How John Stuart Mill changed the culture

Roger Kimball on the legacy of John Stuart Mill:

In 1859, two revolutionary books were published. One was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The other was John Stuart Mill’s pamphlet On Liberty. Darwin’s book revolutionized biology and fundamentally altered the debate between science and religion. Mill’s book revolutionized the way we think about innovation in social and moral life.

What is your opinion of innovation? Do you think it is a good thing? Of course you do. You may or may not have read Mill on the subject, but you have absorbed his lessons. What about established opinion, customary ways of doing things? Do you suspect that they should be challenged and probably changed? Odds are that you do. Mill has taught you that, too, even if you have never read a line of On Liberty.

Mill’s essay was ostensibly about the relation between individual freedom and society. Mill famously argued that the only grounds on which society was justified in exercising control over its members, whether that control be in the form of “legal penalties” or simply “the moral coercion of public opinion,” was to “prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

This part of Mill’s argument quickly attracted searching criticism. The British judge James Fitzjames Stephen, for example, went to the heart of the problem when he observed that Mill assumed that “some acts regard the agent only, and that some regard other people. In fact, by far the most important part of our conduct regards both ourselves and others.” As for withholding “the moral coercion of public opinion,” Stephen observed that “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.”

Stephen’s criticisms of Mill were published in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, which appeared about a decade after On Liberty. Many of the criticisms are devastating. Intellectually, Stephen made mincemeat of Mill. But that has hardly mattered. Mill’s doctrines have taken the world by storm, while Stephen has receded to become a footnote in intellectual history.

Why? One reason is that Mill said things that people wanted to hear. Mill seemed to be giving people a permanent vacation from the moral dictates of society. How often have you heard the argument “It’s not hurting anyone else” put forward as a justification for self-indulgence?

But it was not simply what he said about the relation between individual freedom and social control that made On Liberty such an influential tract. Much more important was the attitude, the emotional weather, of the book.

On Liberty is only incidentally a defense of individual freedom. Its deeper purpose is to transform the way we regard established morality and conventional behavior as such. In brief, Mill taught us to be suspicious of established morality not because what it says is wrong (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t) but simply because it is established.

Think about that. The tradition that Mill opposed celebrated custom and established morality precisely because they had prevailed and given good service through the vicissitudes of time and change; their longevity was an important token of their worthiness.

Mill overturned this traditional view. Henceforth, the customary, the conventional was suspect not because it had failed but simply because if was customary and conventional. . . .

Granted that every change for the better has depended on someone embarking on a new departure. Well, so too has every change for the worse. And surely, [David] Stove observes, there have been at least as many proposed innovations which “were or would have been for the worse as ones which were or would have been for the better.” Which means that we have at least as much reason to discourage innovators as to encourage them, especially when their innovations bear on things as immensely complex as the organization of society.

The triumph of Mill’s teaching shows that such objections have fallen on deaf ears. But why? Why have “innovation,” “originality,” etc., become mesmerizing charms that neutralize criticism before it even gets started when so much that is produced in the name of innovation is obviously a change for the worse? An inventory of the fearsome social, political, and moral innovations made in this century alone should have made every thinking person wary of unchaperoned innovation.

One reason that innovation has survived with its reputation intact, Stove notes, is that Mill and his heirs have been careful to supply a “one-sided diet of examples.” It is a technique as simple as it is effective:

Mention no past innovators except those who were innovators-for-the-better. Harp away endlessly on the examples of Columbus and Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno, Socrates and (if you think the traffic will bear it) Jesus. Conceal the fact that there must have been at least one innovator-for-the-worse for every one of these (very overworked) good guys. Never mention Lenin or Pol Pot, Marx or Hegel, Robespierre or the Marquis de Sade.

via Roger’s Rules » Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

 

Psychologists admit to bogus research

Social science aspires to the status of natural science, never mind that human beings are not as consistent or predictable as inert matter.  But a new study has found that an alarmingly large percentage of experimental psychologists admit to using questionable, if not bogus, research methods:

Questionable research practices, including testing increasing numbers of participants until a result is found, are the “steroids of scientific competition, artificially enhancing performance”. That’s according to Leslie John and her colleagues who’ve found evidence that such practices are worryingly widespread among US psychologists. The results are currently in press at the journal Psychological Science and they arrive at a time when the psychological community is still reeling from the the fraud of a leading social psychologist in the Netherlands. Psychology is not alone. Previous studies have raised similar concerns about the integrity of medical research.

John’s team quizzed 6,000 academic psychologists in the USA via an anonymous electronic survey about their use of 10 questionable research practices including: failing to report all dependent measures; collecting more data after checking if the results are significant; selectively reporting studies that “worked”; and falsifying data.

