A Philosopher's Blog

The Decline of the Humanities

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2013
Head of Platon, roman copy. The original was e...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the current narratives is that the humanities are in danger at American universities. Some schools are cutting funding for the humanities while others are actually eliminating majors and departments. At my own university, the college of arts and sciences was split apart with the humanities and soft sciences in one new college and the now exalted STEM programs in another. Not surprisingly, I was called upon (at a moment’s notice) to defend the continued existence of the philosophy and religion unit I head up. Fortunately, I could point to the fact that our classes regularly overload with students and the fact that our majors have been very successful.

While this narrative is certainly worrisome to faculty in the humanities, this is actually not a new narrative. For example, while about 7% of majors are in the humanities, this has been the case since the 1980s. As another example, humanities programs have been subject to cuts for decades. That said, there is clearly a strong current trend towards supporting STEM and cutting the humanities.

As might be suspected, the push to build up the STEM programs has contributed to the decline of funding for humanities programs. Universities and colleges have to allocate their funds and if more funds are allocated to STEM, this leaves less for other programs. There is also the fact that there is much more outside funding (such as from the federal government) for STEM programs. As such, STEM programs can find themselves getting a “double shot” of increased funding from the university and support from outside while humanities programs face reduced support from within the institutions and little or nothing from outside.

Those who argue for STEM over the humanities would make the case that STEM programs should receive more funding. If more students enroll in STEM than in the humanities, then it would clearly be fair that these programs receive more funding. If humanities programs want more funding, then they would need to take steps to improve their numbers.

There is also the argument based on the claim that funding STEM provides a greater return for the money in terms of job creation, educating job fillers and generating research that can be monetized. That is, STEM provides a bigger financial and practical payoff than the humanities. This would, clearly, serve to justify greater funding for STEM. Assuming, of course, that funding should be determined primarily in terms of financial and practical values defined in this manner. As such, if humanities programs are going to earn increased funding, they would need to show that they can generate value of a sort that would warrant their increased funding. This could be done by showing that the humanities have such practical and financial value or, alternatively, arguing that the humanities generate value of a different sort that is still worthy of funding.

Those in the humanities not only need to convince those who redistribute the money, they also need to convince students that the humanities are valuable. This need not require convincing students to major in the humanities—getting students to accept the value of the humanities to the degree that they will willingly enroll in such classes and support the programs that offer them.

It has long been a challenge to get students to accept the value of the humanities. When I was an undergraduate almost three decades ago most students looked down on the humanities and this has not changed. Now that I am a professor, honestly compels me to admit that most students sign up for my classes because they have to knock out some sort of requirement. I do manage to win some of these students over by showing them the value of philosophy, but many remain indifferent at best.

While it is a tradition to claim that things are worse now than they were when I was a youngster, this is actually the case. Recently, there has been a conceptual shift in regards to education: now the majority of students regard the main function of college as job preparation or as vocational training. That is, students predominantly see college as a machine that will make them into job fillers for the job creators.

Because of the nature of our economic system, most students do have to worry about competing in a very difficult job market and surviving in a system that is most unkind. As such, it is not unwise of students to take this very practical approach to education.

While it is something of a stereotype, parents do often worry that their children will major in the humanities and it is not uncommon for students to pressure their kids to major in something “useful.” When I was a student, people I knew said just that. Now that I am a professor, my students sometimes tell me that their parents are against them taking philosophy classes. While some are worried that their children will be corrupted, the main concerns are the same as that expressed by students: the worry that majoring in the humanities is a dead end and that the humanities requirements are delaying graduation and wasting their money.

Those of us in the humanities have two main options here. One is to make the case that the humanities actually do provide the skills needed to make it in the world of the job creators. While some regard philosophy as useless, an excellent case can be made that classes in philosophy can be very helpful in getting ready for employment. To use the most obvious example, philosophy is the best choice for those who are considering a career in law. This approach runs the risk of devaluing the humanities and just making them yet another form of job training.

The second is the usual argument from the humanities, which is based on the idea there is more to life than being a job filler for the job creators. The usual line of argument is that the humanities teaches students to address matters of value, to appreciate the arts, and to both think and question. This, as might be imagined, sounds good in principle but can be a very hard sell.

