Thursday, February 11, 2010

De Plague! Da Plague!

Not been posting much. But I should hopefully have something about Averroes and climate science up soon...

Really nice review of a book about the plague and medical science in the early modern period:

Ch-ch-check it out!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Nonbob Dylan

I only have a few messages saved on my phone. I like to delete things. But the following is a long conversation I have saved and its the best conversation I've ever had on a phone. Well it's up there. (I've edited out textisms like 'u' for 'you' because I hate them.)

Background is we were both driving in the great Winter Storm of early '10.  I was in Albany, Dylan and were driving to Boston. 

Me: Good luck god bless tell ana to form up with you to form DylAnatron and use your forward lasers to cut a flaming path to freedom. Cue music.

Dylan: Dude I ha ve to go, there's a three headed space monster and we need both lion head hands to form the energy sword.

M:Always you will be loving hte last star of tomorrow's heart (cue Japanese Pop music)

D: God you are so right.  The bridge is just a Japanese girl crying into the mic. 

M: This is the best conversation I've ever had. Let's suddenly take it to the next level by exploding into space, surrounded by laserspumpingtechno and blast into the Starshipspacemechaplaneamorph Form in order ot use our final power to repel the forces of evil.

D: As we engage, however, a tear forms through the fabric of time and WE and the enemy tubmle inot THIS dimension, bruised but not yet beaten, and we join forces with OURSELVES to beat twice the foes. (Guitar solo).

M: Blazing tracks with both guitar and ship lets start yelling at our enemyfor the death of some chick you never get to meet or even see nakede! Laser effects 3D!

D:We then join HER back on earth for a quite, independently distributed drama about redemption, comin ghome form the big city for her dad's funeral and reconnecting with her high school love she never really got over. Ryan Adams/Alison Krauss duet single over the credits.



Monday, January 11, 2010


Strange. So Evolutionary Psychology often assumes a certain sort of paleolithic environment as having been essential to human evolution, and thus they explain behaviors by showing how they would have increased fitness back on the ole' cave man days. 

So I note with some interest some modern idiots advocating a 'caveman' diet as being the healthiest and conducive to a long life: Eating Paleo in NYC.  Note that they make a very basic mistake here: they say that the foods we evolved to eat are the healthiest; this is perhaps true, but evolution is about reproduction, not longevity or health. There is thus no reason to think that the foods we used to eat back in the cave days are any healthier than what we eat now, at least not for evolutionary reasons, at least not necessarily. (See what John Hawks says)

People are idiots. Plus, you know, the whole sustainability thing.

Evolutionary Psychosisology

There is a post up at BoingBoing about Evo Psych . It is a lot like this:

Now, I'm no fan of some EP (though it can be hilarious when they make up their BS), but its a variegated community, and those EPers who really know actual evolutionary theory, and like totally do empirical research are interesting if often provocative.  Its also weird to try and discredit an entire research program with such a short, confusing, mistake ridden article.  I shall attempt to correct them forthwith.   The author provides a list of 'often believed tenets of EP'.
  • Computational mind (the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ)
Ok no one says 'computational mind.'  There is the computational THEORY of mind, but no one thinks that the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ. That doesn't even make much sense.  What the theory advances is that the way in which a computer works makes for a useful model of how brains work. And, indeed, this has been productive and has produced a lot of good research, not just by EPers but by computational neuroscientists, philosophers, artificial intelligencers, and so forth.  Historically, the we have always modelled our understanding of the brain on whatever most advanced piece of technology we have: the gears and springs of clocks and other contraptions in the 17th century, the steam engines and mills of the 19th century, and the computers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
  • Determinism (biology is destiny)
Um. What? First off, calling this determinism seems misnomerish. But whatever.  Second, depending on how strongly you read it, this  might either be  false or  true.  And it furthermore seems to me to be an empirical statement, and one that casting aspersions upon by associating it with EPers does no real good.  Biology probably is destiny sometimes. Whatever that means. This is the whole fruitless nature/nuture battle. The truth lies in between, and depends upon the specifics of whatever is being destinied. Destinized? whatever.
  • Fatalism (free will/choice is an illusion)
Free will is a vexed problem, mostly because no one has any clear idea of what it could mean. (see:  And when it is defined it either seems like the kind of thing no one would want, or something that no one could ever have.  If we read free will as having to do with the way we make choices and judgments, its an empirical problem (albeit one with philosophical issues by the bucket. Too bad most philosophy buckets are hole filled. Hehe. Hole filled...). Whatever else can be said about EPers, they respect this aspect of the debate.
  • Consciousness (subjective awareness deludes us into thinking we have free will)
No one has a GD clue about consciousness (understood as first person experience).  And if this is what the EPers believe (not sure that it is), there may be something to it. 
  • Reductionism or essentialism (race and gender are concrete, not socially constructed, can be reduced to their genetic essence, and are quantifiable)
Reductionism and essentialism are not the same thing.  The latter is about moving from talking at a 'high level' (say about the temperature of a room) to talking at a low level (to talking about the mean kinetic energy of the particles in that room).  Essentialism has to do with kinds--that there are kinds in nature, and that these kinds have essential natures that make them what they are.  Both of these have long histories in the world of science.  And both have been shown to be true in some areas: for instance, reductionism in physics has been a resounding success (except for making gravity and QM play nice) and essentialism seems true of the nature of physical things like the elements and particles and so on.  It doesn't work so well for species and biological kinds (full disclosure: I'm a nominalist, but lets forget that for now). And parts of race and gender surely are concrete, real things--it does no one any good to deny that there are human kinds, and that kinds vary within the kind and between kinds. The question is to what the variation amounts to, and from my reading of the empirical data is that interspecific variation is less the intraspecific variation among 'races.'