As well as declaring their own use of questionable research practices and their defensibility, the participants were also asked to estimate the proportion of other psychologists engaged in those practices, and the proportion of those psychologists who would likely admit to this in a survey.

For the first time in this context, the survey also incorporated an incentive for truth-telling. Some survey respondents were told, truthfully, that a larger charity donation would be made by the researchers if they answered honestly (based on a comparison of a participant’s self-confessed research practices, the average rate of confession, and averaged estimates of such practices by others). Just over two thousand psychologists completed the survey. Comparing psychologists who received the truth incentive vs. those that didn’t showed that it led to higher admission rates.

Averaging across the psychologists’ reports of their own and others’ behaviour, the alarming results suggest that one in ten psychologists has falsified research data, while the majority has: selectively reported studies that “worked” (67 per cent), not reported all dependent measures (74 per cent), continued collecting data to reach a significant result (71 per cent), reported unexpected findings as expected (54 per cent), and excluded data post-hoc (58 per cent). Participants who admitted to more questionable practices tended to claim that they were more defensible. Thirty-five per cent of respondents said they had doubts about the integrity of their own research. Breaking the results down by sub-discipline, relatively higher rates of questionable practice were found among cognitive, neuroscience and social psychologists, with fewer transgressions among clinical psychologists.

via BPS Research Digest: Questionable research practices are rife in psychology, survey suggests.
HT: Joe Carter

An artist without greed or ego

You’ve got to love Elvis Costello, who is telling his fans NOT to buy his latest box set because it’s too expensive, but to instead buy that of Louis Armstrong, whose music is “vastly superior.”

Just in time for the holidays, Elvis Costello has a new $225 box set for sale — and he’s telling fans NOT to buy it.

The singer says $225 is just too much to pay for “Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook,” even if it does come with three CDs, a vinyl record, a concert DVD and a 40-page coffee table book. The music and DVD were recorded earlier this year at a two-night stand in Los Angeles, where Costello spun his game-show-like wheel to select songs that he and his band would play.

“Unfortunately, we at www.elviscostello.com find ourselves unable to recommend this lovely item to you as the price appears to be either a misprint or a satire,” Costello wrote on his website.

Costello tried to get the record company to knock the price down, but was unsuccessful. So he is recommending buying the work of another legendary artist.

“If you should really want to buy something special for your loved one at this time of seasonal giving, we can whole-heartedly recommend, ‘Ambassador of Jazz’ — a cute little imitation suitcase, covered in travel stickers and embossed with the name ‘Satchmo’ but more importantly containing TEN re-mastered albums by one of the most beautiful and loving revolutionaries who ever lived – Louis Armstrong,” Costello wrote. “The box should be available for under one hundred and fifty American dollars and includes a number of other tricks and treats. Frankly, the music is vastly superior.”

via Elvis Costello: Don’t Buy My $225 Box Set | NBC New York.

The diner as American icon

Foreigners are fascinated by American diners, seeing them as icons of American culture.  So says the BBCg:

Sitting in a diner, on the inside looking outside.

This is a quintessential American experience. Add a booth, a Formica counter and a cup of joe – as diner patrons call their coffee.

Themed restaurants and burger chains from Mumbai to Manchester aim to replicate this chrome-flashed experience, and diner fare such as home fries and fluffy pancakes are now global fast food staples.

So why are these kerbside kitchens a landmark of US culture?

The first such establishment opened in 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island – a “night lunch wagon” to serve those who worked and played long after the restaurants had shut at 20:00.

Its mix of open-all-hours eating and cheap, homemade food proved a hit, and the formula has been repeated ever since.

Today the diner occupies a place in the American heartland. The closest British approximation is not a retro-chic replica diner where hip patrons eat gourmet burgers, but the local pub.

Just as dignitaries visiting the UK and Ireland are taken for a pint and a photo call, no US election campaign is complete without a stop at a diner to emphasise the candidate’s everyman or everywoman credentials.

On the campaign trail in a diner (clockwise from left): George W Bush, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Al Gore Common touch: The diner is now a compulsory stop on the campaign trail

“The thing about this democratic counter is that anyone can go in and sit down. It can be a professor, it can be a worker,” says Richard Gutman, author of American Diner Then and Now.

“A friend of mine in Pennsylvania ate in a diner and he’s in the middle of two guys. One is the chief of police and the other is just some character. The policeman looks over and says, ‘Didn’t I arrest you last year?’ and the guy says, ‘Yes you did – pass the ketchup.’”

via BBC News – Why the diner is the ultimate symbol of America.