Unfortunately, humanities faculty often fail to convince students, parents and those who control the money that the humanities are valuable. Sometimes the failure is on the part of the audience, but often it is on the part of the faculty. As such, those of us in the humanities need to up our game or watch the shadow over the humanities grow.

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Automatic Grading

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2013

When I learned that EdX had developed software that would instantly grade written work, my first reaction was one of skepticism. After all, while

The Turing Test (Doctor Who)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

spell-checkers work well and grammar checkers work sort of well, it seems unlikely that software could properly evaluate written work. My second reaction was that of hope-after all, I grind through hundreds of papers each year and automating that task would make my job much easier. This lead to my third reaction, namely worry regarding the implications of such software.

While my knowledge of programming is mostly obsolete, I do know enough about artificial intelligence to know that the current technology is most likely not up to the task of properly grading written work such as essays. After all, while checking such things as spelling and grammar can be automated relatively easily, properly assessing a written work would seem to require robust language comprehension-something that existing artificial intelligence can not do. Interestingly, in a letter about animals, Descartes argues that purely mechanical systems cannot engage in true language. While he was writing about animals, his view also applied to automatons and would now apply to computers. While Descartes might be proven wrong someday, I would suspect that day has yet to arrive.

Of course, it would be foolish of me to take my view to be certain. After all, I am not an expert on artificial intelligence and perhaps EdX has made an exceptional break through in the field. Naturally, the rational approach is to consider what the experts have to say about the matter and to consider the available evidence.

One expert who has been critical of such software is Les Perelman. In a detailed paper, he does a careful analysis of the effectiveness of the grading software. While the paper is somewhat technical, it does make a compelling case against the claim that such grading software is effective. In any case, readers can review the paper and assess his reasoning and evidence. Perelman is also well known for crafting nonsense that receives high marks from grading software. That this occurs is hardly surprising. After all, the grading software is obviously not actually capable of comprehending the essay-it is merely running it through a series of programmed evaluations and someone who knows how specific software works can create nonsense essays that a human reader would recognize as nonsense yet pass the programmed evaluations with flying colors. This sort of thing could be seen as a variation on the Turing test: being able to properly grade a written essay and distinguish it from cleverly crafted nonsense would be a passing mark for the software/hardware.

In regards to the matter of hope, the idea of automatic essay grading is appealing. Like many professors at teaching schools, I grade hundreds of essays each year. Unlike many professors, I get the graded work back to the students within a few days.  In most cases, I am sad to say, students merely look at the grade and ignore the feedback and comments. As such, an automatic grader would reduce my workload dramatically, allowing me more time to handle my usual 6-9 committees, being the unit facilitator and so on.

Also, I believe the software might encourage students to write more drafts. My students have to wait about 15-30 minutes for me to review a draft during my office hours or as long as a day if they drop the paper off at the end of the day. But, if a student could get instant feedback, they would have more time to revise the paper and hence might be more likely to do so. Or perhaps not.

As might be imagined, not all professors have my rapid turnaround time on drafts and papers (my students alway seem shocked when they get their work back so quickly). In such cases, automatic grading would be even more useful-rather than waiting days, weeks or even months a student could get instant feedback. There is also the fact that some professors do not provide any feedback beyond a grade on the work. If the software provide more than that, it could be rather useful to the students. There is also the practical point that even not-so-great software could still be better than the evaluation provided by some professors.

Of course, the usefulness of the software is contingent on how well it actually works. If it can be gamed by nonsense or does not actually assess the essays properly, then it would be little more than a gimmick. That said, even if it was limited in functionality, it could still prove useful. For example, I already use Blackboard’s Safeassign to check papers for plagiarism. While it does yield false positives and can miss some cases of plagiarism, it is still a useful tool. As such, the grading software might also serve as a useful tool for drafts and for a preliminary evaluation. However, I am still skeptical about the ability of software to assess written work properly.

My final response was concern about the implications of the software. While it might be suspected that I would be worried that such software could put me out of a job, that is not my main worry. While I would obviously not want to be unemployed because I was replaced by some code, I am well aware of the nature of technological advance and that automation can make certain jobs obsolete. If a program could do my job as well as me, it would be unreasonable of me to insist that I be kept on the payroll just because firing me would be bad for me personally. After all, the university is not there to give me a job.

My main concern is not that I would be replaced by an automatic equivalent or better (that is being replaced because the task no longer requires a human), my main concern is that I would be replaced by something inferior for the main purpose of saving money. In more general terms, my worry is not that progress will make the professorship obsolete, but that the grading software will be used to cut costs by providing students with something inferior (most likely without informing students of this fact).

It might be countered that such grading software could be combined with the massive online courses and thus produce fully automated education factories that could provide education to people who could otherwise not afford it. To use an analogy, the old model for universities would be a fine (or less fine) restaurant with chefs and the new model would be the fast food joint with food technicians.

I will admit that this does have considerable appeal. After all, bringing education to people at a low cost would have numerous advantages, such as allowing people who could otherwise not afford education to be able to acquire it.

Of course, there is still the obvious concern that the software would be used to sell an inferior product at the price of the premium product and also the concern that education could become a degree mill in which students just click their way to a diploma.

Having been in higher education for quite some time I can attest to the desire to make education more like a business. Being able to automate education like a factory would certainly be appealing to some (such as certain politicians and the folks who would sell or license the software and hardware). As might be expected, while I do believe that certain things can be automated (like grading T/F tests), education does not seem well suited to the factory model.

Another obvious concern is that automated education might not democratize education by allowing everyone low-cost access to higher education. It might very well create an even more extreme inequality than exists today. That is, the premier institutions would have human professors providing high quality education while the other schools, such as state schools, would have automated classes providing education to the masses.  While this sounds like a science-fiction scenario, it is actually well within the realm of possibility. I can attest, from my own experience, the push to standardize and automate education and the education factory is not many steps away from the model being strongly pushed today. This is not to say that the education factory will arrive soon or even at all. But it is likely enough that it is worth being concerned about.

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Proposal: Transparent Lobbying

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2011
Money

Money talks...

While I recognize that lobbying is a legitimate part of the democratic process, I also recognize that it provides an avenue by which various interests can exert undue influence in politics, often to the detriment of the general good.

I am not so foolish as to advocate banning lobbying. As I have noted, it does have a legitimate place in the process. Also it would almost certainly be all but impossible to get rid of the lobbying machinery. However, I do contend that the harmful aspects of lobbying can be reduced.

One serious problem with lobbying and its associated influence (such as corporations and other interests literally writing legislation) is that the lobbying activities are not transparent and made readily available to the public. As might be imagined, if lobbying activities were made readily available to the public, then this would have some influence on the nature of lobbying. At the very least we would know the prices at which our government is being bought and sold.

To this end I would propose that all lobbying activities involving public officials be made a matter of public record. This would include emails, meetings, letters, phone conversations, texts and so on. With today’s technology, it would be a simple matter to record meetings on video, to record phone conversations and so on. This information would the be posted on a site called lobbyist.gov. The main page for the site would have a link to individual pages for each member of congress. Each individual page would have a list of all the lobbyists who have lobbied the congressperson as well as links to records of all the lobbying. It would be mandated that the site be designed to be clearly and easily navigable so that the records could not be obscured or hidden. There would also be a large money counter for each congressperson which would track the amount of monetary value received from lobbyists and the interests they represent.

It might be objected that lobbyists have a right to secrecy. The obvious reply is that lobbyists might, but public officials do not. They are, after all, public officials. Hence, the interaction between the lobbyists and the public officials in their professional capacity would thus seem to be something that the people have a right to know about.

It might also be objected that some matters might fall under areas of legitimate secrecy, such as national security. Thus, any lobbyist who can claim this would have the right to lobby in secret. The obvious reply is that while dealings between congresspeople and certain interests (such as defense contractors) might legitimately involve secrecy, this would clearly not cover lobbying attempts. After all, while a defense contractor describing a top secret weapon would be a legitimate matter for secrecy, the process of lobbying congress to spend billions in public money on that contractor would not be a legitimate matter of secrecy.

I imagine that lobbyists would, of course, try to stuff as much secret lobbying as they could under the cloak of national security. However, this would still limit the illegitimate secrecy in substantial ways and the lobbying report should still include a report of secret lobbying that lists the name of the company and the fact that the lobbying activities were made secret for “national security” or whatever.  This secrecy should also be subject to independent review to try to reduce (however slightly) the inevitable abuse of the national security loophole.

