Leviathan & Aphrodite: energy diversification a big and beautiful thing for Europe… if it can become more than just the stuff of myth

By Isaac Binkovitz

In 2010 one of the largest natural gas fields to have been found in recent years was discovered off the coast of Israel. Naturally, they called it Leviathan, after the massive Biblical sea monster (used in Modern hebrew to refer to a whale). In 2011 Cyprus got in on the fun, with the discovery of its own massive natural gas field. It was a beautiful thing; they called it Aphrodite.

A modern Argo? But which way to the Golden Fleece?
A modern Argo? But which way to the Golden Fleece?

The fields, spanning Israeli and Cypriot territorial waters, may be warming historically frosty relations between Greece/Cyprus and Israel (increasingly distant from its historic ally Anakara, now under the sway of Erdogan’s pan-Islamist/neo-Ottomanist vision).

But for this gas to reach fuel-hungry European markets, the emerging Hellenic-Hebrew energy triangle will need Turkish cooperation in transportation. And, as with most things in this part of the world, that’s messy politics. But, with the looming threat of Russian natural gas geopolitcs, the EU is as interested as ever in resolving the Cypriot conflict, and bridging the Greek/Cypriot-Turkish and Israeli-Turkish diplomatic divides.

But it is unclear any of the four-and-half near eastern republics involved share that interest. Cyprus is exploring building an LNG facility to allow it to ship gas out by boat, and avoid the need to deal with Ankara, or North Nicosia for that matter. Cyprus is also exploring the option of building a pipeline from Israel through Cyprus directly to Greece, bypassing Turkey entirely. Both of these solutions threaten the financial viability of the project, and push back the date the region’s gas could hit the European markets.

Israel, regionally isolated and eager for a moderate Muslim ally in its neighborhood, has long been an ally of Turkey. Initially, this was part of its so-called “periphery policy.” The periphery policy was Israel’s response to the united Arab nationalist opposition it faced. As essentially neo-fascist Arab nationalism swept the region, steam rolling local cultures and expelling or oppressing minorities, the non-Arab states around the fringe of this region started to become nervous. In this environment, Israel cultivated allies in Kemalist Turkey, the Shah’s Iran, and in Ethiopia.

(Incidentally, this follows the general simplified rule that neighboring countries will often be rivals, while a rival’s neighbor on the far side is a friend; France and Poland versus Germany, for example.)

Over the years, Israel provided military technologies to Turkey, and supported its integration into western security frameworks. This coincided with a period of Greek populism and hostility to Israel. Turkey was by far the more powerful of the two, and was generally more amenable to an Israeli alliance.

The election of the AKP’s Erdogan marked a shift in relations with Israel. At first the shift was subtle. But in the fallout of the Mavi Marmara raid, and the rise of regular anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement in Turkish media, Erdogan has indicated that Israel is no longer an ally.

Despite this, Turkey’s military and intelligence establishment maintains ties to Israel. Erdogan has attempted to destroy this so-called deep state with a staggering number of trials of individuals, and large groups accused of conspiring against the government. Media coverage of these trials has been heavily restricted and censored. It remains to be seen if his effort to route the Kemalist “deep state” has been a success. It increasingly looks that Erdogan, now facing large protests at home (which he blames on “the Jews”), will not remain in power long enough to ensure that his AKP’s soft islamist program fills the post-kemalist space.

At any rate, Israel, for its part has been slow to apologize for any part of the Mavi Mamara raid, and has been returning the cold shoulder to Ankara. Only recently has it agreed to pay compensation for the botched raid. In the meantime, Israel has been wooing Greece and Cyprus, as Turkish relations remain icy. Greece had been somewhat hostile to Israel for decades. In the 1990’s it pursued normalized but distant relations with Israel. But now Israel is offering hard assistance to Greece and Cyprus as they tighten up their naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean in response to Turkish threats to use naval force to prevent drilling for natural gas in the region.

Israel, Greece, and Cyprus have been conducting joint military exercises in the region, and exchanging vows to open trade and promote tourism –Cyprus is already a favorite Israeli getaway, especially for those seeking to circumvent Israel’s primitive and pre-modern marriage laws (a subject for another time).

This is all well and good. Christian and democratic Greece and Cyprus may be better suited for an alliance with Israel than the post-Kemalist Muslim “democratic” Turkey (ignore for a moment the comparatively high levels of antisemitism in Greek society, and the long history of bad blood between Jews and Greeks continuously since they first met in antiquity). Cyprus is close to Israel, and Greece, with its many islands provides many outposts for military exercises in the area. Plus Greece is a member of NATO, and both Hellenic states are EU members, unlike Turkey, which is just a member of NATO but not the EU. Relations with Greece and Cyprus provide Israel a degree of mainstream legitimacy it generally lacks in Europe.

But can Greek military assets really compare to Turkey’s? The honest answer is no. That is why the Israeli security establishment has been pushing Netanyahu to reconcile with Turkey. So far it has not been all that successful. But the establishment in both states sees the facts, and wants to restore the alliance.

So was the Hellenic-Hebrew alliance nothing more than a myth? No. Reconciliation with Turkey need not spell the end of Israel’s Hellenic dalliances. On the contrary, Greece and Cyprus cannot simply avoid talking to Ankara either. Nor are they capable of facing down the Turkish military should tensions flare. The current show of unity between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel is more likely put on to demonstrate to Ankara that these states have options without Turkey. Turkey can’t go it alone in its region (with Arab instability to the south, the ongoing Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, Kurdish resistance in its east, and a neo-imperial Russia in the Black Sea). The Turkish establishment knows this, and will seek to resolve whatever security challenges it can.

That’s what Aphrodite and Leviathan make clear: they offer a big a beautiful thing. But to be more than just myth, the near eastern states need to sit down and work out at least some of the major difference among them and pursue greater regional integration in security, trade, and energy, among other sectors.

With Erdogan’s government in crisis, facing massive protests, and corruption charges backed by increasingly specific and convincing evidence, Erdogan’s days in politics are numbered. If he takes AKP down with him, there could be key window of opportunity to better integrate near eastern foreign policy, to everyone’s advantage. The EU may have the most to gain.

Consider the Extra

By Amanda Grigg

250px-Although_Of_CourseIn 2011 Michigan began offering tax incentives for movies filming in the state. Not long afterwards, The Five Year Engagement was filmed in Ann Arbor. I was living in Ann Arbor at the time and the town was abuzz with Jason Segel and John Krasinski sightings. They were rumored to have gone to a karaoke night and killed it. They filmed winter scenes in June and covered the main street with fake drifts of snow. I watched the movie when it came out on Netflix and was disappointed to find that the entire point of being in Ann Arbor was to shit on it and and joke about how miserable a place it is (a ruiner/extender of engagements). Still it was fun to see a bit of filmmaking magic. A few years later I’m living in Grand Rapids, Michigan is still throwing tax breaks at filmmakers, and now Grand Rapids is abuzz with news of a movie filming here, which happens to be a David Foster Wallace biopic featuring Jason Segel. And that’s how I became an extra.

The film, End of Tour, is based on a book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. The book is a rough transcript of essentially every one of Lipsky and Wallace’s conversations during the last days of DFW’s book tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky was a Rolling Stone reporter at the time and was interviewing Wallace for a piece in the magazine. The conversations are particularly interesting because they cover the period in which David Foster Wallace was realizing that Infinite Jest would make/was in the process of making him famous.  Rolling Stone never ran the interview, but Lipsky published the full conversations as a book a couple of years after DFW’s death. It became a New York Times best seller and NPR’s 2010 book of the year.

I arrive just before the 6pm call time,  behind three very young looking girls (who I later learned were 15). We walk past several Ryder trucks before reaching the entrance to the building, where I sign a release form behind the girls (who when questioned confirmed that yes, they are 18). The call for extras referred to the 6pm extras as “dancers” and said to dress like you’re at a party in the 90s, and that everyone should be over 35. It said to focus on classic items/shapes with muted colors and no labels. Mentioned turtlenecks. So I’m wearing a camel turtleneck, short black wool skirt and tights. I asked if it was okay that I’m under 35  and they said yes. I have no idea how these girls got in. They’re also dressed like they’re going as the 90s for Halloween/just raided Urban Outfitters exaggerated 90s throwback collection.

The two women behind me are in their early 20s. They’re super tan with perfectly straight hair and similarly look like they’re straight out of an Urban Outfitters catalogue. One calls a friend on the phone and whispers “Jackie and I had margaritas before we came.” The friend doesn’t hear. She repeats it again, and California-girl drawls out a joke about being a star before hanging up.