That diners are democratic is striking in countries with a rigid class system!  The article goes on to survey the figure of the diner in American art (Edward Hopper) and movies (Pulp Fiction).   I would say that other countries would do well to imitate our diners, as opposed to our fast food joints.

An alternative presidential option?

What do you think of this possibility–not a third party, but a coalition ticket elected by the public via the internet?

The restless political middle — emboldened by the recent inability of a special congressional committee to agree on a debt-reduction deal — is staking out a controversial plan to insert itself into the 2012 election.

A bipartisan group of political strategists and donors known as Americans Elect has raised $22 million and is likely to place a third presidential candidate on the ballot in every state next year. The goal is to provide an alternative to President Obama and the GOP nominee and break the tradition of a Democrat-vs.-Republican lineup.

The effort could represent a promising new chapter for political moderates, who see a wide-open middle in the political landscape as congressional gridlock and bitter partisan fights have driven down favorability ratings for both parties.

“Voters are saddened by the inability of people in Washington to deal with the issues that are important to them,” said the group’s chief executive, Kahlil Byrd, a Republican strategist who once worked for Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D).

Americans Elect has ballot slots in Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and five other states, with certification pending in several others.

The group is relying on an ambitious plan to hold a political convention on the Internet that would treat registered voters like fans of “American Idol,” giving everyone a shot at picking a favorite candidate.

“We want to gather millions of people and allow them to run authentically through the process,” Byrd said, calling it a “wide-scale draft movement for presidential candidates.”

Unlike the Green Party, Americans Elect is not creating a separate party, but trying to change the political process in two ways. First, the group seeks to create a mixed-party ticket, requiring its presidential candidate to pick a running mate from a different party.

Second, Americans Elect — which was formed and is backed by Peter Ackerman, a wealthy private investor and philanthropist, along with Byrd — wants to take the nominating process out of the hands of a few primary voters and make it more open through the use of technology. Registered voters who sign up on the group’s Web site would directly nominate and select candidates online in the spring. A final nominee would be selected in June.

via Moderate Americans Elect group hoping to add third candidate to 2012 election ballot – The Washington Post.

Would you participate in an online convention?  Would you vote for its candidate?

With an unpopular incumbent and very likely an unpopular Republican challenger, as well as broad disillusionment with conventional politics, might this actually work?

Non-creationist critiques of Darwinism

Marquette philosophy professor Howard Kainz reviews two new books in which atheist scholars critique Darwinism:

Surprisingly, two recent books by atheist philosophers of science have joined with ID theorists in the criticism of neo-Darwinism.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, in What Darwin Got Wrong come at neo-Darwinism from a number of directions. Initially, they draw a comparison with B.F. Skinner’s psychological theory of “operant conditioning,” which attempted to explain changes in human behavior by patterns of stimulus and response. Limitations of that theory have eventually been revealed: it did not take into account internal mechanisms in organisms subjected to external stimuli; and the intention of researchers or subjects affected the results of experiments. Skinner’s behaviorism can be corrected by taking these aspects into account. But no such correction is possible in neo-Darwinism, which has no interest in “the internal organization of creatures . . . (genotypic and ontogenetic structures)” and recognizes no “intentions” in evolutionary processes.

The remaining chapters of their book add qualifications that almost seem like ID arguments: Fibonacci patterns, in which each term is equal to the sum of the two preceding ones, seem to be prior to all evolutionary developments; scaling factors in organisms are multiples of a quarter, not of a third, according to the “one-quarter power law”; computational analysis of nervous systems of organisms show that their “connection economies” are perfect; “cost versus speed” analyses of the respiratory patterns of the song of canaries show the most efficient use of energy; tests of the ratio of foraging honeybees to those staying in the hives show perfect solutions in all situations. There is perfection everywhere. They also offer an example of a type of wasp whose patterns of feeding her young competes with ID theorist Michael Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity.”

But the major neo-Darwinist problem, they conclude, is that natural selection, in analogy to artificial selection, depends on the existence of a mythical “Mother Nature.” But since there is no Mother Nature, “she is a frail reed for [adaptationists] to lean on. Ditto, the Tooth Fairy; ditto the Great Pumpkin; ditto God. Only agents have minds, and only agents act out of their intentions, and natural selection isn’t an agent.”

Bradley Monton, in Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, in contrast to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, is not so much concerned with deficiencies in neo-Darwinism, but rather in pointing out unfairness and invalid criticisms of arguments by proponents of ID. Monton maintains he is looking for the truth, wherever it leads.

via Intelligent Design: Atheists to the Rescue | First Things.


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