The requirement for transparent lobbying would need to be backed up with penalties that would be sufficient to motivate lobbyists and congresspeople to follow the laws. After all, if the penalty was an ethical censure or a small fine, most congresspeople would simple break the rules relentlessly. One reasonable penalty is that violation of the transparency rules would result in the interest being served by the lobbyist(s) in question being banned from lobbying for an extended period of time and that the offending congressperson would also not be allowed to interact with lobbyists for a set amount of time per violation.

As might be imagined, opposing this sort of transparency is something both parties can agree on.

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Warren on Wealth

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2011
Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...

The man who would pay more taxes...

Money, get back
I’m alright, Jack, keep your hands off my stack
money, it’s a hit
don’t give me that do goody good bullshit
I’m in the hi-fidelity first class travelling set
and I think I need a Lear jet…

People have asked me what I think of Warren E. Buffett’s editorial about taxes, so I thought I do a short post on some aspects of his commentary.

As Buffet notes, our wars are being fought by the poor and middle class. That is usually how war go-you generally do not see billionaires taking a bullet on the field of war. On the plus side, at least there is no longer the open practice of buying one’s way out of service by sending a substitute (a not uncommon practice during the civil war).

Buffet says that he paid $6,938,744 in taxes last year. As he points out, that is a lot of money. However, when considering taxes it is not just a matter of the total dollars-what also matters is the percentage. In Buffet’s case, that was only 17.4% of his taxable income, which is a pretty good deal. As he points out, most people who make much less pay a larger percentage of their income. Naturally, they will pay less in total dollars, but they will be giving up more of their income and thus have less left (both in terms of the percentage of income and, of course, total dollars).

On the face of it, this seems unfair. After all, the less wealthy are contributing a greater percentage of their income than the wealthy. This can, of course, be countered by the claim that the rich pay more taxes in terms of the total money and as such an individual rich person contributes more total dollars than a middle class or poor person. To use an analogy, if Sally is very strong and she is, along with Sherman and Winston, moving their Nordic Track, she might only be using 17% of her strength while Sherman and Winston are using much more as a percentage of their feeble power. Sally is, of course, doing more than her fair share because she is so much stronger than Sherman and Winston. Likewise, the poor and middle class give a greater percentage in taxes, but actually give less overall dollars.

This analogy works nicely in situations that are comparable to bearing a shared burden. However, the analogy seems to break when one considers income rather than strength. To use an analogy for this sort of situation, consider water. To survive, a person needs a certain amount of water and, likewise, needs a certain amount of money. If Sally has 1,000,000 times the water she needs to survive and meet her needs, then giving up 17% or more is not a hardship for her-she still has plenty left. If Sherman has just what he needs to survive, then any water tax would end up putting his life in danger. Likewise for money: people who make less are less able to afford the taxes because they are left with less with which to survive and meet their expenses. As such, taking more from those who have less seems rather problematic.

While Buffet argues for increasing the taxes on the rich, an alternative is, of course, to lower the taxes on the middle class and the poor. If Buffet is taxed at 17%, then perhaps the middle class should be taxed at 5% or 1%.

While this is appealing, there is a major problem: we need to have tax income in order to pay for things like police, defense, infrastructure, education, the CDC, the FDA, the FAA, the FBI, the CIA, and so on. In this case, the situation is something like the Nordic Track situation: we have a burden we must share and people must either contribute enough to carry the load or we must lighten the load. But, as noted above, it is also like the water situation: people need the income for their own well being and survival. So, the challenge is to leave people what they need to survive and thrive while also keeping our civilization going.

I agree with Buffet that it makes sense to have the rich contribute more than they do now, in terms of percentages.

Of course, as Buffet addressees, certain people will cry out that tax increases will destroy jobs. But, as he points out, the tax rates for the rich were much higher in the 1980s and 1990s. However, as history shows, people did not stay away from investing. While Buffet does not make this point, consider whether or not you would stop working just because tax rates had gone up. Obviously you would not-you still need (and want) money and hence will keep doing what you do to make money. People who invest money will not stop investing simply because of higher taxes. After all, they will still make money if they invest wisely.

Buffet also points out the fact that between 1980 and 2000 40 million new jobs were created. After the Bush tax cuts, job creation has slowed and we are experiencing high unemployment. If taxes were the main causal factor regarding hiring, what should have happened is higher unemployment in that time and high employment during this time of low taxes. As such, lowering taxes is not a magic bullet for unemployment.

