward requested readers to make a normal FB post pointing to Pielke's Substack article, Climate Science is About to Make a Huge Mistake. That "huge mistake"? Pushing "an outdated extreme emissions scenario called RCP8.5" as the proper one to guide international policy.

    Reader, there is nothing outrageous or dangerous in Pielke's article; check for yourself.

    But, yup, within a few seconds of my posting a link to the article, it got taken down. I have appealed.

Recently on the book blog:

Last Modified 2024-06-12 7:34 AM EDT

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

(paid link)

This is the penultimate book in my project to read (or have read) all the titles on the New York Times 2021 list of the best books of the past 125 years. Like many of the books there, I don't know if it would be on my list of best books, but I liked it OK. For some reason, I'd mentally pigeonholed it as a sentimental book for non-adults.

I am pretty sure the titular "tree" refers to the young heroine, Francie Nolan. (Although there are some literal trees mentioned too, if you're of that bent.) At the turn of the twentieth century, she's born into a relatively poor family living in Williamsburg, then a slum area of (yes) Brooklyn. We get to know her as she grows into young womanhood. And her extended family, who are lovingly and colorfully described.

Along the way, there's plenty of color, humor, tragedy, drama, heartbreak, love, death, betrayal, … and even a little gunplay. It's kind of a soap opera, to be honest. But I enjoyed it quite a bit. Francie's an incredibly likeable character, and she remains a believable one as the book follows her over the years.

The 1943 novel was a massive best-seller, and became a 1945 movie. I haven't seen it, but it would be interesting to see how they handled some of the more, um, adult themes.

The remaining book on the list is Ulysses by James Joyce. That is gonna be a project in itself, I think.


A Science of Life without Free Will

(paid link)

I'm a believer in free will. And (as I've said before) I use the term "believer" because (sigh) I don't have any solid knock-down evidence to throw up against the (so-called) "determinists". Like the author of this book, Robert M. Sapolsky.

Let me quote from page four; I've added some bolding, you'll see why:

As a central point of this book, [biological and environmental interactions] are all variables that you had little or no control over. You cannot decide all the sensory stimuli in your environment, your hormone levels this morning, whether something traumatic happened to you in the past, the socioeconomic status of your parents, your fetal environment, your genes, whether your ancestors were farmers or herders. Let me state this more broadly, probably at this point too broadly for most readers: we are nothing more or less that the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment. You're going to be able to recite this sentence in your irritated sleep by the time we're done.

See the problem? Is it "little or no control" or "no control"? I'm pretty sure that free-willers don't deny the effect of hormones, genes, past history, etc. on our decisions. But they also argue that we have some control over our actions; if Sapolsky is admitting that we have "little" control, then fine, we're reduced to arguing about how much is "some" or "little", not the existence of free will itself.

To be fair, Sapolsky is pretty consistent elsewhere in the book in seeming to argue for "no control whatsoever". Which makes his page-four wording simply sloppy. But there's also a pronoun problem: when he asserts "you" (or "we") have no control, what is "you" referring to? I'd say "our conscious selves", but Sapolsky disposes of that notion in a couple pages. (Starting on page 31, where he says "I don't understand what consciousness is, can't define it.")

But anyway, whatever he's talking about when he says "you" have no control, "you" are most like a toy boat, tossed helplessly around on the vast ocean of your neurons, brain physiology, environment, and history.

For the record, I liked the informal definition of "free will" tentatively offered by Kevin J. Mitchell in his recent book Free Agents: "the capacity for conscious, rational, control of our actions".

Rationality, the accumulation and evaluation of evidence, learning, adjustment of beliefs, application of logic, … all those associated concepts are more or less ignored by Sapolsky. Instead, when he looks at "the science", it is invariably constrained to arbitrary button-pushing and unconscious/subconscious reactions to those "stimuli" he mentions. A typical example: Disgusting smells cause decreased liking of gay men.

Sapolsky is far from alone in concentrating on all the myriad ways our mental processes can fail, or be fooled. But (as he mentions at some point) the existence of optical illusions doesn't mean that you can never trust what you see. Unfortunately, this insight is underutilized.

Sapolsky rebuts various non-supernatural attempts to reconcile "free will" with science. He (correctly, I think) says you don't get free will from quantum indeterminacy or chaos theory. He agrees that this makes human behavior difficult, probably impossible, to predict. But unpredictability is not indeterminacy. He also considers the notion that free will is an "emergent property" of sufficiently complex brains and nervous systems. Much like "life" can emerge by fortuitous arrangements of molecules that area not themselves alive. I think his discussion here were perfunctory and dismissive.

I liked his answer to the challenge: if everything is determined, how does anything ever change? (Specifically, how is reading this book supposed to make me stop believing in free will?)

The answer is that we don't change our minds, Our minds, which are the end products of all the biological moments that came before are changed by circumstances around us.

High marks for this moment of clarity. Sapolsky didn't come to his free-will disbelief by his own rational decision based on evidence; it was caused by the circumstances he happened to encounter. He had no choice.

The latter part of the book is devoted to how this applies to criminal justice. It is strident, repetitive, and overlong. Sapolsky argues that criminals (including the ones committing the vilest acts) are products of the (previously mentioned) brain malfunctions, environment, history, etc.: all factors over which they had no control. It probably makes sense to "quarantine" the violent and dishonest for periods so they can't cause further damage, but the idea of retributive punishment is fundamentally flawed. Moral judgment is off the table, especially if it leads to the death penalty.

It is somewhat amusing to note that while Sapolsky exempts violent criminals from moral judgment, he's perfectly OK with judging other (less violent) folks. People used to have non-biological explanations for schizophrenia; Sapolsky calls those people "psychoanalytic scumbags" (page 329). Bruno Bettelheim was a "sick, sadistic fuck" (page 338 footnote). This is far more moralistic mudslinging than anything Sapolsky aims at Ted Bundy, Anders Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh.

Bottom line: if the anti-free-willers are correct, then there should be an argument out there that would jangle my neurons in precisely the right way to force my agreement; I would literally have no choice but to agree. But that argument is not provided here.

Last Modified 2024-07-03 12:32 PM EDT