Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Triumph of Post-Modernism. Happy?

The Alt-Fact World

In the New Yorker (May 20, 2016) Adam Gopnik wrote in "The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump:"
"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,As, to be hated, needs but to be seen,”
the poet Alexander Pope wrote, in lines that were once, as they said back in the day, imprinted on the mind of every schoolboy. Pope continued,
“Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,we first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
Before those famous schoolroom lines, Pope made another observation, which was that even as you recognize that the world is a mixed-up place, you still can’t fool yourself about the difference between the acceptable and the unacceptable:
“Fools! who from hence into the notion fall, That vice or virtue there is none at all,” he wrote.“Is there no black or white?Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain;’Tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.”
The pain of not seeing that black is black soon enough will be ours, and the time to recognize this is now.
Unfortunately for Gopnick, the pain was already upon us, inflicted by a generation-long assault on the concepts of truth, objectivity and rationality. And it all seemed so terribly enlightened, as long as it was being used to advance the "right" ideas. It liberated us from the constraints of having to conform to science, logic, and reason. It allowed us to impugn reason as a way of maintaining white male hegemony.  It even made it possible to ignore moral constraints that were inconvenient. It only became dangerous when conservatives began appropriating its methodology and rhetoric.

The Central Fallacy of Philosophy

Theologian Ian Barbour (1966) described four approaches to science. Naive or traditional realism regarded theories as concrete realities: critical realism regarded theories as reflecting an external reality but as imperfect and subject to revision. Instrumentalism considered only the utility of theories in describing phenomena, so that theories could only be described as "valid" or "invalid," not "true" or "false." Idealism views theories as mental constructs, a school of thought we might now call "constructivist."

N.T. Wright nicely described critical realism: 
I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of "knowing" that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence "realism"), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence "critical").
Barbour's approach has been criticized by people who object to any attempt to put theology and science on any kind of level playing field. Nonetheless, I think (as did Barbour) that most scientists can be described as critical realists. We no longer regard electric fields as little vortices, nevertheless there's something around electrons or protons. It exists even if we're not aware of it or expecting it, as we see if we get entangled in a plastic bag, pull clothes out of the dryer or reach for a doorknob after walking across a carpet (or carelessly touch a computer chip). The fundamental principle is there's a reality out there. There's a knower and a thing known. It doesn't depend on our preferences, beliefs, cultural upbringing, or desire.

So how do we know what this reality is? How do we know if we've got it? How do we go about studying it? How do we deal with people who have a radically different view of reality, or indeed deny its existence altogether?

These are great and deep questions. They lead to fascinating discussions about how we can know the world, how we reason and evaluate evidence, and how much we can trust our perceptions. The one thing they do not do is give us any grounds for disbelieving in objective reality. The notion that questions of epistemology (how we know) have anything at all to tell us about reality itself, or whether it exists, is a grand non-sequitur. The fact that reality is difficult to know does not prove anything at all about whether reality exists; that's like saying that because the English Channel is hard to swim across, it might not exist. I call this The Fundamental Fallacy of Philosophy

On Constructing Your Own Reality

Here are a few excerpts on the notion that we all construct our own reality. Philosophers will no doubt object that some of them are not "serious." That's utterly irrelevant. Nobody cares what serious philosophers have to say, and in fact the "non-serious" nature of some of these excerpts is good, because these are the things that impact public consciousness. 

Kristen Fox,  Your own personal mass reality, 1998.

Note that this piece is almost twenty years old. Anyone who has never heard of any of the ideas expressed here has truly been living in a bubble. 
“Physical objects cannot exist unless they exist in a definite perspective and space continuum. But each individual creates his own space continuum… I want to tie this in with the differences you seem to see in one particular object. Each individual actually creates an entirely different object, which his own physical senses then perceive.” – The Seth Material by Jane Roberts p. 115
After I read this quote from the Seth Material, I started to examine what I believed I meant by the phrase “mass reality,” especially if each of us creates our own personal space continuum! Then, the following idea burst into my head: The division between personal reality and mass reality is as illusory as the division between ego and entity/oversoul. There is a division only as long as we choose to believe in it.
For the framework of this article, I define “mass reality” as the belief in a space continuum which exists objectively outside what we’d consider our own personal space continuum and would somehow seem to supercede (sic) our own choices, or personal reality. With this understanding, in “mass reality” a alternate set of beliefs holds true or there would be no point in distinguishing it from “personal” reality. Most often we’d think in terms of leaving our personal reality and interacting in “mass reality” when we go out in public or otherwise deal with “others.” And I define “mass EVENTS” as those events in physical reality in which we perceive ourselves as interacting with at least one “other” person.
When we believe in a mass reality outside of our own personal reality, we have CREATED that mass reality through belief. And yet, we are so used to thinking in these terms that we have difficulty looking at the concept of a “mass reality” as merely a BELIEF instead of REALITY. We each probably have “good reasons” for arguing either for or against the existence of “mass reality,” in which case we can ask ourselves why do we choose one or the other point of view? What would either maintaining or dissolving this division mean to us individually and emotionally?
Looking at this illusory division through the eyes of habitual creation, we are USED TO perceiving and interacting with others and ASSUME then that these others exist outside of ourselves. This is usually because we’ve associated ourselves solely with our singular physical focus for so long. And yet, when we interact with “others,” we are creating our physical experience of their ESSENCE in our own personal space continuum. Their essences DO exist independently, and yet the interaction and perception of them that we experience in physical reality are our creation of them in our own space continuums. We’ve drawn their essences to us and then create our own version of them to interact with.
This is a wonderful piece because it embodies so much of the "we create our own reality" philosophy. It's remarkable only in that it does it so explicitly and that it's still on line after almost two decades. 

The problem with debating a philosophy like this is it's so impervious to analysis and contradiction. "The division between personal reality and mass reality [exists] only as long as we choose to believe in it."

"When we interact with “others,” we are creating our physical experience of their ESSENCE in our own personal space continuum." does that mean that if someone is a misogynist, you can choose to experience him as an enlightened feminist instead? Somehow, I doubt it. And no, believers in creating your own reality will say that's not a valid argument because reasons. Like Riegler offers below.

Riegler, A. (2001) Towards a Radical Constructivist Understanding of Science
Foundations of Science 6 (1–3): 1–30.
Constructivism is the idea that we construct our own world rather than it being determined by an outside reality. Its most consistent form, Radical Constructivism (RC), claims that we cannot transcend our experiences. Thus it doesn’t make sense to say that our constructions gradually approach the structure of an external reality. 
"We construct our own world rather than it being determined by an outside reality." Could it possibly be clearer than that? Interestingly enough, George W. Bush didn't "construct his own world" when he said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. No, he lied. Because that was "determined by an outside reality." On the other hand, when Karl Rove said "when we act, we create our own reality," that wasn't at all like Radical Constructivism.
Radical Constructivism (RC) is the insight that we cannot transcend the horizon of our experiences. Experiences are all we can work with; out of experiences we construct our world. Thus, there are no mind-independent entities on which our cognition is based. This does not imply that Radical Constructivists deny the existence of such an objective world populated by mind-independent entities, the reality.
There are no mind-independent entities on which our cognition is based, but we're not denying an objective world exists. Whiskey...Tango...Foxtrot? The external world exists only in so far as it's expedient to the Radical Constructivist. Things crystallize into sharp objectivity when anyone tries to apply constructivism to legitimize anything the constructivist doesn't approve of.
Since the mind is operationally closed, i.e., semantically impenetrable, we cannot know any ‘external semantics’; thus we arrive at the Epistemological Corollary: Reality is neither rejected nor confirmed, it must be considered irrelevant
Give Rove his due. He, at least,  never said reality was irrelevant. But if you wonder where Rove came up with it, look to people like Riegler.
In neurophysiology, it is useless to search for neuron clusters whose activations correlate with external events in a stable referential manner. 
Oh, I don't know. Let me hook you up to an EEG and mash one of your fingers with a hammer. I bet we'd see "neuron clusters whose activations correlate with external events." Actually, neuroscientists hook people up to EEG's all the time to observe "neuron clusters whose activations correlate with external events in a stable referential manner."
Such insights also have impacts on communication and language. (a) Meaning is a human construct. It does not reside somewhere else and is not independent of the person who makes it.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
(b) Meaning cannot be transmitted as an entity. It is not in the words, gestures, symbols with which we express ourselves. 
The operational closure results also in a Methodological Corollary: Explanations are necessarily circular since there is no outside point of reference 5. Experience is thus a form of self reference 6. “Cognition serves the subject’s organization of the experimental world, not the discovery of an objective reality”,
Appealing to reality as the ultimate arbiter of (scientific) disputes gives rise to the belief that there exists a mind-independent reality (MIR) which defines what is true and what is not. What is the sense of clinging to such a concept which is the metaphysical extrapolation of our experiences (or observations)? Clearly, many psychological and social reasons can be put forward to account for this way of reasoning, among which we can find:
  • (R1) Claiming authority by referring to an external truth makes one’s own point of view unassailable (Mitterer 1994).
  • (R2) Justifying research expenses, as the true description of reality “…is what we are working for and what we spend the taxpayers’ money for” (Weinberg 1998).
  • (R3) In more general terms, claims of objectivity are for the purpose of forcing others to do what they would not otherwise do themselves (Maturana 1988).
  • (R4) Finally, realism is equated with seriousness and rationality. 
I just loves me a good conspiracy theory. People believe in realism only for ulterior motives like making one's point of view unassailable, justifying funding, coercing others and asserting authority. Just remember all the scientific controversies where realistic points of view proved eminently assailable, precisely because they were realistic.

Here's a personal scientific experience. I once tried to write a computer program to model phase diagrams, diagrams that show what happens when a mixture of different materials crystallizes from the liquid state. Most books present these as a series of rules. I found that trying to program the rules was impossible.

Then I had my epiphany. I'd simply model the evolution of the mixture itself, and just plot it on the diagram. Not only was that much simpler to program, It revealed all sorts of things I hadn't noticed before. I began teaching the subject from that perspective (

So when I looked at the problem from an instrumentalist or constructivist perspective (it was all about what happened on the diagram), I got nowhere. Once I approached it from a realist perspective (there was a real molten mixture in a real system), it all came together.
From a RC perspective the purpose of science is not to seek for truth or to map out ‘reality’.There is no justification for an exclusive claim of objectivity. 
Critics of RC often conclude that because knowledge is constructed, the mind is in principle free to construct anything it wants. We must not forget that constructions are historical assemblies. The historical aspect imposes a hierarchical organization in which more recent additions build on older ones. Such a hierarchy causes mutual dependencies and thus canalization among its components. It severely restricts the degrees of freedom in the way constructions can be accomplished, as described by the Limitations of Construction Postulate. Therefore, the constructions of the mind cannot be arbitrary.
The crucial point is that observation can only be understood as invariants of these cognitive measuring devices. Therefore, they are strictly human-specific, and do not represent independent ontological elements of an outside reality. The notion of truth can no longer be used as a criterion to evaluate physical theories. Instead theory-building must seek for consistency. This leads to the RC-typical circularity as mentioned above. Furthermore, the fact that different set of cognitive operators brings forth a different cognitive phenotype makes it virtually impossible to communicate with beings equipped with that alternative operators. However, such beings do not necessarily have a less consistent or efficient world-view. 
Except, of course, when those alternative operators cause them to conclude, say, that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or homosexuality is a danger to society. Those are "false facts." 
Finally I want to point at an important issue which I call the Limitations of Construction Postulate. One of the most frequent arguments against constructivism consists of a mere question such as “Surely, you still believe that when the door is closed you cannot walk through it don’t you?”. It seems that an adverb inevitably sneaks in: Constructing our own world is equated with arbitrarily constructing our own world. However, RC is far from confusing both versions. Experiences are made subsequently. As such, they are connected with each other in a historical manner and form a network of hierarchical interdependencies. 
Perhaps the most offensive feature of this word hash is the use of "Postulate" to create a pretense of rigor. A postulate, in mathematics, is something like "Vertical angles are equal" (If two lines cross, the angles opposite the intersection are equal) That's a statement that can be used to derive or prove other facts, and it's justified because you can superimpose any two vertical angles and see that they are congruent. The truth of the postulate is demonstrated by external reality. The Limitations of Construction "Postulate," on the other hand, is "proven" by mere assertion. It says that RC doesn't mean you can't use RC to create arbitrary realities because you can't, because Riegel says so, and the believer in RC gets to decide what's "arbitrary." Of course, someone like David Duke or Donald Trump also has a hierarchy of interdependent experiences, but those somehow don't confer legitimacy on their worlds. Because that would be "arbitrary."