Buffet also notes that, as always, the rich have gotten richer. In 1992 the top 400 taxable incomes added up to $16.9 billion, with a tax rate of 29.2%. In 2008, the income for the top 400 had increased to $90.9 billion, but the tax rate was 21.5%. Buffet does not note that income for the rest of us has stagnated or declined, which is a point worth considering. Given the massive wealth of the 400, it makes me wonder what basis there can be for crying that they have been taxed enough already.

Buffet concludes by contending that the rich should pay more, while the middle and lower classes should be left as is (that is, with the Bush tax cuts intact). His main argument is a moral one: the rich have much and many Americans are hurting. As such, the rich should pay a bit more for the good of the whole.

One stock reply to Buffet’s view is that rich people can pay more if they like. That is true-and, in fact, some rich folks have done just that. However, there is still the question of what is fair and right. Going back to the Nordic Track analogy, Sally could put in more effort if she wanted to, but there is also the question of how much she should contribute. One view is that those who are strong ought to help those who are weak and not merely please themselves. Another view is that the weak should fend for themselves and the strong should not be compelled or encouraged to aid those less able. There are, of course, other views-but these present the challenge in a clear manner.

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Disapproval of Congress

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2011
Disgust2

Congress...ewwww!

While some claim that Americans are more divided than ever before, there is one matter on which we stand strongly united. In our disapproval of congress, 82% (or more) Americans stand shoulder to shoulder, with looks of disgust on the faces above those shoulders.

Congress, obviously enough, brought this on itself. The icing on the disapproval cake seems to have been the latest round of debates over the debt ceiling. While Americans do disagree over spending and taxes, we mainly seem to agree that we do not want our country brought to the very edge of default. As such, one reason for the disapproval is that congress is perceived as being willing to wrangle over critical matters right up until it is almost too late. That sort of behavior is generally not appealing to most people.

Of course, such behavior would be understandable and forgivable if the wrangling was over a critical matter and perhaps as important or more important than meeting a deadline. However, the battle in congress seems to have been a fight over scoring political points rather than doing what is best for the country. To use an analogy, congress was fighting over whether to steer a little left or a little right while the ship of state was heading directly towards an iceberg. While the direction of the ship does matter, what really matters the most is not hitting that iceberg.

Another reason for the disapproval regarding this matter is that most Americans seem to be more concerned about jobs rather than deficit reduction. If we need to spend more to sustain and create jobs and restore the economy, then this seems to be something most Americans favor. Congress, for all its talk of jobs, does not seem as concerned as it should be about this matter. Going back to the ship analogy, if the ship is caught in a storm, it can make sense to burn more fuel to get out of that storm and into port. Once the ship is back in calm waters, then the worry about the cost of fueling the ship can move back up the priority list.

Another point of concern is that the behavior of congress makes us look bad. The news was filled with stories about how America might default, how we might lose our AAA credit rating, and how congress seemed intent on wrangling rather than resolving.  This made us seem like we were incapable of getting things done, even in the face of necessity. That is, most Americans rightfully hold, not how we should appear.

Given what Americans think of congress, it seems reasonable to infer that Americans in general are not as partisan as the members of congress and that we have different priorities then they do. In short, they do not actually seem to be properly representing us. Of course, we elected them and the beauty of democracy is that people get the government they deserve. As such, we seem to really dislike what we have created and hence we should probably think about this when it comes time to vote again.

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Palin & Crowdsourcing

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 11, 2011
This is an alternate crop of an image already ...

Image via Wikipedia

The media folks, in many ways, created the media juggernaut that is Sarah Palin. They continue to sustain her in an ironic way: the more they attack her, the more she benefits.

Obviously, I have written about her. However, I have decided to adopt a strict Palin Policy. My policy is that unless she actually decides to run for president or does something else of true significance,  this will be my last Palin blog. In a way, the blog is more about the media than about her.

The Washington Post and New York Times are in a fine frenzy over the release of 24,000 Palin emails from her time as governor of Alaska. While a sensible person would probably think that pretty much all that needs to be known about her time as governor is already known, the Post and Times are eager to sift through the digital haystack in search of some sparkling needle that presumably can be used to jab Palin.

If some dire doubts remained about that time or if a great deal was at stake, then sifting those emails might be worth the effort. I do, of course, admit, that some true nuggets of information might be found that would make the game worth the electricity. However, it seems like a lot of effort with only a small chance of a worthwhile payoff of any sort.

Because there are so many emails and the traditional media companies are not doing as well financially, the Post and Times are crowdsourcing the work. The idea is that people will, for free, grind through the emails looking for choice bits to provide to the Post, Times and whoever else is involved in this little adventure.

If they can get people to do their work for free, then that would be rather good for them. No doubt this would also strengthen the trend of news agencies making use of the public as unpaid staff members. On the plus side, this does increase the amount of information coming in to the news agency and it allows the public to be actively involved in the news process. On the minus side, the professionals really should be doing their jobs. After all, they are supposed to be the professionals. There is also the concern that relying on amateurs can lower the quality of the news (which is already rather low). Finally, getting people to do this sort of work unpaid seems rather exploitative-especially when done by (allegedly) liberal organizations.

As a final point, it seems just a bit creepy to be going through someone’s emails like that. As noted above, if there were good reasons to think that the emails contained information about illegal or unethical activities that would be the business of the people, then that would be one thing. However, this seems to be a mix between a hopeful witch hunt and creepy voyeurism. Naturally, if something of true importance does turn up, I will write a post admitting that I was wrong.

Yes, I do suppose that I am actually defending Sarah Palin.

 

 

 

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David Barton

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2011
The signature of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd Preside...

Image via Wikipedia

If I were the envious sort, I would probably be a bit envious of David Barton. After all, I have worked reasonably hard as a serious academic and have never been featured in the New York Times, the Daily Show, or Mother Jones. However, I will endeavor to keep this non-existent envy from impacting my assessment of his work.

Barton’s main theme is that America is actually a Christian nation. While he has made the “big news” only fairly recently, he has been advancing these thesis for about twenty years.  It was not, however, until he was blessed by Gingrich, Bachmann and Huckabee that he achieved national fame. He has, as noted above, been rewarded for his efforts with considerable attention.

Academic historians (that is, professionals) have been extremely critical of his scholarship. Critics also point out that he has no academic credentials and is not a trained historian. While this does raise questions about his expertise, it is not decisive proof against him. After all, there are other paths to expertise other than the academy. As such, I am not inclined to dismiss his claims on that basis. To do so would, in fact, be to fall into a logical error. However, to be suspicious of his claims in the field  because of his lack of credentials in the field would be quite reasonable. These concerns would, of course, be settled by considering factors beyond his qualifications.

When pressed about his credentials, Barton essential makes an appeal to the originals. To be specific, he seems to be claiming that his substantial collection of first edition works of the founders provides him with a special understanding of American history that academic historians lack.

While it is tempting to dismiss his reply as a silly “I don’t have a doctorate, but I have a lot of documents”, his reply is actually worth considering. As Hume (who was a historian as well as a philosopher) noted, a key part of  empirical history involves tracing things back to the originals. If Barton’s historical documents do, in fact, contain information that is relevant to re-assessing theories about American history, then they would certainly be well worth considering. After all, this sort of thing is a legitimate method in academic history and has, in fact, been done when original documents and other evidence has been unearthed to change the received view. As such, the basic method of taking into account original documents is a legitimate method.

However, Barton goes beyond simply using original documents as a basis for historical research. He also claims that the meaning of the texts is somehow self-contained and no additional context is required for their interpretation. As such, he is highly critical of academics who do not cite the primary sources but instead make use of other sources. He also holds that the original text somehow has a plain meaning that is distorted by academic scholars.

One of the main problems with his view is that the original texts generally do not have a plain meaning that is the only obvious and plausible interpretation. While I am not an historian, I have read a significant number of original texts from the founders, primarily their political (and philosophical) writings. I have also studied original texts in my area of professional expertise, namely philosophy.

My experience has been that the original texts that are substantial in nature generally do not have a plain meaning. Rather, the texts can be interpreted in various plausible ways. This is hardly shocking, given that language is an imperfect medium for conveying the ideas of imperfect beings. However, there is no need to take my word for it. Get copies of some of the founder’s substantial documents (like the Constitution) and gather around you a diverse group of people. Then have everyone try to find the plain meaning of the document.

It is also well worth considering that the founders did not put forth a monolithic view. If you return to the original documents, you will find that they contain considerably disagreement on key points. As such, even if one could find what the founders really meant, one would find many things.

Why, then, does Barton hold to the view that there is a plain meaning that he can see and that others distort? One obvious explanation is that people naturally take their view to be the plain view. Any view that differs must then be a distortion of the correct view. This outlook is maintained and fed by accepting only evidence that supports one’s interpretation and rejecting (or re-interpreting) any evidence to the contrary.

However, as with religion, what seems plain and obvious to one person is regarded as a distortion by another. Being critical about history requires being able to take into account the fact that everyone see’s history through their own distorting lenses. While these lenses cannot be eliminated, it is possible to correct for their distortion. However, Barton’s view seems to be based on the assumption  that he sees plainly while everyone else is viewing through distorted lenses. How wonderful it must be to be unique in this manner.

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The 35% Tax and Corporations

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 7, 2011
Classic General Electric neon sign, in Willaco...

Image via Wikipedia

One talking point being pushed by some conservatives is that the tax rate for corporations is too high. A number of evils, such as unemployment, are blamed on this tax rate. The party line is that lowering the tax rate will increase hiring and help improve the economy.

At first glance, this has a certain appeal. After all, a tax rate of 35% seems rather excessive and it seems to just make sense that if companies paid lower taxes, then they would have more money to hire people, expand, and otherwise contribute to an economic recovery. However, a somewhat deeper look reveals the truth about the situation.

First, corporations have been making record profits and have not responded by hiring more people. As such, it seems likely that lowering taxes would not have any impact on hiring (unless the lower tax rates were linked to hiring people). After all, if record profits do not result in an increase in hiring, it seems unlikely that increasing profits a bit more by reducing taxes would have any special impact.

Second, when those favoring reduced taxes say there is a 35% tax rate they are rather like the infomercial shills who claim that they are offering, for example, $200 worth of products for $19.99. That is, what they say and what is real are two very different things. While it is true that the corporate tax rate is 35%, the reality is that most corporations do not pay taxes at that rate. In fact, 66% of American and 68% of foreign corporations paid no taxes from 1998-2005. The most famous of these is, of course, GE. GE paid no taxes in 2010 and apparently even claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.

Given that most companies do not even pay taxes, it is difficult to believe that the 35% tax rate needs to be reduced or that reducing it would have any positive impact on the economy.

Third, the claim that lowering taxes will lead to more employment seems to be untrue. To support this, consider the example of GE. As noted above, GE paid no taxes in 2010 (and also claimed a tax benefit). If lower taxes caused companies to hire more people, it would seem to follow that GE should be hiring people. After all, their tax rate is 0% (or possibly a negative number). However, between 2007 and 2009 GE fired 21,000 Americans and closed 20 factories. One can only imagine what GE would have done if they actually had to pay taxes-presumably they would have fired all their American employees and closed all American factories. While this is but one example, this practice is a standard one among corporations. As such, the claim that cutting taxes for corporations will create jobs seems to be obviously false.

In light of the above arguments, lowering the tax rate for corporations would have no positive impact on jobs or the economy.

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ESP

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 30, 2011
Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza 1632 - 1677
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Since people often confuse the metaphysics of philosophy with the metaphysics of popular culture (things like healing crystals), it is not surprising that I have been asked what I think about the recent paper on ESP. My quick response is that my general view on ESP has not been changed: I see it as a possibility, but very unlikely. However, it seems worthwhile to consider the research in question (which might actually be an elaborate prank).

Bem’s paper discusses nine experiments he has conducted over the past ten years. The purpose of the research was to test student’s ability to sense random events, most famously the random porn images that students were allegedly able to sense before they appeared on the screen of a computer.

Bem seems to be trying to find some sort of backwards causal connection in that the cause is in the future relative to the effect. Since this is not how causation is supposed to work, this is a rather odd sort of thing.

In one experiment Bem had 100 students take a memory test and then had them practice the words they had used in the test. He claims that “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words.”

In his famous porn experiment, the subjects were asked to pick which virtual curtain concealed an image on the computer. Once the choice was made, a program randomly “placed” an image “behind” one curtain or the other. According to Bem, the subjects were able to pick the curtain that “hid” an image 53% of the time when that image was erotic. They were able to pick non-erotic photos only 50% of the time. He claims that “What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos,” Dr. Bem said, “but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

While I do find ESP fascinating and the paper interesting, there seem to be some serious problems with the experiments and his inferences.

First, the sample sizes are too small. While I am not a statistician by profession, an experiment requires a sample that is off adequate size. Oversimplifying things a bit, the smaller the sample in an experiment, then the less able it is to discern differences between chance and an actual causal connection. While the subjects presumably were able to pick the erotic image 53% of the time, that does not seem to be statistically significant given the small size of the sample-it could be the result of pure chance rather than sensory powers.

Second, it seems rather important to take into account the notion of regressing to the mean. To use an example, if you give 100 students a true/false test and have them guess the answers, then it is very likely that some of them will guess correctly at a rate higher than 50% and thus seem “lucky.” However, if they are tested again and again, the results will eventually approach the expected 50/50 mark. Interestingly enough, attempts to replicate Bem’s results seem to have failed-which seems like reasonably good evidence that the 53% result was a fluke rather than evidence of ESP.

Third, he makes a rather strong leap to a very definite conclusion based on evidence that fails to warrant such a conclusion. To be specific, he seems to be concluding that his experiments serve as proof for backwards causation. However, even if it is assumed that the results are statistically significant, there seem to be many alternative explanations and these need to be properly considered before accepting backwards causation or special senses that can detect the future.

To use something almost as weird as predicting the future, it could be that the students have the power to sense the states of the computer and are thus able to predict what image it will present. After all, one might argue, sharks can detect minute electrical fields. Maybe humans can do something similar. Interestingly, computers do not actually generate true random numbers and hence it could be argued that people have a way of detecting the states of the computer and what result will probably occur. Of course, that is a rather implausible theory. But no more implausible than backwards causation.

Another odd possibility is that the universe is deterministic (as Hobbes and Spinoza argued). As such, knowing what the future will bring is not a mater of the future causing the past, but a matter of knowing what the past will cause in the future. Philosophers, such as Spinoza, have argued that what appears as chance is actually a matter of ignorance because the universe is deterministic (the future follows of necessity from the past). Spinoza and other thinkers even argued that if a person had the right information (or used some sort of rather unexplained rational intuition) then she could know what will be. So, perhaps Spinoza was right and these students are not getting a vision of the future but intuiting what will arise from current events.

Naturally, it is easy enough to go on and on giving alternatives that are more or less as odd or plausible as ESP. Since many of these are consistent with the alleged evidence, the conclusion Bem draws seems to be rather hasty.

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Should Pelosi Step Down?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 9, 2010
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States Hou...
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When an army loses a battle, the leaders should look for the cause of the failure in themselves first. The same applies to a political party. As such, the Democratic leadership should be considering the role they played in the failures of their party.

While Obama is (in theory) the main leader of the party, Nancy Pelosi is also is also a major leader. While Obama’s popularity has dipped, Pelosi’s approval rating is rather dismal. This, no doubt, has played a role in calls for Nancy to step aside and let another Democrat take the leadership role in the House.

One rather practical reason for her to step aside is that she seems to provide the Republicans with a clear focus for attack. While this is to be expected, she also seems to be a very viable target: going after her seems to generate positive results for the Republicans. Given her unpopularity, this is hardly a surprise.

Another practical reason is that concerns have been expressed about her competency and effectiveness as a leader. As noted above, the Democrats lost the House. While this cannot be blamed entirely on Pelosi, it seems reasonable to lay at least a major slice of the blame at her door.

Her failure, it might be argued, can be seen as one of substance or appearance (or both). The election results showed that many Americans are not happy with the Democratic’s polices. This might be due to the actual policies, which Pelosi had a hand in shaping. Of course, it seems likely that most people (including Pelosi) are not aware of the actual content of many of the policies (who among us has actually read the health care documents?). It definitely has to do with the perception of the policies. Pelosi and the other Democrats seem to have failed in regards to persuading the American people that these policies were a good idea. To be fair, Pelosi did have to contend with the Republicans and the Tea Party-two forces that should not be idly dismissed. In any case, she seems to have failed dramatically.

Of course, it is fair to consider that failure was a honorable one. That is, Pelosi and the Democrats fought the good fight but lost despite those efforts. As such, one might argue, she does deserve a chance to lead the troops once again. After all, many great leaders (including General Washington) faced dire defeats and came back to achieve victory.

However, Pelosi has had a long time to show off her skills and some would say that is time for new leadership for the Democrats. Of course, no matter who take the role, it will be a politician. And a Democrat.

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