Funnily enough, the wardrobe area is in the bottom of a two story building, and the other half of the first floor is a classic Michigan blue collar bar occupied by regular patrons who are looking at everyone oddly.

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A view from the wardrobe area into the functioning bar. Note the glamorous “set” sign

After signing the waiver, I get in line for wardrobe. I brought a lot of my own things (as directed by the email) and the wardrobe people move the extras who brought their own clothes to the front of the line. I’m always pleased when reading and following directions are still rewarded in adult life, which is probably one of my more annoying traits. The charming red headed costume woman lights up when she sees me and says I know exactly what I’m going to put you in. She says please tell me you’re a size 7.5, I am! We’re both thrilled at this news. She rifles through a box of boots, labeling one pair creepy before settling on a pair that are “creepier.” She hands me the chunky black booties, a black dress and a long jacket and directs me to a changing….V? It’s two pieces of fabric stapled to wood in the shape of a V, with the open part of the V facing a wall. The dress is short, slightly flared with tee shirt sleeves and a crew neck and of course it’s ribbed. There’s a cream sleeveless turtleneck to go under it, also ribbed, and an amazing full length velvet jacket with several large embroidered flowers. I’m channeling dark Willow. The wardrobe woman really wants the jacket to be in the film, and she grabs my hand and leads me to the head wardrobe person for final approval. She lifts my hand a bit to note that she’s holding it and says sorry, I do this, I’m a mom. I love her. Next she’s telling me to smile and sell it. I smile though I’m pretty sure my character wouldn’t, but the British wardrobe woman doesn’t like the jacket. She thinks it will be too warm. She’s not a fan of the turtleneck either so I take that off and someone hands me a purple vest with mandarin clasps that looks like something out of Portlandia’s feminist bookstore. That’s roughly what the British woman says when she sees it. I end up wearing just the dress, with my own dark tights and the chunky boots. I’m kind of loving the 90s.

While I’m changing a slightly awkward looking guy (18 maybe?) walks up to wardrobe with an entire suitcase full of extra clothes. “This is the last time you’ll see me, I promise.” A wardrobe person I can’t see cheerfully responds, “I hope so.” I’m beginning to realize that some people are not doing this on a whim.

A blurry view of the very sexy wardrobe area
A blurry view of the waiting area, wardrobe is at the back of the room

Then there’s more waiting, while other people make their way through wardrobe. A giant light shines through the window and everyone tries to avoid making eye contact with it. Finally someone important looking comes down and shushes us. He’s the assistant director and he’s going to take everyone who’s gone through wardrobe to the set. We’re told to turn our phones off and leave our things downstairs but a couple of women, including myself, take their purses with them. He guides us through the bar – more looks from patrons – to the set upstairs.  It’s a large rectangular open space with a checkered dance floor in the middle and a bar along one of the shorter walls. More waiting, more shushing and we’re admonished that the actors and crew are working, and so are we – though of course no one is getting paid – and the 15 year olds are already giddy at the mere prospect of a Segel sighting. We’re told to have a character, not to think of ourselves as extras but to imagine that we’re real people here for a real reason. But they don’t tell us anything about the film or the scene. So you know, just imagine some reason for your character to be dancing in a bar with the weirdest collection of people ever and David Foster Wallace.

We wait while the crew sets things up, no sign of Jason Segel or Jesse Eisenberg yet. A woman next to me wearing what we both agree is an unfortunately frumpy floral romper says that she’s been to some of the other days of filming. She was in a scene they filmed at the local airport (based on skimming the book I assume it doubled for O’Hare) and tells me that her “character” was going to Minneapolis for a job interview. She tells me about some of the other scenes she was in, one of which went on for 20 hours straight. She says that they only had donut holes and bags of chips until the very end when they got sandwiches. The call for extras said that there would be lots of food. I’m beginning to realize that that was probably a lie. And that everyone else here might be a little insane.

Several crewmembers put plastic over the windows while others do light meter readings on a giant wearing sweatpants who can only be Jason Segel’s stand in. I make conversation with the people around me and overhear the three 15 year olds discussing their desire to “grab Jason’s butt.” A trio of Tina Belchers.

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A fan photo of filming at the Mall of America

Later I meet two women who have been to almost every filming and act like old pros. One is young, early 20s and pretty. She’s wearing a dress that reads Blossom or Phoebe. The other older woman, is a mom (she announces that she’s wearing her son’s flannel shirt) with bright highlights, a serious tan and glittered eyeshadow. Their bragging is thinly veiled, they talk about how they met doing a scene where one of them looked at condoms and another ate ho hos, then high-five. They call Jason Segel “Jason” and talk about fleeting interactions with him in a way that I can only describe as really forcedly casual. The older woman says that she thinks their first scene will be in the bloopers. I’m wavering between being annoyed and sad.

Finally we dance a bit, sans Segel, to Build Me Up Buttercup, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough and Celebration. I’m dancing with the two extra veterans who don’t look at me at all and do a lot of over the top joke dancing with each other. After a couple of songs they tell us to pair up and another veteran extra, a guy with a simple sweater on and close cut hair swoops in to dance with the older veteran. The younger woman and I are going to dance together until two men our age ask if we want to pair up. We say fine, I make small talk with the guy who just graduated from Michigan State and is applying to med school. I tell him about my new dog because I’m that person now. He and his friend are just here “as a bucket list thing” which I can appreciate. Though after I tell him that I moved here with my boyfriend he immediately asks me if I think he’s going to propose soon. Ah, West Michigan. I downplay it more than I normally would because I’m annoyed by the question. “I don’t really care, we’ll just talk about it when we want to get married.” Take that, patriarchy. The assistant director pushes the 15 year olds to the back telling them they’re too young, they’re ruining the scene (in a joking, charming way, I can see why he’s in charge of wrangling us).

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Segel as Wallace filming in Grand Rapids

Jason finally arrives to a flurry of points and whispers and we’re filmed dancing around him. After one take we’re told not to duck when the camera approaches, and to move out of the way when we see four men barreling towards us. Oddly, the camera man is guided around by a man with his hands on his waist, followed by the director and assistant director. The cameraman wears a green patch over his non lens eye so his spooning partner guides him around the floor while the assistant director motions to Jason by enthusiastically crossing his arms to pat his shoulders a la Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own.

After another couple of songs (keep in mind that by songs I mean those same three songs played over and over) the Assistant Director goes through the crowd, picking out everyone under 35ish and directing us to the bar at the side of the room (out of the shot). They pass around water bottles and position the extras who are still in the scene. I climb onto the bar and sit with the 15 year olds. At this point I find out that they’re 15 and that they’re here “for Jason” who is “amazing, right?”

Jason Segal comes off as charming and funny even though he’s just dancing around. At one point he dances towards the bar area a bit, making eye contact with the 15 year old girls and I and smiles raising his eyebrows as he shimmies. They swoon and stifle squeals. His dancing is pretty great, silly without being over the top, though I have no idea if it’s true to character. Did David Foster Wallace shimmy and grin goofily? Who’s to say.

Jesse Eisenberg walks in and sits down in a corner and the kid with the suitcase from before sidles over to him to make small talk.

This photo of Jason Segel at a local Krispy Kreme went viral after appearing on reddit.
This photo of Jason Segel at a local Krispy Kreme went viral after appearing on reddit.

There’s more dancing with some feature extras that I won’t discuss for fear of spoilers/lawsuits and then we’re moved to the other side of the room, still out of the shot. At this point I’m sort of over being an extra, it’s clear that the under 35s won’t play much of a role in the filming. The two veterans are talking again, about how they were supposed to get sweatshirts for the end of filming but didn’t, so the older woman stole Steve’s. Sorry, Steve. Also she got yelled at the other day, but she’s not venting about it so much as she is patently bragging about the fact that she’s “in” enough to get yelled at. Then she lists her set nicknames.  I make my way over to some seats along the wall and surreptitiously start texting my significant other. “I’m beginning to second guess this decision.”

Jason Segel is still hamming it up dancing with the middle-aged party goers and between takes the makeup people spritz the extras with sunscreen or something to make them shiny. At one point they take off Jason Segal’s blue headbands and try a cream one. They go back to the blue.

