Archive for August, 2013

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

August 27, 2013

I read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, in George Bull’s translation to English, recently. Machiavelli changed the discourse about politics and moved European politics into the modern ear, one might say. Anthony Grafton puts it in perspective in the foreword:

machiavelli_prince_cover_smallerMachiavelli hated ‘unarmed prophets’ (profeti disarmati) […] Yet he himself was armed only with a pen when he became the prophet of a new understanding of politics. He gave permanent, unforgettable literary form to the sharp, unforgiving vision of politics that had long been cultivated by members of the Florentine élite. At the same time, however, he made clear the limitations of that inherited vision, as well as those of the more idealistic one that had previously dominated political literature. No wonder that his portrait of the prince […] retains its power to fascinate, to frighten and to instruct [pp. xxviii-xxix*]

Machiavelli discusses different types of states and how to rule them, with examples from contemporary Italy (late 1400’s and early 1500’s), Roman times, and the antique. Most examples are rather arcane for an unstudied bastard like me, but George Bull’s extensive notations makes it at least theoretically possible to dive into historical sources. Bull also provides a useful glossary of names; as said, many of the historical figures referred to are unknown to me and probably many, if not most, readers of today.

It is tempting to dive into some of the historical cases, as many of Machiavelli’s examples seem interesting in their own right. In part because few nations has a richer history than Italy, perhaps particularly when it comes to governmental issues, but also in terms of culture and science, for example. A particularly interesting example that Machiavelli discusses is that of Severus and his rise to become ruler of the Roman empire (see chapter XIX). Introducing the example of Severus, Machiavelli writes:

Because what Severus did was remarkable and outstanding for a new prince, I want to show briefly how well he knew how to act the part of both a fox and a lion, whose natures […] must be imitated by a new prince [p. 63].

The prince should be both a fox and a lion! Machiavelli elaborates further on how a prince (or ruler, in current terms) need to behave:

A prince […] must be very careful not to say a word which does not seem inspired by [five qualities]. To those seeing and hearing him, he should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and a religious man. And there is nothing so important as to seem to have this last quality. Men in general judge by their eyes rather than by their hands; because everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to com in close touch with you [the prince is the intended reader, that is]. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are [p. 58].

I guess most politicians today, and most public figures for that matter, can subscribe to that last observation: Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.

In addition to discussing ideal political behavior, Machiavelli also comments on the contemporary political situation in Italy. For example, Machiavelli suggests that Italy stayed fragmented in small states and city-states after the fall of the Roman empire (Italy wasn’t united until well into the nineteenth century) because of the many weak rulers who relied too much on hired or allied troops. An interesting theory indeed, but the situation was probably a good deal more complicated.

I always have to struggle to engage in political debates; often because I quickly become confused. Now that I have read Machiavelli, I at least have a background to extrapolate political arguments from. Perhaps I will enjoy politics more in the future.

*Page numbers refer to Penguin Books paperback version, reissued with revisions, 2003.

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Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

August 21, 2013

Letters to a Young Scientist entices you with its nice cover, small format, and promising title. ‘Pulitzer Price Winner’ is emblazoned on the front, below Wilson’s name. If you don’t think twice, you may think that he got the Pulitzer for Letters. He didn’t.

letters to a young scientist mech.inddIn Letters, Wilson aims to share wisdom accumulated during a long career as a biologist. Admittedly, I am not among his intended readers, as the book is specifically aimed at scientists in the hard sciences. But, science is science, social or not, so I decided there quite likely was some good advice there for a young social scientist as well (young seems to mean younger than Wilson, and that is just about everybody; I think he is in his nineties eighties).

One of the first of Wilson’s advices is, well, essentially, follow your passion. In Wilson’s words, ‘put passion ahead of training’ (p. 25*). I find this advice interesting because over the last couple of years, I have followed Cal Newport’s blog. Cal Newport is a young professor in computer science or something thereabouts. He is also a prolific writer, and he writes about how to succeed at whatever you do. He wrote a book on it called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I read it. His ideas are particularly suited to young people with high education or much training behind them (like musicians). Cal Newport think passion is the last thing you should worry about if you want to succeed and proceed to live a remarkable life (which, presumably, is the normal course of events; I am sure Newport has a more nuanced view of this, in particular, I think he thinks finding pleasure in being on the way to success is a key element, but this is an aside). Newport has developed something reminiscent of a theory of how to go about to have success. An important part of the theory is that skills developed through meticulous training is necessary to have success. And, to get back to Wilson, Newport’s mantra that following your passion is bad advice clashes with Wilson’s advice, head on. So, who to believe? The experienced, senior, and highly successful Wilson, or the young Newport (on his way to success, I am sure)? I think Newport is right. I do not doubt that Wilson’s advice is ‘an important principle [he’s] seen unfold in the careers of many successful scientists’ (p. 25), but I bet most of them took their training very seriously. If Wilson didn’t, he is probably the lucky guy. Wilson sees a lot of trees, I’m afraid, but there is no forest (his dust jacket notwithstanding). And that most successful scientist has a lot of passion for what they do is not strange at all. It gave them success, after all, and research is supposed to be important and good and I am sure most successful scientist receives a lot of such feedback, and that probably helps if the passion is not always so strong.