This doesn't mean I endorse the crude stereotypes in some EP, only that these accusations get tossed around like the Fuhrer's name as argument enders. They are not.
  • Intelligence is definable and measurable
Um. This seems so obviously true that I don't know what could be objectionable about it. The problem lies in the reification of whatever the measure of intelligence is: that is, IQ is certainly measurable (in fact, it just is a measurment), but what exactly we are measuring is unclear.  The real trick is to figure out what is being measured, what the biological, social, genetic, whatever basis of the measurment is.
  • Sexual selection should focus on benefits for the individual organism
Um. First off EPers probably don't buy this because they seem to be hardcore Adaptationists, that is, Dawkins/Hamilton style gene selectionists. I have no idea what the
  • The "function" or "purpose" of life is to make more life
Perhaps EPers say this, but I doubt it. Evolution isn't teleological. Its a set of filtering mechanisms (natural selection, drift, maybe group selection, development stuff, etc). 
  • The __ gene: The gay gene, the god gene, etc.
I think it is rather bad science writers and not EPers who write this, though perhaps these groups are the same sometimes. I dunno.

The biggest problem with the article is that there is a lot to criticize with some EP, but the article does such a piss poor job of it.

    The last unicorn, America, etc

    CORRECTION: The unicorns are from canada. in my defense, i was really sure i was right in thinking that they were from california (maybe Tim Williamson is right, no luminosity, at least for knowing that one is right about band origins). the person responsible for the error will be fired forthwith.

    and some of the members of america are from the uk;

    whatever im gonna go cry about it.

    this out:

    This was one of my favorite movies growing up. My dad, who is awesome, played this song with his band (a bit more rocked out).

    Also, the name of the band that sings it is called America, which is like the unicorn of nation states: magical and alone...

    Also this is the band The unicorns which is a sweet band. It turns out they are from America...its all coming together

    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    i told my dad im a merman today

    Wait. What.

    40th post done!

    I've decided to just get comfortable, and just skip a bunch of weeks to the point where blogging is easy for me.

    * Montage!*

    Well I've been posting for almost two months now. I think I've gotten rather good. I seem to have a way with words, a wizardly way. I'm like a word magician. I have this really sweet Unicorn of grammar that teaches me the ways of syntax as only a mythical beast of the forests can, that is, with a big ass horn that can shoot lasers.

    Lasers are super sweet.

    Anyways, back to unicorns. There is this phenomenon in my life: most of my friends buy me unicorn related gifts. One friend has given me the same unicorn on a fuzzy surface drawing set with markers of many colors TWICE. I get unicorn coloring books galore, action figures, and dolls. Its nice. But how did they know? Its not like I'm going on about it all the time right? Am I? Bueller?

    Rainbows are badass too.

    Yours in Raptor Jesus,


    Yup. Darwin.

    so i be bloggin.  or ranting. or what is the difference. this is something i wrote earlier today about  on google reader, this article:THE DARWIN SHOW YO!. I thought id cry about it blog about it, you know. Know. [edited to de-snark and fix errors]

    This is a pretty nice article by the historian of science Steve Shapin (who is a truly excellent historian, I note, but one with whom I have some  disagreements at least in orientation:  his model of history is social history, and cultural history, whereas mine is of intellectual history, and he makes use of some aspects of anthropology and sociology of science, (some of which I find to be based on a  misunderstanding of Wittgenstein) whereas I am more in line with historians and philosophers of science...but leave this for some other time). Aside from some snide remarks and one-off disparagements (e.g., 'and their philosophical allies...'), the article points to some fascinating ways in which Darwin is incidentally loved and celebrated because of his achievement, but primarily co-opted for various modern day debates (atheism vs. creationism, ultra-adaptationists vs. selection pluralists, hard-nosed literary theory vs. po-mo theory, etc). All multifarious ways in which Darwin is a sort of rhetorical trope is very fascinating, especially since it started happening right away in 1859.

