Recent Reading: 30 Sept.

Recent online reading of interest: of Girard, desire, imitation and fashion; musing on death and life; findings of sloppy science; essays on climate change and human responsibility; the anniversary of Sputnik; and how hypocrisy traps make some of us squirm.

>> Death and the garden, Shelley, not looking out the window, obituary motifs, and thoughts on decay in The glad reaper: Our obituaries editor finds solace in a garden, a correspondent’s diary (by Ann Wroe) in The Economist:

More than I used to, I note the premature browning of leaves and grass, the erosion of statues and stones, the rotting of things. The odd pangs and pains in my own body I now surmise to be Death knocking, or leaving a calling card, with a promise to come back later.
“Is this morbid? Some friends and colleagues think so, joking nervously about ‘the Grim Reaper’ and ‘Grave-Watch’, muttering of coffin counts. But to me it is simply part of a continuum: death in life, life in death. Everything in nature springs up, flourishes, dies, springs up again: we do the same. Bodies form and decay all the time. What the spirit does, being outside nature, has the potential to be much more interesting. But since we have forgotten that life, if we ever knew it, we are left with physical dissolution, and we don’t like it much.”

>> Girard and the world of fashion: The Forces of Beauty and Desire in Fashion Imitation:

“It would hardly be controversial to mention beauty and desire in the same sentence. We desire to be beautiful, to own beautiful objects, to be with beautiful people. … Our daily experiences assure us that desiring something is a conscious, spontaneous act. The things we desire are the things we have chosen. But what if this is not the case? What would this mean for a theory of beauty?

“Rene Girard … views desire as something that is formed in the relationships people have with each other rather than as something found within individuals themselves. Perhaps more importantly, he stresses that imitation underlies the relationships in which desire is created.  … As an example, my best friend who is more beautiful than me wants to buy a dress. The theory of mimetic desire says that I also want the dress, not because I believe it to be a beautiful dress but rather because it is a dress that is desired by my beautiful friend.

“Two important points emerge from this scenario. The first is that my desire to have the dress is a direct response to the way in which I compare myself unfavourably with my friend. Moreover, by owning the dress she likes, I hope to take on the qualities I admire in her but perceive to be lacking in myself. In essence, I am trying to become my friend when I copy her desires. As Girard states, ‘aware of a lack within ourselves, we look to others to teach us what to value and who to be.’ Desire is therefore about self-identity. Advertising can be seen to exploit this insight.”

>> I didn’t read this but heard it yesterday on NPR’s Weekend Edition: Khrushchev, Schorr Look Back on Sputnik. On the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first human-made satellite, Sergei Khrushchev, the son of then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and Dan Schorr, who was then Moscow Bureau chief for CBS News, talk with Scott Simon about its significance. I don’t know why, but my attention was riveted as I listened to the interview.

>>  Also worth listening to, Scott Simon’s reflections on the Larry Craig case: What makes Scott squirm:

“It’s the exultation among so many that another hypocritical politician has been exposed. … There are those who believe Mr. Craig deserves his humiliation because he’s a hypocrite … I guess by now I have seen enough of life that I prefer to see someone as a real, complicated human being … Human life, including sex, abounds with hypocrisy, faithlessness, carelessness, and people who say ‘I love you’ when they only mean, ‘I want you.’ People who say ‘My spouse doesn’t understand me,’ when they really mean, ‘My spouse knows me too well.’ Most adults can supply their own examples. … I wonder if people who applaud Larry Craig’s arrest … really want to arm the police with a moral license to set traps that catch people in hypocrisy. That’s the kind of trap that most of us would step into someday.”

>> Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003), writes about the morality of environmental and political choices in his op-ed piece, Our Moral Footprint, in the NYT.

Havel’s essay seems a response to current Czech Republic president (since 2003) Vaclav Klaus’s op-ed of June 2007, What is at risk is not the climate but freedom, in the Financial Times, in which Klaus says that “the biggest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity now … [is] ambitious environmentalism. … This ideology wants to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central (now global) planning.”

Havel eventually asserts, as does Klaus, that the climate and the Earth are not at risk, but Havel’s take on it is markedly different from Klaus’s:

“The end of the world has been anticipated many times and has never come, of course. And it won’t come this time either. We need not fear for our planet. It was here before us and most likely will be here after us. But that doesn’t mean that the human race is not at serious risk. As a result of our endeavors and our irresponsibility our climate might leave no place for us.

Before he gets there, he more pointedly contends:

“It is also obvious from published research that human activity is a cause of change; we just don’t know how big its contribution is. Is it necessary to know that to the last percentage point, though? By waiting for incontrovertible precision, aren’t we simply wasting time when we could be taking measures that are relatively painless compared to those we would have to adopt after further delays? … We can’t endlessly fool ourselves that nothing is wrong and that we can go on cheerfully pursuing our wasteful lifestyles, ignoring the climate threats and postponing a solution. …

“I’m skeptical that a problem as complex as climate change can be solved by any single branch of science. Technological measures and regulations are important, but equally important is support for education, ecological training and ethics — a consciousness of the commonality of all living beings and an emphasis on shared responsibility.”

>>  Sloppy Science Studies: Most Science Studies Appear to Be Tainted By Sloppy Analysis in the WSJ. I’m almost to the point of not believing any scientific study, even replicated ones, certainly not based on summaries reported in the mainstream media, and I probably don’t know enough science or remember enough statistics to trust my own judgment reading the original studies. (Of course, why should I believe this guy’s findings, either?):

“Dr. [John] Ioannidis is an epidemiologist who studies research methods at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece and Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In a series of influential analytical reports, he has documented how, in thousands of peer-reviewed research papers published every year, there may be so much less than meets the eye. …
“These flawed findings, for the most part, stem not from fraud or formal misconduct, but from more mundane misbehavior: miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis. ‘There is an increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims,’ Dr. Ioannidis said. ‘A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true.’ The hotter the field of research the more likely its published findings should be viewed skeptically, he determined.”

Update, 4 Oct 2007: Related to this: “The facts never speak for themselves, which is why scientists need to ‘frame’ their messages to the public,” an article by Matthew C. Nisbet and Dietram A. Scheufele, in The Scientist.com:

The dominant assumption is that ignorance is at the root of conflict over science. According to this traditional ‘popular science’ model, the media should be used to educate the public about the technical details of the issue in dispute. Once citizens are brought up to speed on the science, they will be more likely to judge scientific issues as scientists do and controversy will go away. The facts are assumed to speak for themselves and to be interpreted by all citizens in similar ways.

“… Arguments in favor of the popular science model are not very scientific. In fact, they cut against more than 60 years of research in the social sciences, a body of work that suggests citizens prefer to rely on their social values to pick and choose information sources that confirm what they already believe, often making up their minds about a topic in the absence of knowledge. A second challenge to the popular science model is that in today’s media world, by way of cable TV and the Internet, the public has greater access to quality information about science than at any time in history, yet public knowledge of science remains low. The reason is that a small audience remains attentive to science coverage, but the broader public literally tunes out, preferring other media content.”

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