Wilson devotes most of his letters to recount success stories from his long life in science. Wilson has studied ants more than anything (and anyone, one gets the impression). Ants are interesting, but do not always feel very relevant to the overarching idea (advising young scientists to succeed). It is not always straight forward to understand what Wilson tries to say. He has a letter with the heading What is Science?, for example, where his answer to his own question leaves something to be desired. In the same letter, he poses What, then, in broadest terms is the scientific method? and again fails to provide a satisfactory answer. In Wilson’s view, a scientific problem leads, after much investigation and in the best of cases, to a scientific fact. He does not find it necessary to make the young scientist aware that there exist an entire literature on philosophy of science that any budding, young scientist should become at least somewhat familiar with and that discusses whether the idea of a scientific fact is indeed well-defined. And, most investigations into scientific problems lead to few answers and more, but perhaps deeper, problems.

A source of the ground strength of science are the connections made not only variously within physics, chemistry, and biology, but also among these primary disciplines. A very large question remains in science and philosophy. It is as follows: Can this consilience-connections made between widely separated bodies of knowledge-be extended to the social sciences and humanities, including even the creative arts? I think it can, and further I believe that the attempt to make such linkages will be a key part of intellectual life in the remainder of the twenty-first century [pp. 62-63].

That is a good advice from Wilson, I think, but already largely taken up in the existing or emerging structure of science, where interdisciplinary work is everywhere pursued and encouraged.

The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper [p. 74].

Another meaningful advice, but I think the ideal scientist finds the ideal balance. The creativity necessary to move science (forward, presumably), and the bookkeeping need both to be kept up throughout and cannot be separated into disconnected modes.

Wilson’s narrow world view, which I think makes much of his advice of little value, manifests itself in the following passage, under the title Science as Universal Knowledge:

There is only one way to understand the universe and all within it, however imperfectly, and that is through science. You are likely to respond, Not true, there are also the social sciences and humanities. I know that, of course, I’ve heard it a hundred times, and I’ve always listened carefully. But how different at their foundations are the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities? The social sciences are converging generation by generation of scholars with biology, by sharing methods and ideas, and thereby conceding more and more to the realities of the ultimately biological nature of our species. […] Yet however much the humanities enrich our lives, however definitively they defend what it means to be human, they also limit thought to that which is human, and in this one important sense they are trapped within a box [pp. 169 – 170].

And with that, he rambles into speculations about extraterrestrial intelligence. But what to take away? If your passion lies with a social science, you should become a biologist as that is where everything ends up in the end, anyway? I don’t think so (I don’t even think passion should matter). Wilson only stretches the meaning of biology, and that is of little use. He may be right that one day, human knowledge may be much more integrated as an entire body of knowledge rather than a number of separate disciplines with a few links in between. But that is really not all that relevant. What we should be thinking, is that all scientific activity sorts under science. To think of different scientific activities in a hierarchical manner is of little value.

Wilson has already proposed a biologically based theory of human behavior; human sociobiology. It caused a lot of upheaval at the time, and understandably so given statements like the following, by Wilson:

In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home. This strong bias persist in most agricultural and industrial societies and, on that ground alone, appears to have a genetic origin. […] My own guess is that the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies. […] Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science [quoted from S. J. Gould’s An Urchin in the Storm, p. 29, Wilson originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine, October 12, 1975].

Stephen Jay Gould has written extensively on human sociobiology. Much of it appears in his An Urchin in the Storm. Among his conclusions are that human sociobiology is founded on a flawed mathematical and theoretical basis, that its empirical content is failing. For anyone interested, I can recommend Gould’s review (pp. 107-ff in Urchin) of Wilson’s popular work Promethean Fire, where Gould attacks, among other things, Wilson’s belief in reductionism.

I am not sure how to round up my review of Wilson’s Letters. As a young (social) scientist myself, I cannot say I learned a lot from it; nothing I had not heard from before. As someone not overly interested in ants (although I do find social behavior among animals and insects interesting), I found Wilson’s accounts of his many worldly and scientific adventures way over the top. And Wilson’s constant glorification of his own career and his own choices are nothing but annoying. My conclusions is Don’t read Wilson’s Letters.

* Page numbers refer to the first edition, 2013.

A Researcher’s Staff

August 15, 2013

The choosing of [collaborators] is a matter of no little importance for a [researcher]; and their worth depends on the sagacity of the [researcher] himself. The first opinion that is formed of a [researcher’s] intelligence is based on the quality of the men he has around him. When they are competent and loyal he can always be considered wise, because he has been able to recognize their competence and to keep them loyal. But when they are otherwise, the [researcher] is always open to adverse criticism; because his first mistake has been in the choice of his [collaborators]. […] There are three kinds of intelligence: one kind understands things for itself, the second appreciates what others can understand, the third understands neither for itself nor through others. The first kind is excellent, the second good, and the third kind useless [paraphrased from George Bull’s translation of The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, chapter XXII].

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

August 14, 2013

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, provides a brief and popular account of the science and politics of climate change. Chapter 2, for example, is the best popular account of the greenhouse effect I have seen (and far better than any unpopular account I am aware of). It is also very well written. (Kolbert has, for example, written extensively for the New Yorker, which has high standards; Field Notes are in fact based upon pieces once written for it.) An excerpt I enjoyed in particular demonstrates the point:

KolbertFieldNotesNo nation takes a keener interest in climate change, at least on a per-capita basis, than Iceland. More than 10 percent of the country is covered by glaciers, the largest of which, Vatnajökull, streches over thirty-two hundred square miles. Dureing the so-called Little Ice Age, which began in Europe some five hundred years ago and ended some three hundred and fifty years later, the advance of the glaciers caused widespread misery. Contemporary records tell of farms being buried under the ice-“Frost and cold torment people,” a pastor in eastern Iceland named Olafur Einarsson wrote-and in particularly severe years, shipping, too, seems to have ceased, because the island remained icebound even in summer. In the mid-eighteenth century, it has been estimated, nearly a third of the country’s population died of starvation or associated cold-related ills. For Icelanders, many of whom can trace their geneaology back a thousand years, this is considered to be almost recent history [p. 59, paperback edition, 2009].

An interesting strain of the science on climate change that I am not much familiar with, but which Kolbert emphasizes, is the study of how ancient civilizations were disturbed by climatic changes (or long-term variations in weather patterns). Peter deMenocal, a paleoclimatologist Kolbert interviews put it like this:

The thing they [the ancient civilizations] couldn’t prepare for was the same thing that we won’t prepare for, because in their case they didn’t know about it and because in our case the political system can’t listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think [p. 117].

Kolbert’s discussion of the politics of climate change is interesting, but centers mostly around the inability of the US to step forward on the global policy scene, and how the conservative forces are to blame. While the rest of Kolbert’s book certainly can serve to educate the public on the danger of climate change, I am not convinced that her treatment of the politics can be perceived as neutral enough (in the lack of a better phrase) to have much political influence. (But then, the book has been out for years already, and someone more on top of things than I probably knows already.)

Another thing I find interesting is that Kolbert cites science which suggest that current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (400 parts per million) represent danger. Forget about the two degrees target, in other words. On the other hand, Kolbert cites research that conclude that we already possess technologies and knowledge to solve the climate problem. The catch, of course, is that involved costs makes it practically (politically) impossible to solve the climate problem with the existing technologies. Kolbert concludes:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing [p. 189].

I guess, and hope, Kolbert is already on the reading list of all and any politician (interested in climate change or not), of all concerned citizens, of all social scientists that work on related issues, well, as many as possible should read Field Notes. Its brevity, accessibility, and sharp focus makes it a potential game changer.

What is Science?

August 4, 2013

What is this grand enterprise called science that has lit up heaven and earth and empowered humanity? It is organized, testable knowledge of the real world, of everything around us as well as ourselves, as opposed to the endlessly varied beliefs people hold from myth and superstition. It is the combination of physical and mental operations that have become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations dedicated to the most effective way ever conceived of acquiring factual knowledge [E. O. Wilson, 2013, Letters to a Young Scientist, p. 55].

I find myself reading the latest book by Edward O. Wilson; Letters to a Young Scientist. In a weak moment, I picked it up at an airport. Too late did I realize Wilson is the father of human sociobiology although I recently read harsh criticism, offered by Stephen Jay Gould, of the entire discipline. If I had remembered when I came across Wilson’s Letters, I might not have bought it and wouldn’t have found myself disliking the book now. His explanation of what science is, for example, is not very precise or all-encompassing, and not particularly helpful to the young scientist. Anyway, Wilson has been a researcher for some six decades and I hope some of the lessons he offers will be helpful. (I realize I am not among the readers Wilson had in mind, being a social scientist. But it doesn’t really matter. Science, social or not, is a social enterprise, and all science builds upon the same, philosophical foundation and requires much of the same type of motivation and drive to pursue.)

Gaimanesque Droplets of Truth

August 3, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is the best book I’ve read in quite a while. Gaiman’s understanding of what it means to be human runs so deep. His stories are sprinkled with small droplets of truth. (I know, truth is a difficult concept, but it feels like truth, it really does.)

She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age [7!]. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

I would not be surprised if Gaiman receives the Nobel Prize for The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And the story has movie written all over it, although movies based upon books has a tendency to disappoint when one has already read the book. (And watching the movie first usually ruins any chance of experiencing the book afterwards.)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman