Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Quote of the day

December 7, 2016

Frank Ramsey (1903 – 1930), one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century, is often quoted on using his size to illustrate his world view:

Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone […]

The New York Review just reviewed a biography on Ramsey that I am unlikely to read, but I would want to read a biography more in line with what the reviewer wants, one that ‘describe and place in intellectual history his important contributions to economics, mathematics, and philosophy’.

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Quotes from The Ordeal of Change by Eric Hoffer

September 27, 2015

Eric Hoffer is a very interesting thinker, and I very much enjoyed his The Ordeal of Change. If possible, I would quote large parts of the book, but have to settle for some short excerpts. Many of them demonstrate Hoffer’s deep understanding of the human psyche. I try to quote generously rather than commenting too much.

It has been often said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the fruits of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from the sense of their inadequacy and impotence. We cannot win the weak by sharing our wealth with them They feel our generosity as oppression. […] Nor can we win the weak by sharing our hope, pride, or even hatred with them. […] Our healing gift to the weak is the capacity for self-help. We must learn how to impart to them the technical, social, and political skills which would enable them to get bread, human dignity, freedom, and strength by their own efforts [pp. 11-12*].

While written more than fifty years ago, certain parts feel oddly relevant for the present-day social media driven self-realization epidemic:

An autonomous existence is heavily burdened and beset with fears, and can be endured only when bolstered by confidence and self-esteem. The individual’s most vital need is to prove his worth, and this usually means an insatiable hunger for action. For it is only the few who can acquire a sense of worth by developing and employing their capacities and talents. The majority prove their worth by keeping busy. A busy life is the nearest thing to a purposeful life. But whether the individual takes the path of self-realization or the easier one of self-justification by action he remains unbalanced and restless. For he has to prove his worth anew each day [p. 25].

On creativity of the intellectual:

There is no unequivocal evidence that the intellectual is at his creative best when left wholly on his own. It is not at all certain that individual freedom is a vital factor in the release of creative energies in literature, art, music, and science. Many of the outstanding achievements in these fields were not realized in an atmosphere of absolute freedom. […] There is a chronic insecurity at the core of the creative person, and he needs a milieu that will nourish his confidence and sense of uniqueness. Discerning appreciation and a modicum of deference and acclaim are probably more vital for his creative flow than freedom to fend for himself. Thus a despotism that recognizes and subsidizes excellence might be more favorable for the performance of the intellectual than a free society that does not take him seriously. […] It is of course conceivable that a wholly free society might become imbued with a reverence for the fine arts; but up to now the indications have been that where common folk have room enough there is not much room for the dignity and rank of the typical writer, artist, and intellectual in general [pp. 31-32].

More on the intellectual:

One cannot escape the impression that the intellectual’s most fundamental incompatibility is with the masses. He has managed to thrive in social orders dominated by kings, nobles, priests, and merchants, but not in societies suffused with the tastes and values of the masses. The trespassing by the masses into the domain of culture and onto the stage of history is seen even by the best among the intellectuals as a calamity [pp. 42-43].

Ordeal is not really a book in the typical sense, but rather a collection of essays that revolve around a common theme. Thus, Hoffer ranges far and wide in topics and relations, and takes the opportunity to comment on, for example, history:

From their first appearance civilizations almost everywhere were preoccupied with the spectacular, the fantastic, the sublime, the absurd, and the playful—with hardly a trickle of ingenuity seeping into the practical and useful. The prehistoric discoveries and inventions remained the basis of everyday life in most countries down to our time. Technologically, the Neolithic Age lasted even in Western Europe down to the end of the eighteenth century [p. 48].

In an essay on ‘the brotherhood of men’, Hoffer points out a surprisingly accurate contrast between my relationship with those close and humanity in general. (But I remain ambivalent, and my relationships are repeatedly turned up side down. Perhaps I need the maturity of Hoffer to settle.)

It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one’s neighbor. There may even be a certain antagonism between love of humanity and love of neighbor; a low capacity for getting along with those near us often goes hand in hand with a high receptivity to the idea of the brotherhood of men. […] The capacity for getting along with our neighbor depends to a large extent on the capacity for getting along with ourselves. The self-respecting individual will try to be as tolerant of his neighbor’s shortcomings as he is of his own. Self-righteousness is a manifestation of self-contempt. When we are conscious of our worthlessness, we naturally expect others to be finer and better than we are, and it is as if we wished to be disappointed in them. Rudeness luxuriates in the absence of self-respect [pp. 74-75].

According to Hoffer, modern man strives with self-respect, and with a certain grandeur, he connects it with global conflict.

The unattainability of self-respect has […] grave consequences. In man’s life the lack of an essential component usually leads to the adoption of a substitute. The substitute is usually embraced with vehemence and extremism, for we have to convince ourselves that what we took as second choice is the best there ever was. Thus blind faith is to a considerable extent a substitue for the lost faith in ourselves; insatiable desire a substitute for hope; accumulation a substitute for growth; fervent hustling a substitute for purposeful action; and pride a substitute for unattainable self-respect .The pride that at present pervades the world is the claim that one is a member of a chose group—be it a nation, race, church, or party. No other attitude has so impaired the oneness of the human species and contributed so much to the savage strife of our time [p. 76].

On the writer:

To the genuine writer the word is an end in itself and the center of his existence. He may dream of spectacular action and be lured to play an active role, but in the long run he does not feel at home in the whirl of busy life. […] It is only when the creative flow within him materializes in serried ranks of words that he feels at home in the world [p. 87].

Playfulness and creativity:

[…] the tendency to carry youthful characteristics into adult life, which renders man perpetually immature and unfinished, is at the root of his uniqueness in the universe, and is particularly pronounced in the creative individual. Youth has been called a perishable talent, but perhaps talent and originality are always aspects of youth, and the creative individual is an imperishable juvenile. When the Greeks said, “Whom the gods love die young” they probably meant, as Lord Sankey suggested, that those favored by the gods stay young till the day they die; young and playful [p. 93].

* Page numbers refer to the limited edition printed by Buccaneer Books, Inc. The Ordeal of Change was first published in 1963.

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Classic Style according to Steven Pinker

August 6, 2015

Steven Pinker has a piece on chronicle.com that has much of the essence of his book The Sense of Style. In the Chronicle-piece, he describes classic style, which he promotes as the best style for academic writing, more condensed and, honestly, more quotable than I ever remember from Sense:

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

Prose is a Window Onto the World!

I will let the problems of ‘truth’ lie for the moment, but I do think writing and thinking is intertwined and one promotes the other. Writing can be used to sort out what one thinks. (I have this idea from good, old McCloskey and find it compelling.) But this is not to say that the final, rewritten, rewritten, and edited text should read as if the writer sorted out thoughts along the way, which I presume is what Pinker has in mind and with which I agree.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

June 11, 2015

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is one of the best books about writing that I have read. (Not that I have read that many books about writing, but I have read some. Those that comes to mind are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style — didn’t leave much of an impression — Deidre McCloskey’s Economical Writing — did leave a huge impression — much of Barzun’s Simple & Direct and William’s Style — that I didn’t finish them says a lot — Stephen King’s On Writing and the edited volume Ernest Hemingway On Writing — King and Hemingway are not exclusively, but still largely, on writing. Further reading on rhetorics are McCloskey’s The Rhetorics of Economics and Cicero’s De Oratore. Books about reading — surprisingly readable — include Nick Hornby’s Shakespeare Wrote for Money and Stephen Jay Gould’s The Urchin in the StormUrchin is a collection of essays where Gould pursues a special kind of book review, discussing books in an idea-wide scope; as instructive as anything. But I get carried away.)

Pinker’s The Sense of Style is great, perhaps only surpassed by McCloskey’s Economical Writing, in part because of McCloskey’s brevity. But Pinker has so much knowledge and so much to tell; he will be forgiven. What I get from McCloskey and that I miss in Pinker is an account of, and introduction to, the struggle of writing — writing obviously comes easily to Pinker and it seemingly never struck him that people struggle with it and that dealing with this struggle is, sometimes, half the job. Further, McCloskey tells us of the importance of reading well in order to write well; I think McCloskey has an important point that is missed by many, and I would appreciate Pinker’s views on it. Another minor thing pointed out by McCloskey is the value of prudence when it comes to visual effects like italics and bold face, and the disadvantage of distractions like footnotes (the latter pertains in particular to non-fictional writing, of course); I also miss these perspectives in Pinker.

But (again) Pinker is a very great book on writing. He starts out by providing samples of great writing (one example here) and then explaining, in details, what’s so particularly great about the specific examples. (Pinker uses a lot of examples — perhaps too much.) Next, he introduces the classic style, the style of writing he recommend, in particular for clear, non-fictional writing.

Classic style is an ideal. Not all prose should be classic, and not all writers can carry off the pretense. But knowing the hallmarks of classic style will make anyone a better writer, and it is the strongest cure I know for the disease that enfeebles academic, bureaucratic, corporate, legal, and official prose [p. 31*].

To just adopt the classic style is not all that easy, however, and this is one place where I wish Pinker would take a lesson from McCloskey. While Pinker teaches us what the classic style is and why it works, I missed something on how to achieve it. (Perhaps it’s all there, but I didn’t get it?)

Pinker moves on to discuss the curse of knowledge that is the difficulty involved in understanding what your reader knows and what your reader does not know, and our tendency to overestimate what is known. Pinker advice to “always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mindset and find out how other people think and feel” (p. 76).

Then Pinker turns to grammar, that old-fashioned subject that will bore you to death (or so must they think, those who think the grammar support provided by most word processing softwares nowadays is sufficient):

But grammar should not be thought of as an ordeal of jargon and drudgery […] It should be thought of instead as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world: our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head to another. Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful. By understanding how the various features of grammar are designed to make sharing possible, we can put them to use in writing more clearly, correctly, and gracefully [p. 79].

Grammar brings together three things: “the web of ideas in our head, the string of words that comes out of our mouth or fingers, and the tree of syntax that converts the first into the second” (p. 79). Pinker spends considerable time on the tree-like structure of sentences; probably both important and useful, but I honestly have forgotten most of it.

One important lesson I do remember, so important that Pinker returns to it on several occasions, is that the passive voice do have a place in good writing, and is even necessary at times:

[Earlier] we saw one of the benefits of the passive, namely that the agent of the event, expressed in the by-phrase, can go unmentioned. This is handy for mistake-makers who are trying to keep their names out of the spot-light and for narrators who want you to know that helicopters were used to put out some fires but don’t think you need to know that it was a guy named Bob who flew one of the helicopters. Now we see the other major benefit of the passive: it allows the doer to be mentioned later in the sentence than the done-to. […] The passive allows a writer to postpone the mention of a doer that is heavy, old news, or both [p. 132].

I find this lesson about the passive extraordinarily important. Ever since I read McCloskey, who dismisses the passive in forceful turns, I have avoided it like the plague. Now, I relax a little bit, knowing that submitting to a passive phrase does not have to mean that I am a useless writer.

Appreciating the treelike nature of a text can also help you understand one of the few devices available in nontechnical prose to visually mark the structure of discourse: the paragraph break. Many writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to build a paragraph. But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch of a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimited by a blank line or an indentation. What does exist is the paragraph break: a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause, take a breather, assimilate what he has read, and then find his place again on the page [p. 145].

Two cents from McCloskey here: Align, in Pinker’s words, the units of discourse with your paragraphs: One idea, one unit of thought, per paragraph, and the structure of your argument will become more clear.

On page 156 and onward, Pinker discusses the imperative Avoid Elegant Variation in the context of one of his many examples. He does, however, also point to situations where it is necessary to avoid repeating words, for example to avoid confusion. But the general advice is still to avoid variation for variation’s sake. Pinker is in full agreement with McCloskey here, who is rather stern if I remember correctly. Variation leads Pinker onto a discussion of coherence, of utmost important to good writers, of course. And coherence is related to the curse of knowledge:

Figuring out the right level of explicitness for coherence relations is a major reason that a writer needs to think hard about the state of knowledge of her readers and show a few of them a draft to see whether she got it right. It’s an aspect of the art of writing which depends on intuition, experience, and guesswork, but there is also an overarching guideline. Humans are cursed with attributing  too much of their own knowledge to others [curse of knowledge], which means that overall there is a greater danger of prose being confusing because it has too few connectives than pedantic because it has too many. When in doubt, connect [pp. 167-168].

I have a rumor (among me and myself, at least) for being pedantic when it comes to writing. Mostly, I find it a valuable trait.

Pinker end up concluding that coherence amounts to design:

There is a big difference between a coherent passage of writing and a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version of one’s notes. A coherent text is a designed object: an ordered tree of sections within sections, crisscrossed by arcs that track topics, points, actors, and themes, and held together by connectors that tie one proposition to the next. Like other designed objects, it comes about not by accident but by drafting a blueprint, attending to details, and maintaining a sense of harmony and balance [p. 186].

I tend to agree.

The final chapter of Pinker’s Style is devoted to a list of hundred common issues in grammar, word choice, and punctuation, with Pinker’s advice on how to navigate them. Among them, the dreaded dangling modifiers, that versus which, a fun story of when fear of a split infinitive lead to a crisis of governance (in the US, of course), and ninety seven more valuable lessons that I am glad I now have available in my office.

I hope to have convinced you that dealing with matters of usage is not like playing chess, proving theorems, or solving textbook problems in physics, where the rules are clear and flouting them is an error. It is more like research, journalism, criticism, and other exercises of discernment. In considering questions of usage, a writer must critically evaluate claims of correctness, discount the dubious ones, and make choices which inevitably trade off conflicting values [p. 300].

I never intended to put Pinker and McCloskey up against each other, but it kind of turned out that way anyhow. (I remember more from McCloskey than I’m aware!) Which I prefer? I think someone who want to write better should read both, but start with McCloskey, for brevity if for nothing else. They complement each other. And I cannot choose. Pinker provide a much more comprehensive treatment, and is much more an expert. McCloskey is refreshing, in particular when she addresses peculiarities of economic writing, and should not be missed. For all her amateurism, her guide made me appreciate the value and necessity of good writing, and provided me with an understanding that let me navigate other treatises with ease and joy.

* Page numbers refer to the first edition, Allen Lane, 2014.

Pinker

Steven Pinker on ‘that’ vs. ‘which’

May 23, 2015

A recurrent theme for many writers (of English), particularly non-native speakers and especially me, is whether to use ‘that’ or ‘which’. Here is Steven Pinker:

The real decision is not whether to use that or which but whether to use a restrictive or a nonrestrictive clause. If a phrase which expresses a comment about a noun can be omitted without substantially changing the meaning, and if it would be pronounced after a slight pause and with its own intonation contour, then be sure to set it off with commas (or dashes or parentheses): The Cambridge restaurant, which had failed to clean its grease trap, was infested with roaches. Having done so, you don’t have to worry about whether to use that or which, because if you’re tempted to use that it means either that you are more than two hundred years old or that your ear for the English language is so mistuned that the choice of that and which is the least of your worries. [Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style, Allen Lane, 2014.]

I am not two hundred years old, so that or which is the least of my worries; good to know!

The Paradox of Hot Food

April 17, 2015

I’ve wondered why food abroad (which almost always means somewhere warmer) often is more spicy than the typical, Norwegian cuisine. A part of the explanation is likely that few spices grow north. In David Landes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, after extensive discussions of European trade and shipping routes across the world from the 1400’s and onwards, with spice as an important commodity, I came across the following anecdote.

The Spice of Life

People of our day may wonder why pepper and other condiments were worth so much to Europeans of long ago. The reason lay in the problem of food preservation in a world of marginal subsistence. Food supply in the form of cereals barely sufficed, and it was not possible to devote large quantities of grain to animals during long winters, excepting of course breeding stock, draft animals, and horses. Hence the traditional autumnal slaughter. To keep this meat around the calendar, through hot and cold, in a world without artificial refrigeration, it was smoked, corned, spiced, and otherwise preserved; when cooked, the meat was heavily seasoned, the better to hide the taste and odor of spoilage. Hence the paradox that the cuisine of warmer countries is typically “hotter” than that of colder lands–there is more to hide.

Condiments brought a further dividend. The people of that day could not know this, but the stronger spices worked to kill or weaken the bacteria and viruses that promoted and fed on decay. […] Spices, then, were not merely a luxury in medieval Europe but also a necessity, as their market value testified.

Describing Something in 27 Ways

January 24, 2015

I was put onto Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje after Nick Hornby’s ecstatic discussion. Great book indeed, crazy but great. The main character is based on the legendary originator of jazz, Buddy Bolden, and Slaughter could perhaps be perceived as a literary biography. Or perhaps a dramatization of his life. As Hornby pointed out, Ondaatje writes about jazz like no other.

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot — see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes. Listening to him was like talking to Coleman. You were both changing direction with every sentence, sometimes in the middle, using each other as springboard through the dark. You were moving so fast it was unimportant to finish and clear everything. He would be describing something in 27 ways. There was pain and gentleness everything jammed into each number.

But jazz wasn’t like that in the early 1900’s, I refuse to believe that. But it became like that, and Ondaatje got it down on paper!

We Are Going to Die

December 18, 2014

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potentail people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here [Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow].

I read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. The first chapter is organized around four excerpts that Pinker uses to illustrate good writing; the one above from Richard Dawkins is the first one.

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

November 25, 2014

I’ve read the dry and comprehensive, but interesting and important The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. The Mismeasure of Man discusses problems with mental tests and their interpretation as measures of something innate. The argument about innateness stems from the more general theory called biological determinism. Gould discusses problems with biological determinism in several essays in the collection An Urchin in the Storm (his discussion there has a more general flavour, if I remember correctly; a few comments on Gould’s critique of E.O. Wilson here); in Mismeasure, the discussion centers around mental faculties. Gould’s general message:

TheMismeasureOfMan[T]hat determinist arguments for ranking people according to a single scale of intelligence, no matter how numerically sophisticated, have recorded little more than social prejudice—and that we learn something hopeful about the nature of science in pursuing such an analysis [p. 60*].

I admire Gould as writer and thinker. His honest , clear, and profound thoughts on the objective scientist, for example, align with my own, admittedly somewhat more muddled, ideas:

Scholars are often wary of citing [personal] commitments, for, in the stereotype, an ice–cold impartiality acts as the sine qua non [indispensable or essential] of proper and dispassionate objectivity. I regard this argument as one of the most fallacious, even harmful, claims commonly made in my profession. Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences—and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice.
Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence—so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be attained!  No conceit could be worse than a belief in one’s own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools. […] The best form of objectivity lies in explicitly identifying preferences so that their influence can be recognized and countermanded [pp. 36-37].

I criticize the myth that science itself is an objective enterprise, done properly only when scientists can shuck the constraints of their culture and view of the world as it really is. […] I believe that science must be understood as a social phenomenon, a gutsy, human enterprise […] I also present this view as an upbeat for science, not as a gloomy epitaph for a noble hope sacrified on the altar of human limitations [p. 53].

And, all glory ideas about scientific progress through breakthroughs aside, much scientific progress happens through criticism:

Working scientists are generally good at analyzing data. We are trained to spot fallacies of argument and, especially, to be hypercritical of supporting data. We scrutinize charts and look at every dot on a graph. Science moves forward as much by critiquing the conclusions of others as by making novel discoveries [p. 25].

Gould eventually enters a discussion of the feedback between scientific change and scientists:

An old tradition in science proclaims that changes in theory must be driven by observation. Since most scientists believe this simplistic formula, they assume that their own shifts in interpretation only record their better understanding of newly discovered facts. Scientists therefore tend to be unaware of their own mental impositions upon the world’s messy and ambiguous factuality. Such mental impositions arise from a variety of sources, including psychological  predispositions and social context. […] When scientists adopt the myth that theories arise solely from observation, and do not scrutinize the personal and social influences emerging from their own psyches, they not only miss the causes of their changed opinions, but may also fail to comprehend the deep and pervasive mental shift encoded by their own new theory [p. 406].

As a scientist myself, I realize how hard it is to fully understand and embrace Gould’s insight; but I also find that the insight should be superficially obvious in that scientists are inherent to scientific change.

The Mismeasure of Man, then, is a critique of the idea that mental tests, IQ–tests in particular, are measures of some physical phenomenon in the brain. The idea has roots back to the days of craniometry, the ‘measurement of the skull and its content’, and Gould shows how the old masters did little more than interpreting their precious numbers as confirmations of their prejudices:

Science is rooted in creative interpretation. Numbers suggest, constrain, and refute; they  do not, by themselves, specify the content of scientific theories. Theories are built upon the interpretation of numbers, and interpreters are often trapped by their own rhetoric. They believe in their own objectivity, and fail to discern the prejudice that leads them to one interpretation among many consistent with their numbers. Paul Broca [an old champion of craniometry] is now distant enough. We can stand back and show that he used numbers not to generate new theories but to illustrate a priori conclusions. Shall we believe that science is different today simply because we share the cultural context of most practicing scientists and mistake its influence for objective truth? Broca was an exemplary scientist; no one has ever surpassed him in meticulous care and accuracy of measurement. By what right, other than our own biases, can we identify his prejudice and hold that science now operates independently of culture and class? [p. 106.]

The allure of numbers and even words is captured in a great quote by John Stuart Mill that Gould actually quotes twice in Mismeasure (the second time in an essay that was added to the revised edition). The quote captures the problem with reification (reifyto convert into or regard as a concrete thing):

The temptation to reify is powerful. The idea that we have detected something “underlying” the externalities of a large set of correlation coefficients [the basic, statistical idea in assessing mental tests], something perhaps more real than the superficial measurements themselves, can be intoxicating. It is Plato’s essence [note Gould’s deep scope], the abstract, eternal reality underlying superficial appearances. But it is a temptation that we must resist, for it reflects an ancient prejudice of thought, not a truth of nature [p. 282].

Gould’s reason for going into the details of and problems with mental tests is, among other things, their use in arguments of innate differences between human races and social groups. The common racial prejudice about different mental capabilities makes little sense:

[A]ll non–African racial diversity—whites, yellows, reds, everyone from the Hopi to the Norwegians, to the Fijians—may not be much older than one hundred thousand years. By contrast, Homo sapiens has lived in Africa for a longer time. Consequently, since genetic diversity roughly correlates with time available for evolutionary change, genetic variety among Africans alone exceeds the sum total of genetic diversity for everyone else in the rest of the world combined! […] Africa is most of humanity by any proper genealogical definition; all the rest of us occupy a branch within the African tree. This non-African branch has surely flourished, but can never be topologically more than a subsection within an African structure. […] I suggest that we finally abandon such senseless statements as “African blacks have more rhythm, less intelligence, greater athleticism.” Such claims, apart from their social perniciousness, have no meaning if Africans cannot be construed as a coherent group because they represent more diversity than all the rest of the world put together [p. 399].

The Mismeasure of Man is a dissection of an entire field, it seems, and one cannot help but be impressed by Gould’s comprehensive knowledge and insight into something that largely must be regarded as secondary to his primary field of paleontology. Gould reveals scientific fraud, both conscious and, with the benefit of doubt, unconscious, in the science behind mental tests. In Gould’s eyes, the unconscious cases result mostly from ignorance of or lack of interest in the workings of science, in that objectivity is only an Utopian dream, and in the necessity of the difficult exercise to honestly examine one’s own prejudices. And ideas do matter, and scientists and thinkers more generally (that includes all of us, I gather) need to be aware and respect that.

Scholars often suppose that academic ideas must remain, at worst harmless and, at best, mildly amusing or even instructive. But ideas do not reside in the ivory tower of our usual metaphor about academic irrelevancy. People are, as Pascal said, thinking reeds, and ideas motivate human history. Where would Hitler have been without racism, Jefferson without liberty? [p. 412.]

* Page references to the 1996-edition [W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London]

UPDATE: Irony has it that Gould himself is accused of fudging numbers to make his conclusions align with his preconceived notions: Stephen Jay Gould accused of fudging numbers. Gould proves his own point, and demonstrates how hard the necessary introspection is. Now, I did not read the article describing Gould’s misconduct, but understood that among his errors was to exclude small samples (four observations or less). To exclude small samples seems reasonable to me, but there are perhaps better ways to retain the information in the observations and acknowledge the inherent uncertainty in the small sample size. I need to look further into the debate, but for now I am willing to give Gould the benefit of doubt. And the accusations regarded one of a number of cases Gould looked into, and does not bring down the overall argument in Mismeasure, which also relies on methodological problems with IQ–measures, for example. I sense that I will return to this topic in the near future.

UPDATE 2: After a closer look on the article mentioned in the previous update (here), I am fairly convinced that Gould was unable to keep it straight when he started to move figures around and they ended up supporting his beliefs. But, I am frustrated by the focus on means, for example in the table of measurements, where ranges or a notion of distributions would have been appropriate. Why didn’t the authors, that went through all that trouble to take new measurements, carry out some simple t–tests? I, for one, would be more at peace if it was made clear whether there was any statistical differences to talk about. [Disclaimer: I did not read the article in full and statistical tests may be reported, but it is not brought clearly out into the open and I do not understand why.]

Political Geometry

November 25, 2014

Interesting stories often lie encoded in names that seem either capricious or misconstrued. Why, for example, are political radicals called “left” and their conservative counterparts “right”? In most European legislatures, maximally distinguished members sat at the chairman’s right, following a custom of courtesy as old as all our prejudices for favoring the dominant hand of most people. (These biases run deep, extending well beyond can openers and writing desks to language itself, where “dextrous” [sic] comes from the Latin for “right” and “sinister” for “left.”) Since these distinguished nobles and moguls tended to espouse conservative views, the right and left wings of the legislature came to define a geometry of political views.

–Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man [1996, p. 401]

Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric Hoffer

September 17, 2014

I got inspired to read Eric Hoffer’s Working and Thinking on the Waterfront after a couple of quotes from it in Jacques Barzun’s Simple & DirectWorking and Thinking is Hoffer’s journal that he kept from June 1958 to May 1959, a period that was critical in Hoffer’s thinking (according to the dust cover). One way or the other, it makes for rather interesting reading. The entries are a combination of tidbits from Hoffer’s life as a San Francisco longshoreman, his social life, and his observations and thinking about little things and large things. Mostly large things.

Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric HofferHoffer thinks about a great deal of things, many related to how societies functions, now and earlier, far and near. While the journal entries naturally are fragmented and rather brief, they offer many interesting perspectives and ideas. Here are some of the better:

Eventually, national churches came into being […] in the West, and nations crystallized around these churces. This is a significant point: The compact churchly organization of Christianity promoted nation formation, while Islam, being without a churchly organization, could not supply a nucleus for national crystallization [pp. 13-14*].

While nation forming is a rather slow process that began eons ago, Hoffer’s observation still seem oddly relevant against the backdrop of the current situation in the Middle East. Now, nation forming is decidedly a large thing. Hoffer also thinks of maintenance, certainly a smaller thing, and how it plays a role over the centuries.

It is the capacity for maintenance which is the best test for the vigor and stamina of a society. Any society can be galvanized for a while to build something, but the will and the skill to keep things in good repair day in, day out are fairly rare. […] I read somewhere that in ancient Rome a man was disqualified as a candidate for office because his garden showed neglect [p. 21].

Nietzsche’s description of the idealist:

A creature who has reasons for remaining in the dark about himsellf, and who is also clever enough to remain in the dark concerning these reasons [p. 49].

On creativity, and I think he is right:

We somehow assume that inner contradictions, if severe enough, may bring about the breakdown of a society or a system [or an individual, my remark]. Actually, vigor and creative flow have their source in internal strains and tensions. It is the pull of opposite poles that streches souls. And only stretched souls make music [p. 56].

Let me add that the metaphor of stretching reaches far; something stretched is in a dynamic condition, and only when exploiting ones inherent dynamics can one reach ones full potential. Hoffer has further thoughts on creativity:

How explain the primacy of painting, music, and dancing; the primacy of the non-utilitarian and the extravagant? Here are probably the roots of the uniqueness of man. Man’s inventiveness is to be sought in his impracticalness and extravagance. All other forms of life are tremendously practical and serious. Man’s creativeness has its source in his playfulness and his penchant for the superfluous. It is significant that to both children and artists luxuries are more necessary than necessities. We dare more, and are more inventive, when striving for superfluities than for necessities. Our utilitarian devices are mostly an application of insights and skills gained in the pursuit of the non-utilitarian [p. 74].

Children and artists! I am a child! And Hoffer has more:

Our originality shows itself most strikingly not in what we wholly originate but in what we do with that which we borrow from others. If this be true it is obvious that second-rate writers or artists may stimulate our originality more than first-rate ones, since we borrow more readily from the former [p. 89].

Ultimately, Hoffer is able to connect his observations about creativity to ideas from Nietzsche and to ancient developments:

I compared the stretched soul to the stretched string of a musical instrument when I said that only a stretched soul makes music. Nietzsche likened the stretched soul to a tensely-strained bow with which one can aim at the furthest goals. The bow is said to have been a musical instrument before it became a weapon [p. 173].

Hoffer also reflect on writing:

My brevity is partly the result of a reluctance or inability to write. Delight in the act of writing breeds expansiveness. One shudders at the thought of the innumerable thick volumes which come into existence as the result of the sheer habit of writing. How many people with nothing to say keep writing so many pages a day in order that their body, particularly in old age, should perform its functions [p. 131].

Writing as (bodily) exercise! I think, by the way, that the above quote was referred by Barzun and thus convinced me that Hoffer was able to make sense.

The scribe’s role in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was not unlike that of a lawyer in present-day America. He was a multipurpose human type. He could fit into any field of human endeavor—economic, political, diplomatic, military, religious, and so on. The American lawyer is a potential recruit for corporations, universities, government, unions, banks and whatnot.

In every society there is a multipurpose type. In America it is the lawyer, in Russia the commissar, in Britain the politician, in France the writer, in Germany the professor, in Japan the Samurai [pp. 158-159].

How do Hoffer know all these things about all these different societies? Perhaps because he takes an intrinsic interest in civilization:

To be civilized is perhaps to rise above passion; to be able to observe and report without giving way to anger or enthusiasm [p. 169].

In his journal, Hoffer also reports on his reading, and he reads alot. Working and Thinking is a goldmine of great book suggestions and several of the books Hoffer reports on reading are now on my mental to-read list.

Ultimately, the book inspired me to put Hoffer’s Ordeal of Change on my to-read list because Hoffer is obviously a profound thinker. Hoffer also seem to have an uncanny ability to make deep observations that are on the verge of tautologies when they first have been suggested: ‘We die alone’ (p. 91). ‘It is […] clear how vital it is not to take oneself seriously’ (p. 95).

* Page numbers refer to the 1969-edition.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

September 11, 2014

A while back, I read Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips. Hemingway was obviously superstitious and thought it was bad luck to talk HemingwayOnWritingabout writing. He did, however, write about it. Not in a systematic manner, but here and there, now and then, in letters, articles, and books. Phillips have collected many fragments on writing from Hemingway’s hand and put them together in a somewhat orderly fashion. While the result is not all that impressive, in particular given that it comes from one of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century, there are several interesting points, ideas, and moments contained in the collection. The book would be much more interesting and valuable, I think, if Phillips, being an accomplished writer himself, rather than just collecting and ordering all these fragments from Hemingway, would take the best ideas and fragments and provide us with his own thoughts about them; why he chose them, what they mean to him and his writing, and whether he agrees or whatever with them. [Long sentence, sorry, I won’t go back and rewrite it.]

Some of my favorite passages, interesting, revealing, or both:

My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. […] You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements [pp. 37-38*].

Punctuation should be rather straightforward, but it can be tricky sometimes, in particular if you are not writing in your mother tounge. But I agree that you need to master the conventions before moving beyond.

Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write [p. 38].

I wholeheartedly disagree! Perhaps it could be discussed for certain types of writers, but I don’t think so.

Hemingway counted how many words he wrote each day, to measure his productivity I guess (see p. 56). I find productivity measurement interesting (probably in more ways than you can imagine). It took 320 words to make Hemingway happy. Modern word processors have made word counting very easy, but I forget to keep tally. But I guess I would be pretty satisfied with 320 words if I could keep at such a rate. My problems is that my writing (as an academic economist) comes in bursts; when I have something to write about (which is more seldom than I like to admit). Perhaps the problem is that writing depends on what I do otherwise, and not upon the mere inspiration to write. Taking a year off just to write, that would have been an interesting experience. (Note to self: This piece currently runs up towards 500 words, put down within less than an hour, and fewer than I feared when I sat down belong to Hemingway. I am a talkative person when I get started, perhaps I am a writative person as well. But how to get started on something interesting?)

Writers should work alone [p. 63].

Hemingway’s point is that too much interaction with other writers is destructive. My favorite band (Motorpsycho) said something similar in a recent interview, that they could never have become what they became if they were not in a small town where little happened; in a place where they could focus without being afraid of missing anything.

Chapter eleven contain fragments on other writers and has a bunch of great passages, perhaps more for what they reveal than what they say about writing. I feel this post is more about writing than, well, bullshit, so I’ll try to stick to the topic. On page 92, however, is a list of books that Hemingway seemingly think are important to have read for a, I presume creative, writer. Among them, War and PeaceMadam BovaryUlyssesThe Brothers Karamazov, Huckleberry Finn, and a bunch more.

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since [p. 93].

[Gertrud Stein’s] Making of Americans is one of the very greatest books I’ve ever read [p. 96].

The chapter goes on discussing literature that Hemingway admired, among them Hamsun’s The Growth of the Soil (Markens Grøde, which happen to be one of the best books I’ve read).

So, what did I learn from Hemingway? Worry about productivity. Be careful with punctuation and words. Read alot, the list is long.

Phillips has also edited a volume of Fitzgerald’s fragments on writing. Hemingway corresponded regularly with Fitzgerald, it seems, and many of the fragments in the book are taken from letters to Fitzgerald. While I was somewhat disappointed by what Ernest Hemingway on Writing provided, I am somewhat tempted to check out the Fitzgerald book (which usually means reading it).

* Page numbers refer to the First Scribner trade paperback edition of 2004.

Relevant post:

On Writing by Stephen King

September 1, 2013

Natalie Reid made me aware of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in her academic writing class. I was reminded of it when Cal Newport reported that he re-reads On Writing every few years in order to reorient himself to the reality of becoming better at creative endavours.

KingOnWritingI force myself to take an interest in writing as writing is ultimately what I do for a living (I do a lot of other things, like programming, reading, and thinking, but in the end I always have to write it down). I hoped reading On Writing would be a useful investment.

In the introduction, King reiterates one of Strunk and White‘s rules for good writing: Omit needless words. Unfortunately, I find a lot of needless words in King’s book. But he should get the benefit of the doubt; he never set out to write a book about writing in general, useful for all writers (I presume). He writes a memoir of his life as a writer, what shaped him in the early years, and how he goes about it now (or then: On Writing was published in 2000). If I were to put the blame anywhere, it would rest with Natalie Reid, who mentioned it in her class. By doing that, she effectively suggested it for those in the audience who want to push further than suffering through her lectures (I usually suffer in lectures). Perhaps I read too much into her mentioning the book, but she emphsized again and again that she could only cover so much in her lectures and that her book containted so much more. When she then, after obviously leaving out a lot of valuable material, still chose to mention King, one can only take it as a strong suggestion to read King’s book. The problem is, I find King’s book of almost no value as an academic writer (and Reid’s class was aimed at academic writing). If I were a King fan, I would certainly enjoy the biographic material and all the references to his own work, how it came to him, and how he worked with it. Also, if I had aspirations to write fiction I could perhaps benefit from King’s book. Alas, I am only an academic writer (and an amateur blogger in the dark corners of my spare time), and, again, King has little to offer.