The problems with word salads like Fox's and Riegel's is they absolutely defy rational parsing. To be utterly crass about it, it's like trying to nail Jello to a tree. Their utterances, like Humpty Dumpty's, mean just what they choose them to mean.

Fake Facts

In 1999, Carroll Case wrote The Slaughter: An American Atrocity, alleging that over 1000 black soldiers had been massacred at Camp Dorn, Mississippi in 1943 and buried beneath what would later become a reservoir. The Army went to the unusual length of tracking the fates of every single soldier in the unit. Most of them ended up being sent to Siberia - actually the closest we could come to it - the Aleutians. They concluded that everyone could be accounted for and there had been no such atrocity.
"We had the whole area sealed off--it was like shooting fish in a barrel. We opened fire on everything that moved, shot into the barracks, shot them out of trees, where some of them were climbing, trying to hide. . . ."
So why would the Army conduct a mass murder on post, where it would be heard by everyone, probably seen by many and leave bullet-riddled and blood-splattered barracks to be fixed up by still more witnesses? Why not march the victims to a secluded area and massacre them out of sight? Or better yet, simply declare their training concluded and pack them off to the Aleutians? This has one of the classic earmarks of a crank conspiracy theory - a tendency to concoct Rube Goldberg mechanisms that any intelligent person could figure out how to accomplish better and more simply.

From "Camp Van Dorn massacre; Mississippi Massacre, or Myth? Army Tries to Put to Rest Allegations of 1943 Slaughter of Black Troops," By Roberto Suro and Michael A. Fletcher, Washington Post, Thursday, December 23, 1999; Page A04
Case (author of book) argues that the lack of any accounts by members of the unit shows that those the Army wanted killed were separated from those to be spared. As to the Army's reconstruction of personnel records for the more than 4,000 soldiers who served with 364th at Van Dorn, Case said, "I believe the records have been falsified."
Classic conspiracy thinking. Lack of evidence proves there was a conspiracy after all, and contrary evidence has been faked.
"This does not tell us anything about the actual history of blacks in America because there is no proof that it happened, but it does reveal something very interesting about the way people see that history," said John Sibley Butler, a professor of sociology and management at the University of Texas at Austin. "So many bad things happened to black soldiers during that time period that something like this supposed slaughter could have happened, and because of that, people can put aside the question of whether or not there is evidence and simply believe that it did happen," Butler said. 
How could you possibly ask for a more perfect rationalization for alt-facts? "So many bad things have happened as a result of government regulation that any horror story, even if demonstrably false, justifies believing in it."

Rationalism and Male Hegemony

Here are a couple of examples by women describing the radical feminist view of rationality.

Sabina Lovibond, "Feminism and the 'Crisis of Rationality'," New Left Review I/207, September-October 1994. 
There is a measure of consensus within feminist theory that rationalist values are in crisis—that the very arrival of women on the scene of intellectual activity necessitates a reappraisal of those values. [1] Sometimes the claim is that conventional scientific research procedure reflects an objectifying, control-seeking attitude to its subject-matter which can be regarded on psychological grounds as characteristically masculine; the large-scale entry of women into natural science could then be expected to lead to the development of a different, more empathetic and conservationist style of enquiry. [2] Sometimes there is an attempt to introduce new moral categories informed by feminist reflection on the shortcomings of ‘normal science’, such as Lorraine Code’s ‘epistemic responsibility’. [3] Sometimes however, and more iconoclastically, it is argued that reason is an inherently gendered concept—an element in a discursive system organized by the assumption of male superiority.
Noretta Koertge "On feminist critiques of science,"  Skeptical Inquirer, March-April 1995 v19 n2 p42(2)
As Daphne Patai and I interviewed faculty, students, and staff from Women's Studies programs for our book Professing Feminism, there emerged a complex picture of what we call "negative education" - a systematic undermining of the intellectual values of liberal education. And as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt have so impressively documented in Higher Superstition, it is the natural sciences that are under the heaviest fire. 
Young women are being alienated from science in many ways. One strategy is to try to redefine what counts as science. For example, instead of teaching about the struggles - and triumphs - of great women scientists, such as Emmy Noether, Marie and Irene Curie, and Kathleen Lonsdale, feminist accounts of the history of science now emphasize the contributions of midwives and the allegedly forgotten healing arts of herbalists and witches. More serious are the direct attempts to steer women away from the study of science. Thus, instead of exhorting young women to prepare themselves for a variety of technical subjects by studying science, logic, and mathematics, Women's Studies students are now being taught that logic is a tool of domination and that quantitative reasoning is incompatible with a humanistic appreciation of the qualitative aspects of the phenomenological world.
One suspects that the problem in the eyes of some feminists, as in the case of other anti-rationalists, is that reason is the last obstacle to a world of total solipsism. 

Narcissism and the Exploitation of Non-Western Philosophy

From "The Revolution That Didn’t Happen," Victor Stenger,  Huffington Post, July 18 2014, Updated September 17, 2014.
I disagree. In fact, no small portion of the blame for the excessive self-absorption that has characterized America for all this time lies at the feet of the proponents of the new mysticism. Anyone listening to New Age gurus, such as Zukav and Deepak Chopra, and modern megachurch Christian preachers, cannot miss the emphasis on the individual finding easy gratification, rather than sacrificing and selflessly laboring for a better world.
Holistic philosophy is the perfect delusion for the spoiled brat of any age who, all decked out in the latest fashion, loves to talk about solving the problems of the world but has no intention of sweating a drop in achieving this noble goal.
Reductionist classical physics did not make people egoists. People were egoists long before reductionist classical physics. In fact, classical physics has nothing to say about humans except that they are material objects like rocks and trees, made of nothing more than the same atoms—just more cleverly arranged by the impersonal forces of self-organization and evolution. This is hardly a philosophical basis for narcissism.
The new quantum holism, on the other hand, encourages our delusions of personal importance. It tells us that we are part of an immortal cosmic mind with the power to perform miracles and, as Chopra has said, to make our own reality. Who needs God when we, ourselves, are God? Thoughts of our participation in cosmic consciousness inflate our egos to the point where we can ignore our shortcomings and even forget our mortality.
The modern versions of traditional religions feed on this desire. Where once Christian preachers shouted hell-fire and brimstone from the pulpit, their successors in the very same sects now present the soothing message that we are all perfect, worthy, and destined for infinite happiness. The only sacrifice required is a regular check. Then Jesus will provide all.
The rising number who identify themselves as “not religious but spiritual” have not found the new Christianity either sensible or congenial. Unfortunately the new spirituality they find in quantum mysticism is just as much of a con game.
Mystical physics is a grossly misapplied version of ancient Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, which were based on the notion that only by the complete rejection of self can one find inner peace in this world of suffering and hopelessness. However, you won’t find selflessness in these religions as they are practiced in America today. I once attended a Buddhist meditation class in Boulder, which is a center for that sort of thing (Capra’s book was published in Boulder). The first thing we did was sit around in a circle and talk about ourselves. Needless to say, the meditation did not help me get rid of my own self-centeredness—and this wasn’t the only time I tried it.
Capra and his colleagues say they are putting a modern face on ancient Eastern philosophy. I say they are covering a noble edifice with graffiti. Where they see similarities between the new and the old mysticisms, I see only contrasts. Where they promote the new mythology as an antidote for self-absorption, I assert that they are manufacturing a drug that induces it. And while they blame rational science for the ills of the world, I hold rational science as a source of genuine hope for reducing the severity of this latest addiction, if only we and our successors have the wisdom to use it properly.

Bad Astronomy. Really Bad Astronomy

Flat earth believers are mostly considered a joke, but there's also a geocentrist movement, mostly consisting of uber-Catholics who assert the Church was right and Galileo was wrong. [1] Phil Plait examined the movement on his "Bad Astronomy" blog: "Geocentrism? Seriously." (September 14, 2010)

In this post, he makes the following utterly appalling statements:
I have two things to say that might surprise you: first, geocentrism is a valid frame of reference, and second, heliocentrism is not any more or less correct.
When a "scientist" isn't willing to defend the truth of heliocentric astronomy," he should just get out of science and open a slot for someone who does take science seriously. Because those two statements are objectively scientifically illiterate.

First, "geocentrism is a valid frame of reference." Well, if you're thinking in terms of the rising and setting of the sun, it may be more useful - if you disregard literally everything else in the universe. It's useful in the sense that you can ignore the speed of sound in firing a pistol to start a race, a fiction that applies to nothing else. But if something is more than about 4 billion kilometers away, it would be moving at the speed of light.[2] All the outer planets are moving fast enough for relativistic length contraction to be obvious. Pluto and the New Horizons spacecraft are moving faster than light. So geocentrism violates fundamental laws of physics. The evidence for distant objects moving faster than light is.... [crickets].

Okay, got it. You don't believe in relativity. So check this. Connect a bowling ball and a softball to opposite ends of a rod. Now spin the rod. It will spin around the center of mass. Watch the hammer throw in the Olympics or an ice skater pirouetting with his partner to see the same effect. Yet the earth has the moon and all the mass in the universe spinning around it, but doesn't move. Alone of all material objects in the universe, the earth doesn't obey conservation of angular momentum. Needless to say, observational evidence for such a claim is completely absent.

So we don't need to appeal to parsimony or Occam's Razor, we can dismiss geocentrism because it flatly violates the laws of physics. Needless to say, "heliocentrism is not any more or less correct" is simply ridiculous. Heliocentrism is more correct.

Then, amazingly, Plait concludes with
But the Universe doesn’t care how strongly you believe in something. If it ain’t right, it ain’t right. Geocentrism ain’t right. No matter how much spin you put on it.
Feel free to spend a few minutes gaping like a goldfish. If geocentrism "ain't right," then how in the world can it be a "valid" frame of reference and "no more or less correct than heliocentrism?" Once again we have "reality means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

So when Plait took aim at climate denialists on March 28, 2017, I replied:
Question: who wrote this? "geocentrism is a valid frame of reference, and second, heliocentrism is not any more or less correct."
Answer, YOU did, on September 14, 2010
If you're not even willing to defend the truth of heliocentric astronomy, what gives you any right to criticize climate denialists?
For years we've been awash in a sea of pseudo-intellectual rubbish: Science doesn't find truth, we all construct our own reality, science is a social construct. Now the right has picked it up. This is a wholly foreseeable result. Some people who foresaw it include Paul R. Gross, and  Norman Levitt: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science;  Alan Sokal, and Jean Bricmont: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science; and Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, and Martin W. Lewis: The Flight from Science and Reason. People have been sounding warnings for twenty years.
[1] In a weird sort of way, the geocentrists are right. Galileo is where it all went wrong. Specifically, it's where the Church went wrong. It could have stood up for intellectual honesty, instead it retreated into an ultimately futile attempt to defend authority by decree, using ever more sophistic and specious methods. 

[2] The apparent rotational velocity of the sky is w = 2 pi/86400 radians per second = 0.0000727 radians per second. At a distance r, the velocity of an object is v = wr. So where would v = c?  We have  r *0.0000727 =  300,000 (units in kilometers/sec). Thus r = 300,000/0.0000727 = 4.126 billion kilometers.


Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt:  Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science; JHU Press, 2011

Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont: Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science; Macmillan, 1999

Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, Martin W. Lewis, editors:  The Flight from Science and Reason; New York Academy of Sciences, 1996

Koertge, Noretta, ed. A house built on sand: Exposing postmodernist myths about science. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Boghossian, Paul. Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and constructivism. Clarendon Press, 2007.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

On Being "Wrong" in Science

"Darwin has been proven wrong by recent research"

From a recent exchange with someone who took issue with me saying that conservatives could forget about ever being taken seriously as intellectuals as long as they were allied with creationists:
Again, I think you’re just out of touch with the latest developments in genetic study. Here’s a great overview, Why everything you've been told about evolution is wrong At this point, it is silly to defend Darwin as the absolute authority on evolution…he has been disproved and it is time to look into other more convincing explanations. See, also
  •  From Time magazine, an excellent piece on epigenetics: bit-ly/5Kyj5q
  • The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told about Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong, by David Shenk, is published by Doubleday.
  • What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini is published by Profile.
  • For more on "horizontal evolution" see New Scientist: bit-ly/4zzAsr
  • Also from New Scientist, more on the role of viruses in evolution: bit-ly/bD4NLC
Now, genetics isn't my specialty so I don't read the scientific journals in the field. But I am "in touch" enough to know the difference between real genetics journals and popular outlets like New Scientist. To do this guy credit, he didn't cite some of the real junk out there, like Answers in Genesis or TalkOrigins. These are at least semi-reputable. But this is akin to the guy who reads "I am Joe's Hangnail" in the Reader's Digest and thinks he's qualified to go toe to toe with a doctor.

He's talking about research that indicates that traits may be influenced by more than simple inheritance. Chickens placed in a stressful environment had offspring that behaved differently under stress than non-stressed chickens. Apparently stress triggered a change in the way genes are expressed and that response was passed along. Viruses play a role in modifying genes, especially in micro-organisms, and it's known that microorganisms can "catch" drug resistance from other species.

So how does this make Darwin "wrong?" Genes weren't even known in Darwin's day, so how can any discoveries in genetics make him "wrong?"

Here's Darwinian evolution in capsule form.
  1. More organisms are born than can possibly survive.
  2. Individual organisms show variations
  3. Some variations are more beneficial than others
  4. Organisms with beneficial traits have a greater likelihood of surviving and mating compared to those with disadvantageous traits.
Which of these points is overturned by the recent research on "epigenetics?" Answer: NoneLets look at them in turn:
  1. More organisms are born than can possibly survive. Well, you can do the math with say, flies. If one pair of flies lays 100 eggs and they grow to maturity in a couple of weeks and mate and lay more eggs, the numbers within a couple of months get absurd. Or go to your local animal shelter and get a lecture on spaying and neutering.
  2. Individual organisms show variations. Look at a litter of kittens or puppies if you have any doubts. And we're not saying anything about how the variations arose. So they occur by a virus inserting new DNA. So what? They're still variations. 
  3. Some variations are more beneficial than others. We have two small dogs, one about 50% bigger than the other. They're litter mates. The small one was the runt. She also has a heart murmur and a narrowed trachea. Those are not beneficial variations.
  4. Organisms with beneficial traits have a greater likelihood of surviving and mating compared to those with disadvantageous traits. Our little runt dog would definitely be at a disadvantage in the wild. Even in a protected setting, she may not live as long as her sister. Both, since we're responsible pet owners, have a zero per cent chance of mating.
These are all common sense observations. Nothing in genetics has the slightest effect on their validity.

"Quantum Mechanics and Relativity have disproved Newton"

Newton didn't anticipate that odd things happen close to the speed of light. So if you apply Newton's formulas to things moving at close to the speed of light, you'll be wrong.

How wrong? The formula for the energy of something in relativity is E = mc2/sqrt(1- v2/c2). So as v approaches c, the square root term gets closer to zero and energy gets closer to infinity. This is one of the reasons you can't travel at the speed of light?

But what happens if v is, say, 100 km/hour? Everyday speeds. What happens then? Well, you can also write that 1/sqrt(1- v2/c2) part as a series of terms. You get (1 - (1/2)v2/c2 + (3/8)v4/c4 + .....). If v is 300 km/sec, way faster than any macroscopic object we have ever launched, then v/c = .001, and v2/c2 is .000001 and  v4/c4  is .000000000001. This is a common tactic in mathematics and especially calculus. If higher terms are extremely tiny, we can just ignore them.

So we have E =  mc2(1 - (1/2)v2/c2) and E = mc2 +  (1/2)mv2. That E = mc2 part is the formula for converting mass to energy. This is the part that Newton didn't know about, but since we never see it in everyday life, it doesn't matter. The only time you ever see it is when you flip on a light switch and your power comes from the local nuclear plant, or when you bask in the sun or look at the stars. If you ever see it any other way, you are going to have an extremely bad day.

The other part, (1/2)mv2, is just the Newtonian formula for kinetic energy. So, far from disproving Newton, relativity gives the same results.

Okay, what about quantum mechanics? Newtonian physics doesn't apply at the atomic scale, which Newton didn't know because he was quite a bit bigger than an atom. He also moved a lot slower than light, which is why he didn't know about relativity. In fact, it was trying to come up with a Newtonian picture of atoms, and failing, that led physicists to quantum mechanics at all.

The first clue was that electrons can orbit the atom at all. Normally, if you force electrons to travel a curving path, they'll emit radiation and lose energy. Electrons should quickly spiral into the nucleus. Physicists were forced to assume that, for some reason, electrons didn't obey that law. Then it turned out that the electron energies could only have certain values. They were "quantized."

Physics was a victim of its own success, because modeling a hydrogen atom as a tiny solar system was so successful it created an image that still misleads everyone. But attempts to build more elaborate models with more complex atoms simply failed. At least the weird nomenclature of quarks, with flavor, color and charm, don't carry too much risk of people assuming quarks really taste like chocolate, are blue, or flirt.

Most of the weirdness in quantum mechanics involves the fact that matter isn't anything familiar. Are electrons waves, or particles? Yes. There are times, like an old-time TV tube, where it makes sense to treat them as particles. There are other times, like electron microscopes, where it makes sense to treat them as waves. The reality is that they're something for which we have no analogs at our scale of existence.

That means we can't apply particle-like definitions. We can't define both the position and momentum of a particle beyond a certain precision. Joke: a cop stops a physicist. "Do you know how fast you were going?" "No, but I know exactly where I am." We use analogies that create the impression that it's just our clumsiness that interferes, that when we measure position, we disturb the momentum of the particle. The reality is that matter is just inherently fuzzy at very tiny scales.

The worst misapplications of quantum mechanics come from the fact that often, the results of an experiment depend on how we set it up. If we set up an experiment that treats electrons as particles, we see particle behavior. If we set it up as if electrons are waves, we see wave behavior. This has led a lot of would-be mystics into a kind of quantum solipsism, where we determine reality by our expectations. There's only one problem with that. If our expectations determined the outcome of experiments we would never have discovered quantum mechanics at all. In fact, we'd probably be using the physics of Aristotle because we'd never have discovered anything that unexpectedly contradicted him.

What effect does quantum mechanics have on a baseball? The uncertainties in position and momentum are subatomic. The wavelength associated with something as massive as a baseball is beyond subatomic. In fact, there's a fundamental principle in quantum mechanics called the correspondence principle. When dealing with very large systems where Newtonian physics works, quantum mechanics must yield the same results. Not only does quantum mechanics not disprove Newton, it has to agree with him.

"Plate Tectonics shows that Wegener was Wrong"

In the case of Darwin and modern genetics, or Newton and modern physics, we have scientific ideas that were very rudimentary when first proposed and which were greatly elaborated by later discoveries. No doubt they both had some wrong ideas, but those were quickly corrected and are of historical interest only.

Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift had some important elements that were factually wrong and which his opponents used to attack his theory. The very name "continental drift" implies there's something special about the continents. I mean, we live on them so they must be important, right? He pictured the continents being driven by a force away from the poles, and as plowing through the earth's interior like ships in the sea. In fact he pictured mountains like the Andes as being a sort of "bow wave."

And those were just wrong. Even worse, they were demonstrably wrong even by the standards of the time. Seismology was already advanced enough to give us a good idea of the mechanical properties of the earth's interior and it turns out that the earth's mantle is far too strong to allow continents to push through it.

There was an American geologist, Frank Taylor, who also proposed something very much like continental drift at about the same time. And some of his interpretations actually look more modern than Wegener's. For example, here's how he pictured Greenland breaking away from North America.

The only words to describe this are "dead on target." Apart from calling Davis Strait a "rift valley" and Greenland a "horst" (upraised block), this is pretty much exactly how modern geologists interpret this region.

I have a copy of Taylor's paper, and I weep with frustration to think of it. He got almost 50 pages to explain his idea, whereas a modern geologist would be lucky to get half a dozen. And most likely the paper would be rejected as too "speculative." Taylor actually predated Wegener by a couple of years, and thought that Wegener had stolen some of his credit. Having compared both versions, I don't think so, and it strikes me as a bit like fighting over who gets to be captain of the back half of the Titanic, considering how much opposition the theory encountered. But there's no doubt about Taylor's insight.

So why does Wegener get more of the credit? He assembled more kinds of evidence, including the famous ice age and Gondwanaland fossil evidence, and presented a more global picture. 

Despite the problems with Wegener's mechanisms, the picture was compelling enough to keep a small minority of geologists fine-tuning the idea and keeping it alive. Finally after World War II, technology for sensing the ocean floor, much of it originally developed for anti-submarine warfare, became available. It turns out the continents do move, but only because the entire crust is moving. The crust is made of a dozen or so large slabs, called plates. All the active processes occur in the ocean basins. So Wegener had the big picture correct, but many of the smaller details wrong. 

Nowadays, thanks to GPS, we can actually see plate tectonics happening in real time.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Propertied Class is Way Bigger than you Think

In The Guardian (July 19, 2017), George Monbiot describes the impact of James McGill Buchanan, who has helped orchestrate a program to enable the political supremacy of the wealthy. Monbiot describes the roots of Buchanan's philosophy:
Buchanan was strongly influenced by both the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and the property supremacism of John C Calhoun, who argued in the first half of the 19th century that freedom consists of the absolute right to use your property (including your slaves) however you may wish; any institution that impinges on this right is an agent of oppression, exploiting men of property on behalf of the undeserving masses.
James Buchanan brought these influences together to create what he called public choice theory. He argued that a society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes were forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.
Any clash between “freedom” (allowing the rich to do as they wish) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. 
But these ideas aren't simply likely to appeal to the wealthy. They have appeal for anyone who owns property. In fact, they are more likely to appeal to people with little property, because any impact on their property rights is more keenly felt than would be the case for a large property owner. Tell Ted Turner he can't do something on his land and he'll just go somewhere else. Tell a farmer or small rancher the same thing and it may cripple his operations. The answer to the question, "what could ordinary homeowners possibly have in common with the 1% is simple; they both own property. So just how many people in the U.S. own property?

There's a word for these people: "bourgeoisie." Used nowadays in a manner roughly synonymous with "middle class," but the original French sense of including the middle and upper classes is actually more accurate because property owners tend to have values and interests in common. In those days the middle and upper classes were far smaller than the lower class. The bourgeoisie are held in deep contempt by Marxists, who see them as hogging all the resources and means of production, and by intellectuals, who see them as having tastes that are, well, bourgeois. (Or "philistine," a term that reveals the user's historical ignorance, since the Philistines were actually a lot more culturally advanced than the Israelites.) In Russia, many of them were kulaks, affluent peasants who were often summarily imprisoned or executed by the Bolsheviks. Because you can't become affluent if everyone is being oppressed, can you? Causes bad cognitive dissonance.

Understanding the notion of "bourgeoisie" goes a very long way toward answering the pesky question why so many less affluent voters "vote against their best interests." To many of them, preserving their property rights are their "best interests." Once people own property, however modest, they stop identifying with the proletariat and identify with other property owners. In fact, their allegiance is likely to be all the stronger simply because their foothold in the propertied class is so precarious.

So why don't they unite against the "real" enemy, the wealthy who pay skimpy wages? Because the wealthy are not direct threats. The actions of the wealthy might cause them to lose their property, but indirectly. A factory might close, jobs might be eliminated, but only rarely do the wealthy confiscate property directly. All the direct attacks on property rights come from the government. If a business takes a piece of property to expand a factory, the taking will be done by the government, not by the business. If a law is passed that undercuts property rights, it will be the government that does it. All the most direct threats to bourgeois property rights come from the government, frequently in the name of "social justice."

How Big is America's Propertied Class?

It is extremely difficult to find out just how many properties exist in the United States. In addition to individually owned properties, there are jointly owned properties, and corporate properties. The closest thing to an answer is the Census Bureau's tally of 75 million homeowners. Homes exclude factories, shopping malls, apartment buildings, warehouses, and restaurants. On the other hand, it is probably safe to assume that people who own those properties, or major interests in them, also own their own homes. Farms and ranches are likely to include homesteads as well. So people who own large properties are likely to be homeowners as well, and of course many people own homes but no other properties. For the purposes of estimating how many people identify with propertied interests, Archie Bunker's tiny lot in Queens counts just as much as Ted Turner, who owns 2 million acres, So that figure of 75 million is probably a decent first approximation.