More dancing, more secret texting, a couple of snapped photos that capture more my purse than they do of the set. Finally we’re called back for a take in which everyone dances. I don’t have a partner this time so my character is dancing on her own and at this point is relieved to have an excuse not to make eye contact while dancing with strangers. We’re spread out so that we take up the entire space. During the first take the older veteran woman and man dance across the middle of the space (halfway between Jason Segel and the wall) making a push back motion and urging everyone to move backwards. I was watching the assistant director and director before the scene and they didn’t say anything to these extras. I guess they’ve taken it upon themselves to do some staging. They do this for the next scene even though gesturing wildly and mouthing MOVE BACK as they rapidly sidestep across the floor has got to be more distracting than people not being perfectly spaced out.  And of course they manage to stop wherever the camera is. Aside from that I don’t mind dancing by myself in a room full of strangers. The two girls in front of me now look 16, one looks like she’s wearing her street clothes (skinny jeans and a modern looking sweater) and her iphone is visibly hanging out of her back pocket. Earlier another extra warned her not to get caught taking pictures. I’m sure veteran extra Nurse Ratchet would have a field day with her. She takes pictures while everyone dances.

The music cuts out and someone yells that’s a wrap. Everyone claps, Jason Segel disappears like a giant messy batman and they announce one final dance with the crew. I grab my purse and head for the stairs, hoping to beat the rush at wardrobe. Jesse Eisenberg is walking up the small stairway as I walk down, wearing a very Jesse Eisenbergy black jacket (which later sleuthing reveals is wardrobe for the film) and talking into his cellphone. We smile like you smile at people you make eye contact with on the street, though I assume he thinks I’m excited to see him and that irritates me. I’m clearly really really over being an extra by this point. I walk through the bar and head for wardrobe. I’m the only one who left the crew dance early so the wardrobe people are befuddled that I’m returning my things, until someone confirms that the scene upstairs has wrapped. I change back into my clothes and turn in the dress and shoes at a folding table. Waiting for my ride, I spot a lonely variety box of chips in the corner. I treat myself to my first Dorito in seemingly forever and watch wardrobe prepare for the “flood” of extras returning clothing. The veteran extras line up to take a group photo, I grab a second bag of chips.

We Are All Perfect Strangers Now

By Graham Peterson

I once made the point in a Marx seminar that markets make us more intimate with one another.  That didn’t go well.

And I cannot disagree with people’s intuitions that markets feel impersonal some (alot?) of the time.  I had the distinct sense when I was a bit of a businessman, myself, that many of the friends I had in my field weren’t real friends, and only acted friendly for instrumental reasons.  I often felt used, and that feeling was supported by my intuitions that business corrupts human intimacy.  Many people feel this way: everyone has had a $20 loan go bad, or a ridiculous boss fire her.

But I want to complicate the intuition that markets make us nasty, or at least impersonal, folks.

Where does this intuition come from?  I think people have always been suspicious of the humanity of the marketplace exactly because markets do such a great job of bringing people together across social space who otherwise wouldn’t interact.  Think I Pencil.  Since markets bring together people who wouldn’t otherwise hang out, people observe a preponderance of arms-length social relationships in markets.

But to claim that markets make people alienated from one another is to claim the causation goes in precisely the direction that it actually does.

Groups of people begin life alienated, in small tribes, who slaughter each other regularly, and believe religious myths about unclean outsiders that amount to Jerry Springer gossip.  Markets in fact bridge those social distances and provide people with a precedent of peaceful negotiation over which to resolve their competing interests, with mutually agreeable bargains.  Imagine that.

In this view, when social exchanges in the market break down into betrayal, and lies, and thievery — and oh boy do they ever — we witness the failure of a mechanism that has in the first instance ameliorated the ancient human problem of dealing with pesky neighbors on the other side of the forest.

I think this theory works because it helps also explain why people have sensed that technologies, and in particular communications and transportations technologies, alienate people from one another.  Here again, we have a social mechanism, locomotives and cellphones, designed to bring together people who otherwise would not have interacted.  “But nobody makes eye contact on the train and stares at their cell phone.”  Indeed – and this is an incredible improvement over those same people eagerly raiding one another’s homes.  Moreover, many of the people you are texting on your morning commute are not blood relatives – and thank God for that – because you don’t get to pick your blood relatives.

Still, there is the altogether reasonable sense that relative to one’s high-school sweetheart who one first met at the neighborhood BBQ, many of the relationships conveyed over new transportation and communications technologies, just like many of those in markets, are less socially intimate.

Cities generally get the same bad rep for the same reason.  Sup with that?

The modern world, through its combination of markets and technologies (with a dose of state meddling to keep black people and women from participating unless people really complain about it) has made Perfect Strangers out of billions of people.  Somehow it became fashionable for critics to deny this altogether obvious fact.  To look at the modern world and decide that it is in fact turning people into strangers, is to confuse correlation with causation in the worst possible way.

Whether a glass feels half full or half empty will depend, probably, on whether you’ve just seen someone pour a half glass of water into an empty glass, or pour a half glass of water out of a full glass.  The modern world has poured a half glass of social relationships into an empty glass, not the other way around.

Against Neil deGrasse Tyson: a Longer Polemic

By Seth Studer

In her recent Atlantic review of two new books on atheism, Emma Green brilliantly demarcates what is missing from the now decade-long insurgency of anti-ideological atheism. I use the term “anti-ideological atheism” instead of “neo-atheism” or “new atheism” or the obnoxious, self-applied moniker “noes” because opposition to ideology – to ideational constructions – is one of the major recurring threads among these varied atheist identities (a frightening mixture of elitism and populism is another). Green illustrates this point when she notes the incongruity between Peter Watson’s new history of post-Enlightenment atheism, Age of Atheists, and the kind of atheism most vocally espoused in the 21st century. The central figure in Watson’s study, Friedrich Nietzsche, is almost never cited by Richard Dawkins or Samuel Harris or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Nor, for that matter, are Nietzsche’s atheistic precursors or his atheistic descendants…all diverse in thought, all of whom would have been essential reading for any atheist prior to, well, now.

The most famous atheist, the one whose most famous quote – GOD IS DEAD – your scrawled with a sharpie on the inside door of your junior high locker, is almost persona non grata among our most prominent living atheists. His near-contemporary, Charles Darwin (hardly anyone’s idea of a model atheist), is the belle of the bellicose non-believer’s ball.  

Green also notes that the other famous 19th century atheist – Karl Marx, whose account of religious belief vis a vis human consciousness is still convincing, at least more than Nietzsche’s – is likewise incited by our popular atheists. The reason may be simple: invocations of Marx don’t score popularity points anymore, and the business of anti-ideological atheism is nothing if not a business.

But there is, I believe, a larger reason for the absence of Nietzsche, Marx, and almost all other important atheists from today’s anti-ideological atheism. As fellow Jilter Graham Peterson recently said to me, these popular atheists need a dose of humanities: liberal inquiry and a sense that truth is hard, not dispensable in easy little bits like Pez candies. I would expand on that: they need a more dynamic discursivity, they need more contentiousness, they need more classical, humanist-style debate. They need the kind of thinking that frequently accompanies or produces ideology.

But of course, most of them don’t want that. They resist Nietzsche’s ideological critiques. They resist Marx who, despite his inherent materialism, is more systematically ideological than, say, Darwin. Sigmund Freud (who dedicated an entire tract to atheism and who is central to its 20th century development) is never mentioned, along with a host of other names.

And they do not invite new critiques – except, apparently, from Young Earth Creationists.

The title of Green’s review is pitch perfect: “The Intellectual Snobbery of Conspicuous Atheism: Beyond the argument that faith in God is irrational—and therefore illegitimate.” Contrary to what Richard Dawkins and others might claim, atheists are not a persecuted minority in the West (any group consisting mostly of white men is always eager to squeeze and contort their way into “persecuted minority” status, even as persecuted minorities struggle to push out). Anti-ideological atheism is declared conspicuously, a badge of honor and a sign of intellect. Green quotes Adam Gopnik, who introduces the nauseating term “noes,”

What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.

In this respect, the “noes” have “an actual explanation of things” in greater abundance than did Nietzsche or Marx or (especially) the atheists of antiquity. In this respect, the atheists of yore and religious believers have more in common with each other than with the “noes” of today.

In my last post, I shared my thoughts about the meteoric rise of Neil deGrasse Tyson (do meteors rise? I’m sure deGrasse Tyson would have something to say about that bit of rhetorical infactitude). It may seem unfair to pick on deGrasse Tyson when, in reality, I’m bemoaning a phenomenon that began back when George W. Bush used vaguely messianio-Methodist language to frame the invasion of Iraq, an event that, whatever you think of its initial rationalizations, was poorly executed, quickly turned to shit, and set the “War on Terror” back at least a decades. In/around 2004, Richard Dawkins (who is still the author of the best popular overview of natural history ever written) realized that conditions existed for a profitable career shift.

Widespread discontent with politico-religious language was in the United States – where right-wing militarists decried the brand of fundamentalist Islam that obliterated lower Manhattan and anti-war leftists decried the (pascificst-by-comparison) brand of fundamentalist Christianity that influenced U.S. policy – coincided with fear of religious extremism in Europe, where the vexed term “Islamophobia” retained some usefulness: legitimate anxieties about theocratic terrorism (e.g., violent anti-Western responses to the deliberately provocative Mohammad cartoons and then the public slaughter of Theo van Gogh) mingled with old-fashioned European xenophobia, which was never a perfect analogue to American xenophobia. And between the U.S. and Europe lies England, where political and public responses to Islamic terrorism less often involved blustery American gun-slinging or shrill continental nativism but rather stern appeals to “common sense.” Since the collapse of British colonialism, intellectuals in England are less apt to use the term civilization than are their cousins across the Channel or their cousins across the Pond (where the term has been historically deployed by cultural warriors, a la Alan Bloom, in order to give anti-colonial leftists the willies).

The term civilized, on the other hand, is still relevant in English public discourse: not with regard to other societies, but to English society. The concept of civilized discourse (or civilised, if you will) doesn’t seem to carry the same ideological freight as civilization. But when Dawkins mocks post-positivist socio-humanist* analyses of, say, indigenous Amazonian cultures who explain natural phenomena (e.g., how the jaguar get its spots) with traditional tales, his arguments carry the epistemological heft of a suburban Thatcherite scanning his daughter’s contemporary philosophy textbook, throwing his hands in the air, and exclaiming “Oh come on!” In other words, Dawkins belongs to the long line of British “common sense” thinkers. Born in Kenya, raised in Africa, and a fan of Kipling, Dawkins has been criticized for possessing a colonial bent to his thought.

And there’s something to be said for common sense, even common sense colonialism; George Orwell, of all people, joined Rudyard Kipling (one of the most misunderstood writers in the English canon) to defend British colonialism in England on the reasonable (if depressing) grounds that, had the English let India be, the Russians would have colonized the subcontinent. This hardly excuses British crimes against India and its people, but even a cursory overview of Russian colonial atrocities forces one to sigh a very troubled and uncomfortable sigh of – what, relief? – that the British Raj was the guilty party.

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

But common sense is not fact, much less knowledge, and Dawkins has made a career of playing fast and loose with these concepts. In Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), Dawkins defended science not against the pious but against the epistemological excesses of cultural studies. In one chapter, he wrote that an Amazonian tribesman who is convinced that airplanes are fueled by magic (Dawkins’ examples often play off colonial tropes) and the the socio-humanist (usually an American cultural studies professor or graduate student in English whose dress and hygiene or dubious and who write with incomprehensible jargon) who respects the Amazonian’s conviction are both reprehensible, especially the professor, who is an enabler: he could give the ignorant native a cursory lesson in physics, but instead paints a scholarly veneer over so much tribal mumbo-jumbo. Why not explain the real source of wonder and disabuse the native of his false notions: that beautiful physics can explain how people fly!

Despite its best efforts, Unweaving the Rainbow was Dawkins’ first foray into the “Debbie Downer” genre of popular science writing. This genre pits the explanatory power of “scientific knowledge” (more about that term in a moment) against religion, superstition, homeopathy, most of Western philosophy, and pretty much any knowledge acquired or unverified by non-quantitative methods.

The “Debbie Downer” genre can be useful, especially when turned on the practice of science itself: Dawkins and his allies have successfully debunked the dogmatism that led Stephen Jay Gould’s career astray. The atrocities of Nazi and Soviet science were exposed and explained with both rigorous science and common sense. The genre can also be used  to wildly miss the point of things. I have friends who are ardent Calvinists or ex-Calvinists, who are incapable of reading Paul’s epistles without a Calvinist interpretation. They read Paul, but all they see is Calvinism. Likewise with fundamentalists and anti-ideological atheists who read Genesis but only see cosmology. Yet Paul was not a Calvinist, and Genesis is not cosmology. In some sense, the same principle applies to deGrasse Tyson and Gravity. Is this a question of knowing too much or thinking too little?  

In Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins confronts charge that science takes all the fun and beauty of the world just by, y’know, ‘splainin’ it. Somewhat comically, the book’s title literalizes an instance of poetic language, a practice common among Dawkins’ bête noire: religious fundamentalists. John Keats’ playful exasperation that “charms fly/ at the touch of cold philosophy” and that the natural sciences (still embryonic in Keats’ time) “unweave the rainbow,” reducing it to “the dull catalogue of common things,” is beautifully articulated representation of a well-worn human experience, one that requires appreciation more than rebuttal. But for Dawkins, the poem demands rebuttal, and not a rebuttal that distinguishes between the uses and functions of poetic language. Unweaving the Rainbow is a treatise that, dammit, science makes the world more beautiful, not the other way round.

And Dawkins is correct. After reading his marvelous Ancestor’s Tale, I felt a profound kinship with every toad I encountered on the sidewalk and every grasshopper that attached itself to my arm, six cousinly feet twisting my skin uncomfortably. Between Unweaving the Rainbow and Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins wrote A Devil’s Chaplin, a haphazardly organized collection of Debbie Downer essays that is probably best understood as the director ancestor of Dawkins’ most successful book, The God Delusion. The book represented a specific cultural moment, described above, when everyone was eager to read why God sucked. I don’t need to rehearse the narrative or the players (something about four horsemen, cognitive, an obnoxious and inappropriate use of the prefix “neo”). Even The God Delusion‘s harshest critics praised Dawkins for capturing the zeitgeist in a bottle. But the most prominent and widely-cited negative review, by Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton, did not. Eagleton captured Dawkins, his personality and his project, to near perfection in the London Review of Books:

[Dawkins’ views] are not just the views of an enraged atheist. They are the opinions of a readily identifiable kind of English middle-class liberal rationalist. Reading Dawkins, who occasionally writes as though ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness’ is a mighty funny way to describe a Grecian urn, one can be reasonably certain that he would not be Europe’s greatest enthusiast for Foucault, psychoanalysis, agitprop, Dadaism, anarchism or separatist feminism. All of these phenomena, one imagines, would be as distasteful to his brisk, bloodless rationality as the virgin birth. Yet one can of course be an atheist and a fervent fan of them all. His God-hating, then, is by no means simply the view of a scientist admirably cleansed of prejudice. It belongs to a specific cultural context. One would not expect to muster many votes for either anarchism or the virgin birth in North Oxford. (I should point out that I use the term North Oxford in an ideological rather than geographical sense. Dawkins may be relieved to know that I don’t actually know where he lives.)

Terry Eagleton
Terry Eagleton

Eagleton’s Marxist ad hominem is amusing: he reduces Dawkins’ own self-proclaimed materialism to his class. Dawkins is a very, very identifiable type. I’m not sure whether Eagleton knew, when he quoted Keats, that Dawkins had written a book whose title misread – or at least misappropriated – the most flowery of Romantic poets.

Eagleton’s more substantial complaint – that there are many kind of atheists, not all of whom derive their views from a fetishized notion of the natural sciences’ explanatory powers – was echoed in many other reviews. It was even the basis for a two-part episode of South Park.

Another common complaint: The God Delusion engaged with religious faith very narrowly, responding to only the most extreme fundamentalist interpretations of scripture and dogma. Dawkins hadn’t boned up on his Tillich. He’s a scientist stumbling clumsily through the humanities, unaware that his most basic criticisms of faith have been taken seriously by religious people since the Middle Ages. Again, Eagleton:

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? … As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

More troubling than his exclusion of Eriugena and de facto collusion with Oral Roberts is his exclusion of so many other atheists. The God Delusion was published before Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, a very bad book that nevertheless engaged with atheism per sedrawing from an intellectual history that extended from Lucretius to Spinoza and Thomas Paine (a list Hitchens never tired of reciting on cable news show, grinning slyly at the thought of pot-bellied viewers on their sofas, scratching their heads: I think I’ve heard of that Payne guy, but who in the sam hill is Lew Crishus?).

If Dawkins was a scientist posing as a humanist – or, more correctly, a scientist trying to sell ideology as scientific fact – then Hitchens was a humanist posing as someone with a basic understanding of science. In reality, Hitchens knew the Bible, had spent his career admiring religious thinkers and religious poets. Near the end of the Hitchens v. Douglas Wilson documentary Collision, Hitchens recalls a conversation with Dawkins, during which Hitchens declared that, if given the power to wipe religious belief off the face of the earth, he wouldn’t do it. “Why not?!” shrieked Dawkins – Hitchens, repeating the anecdote to Wilson, does a killer imitation of Dawkins’ spine-tingling shriek. Hitchens has no answer for Dawkins. He simply can’t conceive of a world without at least one religious believer.

More on point, however, is the following passage from Eagleton’s review:

Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Dawkins would no doubt balk at the notion that he take Eagleton’s advice and “critique” science. Science is self-critiquing, after all! Science is reasonable by its very structure. Science and reason are near synonyms in the anti-ideological atheist lexicon.

This, for me, is the most troubling aspect of Dawkins and deGrasse Tyson’s trendy, anti-ideological atheism.

Let us consider once more the subtitle of Emma Green’s Atlantic review: for  the argument that faith in God is irrational—and therefore illegitimate.” Both Green and Eagleton observe what is perhaps the most troubling aspect of popular, anti-ideological atheism: it conflates terms like “reason,” rationality,” “fact,” “science,” and “knowledge.” In fact, I believe Eagleton goes too far when he asserts that “only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific.'” Many positivists can make the distinction. (Eagleton’s reflexive assertion to the contrary is merely a product of decades spent defending post-positivist thought to his fellow Marxists.)

The popularizers of anti-ideological atheism play very fast and loose with a specific set of words: “science,” “reason,” “(ir)rationality,”  “knowledge,” “fact,” “truth,” and “information.” It is absolutely necessary to distinguish between these words. In many contexts, it is not “irrational” to object to scientifically produced knowledge, especially if you’re objecting to the implementation of that knowledge.

If I were a public intellectual with a large platform – that is, if I were Neil deGrasse Tyson – I’d go on a speaking tour. The tour’s only goal would be the definition of some basic terms, as they ought to be used by laypersons (obviously specialists will have slightly different definitions, and that’s okay). Information is data we glean from the world through our senses and technologies. Science is a method that uses information to test ideas and produce knowledge. Ideas are organized assumptions about the world. Ideas that are verifiable using scientific methods become knowledge. Reason is a system of organizing knowledge, which allows knowledge to be used for all sorts of great things: to determine a set of ethics, to decide the best shape of government, to demarcate reasonably accurate beliefs about the world, to guide us through daily decisions, etc. Rationality is reason with a French accent.

Facts are stubborn but undeniable things, some of them unveiled by the scientific method and others revealed through our senses/technologies, which help us glean information and confirm knowledge produced by the scientific method. Truth is the ontological status of reality, which makes it a very tricky thing to define and understand, and is therefore probably best passed over in silence…at least in casual conversations or book tours. True is an elastic adjective that allows us to describe the proximity of knowledge, ideas, and impressions to reality, as we understand it via science, knowledge, reason, and facts.

These definitions are not perfect, and I’m sure you and my fellow Jilters have problems with some/all of them. But I think they’re suitable for casual use. At the very least, they admit distinctions between concepts.

Anti-ideological atheists misuse these concepts for rhetorical purposes, and they encourage the public’s tendency to conflate them.

This is wrong.

When Neil deGrasse Tyson insists that “evolution is a fact,” he’s playing with rhetoric to make a political point. For too long, Creationists have conflated the scientific and popular definitions of the word “theory,” transmuting well-established and verifiable knowledge about life into speculation: Darwin’s theory of speciation was as reliable as a hopeful suitor’s theory of “why she isn’t returning my phone calls.”

But in both scientific and common English, theory is not an antonym of fact (sorry Creationists) and a theory cannot be a fact (as deGrasse Tyson well knows). A theory is established by facts. Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris, Daniel Dennett, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye have had countless opportunities to make these simple distinctions to the public; Christopher Hitchens possessed both the knowledge and rhetorical precision to explain the distinctions. But distinctions don’t pack much punch. Politically and ideologically, it’s better to affirm that “evolution is a fact,” just like gravity, and not allow the Creationists to keep slithering through their own linguistic sophistry. And just as explaining a joke drains its humor, debunking a slick sophistry invariably drains your authority. Better to bludgeon than to slice. And as anyone who has seen the ads or watched the first two episodes of his Cosmos knows, deGrasse Tyson is happy to bludgeon.


*By “socio-humanist,” I refer to scholars in the humanities (I use “humanist” as the humanities equivalent of “scientist”) and certain branches of the social sciences; I’m not referring to the broader category of post-Englightenment “secular humanism,” within which Dawkins might count himself.

What The Fox Doesn’t Know?

By Adam Elkus

There’s an emerging dustup between FiveThirtyEight‘s Nate Silver and The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier. Since much of this already boiling down to a re-hash of CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” debate, I’ll try to look at each’s argument and then observe some strengths and flaws. TL: DR — both are talking past each other, one has some big flaws, and the other is missing the point.

First, Silver. Reading through Silver’s blog, I see two sorts of arguments being made from the philosophy of science that Silver (perhaps in the interest in readability, doesn’t fully explain) — prediction and falsification. Silver sees the primary problem with journalism as being one in which a gap exists between collection and organization of information and explanation and generalization. Silver’s idea of how to fix this gap is strongly bound up in the idea of producing knowledge that is both falsifiable and have good out of sample predictive qualities.

For example, they cite three factors they say were responsible for Mitt Romney’s decline in the polls in early mid-September: the comparatively inferior Republican convention, Romney’s response to the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and Romney’s gaffe-filled trip to London. In fact, only one of these events had any real effect on the polls: the conventions, which often swing polls in one direction or another. (This does not require any advanced analysis — it’s obvious by looking at the polls immediately before and after each event.) Explanation is more difficult than description, especially if one demands some understanding of causality. …. …But while individual facts are rigorously scrutinized and checked for accuracy in traditional newsrooms, attempts to infer causality sometimes are not, even when they are eminently falsifiable.

Explanation is about why particular things occur, and these explanations should ideally be falsifiable. Notice that Silver does not necessarily say that all explanations are falsifiable. If he did, this would rule out large swaths of the hard sciences that rely on notions that are not directly falsifiable.  He would also rule out the utility of heuristic understandings of phenomena where good data does not exist, or where the results of statistical meta-analysis are inconclusive and contradictory. Still, Silver seems to privilege explanations that are falsifiable — and as I will later detail — gloss over some of the enormous problems with the conception of science that he mentions as a model for his site.

He later goes on to make a covering-law esque argument that particular explanations should be evaluated for how well they scale with the aim of finding useful general truths. He equates explanation and causality with the classical model of an explanandum to be explained and a set of premises that explain it. Silver says that a generalization must be tested by how well it predicts out of sample, and equates this to falsification in the absence of laboratory experiments. However, while Silver may have a point about prediction, there are some distinct nuances to how falsification has been considered in the philosophy of science.

The problem with Silver’s argument is that he glosses over just how hard it is to actually get rid of a theory. If you believe Imre Lakatos, than the hard core of a research program itself is unfalsifiable. If you subscribe to a coherentist view in the philosophy of science, you may believe (like Duhem-Quine) that a theory is not one thing but a web and one has to defeat the core of theory and its outlying components. You may not, as per Feyeraband, believe that we can rise to a general model of science and that domain-specific principles rule. And this is to say nothing of the vast array of historical and sociological work on the ways in which science is actually practiced, which to some extent have some uncomfortable aspects in common with Silver’s critique of punditry as being driven by strong ideological priors.

Now, if we focus solely on the aspect of predictive accuracy Silver seems to be on stronger grounds. Given that it is so hard to really falsify a theory, and that it is also easy to rescue a theory by saving it from failures to predict, Milton Friedman made a much-maligned argument that theory itself is inherently tautological and what matters is whether or not the theory accounts for things that haven’t been observed yet:

The ultimate goal of a positive science is the development of a “theory” or, “hypothesis” that yields valid and meaningful (i.e., not truistic) predictions about phenomena not yet observed. Such a theory is, in general, a complex intermixture of two elements. In part, it is a “language” designed to promote “systematic and organized methods of reasoning.” In part, it is a body of substantive hypotheses designed to abstract essential features of complex reality. Viewed as a language, theory has no substantive content; it is a set of tautologies. Its function is to serve as a filing system for organizing empirical material and facilitating our understanding of it; and the criteria by which it is to be judged are those appropriate to a filing system. Are, the categories clearly and precisely defined? Are they exhaustive? Do we know where to file each individual, item, or is there considerable ambiguity? Is the system of headings and subheadings so designed that we can quickly find an item we want, or must we hunt from place to place? Are the items we shall want to consider jointly filed together? Does the filing system avoid elaborate cross-references?

Friedman in many ways bypasses the problem of falsification by noting that a theory’s internal consistency is not necessarily important because consistency can easily lapse into tautology:

A hypothesis is important if it “explains” much by little, that is, if it abstracts the common and crucial elements from the mass of complex and detailed circumstances surrounding the phenomena to be explained and permits valid predictions on the basis of them alone. To be important, therefore, a hypothesis must be descriptively false in its assumptions; it takes account of, and accounts for, none of the many other attendant circumstances, since its very success shows them to be irrelevant for the phenomena to be explained. To put this point less paradoxically, the relevant question to ask about the “assumptions” of a theory is not whether they are descriptively “realistic,” for they never are, but whether they are sufficiently good approximations for the purpose in hand. And this question can be answered only by seeing whether the theory works, which means whether it yields sufficiently accurate predictions. The two supposedly independent tests thus reduce to one test.

For Friedman the issue is that whether or not valid predictions follow from the minimal components of a theory that can approximate something of interest. This actually contradicts the Tetlock-like argument that Silver makes about ideologically strong priors held by pundits. A pundit could believe any number of things that might seem patently ridiculous — but what matters is that they permit valid predictions. Silver might agree that this is true, and make an argument (as he has) that pundits should be open to revising their beliefs in light of failed predictions, updating their priors in a Bayesian fashion. While I would agree that this would be a Good Thing, it also shows Silver’s lack of understanding about the nature of punditry.

When Silver talks about strong priors and ideological beliefs, he’s in some ways paraphrasing Noah Smith’s now-infamous explanation of “derp” as unusually strong Bayesian belief states that resist posterior estimation. Silver and Smith are arguing that even math-averse pundits have implicit models of how the world works, and those models ought to be evaluated for predictive accuracy. It is true that all pundits that make normative arguments about complicated social things have implicit models of the world, and also make implicit predictions about the future. But this is secondary really to the purpose of punditry to begin with.  Pundits do not see things in terms of probability — Bayesian or Frequentist. The basic column has the following format: “X is the present state of the world, Y is wrong/right in it, Z should be done/not done.” X is the area most amenable to Silver-like data analysis, but as we move from X down to Z the idea of using scientific arguments to address it becomes more and more problematic.  The relationship between science and religion, for example, is still not something that we have gotten a good handle on despite centuries of debate.  Moreover, in most public policy issues data will bound the range of acceptable policy options but not necessarily do much more than that.

Wieseltier’s argument, on the other hand, is a farrago of nonsense. Whereas Silver’s argument simply is problematic because it fails to grapple with some complexities of science and opinion, Wieseltier seems more interested in rhetoric than anything else:

He dignifies only facts. He honors only investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and data journalism. He does not take a side, except the side of no side. He does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization. He is the hedgehog who knows only one big thing. And his thing may not be as big as he thinks it is. Since an open society stands or falls on the quality of its citizens’ opinions, the refinement of their opinions, and more generally of the process of opinion-formation, is a primary activity of its intellectuals and its journalists. In such an enterprise, the insistence upon a solid evidentiary foundation for judgments—the combating of ignorance, which is another spectacular influence of the new technology—is obviously important. Just as obviously, this evidentiary foundation may include quantitative measurements; but only if such measurements are appropriate to the particular subject about which a particular judgment is being made. The assumption that it is appropriate to all subjects and all judgments—this auctoritas ex numero—is not at all obvious. Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide. And so the intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs must be resisted. Up with the facts! Down with the cult of facts!

First, the question is posed wrongly as a matter of measurement and fact. The specific criticism of punditry that Silver makes is one that pundits do not revise their beliefs after events cast doubt on the accuracy of a belief to predict future events. Say that John Mearsheimer, in making an normative policy argument for realist policies, argues that the international system has certain rules and thus himself argues that those rules will lead to certain outcomes. It is fair for Phillip Schrodt to highlight the failure of the system to behave in the way he says, and argue that this should have implications for whether we rely on his theory. Silver’s error is in the assumption that beliefs are predictions, as opposed to the sensible observation that strong beliefs will usually have predictive implications.  Certainly numbers cannot decide the issue of whether men should marry men, but if arguments against same-sex marriage warn that more liberal attitudes towards homosexuality will lead to the decline of marriage it is fair for Silver to try to see if this belief accounts for the variation in marriage and divorce.  It is precisely the fact that internally consistent beliefs can be tautological, as Friedman observes, that makes prediction useful.

Second, nowhere does Silver say that data ought to decide normative issues. The strongest statement that Silver makes about this in his manifesto is ironically counter to the image the TNR casts of him as a quant expressing a view from nowhere: Silver argues that scientific objectivity is distinct from journalistic objectivity in that it should make statements about whether certain arguments can be factually sustained. This is not necessarily an argument that empiricism should be the final arbiter, but that it ought to make a statement about what truths can be discerned from investigation about the rightness and wrongness of argument. And it is also not too much different from the notion of journalistic objectivity, as Silver argues. A good journalist doesn’t represent all of the sides of an issue, they give the reader information as to which ones are problematic. I am not sure, again, how he can square the circle between two notions — it is one thing to scientifically evaluate competing hypotheses, another to scientifically evaluate competing normative beliefs that do not really take the form of hypothesis or theory (even if they may have implicit hypotheses and theories embedded).

Wieseltier gives away his real problem with Silver when he notes this:

The intellectual predispositions that Silver ridicules as “priors” are nothing more than beliefs. What is so sinister about beliefs? He should be a little more wary of scorning them, even in degraded form: without beliefs we are nothing but data, himself included, and we deserve to be considered not only from the standpoint of our manipulability. I am sorry that he finds George Will and Paul Krugman repetitious, but should they revise their beliefs so as not to bore him? Repetition is one of the essential instruments of persuasion, and persuasion is one of the essential activities of a democracy. I do not expect Silver to relinquish his positivism—a prior if ever there was one—because I find it tedious.

It were one thing if punditry consisted of abstract deduction. But it does not. Punditry is about persuasion. Pundits do not make logical arguments from first principles or write mathematical proofs. Nor do pundits utilize any of the techniques of logic found in mathematics and philosophy, write sound mathematical definitions, or build their arguments off of logical deductions in the way that all mathematicians must work off previously proved things. Instead, Wieseltier is making a strong argument that “persuasion is one of the essential activities of a democracy.” Hence Will and Krugman should be free to repeat their beliefs for dramatic effect, in the hope that it would persuade others that they are right. This contradicts Wieseltier’s earlier arguments about reason, logic, and deduction. If Wieseltier wants to argue a reason-based defense of the humanities, which I do find persuasive, he cannot have it both ways. Public reason and persuasion are not the same thing — taken to one extreme persuasion becomes sophistry. 

Sophistry, however, is what Wieseltier has been selling for a very long time. In arguing for his policy positions — particularly on the Iraq War. Wieseltier’s columns at TNR present no deductively rigorous argument on the question of intervention and America’s place in the world. Instead they are extended fits of moral posturing, in which he constantly exhorts the reader to a titanic struggle against evil. Instead of logical and rigorous arguments about whether or not a particular stance on Ukraine follows from a particular train of logic, Wieseltier’s world instead is a emotionally charged trip into glory, courage, and justice — where every struggle is always Munich, and every politician an inferior shadow of a Churchillian figure exhorting the populace into total mobilization. Wieseltier, in other words, is engaging in a particularly sophistic form of persuasion that aims to convince us that we ought to embrace a position of total mobilization by utilizing rhetoric and repetition. Indeed, Matt Yglesias (who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy) got it right when he flagged a somewhat muddled take on Kant by Wieseltier — Wieseltier is TNR’s book reviews editor. He is a literary scholar, not a philosopher.  I certainly know I have not lived up to the standards that I am holding Wieseltier to in my own writings, but I at least have become acutely aware that there is something wrong with the kind of argumentative style that I sometimes fall into. Wieseltier, however, conflates public reason with emotive rhetoric.

I must admit that I have my own doubts about Silver’s new enterprise. And like a Bayesian, I have a prior belief that I will adjust when the “data” comes in to evaluate it. I do not feel entirely comfortable with the arguments he makes and also am skeptical that data without mechanisms or heuristic understanding will really deliver the insights that the site promises. That being said Silver strikes me as a very smart person who has thought very deeply about the problems with modern journalism. I at least feel somewhat confident that he will be an evolutionary improvement over the existing model. Wieseltier, however, is the very symbol of the kind of pundit that makes even the most hyperbolic Silver critiques seem understandable. I will take data enthusiasm over Wieseltier’s “persuasion” any day of the week.  I do not also think that Silver will crowd out “public reason.” Indeed, the popularity of Nassim Nicholas Taleb — a quant turned philosopher — seems to indicate otherwise. Someone like Taleb, who grounds arguments in the style of a mathematician or philosopher rather than a statistician (and unlike Wieseltier has a body of technical work that can be philosophically evaluated) will be first to check a Silver-like data journalist if they overreach. We need both empiricists and rigorous deductive analysts, and ideally combinations of both.

Against Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Three-Minute Polemic

A literal "skeptic trump card," for the armchair sociologist who prefers personalities over boring old physics textbooks.
A literal “skeptic trump card,” for the armchair sociologist who prefers personalities over boring old physics textbooks.

Normally I put a lot of thought (or at least a lot of words) into my Jilt articles, careful to say things that I’ll still feel passionately about five minutes after posting. But a Neil deGrasse Tyson quote – the latest of dozens – just floated through my Facebook feed, and it broke a levee of feeling. Here are some thoughts I’ll throw haphazardly like mustard seeds onto infertile soil, thoughts I may regret posting within five minutes – but not three:

Neil deGrasse Tyson has spent the last decade slouching toward cultural ubiquity, a seemingly nice guy who twenty years ago would’ve competed with lanky Bill Nye for the title “Science Guy” (and yes, I think that’s a real thing in our culture: scientists who spend more time in public relations meetings than in the lab are all vying for the title of “Science Guy”). But in 2014, he inhabits a cultural ecosystem where Richard Dawkins is someone my mom has heard of. DeGrasse Tyson inhabits a world in which Christopher Hitchens, approaching 60 and noticing the inevitable dulling of his faculties, turned to popular atheism as an easy and reliable source of mulah. This is a world in which a cursory knowledge of the natural sciences and a declaration of disbelief in the desert deity of Abraham is enough to certify oneself “intellectual” or “enlightened,” all with the blessing of a few high-profile public figures.

Dawkins was once a great explainer of Darwinian biology, but he quit that gig years ago. Nye was a children’s TV host who explained basic scientific knowledge in clear language who now debates Young Earth Creationists (i.e., the people who other Creationists make fun of). And deGrasse Tyson was once a fan and acquaintance of Carl Sagan, and now hosts a television show that is (so far) preoccupied with religion and earthbound institutions – as far from the spirit of Sagan as The Big Bang Theory is from Star Trek. 

To be fair, deGrasse Tyson seems like a nice enough guy. I heard him interviewed by Terry Gross a few weeks ago, and he explained that his new show Cosmos (produced by Family Guy creator, professional misogynist, and world’s-most-irritating-atheist Seth MacFarlane) was an attempt to recapture the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s sweeping pro-science rhetoric. That rhetoric, said deGrasse Tyson, is what inspired him and millions of his peers to enter scientific fields. Today’s generation won’t be inspired by the prospect of creating an airplane that is more fuel-efficient than their parents’, he continued. They needed something to really inspire them.

Nevermind that JFK was half-hearted in his commitment to the space program or that its impetus had little to do with scientific discovery (everyone knows that). Nevermind that innovative, fuel-efficient technologies make money, and money is pretty damned inspiring. Nevermind that deGrasse Tyson is attempting to ape ’60s pro-science optimism using Cosmos, a vehicle of late ’70s inward-looking trippiness that doesn’t inspire action so much as awe. Sagan was chill. DeGrasse Tyson is visibly uptight. Sagan’s Cosmos was subtitled A Personal Journey; MacFarlane and deGrasse Tyson have revised that to A Spacetime Odyssey, aiming, I guess, for shades of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” Stanley Kubrick, and Nietzsche. But their show’s tone isn’t ’60s or ’70s: it’s pure 2014, the Year of the Dead Horse (DISCLAIMER – I do not believe in astrology I believe in science I was only making a pun I believe in science I do not actually believe in astrology – DISCLAIMER). In this case, the horse is the vacuousness of religious faith. And despite all the blood and pulp, nobody seems to be tired of it yet.

So twenty minutes ago, deGrasse Tyson slides across my Facebook feed, the latest in a long chain of images mocked up by fans (or, in this case, Mother Jones) that marry images of deGrasse Tyson looking cool or authoritative (or, in this case, just standing) with a quote that only barely masks his utter contempt for those who would, say, explore the religious sphere of human existence or deny funding to NASA:

When [scientists] do know something, there are reasons why we know it, and if you don’t understand that, you deny it only at your peril, especially when the result may affect the stability of our future.

This sounds like a threat. I know he’s addressing climate change denial as much as Creationism or regular Mass attendance, so the “stability of our future” is probably intended to register beyond “If the religious crazies take over, we’re all going to die!

Problem is, that’s the only song these public “Science Guys” have been singing since Richard Dawkins discovered there was money in it. And I am so, so sick of it.

Science denial is a meaningless phenomenon. Outrage about science denial is phony. Period.

Basic scientific knowledge has never been widely understood – not fully. The average anti-Creationist probably couldn’t explain Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection without getting much of it horribly wrong. And scientific inquiry has never been widely valued in itself. Everyone knows scientific inquiry is not funded unless there are economic or (less commonly) geo-political reason for doing so. And everyone knows that practical and economically viable scientific research will be funded no matter what.

I never tire of reminding people that “science” is, in itself, not an actual thing. Science is a method, a process. And I love science, for many of the same reasons deGrasse Tyson wants me to: I was too young for Cosmos, but I grew up with NovaNature, and yes, Bill Nye the Science Guy (remember when he had Soundgarden on?). I loved science before I love the humanities. And although I’m a humanist, I still believe that the scientific method produces the most valuable knowledge we have about our world and, increasingly, each other.

But the scientific community, left on its own, is just a bunch of guys with no money and no voice producing knowledge that nobody pays attention to. To hear Dawkins and deGrasse Tyson and Nye tell it, science is simultaneously totally in charge and under constant attack (their rhetoric in this regard resembles the rhetoric of Evangelical Christians and Stalinists). But science is not in charge. In the 19th century, scientists were guys who either sought patronage or relied on independent means to fund beetle collections and jungle expeditions. And without their practical socio-economic applications, most scientific work wouldn’t get done.

But deGrasse Tyson isn’t interested in the practical applications. He said as much on Fresh Air. Practical applications are boring. And when the skeptical consumer of pro-science PR asks, “Why should I care?”, deGrasse Tyson responds in one of two ways. Either he relies on rhetoric and poetry, not the nuts and grit of real scientific work, because the big stuff – theoretical astrophysics, for instance – is much sexier, especially when you dumb it down…or he goes shrill, warning that if we don’t take science seriously – if we don’t trust them and believe what they say – bad things will happen. This shrill tone occasionally cracks into insouciance: “Doesn’t matter what you believe,” says the Science Guy. “We’re correct whether you believe us or not.”

I hate both approaches, especially the latter. Both approaches discourage critical inquiry, upon which the scientific method relies. While their colleagues do actual, original, difficult research in universities on the dimes of taxpayers and various boards of trustees, Science Guys globe-trot on book tours, stroking the egos of the faithful and epistemologically bullying everyone else. And I wouldn’t mind as much if the enlightened faithful actually understood or cared about the boring work of science any more than the drooling masses. But one only need survey Western civilization for five minutes to know that the overwhelming majority of everybody – including Dawkins/deGrasse/Nye’s audience – doesn’t care about real, hard, boring science.

And so this is my message to the Science Guys:

The Catholic Church ignored science for centuries without destabilizing shit. There were wars, then there were periods of peace, then there were wars. There was ignorance, but there was also some knowledge. But there was no “peril” in ignoring Copernicus. And it wasn’t Galileo who created post-Enlightenment stability in Europe. That was Protestants. More specifically, that was German princes who embraced Protestantism and capitalism. These societies created the conditions in which the natural sciences flourished – not the other way around. Don’t pretend that we need you more than you need us (in most cases, literally U.S. – the U.S. government and its economic allies). It’s our teat you’re sucking on – so keep on sucking, and smile while you’re doing it. 

I realize that 99.99% of professional natural scientists understand that science is a process and that scientific knowledge is a target for continual inquiry. And to be fair, deGrasse Tyson offers an acceptable, if unnecessarily vague, definition of “the scientific method” early in Cosmos. But the definition takes 30 seconds to recite, while he spends half of the episode lambasting 16th century Christianity for persecuting a man who, he later admits, wasn’t actually using the scientific method and was just lucky to have guessed that planets existed. This only further encourages regular people to continue invoking the word “science” the way deGrasse Tyson does: it’s a mantra, a mystical trump card that ends all debate. “This is SCIENCE,” end of debate. Such a mindset is decidedly anti-scientific, but these celebrity scientists who  moonlight as armchair sociologists are enablers, virtually none of whom have earned their public authority through scientific inquiry.

(Hey, here’s an equation written by an English Ph.D. candidate: Neil deGrasse Tyson – [Jon Stewart + Seth McFarlane] = NOBODY. 100% tested and verifiable. What does that tell you about the power of “science”?)

Do I trust scientists more than I trust religious fanatics? Yes, obviously. But I still trust the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book more than I trust either scientists or spiritualists. Even in an educated city like Boston, people won’t nitpick over the astrophysical details of George Clooney movies, and they’ll still probably wind up setting aside a few dollars for the Large Hadron Collider.

Finland’s Jewish Soldiers

By Isaac Binkovitz

A recent article in the Telegraph tells the story of Finland’s Jewish population during World War II. It is an unusual, and little-told story. It isn’t the typical story of the tragedy that met Jews nearly everywhere else on the Continent during the German-led Holocaust. Nor is it the much-mythologized, and often-exaggerated story of Denmark’s seemingly unique willingness to protect its Jewish citizens from the Germans’ so-called “final solution.”

They called it the Winter War
They called it the Winter War.
*The Winter War was technically the first, defensive stage during which Finland was not yet allied with Germany. The second, offensive phase, called the Continuation War, was to regain lost territory with German assistance.

 

Like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the story of Finnish Jews is a story in which the Jew is the protagonist that takes part in the struggle for freedom. In fact, Finnish Jews fought in open battle against the military advances of a foreign totalitarian power seeking to extend its control over an entire continent. Their fight was not in desperation. And their fight wasn’t to save only themselves. The Jews of Finland fought also to save their gentile friends and neighbors. Even more miraculously, the Jews won (technically, they won the first, defensive phase, known as the Winter War, and lost the second, offensive phase, the Continuation War).

But I should mention something: they weren’t fighting the Germans.

But don’t worry; their adversary in battle had pretty solid bad-guy bona fides: they fought the Soviet Union.

In case you forgot that before the Cold War made the Soviet Union the bad guys, they were a major, and for much of the war, the major, Allied power. They rolled back German forces in about half of Europe in a long, drawn-out blood-fest on the Eastern front. You could say that they, as much if not more than the Anglos, won the War to save the West from the Nazis.

The uncomfortable truth is that Finland’s war with the Soviets aided the German war effort. More than that, Finland was allied with Germany during the War. Finnish history then requires a fair amount of nuance. A Western liberal has much reason to cheer for Finland’s successes in preserving its freedom in the face of the Soviet steamroller. And despite Finland’s horrendous allies, Finland had a pretty good record on protecting its Jewish population, unlike nearly everywhere else on the Continent. Finland refused to deport Jews. It was glad for the aid of Jewish soldiers in its armed forces, and reasoned that as long as its Jews were good loyal citizens helping to defend Finland, which they were, Finland would not turn them over to the German death machine.

But they were fighting on the same side as Nazis. You can’t really explain that away entirely. But you can say that Finland did not conquer territory to turn over to German control, and that it did not deport its Jewish citizens. As a small nation it managed to preserve its autonomy during the War, and in the War’s aftermath. All this despite bordering the Soviet Union.

Given circumstances, Finland did pretty well. Perhaps it could have remained neutral longer, and avoided war with the USSR, and still avoided German occupation. But it could have ended up occupied anyway, and had its Jews deported. Tasked with defending its citizens, Finland did. I am sure there were and are weird right-wing Finnish organizations, and that there were Finns who propagated anti-Semitic views and fully sympathized with the Nazis. This kind of collaboration should not be whitewashed. But if every country had been able to succeed the way Finland did in remaining independent, and retaining a civilized (and non-genocidal) order throughout the War, the Holocaust would not be the Holocaust as we know it today.

Some may seek to translate this remarkable story of Finnish valor to other contexts. Take, for example, Finland’s Baltic neighbors to the south: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Many there claim a similar justification for their collaboration with Nazis: that it was necessary to fight the USSR.

Not so fast. In the three Baltic states the alliance with Nazi Germany was not some odd happenstance as we may view Finland’s alliance. The local population (whom I will here refer somewhat awkwardly to as the Baltic peoples in recognition of the fact there is no singular “Baltic people,” and that Estonians do not identify as “Balts,” a term that describes Lithuanians and Latvians) and militias were active and zealous participants in the murder of the region’s Jewish population. Locals joined the SS, and exterminated Jews even more efficiently and thoroughly than the Nazis were able to. By some estimates 99% of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered during the War. To this day, locals in the Baltic states commemorate and celebrate their alliance with Nazi Germany. They attempt to justify it with the same kind of anti-Soviet rationale that applies in Finland.

But they, unlike Finland, attempt to do it to justify genocide. They often even refuse to commemorate the Holocaust unless it is done in a way that it is presented as an equal half of a so-called “Double Genocide.” Under the “Double Genocide” fallacy, the Baltic states claim that the German murder of Jews (they may not even admit that it was a targeted murder of Jews despite the fact that the Nazis murdered 1/3rd of the world’s far-flung Jewish population in less than a decade) must be viewed alongside the supposedly equivalent sufferings of the (gentile) Baltic peoples at the hands of the Soviets. Even more offensively, this is often accompanied by the suggestion that the Baltic peoples’ participation in killing Jews was justified because the Jews were stereotyped as pro-Soviet (and in fact, the Russian Revolution and the USSR it birthed was the result of a “Jewish conspiracy”). This is a theory of “pre-emptive genocide.” It of course ignores that the USSR was not so friendly to the Jews. It ignores that even after Baltic gentiles wiped out the Baltic Jews, the Soviets still dominated the Baltic states (their genocide didn’t really pre-empt anything because the Jews were not the puppet masters controlling the Soviets the Baltic gentiles thought they were). Further, it fails to see that had the Soviets actually sought to wipe out the Baltic peoples, they could easily have done so in less than a decade.

For more information on the problematic failure to recognize the Holocaust in the Baltic states, I would recommend the blog, Defending History.

It wasn’t a given that Finland would follow the course that it did. Finland’s Jews were largely descended from Russian soldiers sent there when Finland was part of the Russian Empire. Finns had all the same reasons to fear and distrust the Jews that the Baltic population had. Finns faced the same geopolitical reality that they bordered an aggressively expansionist Soviet Union, and that the Germans were the ones fighting the Soviet Union. But they did not turn against Finnish Jews. Only 22 (or 23) Finnish Jews died in the War. They were all soldiers who fell fighting the Soviet Union. Perhaps, in part, it was because Finland did not busy itself with killing its own citizens, and instead deployed them as a united group, that it repelled the Soviet invasions and the Baltic peoples did not. I think we can celebrate Finland’s successes. There likely is a fuller story with more nefarious collaboration than I discuss here (Finland did turn over between 5 and 8 foreign Jewish refugees to the Nazis, and transferred POW’s to germany, including 40-70 or Jews). But in large part, Finland deserves a sympathetic account of its actions during a difficult period. 

In short, Finland’s story fits a remarkable Nordic pattern of dealing with the War pretty well from occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden, and… even (hesitantly) Nazi-allied Finland.

When I saw the Telegraph article circulating the web recently, my first concern was that people would read it, learn the logic that fighting the Soviets might justify an alliance with Nazi Germany, and then become predisposed to accept the same argument elsewhere, namely, the Baltic states. I hope to have adequately explained why these cases are incredibly different.

You can read more about Finland’s Jewish soldiers who fought in World War II in Israel’s Ha’aretz.