It is strange though. After King finishes his autobiographical part about how he grew up and all that, he pretends to write a textbook about fiction writing, at least a textbook about King-fiction-writing. He is very serious (apart from the somewhat informal language), discusses one issue at the time, and, I imagine, presentes a comprehensive treatment of King-fiction-writing. But, he fails to make his part-autobiography-part-textbook usable. The book is divided into separate parts. The first part is autobiographical and consists of 38 numbered sections dispersed over approximately 100 pages. (How he conceives or puts into the thirty seven breaks is illusive to me, but not really important.) Then follows a part called What Writing Is, which is an interesting section where King discusses what he thinks writing really is (he thinks of writing as telepathy). What Writing Is consist of only one part and is only a few pages long. Next is a section called Toolbox that again consists of several numbered parts. And here is where the logic of the part-textbook breaks down. For a textbook to be useful, it should be possible to re-locate a particular section one remembers reading but cannot fully recall. But unless one writes down a content list upon the first reading, it is impossible to relocate any section without risking to skim much of the book. There isn’t even an index (nor a crude content list) in King’s book. Now, while I disagree with a lot of what King writes about writing, I find it almost provoking to read his textbookish prose when I know his book does not function as a textbook.

Cal Newport emphasizes how King went through a lot of deliberate practice; he wrote a lot, before his eventual breakthrough.  Deliberate practice is part of Newport’s recipe for success. While not directly in conflict with Newport, I find King’s metaphor for how he comes up with his stories somewhat at odds with Newport’s ideas. King considers his stories as fossils buried in the (metaphorical) ground, which he excavates and liberates through his writing. King uses the metaphor repeatedly and it seems to be fixed and clear in his mind. I forgot to mark off where (turns out I didn’t: on page 163 he writes “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.”), but I am sure King suggests somewhere that the story (the fossil) exists outside and independent of himself, like a real fossil in an unreal world. King at least hints towards the idea here:

When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it […] is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around [p. 159*].

While I think it an odd metaphor, I also find it difficult to reconcile with the Newport-idea of deliberate practice. Perhaps you can train at metaphorical excavation; not sure how. The excavation of stories metaphor reminds me of a book by the Norwegian author Dag Solstad. The book, hardly called a novel, is called Armand V.  Footnotes to an unexcavated novel (my translation). It contains footnotes to an unwritten novel. The format of it certainly makes it a disturbing read. One of the footnotes are over fifty pages long, if memory serves me right. Whether Solstad has ever read King’s On Writing, I don’t know, but he certainly could have; Armand V. was published in 2006.

My review is already overly long, but I’d like to discuss some of King’s writing advice. On vocabulary, he writes:

[T]he basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to you mind, if it is appropriate and colorful [p. 118, his italics].

But what if it is not appropriate or, most likely, not colorful? King says little on it.

While Newport entertains the idea that practice is really what counts and that talent has relatively little to do about success, King seems to disagree, and this is part of why I find Newport’s endorsement puzzling. King puts writers into four categories (I think), from bad, through competent and good to great, and the classification is seemingly well-defined and mostly outside our control:

[M]y basic premise: if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great … [forget about it] [p. 144].

Further:

Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate-four to six hours a day, every day-will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them [p. 150, his italics].

Newport would not agree, and neither to I. To become a virtuoso, for example, one has to go through hundreds if not thousands of hours of technical and repetitive training that I doubt is particularly fun before you really master it; perhaps years down the road.

Another thing I do not like about King’s textbook approach is lack of clarity. After a section where he discusses usage of different tools, symbolism in particular, he starts the next section in the following way: “The same things are true of theme” (p. 200). What things? All the things he went over in the previous section? The things he went over in the last paragraph? What if the reader had a break in the reading between the two sections such that the things discussed in the previous section are unclear in the reader’s mind? This example is but one out of many cases where King, who ought to advocate clear writing, fails to deliver the necessary clarity of a textbook.

Another example of where King fails to be clear, where he lets his creativity get the better of him, is when he discusses when you are ready to re-read the first draft of a novel:

When you come to the correct evening […], take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready [p. 212].

But what if it doesn’t look like an alien relic? What if it looks like a pile of paper? What if it doesn’t really look like anything because it is kept in electronic form? This particular advice on when to re-read the first draft is nothing but useless. Useless. (UPDATE: I know it is just a metaphor for foreign and perhaps the advice is not completely useless, but what about omitting those needless words, King?)

Well, shame is on me. King almost died when he wrote On Writing, and to criticize him is, I am sure, next to blasphemy. He was run over by a car and wrote the second half of the book while recovering. King goes on about the accident and his recovery at length after he finishes his textbook-part of the book. I am sure no one had the heart to tell King the truth about his book after what happened, and I probably shouldn’t either. But, I am a useless and heartless you-know-what, I’m sorry.

* Page numbers refer to the 2010 paperback edition.

UPDATE 2: It struck me that the stories as fossils metaphor suggests that inspiration happens by divine intervention and has little to do with practice. Either the fossil is there or it isn’t. King writes nothing to suggest otherwise, at least. King does emphasize practice through extensive reading and writing, but more in order to command the technical part of writing; controlling the language, tone, perspective vocabulary–stuff covered in the textbook part of King’s book. How Newport embraces King’s book when inspiration depends on divine intervention is another thing I find difficult to understand.

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.

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.