The problem with low wages is that they amount to taking the only economic means of production an individual owns - his time - and failing to pay enough in return to buy the necessities of life. But there is a similar problem with liberal policies. These amount to seizing control of the only wealth that many people have - their property. Liberal restrictions on property rights limit the ability of property owners to use their property to maximum advantage, shunt the risks and costs of social policies (for example, providing handicapped access) onto property owners, endanger the future ability of property owners to get the best return on the sale of their property, and effectively, through property taxes, charge people rent for their own property. So when we ask why so many people "vote against their best interests," that question concentrates on issues like wages and benefits, but neglects attacks on their property. Fundamentally, it's an elitist question because it assumes that people don't know their own best interests.

An urban or suburban homeowner faces things like zoning restrictions, neighbor problems, and possible sanctions for not renting rooms equitably, but the real impact on property rights shows up in those sparsely populated flyover states that show up as bright red on electoral maps. Property owners may be a mile or more apart, but can find themselves in deep legal trouble if they build over a slushy patch of ground ("wetland") or disturb an endangered animal or plant. Their ability to control pests or harvest timber is limited. Not surprisingly, there is strong sympathy in many of these areas for a strong interpretation of the Fifth Amendment's requirement that the Government compensate property owners for property "taken" for public use.

If you tell Ted Turner he can't do something on a part of his land, he might just shrug and go someplace else. If he does decide to push back, he'll farm the task out to his attorneys and pay the bills out of petty cash. If you make the same demand on a small farmer or rancher, the impact on his property rights is far greater and his financial ability to fight back is far less. Opponents of a strong "takings" interpretation point out that such an interpretation was never held by the courts. That may be true, but it misses the point that, had any of today's restrictions on property rights been enacted and challenged in the 19th century, they'd have been thrown out of court without a second glance as violations of state sovereignty.

To the small suburban or urban property owner, one danger stands out above all others: crime. All  the Marxist fever dreams of uniting the marginalized under one grand proletarian red banner crash headlong into the simple fact that many of the most direct threats to property security for small property owners come from sociopathic individuals. As long as liberals insist on defending criminals as "oppressed" or "disadvantaged," they will be class enemies of property owners, and it won't matter how appealing their platform of health care or family leave is.

Well then, who will speak for criminals? How about nobody?


George Monbiot; A despot in disguise: one man’s mission to rip up democracy, The Guardian (July 19, 2017).

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Flipping Russia

When the school bell rang, we knew what to do. File out into the hallway, crouch down, head to the wall, and wait for the all clear. It was the Cold War and we were preparing for a nuclear attack. Our century old brick building would probably not have fared well against a modest nuke to downtown Bangor, Maine (or "Bangah"), but the real strategic target was Dow Air Force Base on the outskirts of town just three miles away. A large thermonuclear strike there would probably have swept our school away. Dow Air Force Base is long closed, leaving as a legacy an 11,000 foot runway that can handle literally anything that flies. It was even designated an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. Bangor International Airport does quite nicely as a stopover and refueling point for trans-Atlantic aviation, as well as an emergency airport when Boston and New York are choked up.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for selling secrets to Russia (but not for treason, which is very narrowly defined under the Constitution and very rarely invoked. Espionage, on the other hand, can land you in a world of hurt.) Hollywood was in dire danger of being subverted by Communist propaganda. Russia was pictured as infiltrating America on every front, undermining traditional values with rock'n'roll, comic books, left-leaning movies, sex and liberal college professors.

Now Donald Trump is a fan of Vladimir Putin and conservatives seem scarcely perturbed at the possibility that Russia tried to influence the 2016 Presidential election. Admittedly, Russia's efforts were mostly aimed at people already favorably disposed toward Trump and against Clinton, making the propaganda mission as hard as selling vodka in Siberia in the winter. But how is it that conservatives went from utter loathing of Russia in the 1950's to acceptance, and even seeing them as allies, 60 years later?

Why not Communism?

First and foremost, Communism was a threat to private property and social order. In the late 19th Century it was abhorred for its calls for worker control of industry. After the Bolshevik Revolution, with its wholesale purges of the wealthy and middle class, Communism's place as a mortal threat to Western society was secured. The fact that Communism styled itself as "socialist" contributed to widespread conflation of the two, aided in no small part by the craven failure of socialists to reject Communism's appropriation of their name. For every modern liberal who objects when conservatives equate socialism and communism, you had your chance to object every time the Soviet Union called itself "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."

Communism's attempt to unite workers and marginalized groups was part of the threat. They also sought to champion minority groups. The threat level of that effort is best gauged by the darkly humorous story of the abortive Soviet film "Black and White" [1] whose climactic scene had hordes of white factory workers descending from the North to aid oppressed Southern black workers. It betrayed a level of understanding of American racial politics that can best be described as "unhinged."

The view of property widely held at the time was that freedom implied absolute liberty to use private property without restrictions. So labor unions were seen as criminal conspiracies to usurp control of private property, and socialism and communism, as broad political movements, were even worse. To a political theorist there are important differences between socialism and communism. To someone who sees them as assaults on absolute private property, the differences are merely pedantic. They amount to the difference between being robbed by a suave highwayman with a cape and rapier, versus being bludgeoned in a dark alley. And if you're on the losing end, it makes little difference whether Robin Hood gives to the poor, or spends it on drugs and hookers.

Almost equally important was Communism's assault on religion. Pre-Bolshevik communism was hostile to religion, seeing it as a diversion from secular social activism, but under Bolshevism, churches were closed and clergy imprisoned or executed. The Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to function, politically neutered and muzzled. Religion wasn't banned outright - it would take Enver Hoxha's lunatic regime in Albania to do that - but it was ostracized and subject to discrimination. Cardinal J√≥zsef Mindszenty of Hungary became a symbol of Communist oppression of religion during his imprisonment and later asylum in the U.S. Embassy. Mindszenty achieved the impressive feat of being imprisoned by both fascists and Communists.

But probably the most sinister threat from Communism was its pervasive secret police and informant apparatus. Merely keeping silent about Communism wasn't sufficient; it was a crime to fail to inform on others who criticized it. Ultimately the version of Marxism practiced in the USSR was one of the grandest crackpot conspiracy theories ever put into action. Having assured themselves that history followed invariable deterministic paths, Marxist theorists felt wholly justified in silencing all meaningful criticism. Like fundamentalists, the fact that an idea conflicted with the accepted view made it ipso facto wrong. No doubt Josef Stalin was happy to have intellectuals who might otherwise cause trouble frittering away their energies on trivial debates about Marxist minutiae, "mental masturbation" of the purest sort. (In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn relates the tale of one Party secretary who was arrested by the KGB while typing up the minutes for the most recent Party meeting. She was so preoccupied with transcribing pointless bickering over policy that the KGB men finally had to tell her to go say goodbye to her children. I had one acquaintance who visited Russia frequently and who was convinced that much of the endless round of Party meetings and other political activities served the very prosaic end of keeping the populace sleep-deprived.)

Mikhail Gorbachev, a former KGB officer, was in a position to know just how serious the decay had become and attempted to launch reforms through his "perestroika" (rebuilding) program. But events followed the all too familiar pattern of Russian history where reforms were delayed too long for fear of losing control, and when the pressure became overwhelming, events spiraled out of control and control was lost anyway. (Russian wags dubbed the aftermath of Gorbachev's reforms "perestrelka" - crossfire.)

From Communism to Kleptocracy

In theory, Communism should have been a class-less society free of crime. So where did Russian organized crime come from? While there is a huge amount of material on the growth of Russian organized crime since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, organized crime did not appear suddenly like mushrooms after a rain, and there is much less on the history of organized crime under theoretically clean and honest Marxism. It seems certain that organized crime must have been far more pervasive than anyone suspected during the Soviet era, and the Russian security apparatus must have been deeply involved. The KGB could have shielded criminals from prosecution in return for bribes, or quite possibly employed them for other -services.

One interesting summary [2] says:
Russia's historical cycle runs roughly as follows: Catastrophe strikes the centralized state and the social order is shattered; a "white rider" comes along to pick up the pieces and restore power to the state, only to come up short and yield to a "dark rider" willing to do whatever is necessary regardless of moral implications; and an era of decline follows until the next catastrophe strikes and the cycle begins anew. 
Organized crime is just as beholden to Russia's historical cycle, with its power inversely related to the power of the state. When the Russian state is in a crisis, organized crime spreads and becomes the functioning arbiter of state affairs. Once power is restored to the state, organized crime never fully disappears but recedes into the background, usually cooperating to some degree with the state, until another catastrophe hits and allows it to expand again.
The analysts point out that one seminal event was Stalin's death and the abrupt release of millions of prisoners from the Soviet Gulag. While many of these were hapless political dissidents or people sentenced on the flimsiest of pretexts, many others were criminals. Since criminals were essentially allowed free rein over the camps [3] the Gulag served as a finishing school for Russian crime. Russian criminals dominated the black market (the only free market), set up supply chains to bring smuggled goodies into Russia, which they made available to favored Party officials in return for protection. Other criminal affiliates gained political office to shield the mob from prosecution and to advance their own enterprises.

The collapse of the Soviet Union not only created a vacuum for criminals to exploit, it left a lot of KGB agents and police without paychecks. Many of them either joined the mob or shielded it from prosecution. Many other highly educated Russians joined the mob because of the almost nonexistent prospects for prosperity, let alone advancement, in the impoverished Russia of the 1990's.

The Right Flips for Russia

For some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was, and continues to be, a school of thought that holds that the end of Communism was a fake, engineered to lull the West into a false sense of security. It attributes to Russia the typical suite of super-villain powers common to fringe conspiracy thinkers: the ability to engineer a vast coordinated plan with no leaks whatsoever, the deliberate unleashing of forces otherwise deadly to the conspiracy, which the conspiracy will seamlessly co-opt and roll back, again with no leaks whatsoever. It's like arguing that the Civil Rights Movement was really a secret plan by the KKK to fool blacks into thinking they had rights, while the KKK hid in its secret volcano lair engineering a secret resurgence of white rule. Keep an eye on your white Persian cats.

Nevertheless, a little study of Russian history reveals long-term themes in Russian strategy that are unlikely to disappear for good:
  • Russia will continue to see itself as the "Third Rome," the bulwark of righteousness against the corrupt and decadent West.
  • Russia will continue to see itself as hegemon and protector of the Slavs.
  • Russia will continue to try to assert control over Central Asia,
  • Meaning that Russia will try to rebuild the Soviet Union either in fact, or de facto by means of alliances, puppet regimes, and control behind the scenes.
  • Russia will seek to secure its approaches. It will covet the Baltic States in particular, maybe a bit more of Finland.
  • That dream of warm-water access will not go away. 
These are Russian goals, not Communist, Orthodox, democratic, or tsarist. Russia will aspire to them regardless of who, or what system, is in power.

Once Russia abandoned its overt war on private property and religion, it became effectively a right-wing dictatorship. It's a sign of how completely hollow Marxism had become in Russia that there was almost no meaningful Marxist protest over the abandonment of two central Marxist ideals. But once Russia launched its privatization programs (doesn't it make you wonder where people in an egalitarian and classless society got all the money to buy large State businesses?) and opened up to religion, it became far more palatable to the American Right.

Tsar Peter the Great neutered the Church in Russia by refusing to name a successor to the Patriarch when he died in 1700. The post remained vacant for two decades and was finally replaced by a Synod. The tsar had the power to appoint bishops.  Ironically, the post of Patriarch was re-established after the Bolshevik Revolution, though religion was almost exterminated under Bolshevik rule.  But effectively, the Church in Russia is subservient to the State. American religious conservatives are aghast at the idea of the Church being subservient to the State on liberal issues, but are perfectly comfortable with Church and State working hand in glove to advance conservative issues, like restricting abortion and gay rights. So the relationship between the Russian Church and the government, where the Church takes a strong line on traditional morality but stays out of social morality, is not especially different from the role of Church and State in, say, Texas or North Carolina. Meanwhile the Russian government either actively or passively permits the persecution of gays.

So Russia has morphed into a kleptocracy where every State function is up for bid, and religion is a tame and toothless tiger that growls about personal morality but is silent on social and governmental morality. What's not to like?


  1. Jack El-Hai, "Black And White And Red;" American Heritage, 1991, Volume 42, Issue 3.
  2. Stratfor Worldview; "Organized Crime in Russia; April 16, 2008.
  3. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn; The Gulag Archipelago. ISBN  0-06-013914-5