    What is especially interesting to me, as someone who teaches history of science, is that with a person like Darwin, and other such figures, everyone feels entitled to them, and thus recruits him into their what have you. This is all fine, and much of the use I heartily endorse (though its often humorous when both sides recruit him to purposes at odds, as with Dawkins/Williams v. Gould/Eldridge). But the problem with these adoptions is that nitty-gritty, archival, details in all their glory history seems to have little place in much of the discourse. Since Herodotus history has often, perhaps even primarily, been about heroes and villains, losers and winners, told from a particular point of view for the purpose of supporting those in power or attacking them. Not until Ranke and others in the 19th century did historians begin to become historiographically sophisticated. And yet still history is used to this end (just look at the teaching of history in American public schools--often heroic, myth making lie after lie more or less ).

    And this is what annoys me so much about the Darwin stuff. Scientists are often guilty of this [mis]use of history. When they claim Galileo and Newton as heroes and founders of their discipline, they claim only a tiny part of what these men did, the part they label 'scientific,' that is, what they see as being correct from the standpoint of what we now know. What is the purpose of setting up these mythological foundations for their discipline? Why should a modern physicist choose to represent and talk about Newton as the one of the greatest physicists of all time, when, in fact, he was no physicist in the modern sense (he would consider himself a mathematician and natural philosopher, roles which don't quite mean science in the modern sense), and while he was a real smart dude, he was also bit of nutty character, obsessed with Biblical chronology, alchemy, and screwing over his rivals?

    The problem with the histories sometimes given by scientists isn't just that they are historically inaccurate (that is, they get the facts wrong), but they commit two cardinal sins of interpreting and understanding history: whiggishness and anachronism. The former is to view the history (especially of science) as necessarily leading to the current state of affairs. In reality, though most likely we would end up with more or less the same scientific theory, the route taken is highly contextual, as much a result of social, personal, and other factors as anything else. This is no more than to say that they history of any scientific achievement is a very messy business, a result of mistakes, breakthroughs, blind paths, chances, luck, observation and experimental prowess, rivalries, discussions, fights, and so forth. To think otherwise is really to diminish the incredible accomplishments of past scientists, for what glory is there in achieving something that was necessarily bound to turn out as it did?

    The second error so often made, anachronism, is twofold: it is to judge the past by modern standards and to view what we agree with in past figures as being what was most important to them and their contemporaries and immediate followers (thus jettisoning those facts that are deemed unscientific and incorrect and focusing on the 'real' accomplishment of some figure, for instance ignoring that for Newton and most of those who came after him, you cannot really understand their theories of gravity, space, and motion without talking about God's role in the universe; to abstract from this fact, while it can be instrumentally useful, means that you are not, in an important sense, really trying to understand them on their own terms); and second, it is also to assume that those in the past are more or less participating in the same sort of activity and for the same sorts of reasons and by the same sorts of methods as we do now. Not to say that this is never the case, but rather to emphasize with Hartley that the past is like a foreign country and people do things differently there. Galileo wasn't an experimental physicist exactly: he was first a mathematician (a tutor really) and then natural philosopher and matter theorist, one who valued experience as a guide to understanding the natural world but had no real conception of systematic experimentation in the modern sense.

    Its especially galling to see history so used by scientists when, if their own work was so misrepresented (as it so often is by politicians, science writers, and general idiots) they get up in arms about these errors (as they should).

    This is not to say that scientists must do history or must learn about the origins of their disciplines--its more important in scientific training to teach them, well, how to do whatever science they are doing. But if they choose to use history, or they discuss it (especially in public) they should be held accountable, they shouldn't just repeat the fairy tale histories one finds in the 'moments in history' bubbles found in textbooks. And part of the blame surely lies in the hands of historians (of science and otherwise), who do to little to communicate their work and stand up to potted histories.

    What worries me is that maybe it's dangerous to teach real histories of science, given how important science is today and how poorly people understand it--perhaps it would serve only to confuse an already mystified populace with the complications and complexities of real scientific endeavor. I dunno--I hope that it might have a more salutary effect. Does that mean Dawkins et al shouldn't invoke Darwin for their cause? Well no, but if they do so on the basis of shoddy, incomplete, and inaccurate history, they should be called out on it.

    Or something. Lets follow that shoe guy instead of Darwin: