Monday, September 28, 2009

Philosophy and science do not mix

Several months ago I filled out a form for my philosophy department asking the usual questions: what are you doing, what do you think your philosophy education did for you, ect. I said that I entered college thinking that philosophy was the foundation of knowledge, and now I feel like I know enough to focus on other disciplines. I'll be trying to avoid philosophy in the future. I didn't say that I feel like philosophy has become in large part mental masturbation, although it was probably implied. Yet here I am, writing about philosophy.

I finished A People's History of Science by Clifford D. Connor a few days ago. I was pleasantly surprised by the book: it captures and appears to validate my cynical, somewhat contemptuous attitude towards extremely abstract philosophy and economics perfectly. There are several theses, drawn from various historians/philosophers of science who seem to have done the major legwork. The most blatant thesis, drawn from Edgar Zilsel is that mechanics, craftsmen, laborers, sailors, and other common people advanced science. In support of this, Connor notes numerous figures and evidence that scientists did not attribute their findings to unsung assistants. I found two other theses particularly intriguing: that the oft-cited "Greek miracle" was anything but, and that the traditional scientific elite sometimes acted contrary to good science and ethics.

Most of us are vaguely aware of the latter, but may be surprised by the former. I know I was surprised: when I entered college as a freshman, I cited Greece as the foundation of Western civilization. My professor suggested Egypt, Babylon, and Phoenicia, but I was skeptical and never got the chance to investigate further. Connor shows that there is a reason for that. My comments below largely relate Connor's story (which are relating other academic stories); I don't have enough background knowledge to affirm or contest his facts.

Another intriguing thought covered briefly is the possible Oriental origin of Western Civilization's science, argued by Joseph Needham. I won't discuss this in more detail; although I find in intriguing, it's likely more controversial than Needham makes it appear. According to Needham, the list of Chinese technologies imported into Europe include printing, gunpowder, magnetic compasses, clockwork, casting of iron, stirrups, Pascal's triangle, rudder, segmental-arch bridges, and much more (p. 165).

The Greek Miracle

The Greeks themselves cited Egypt as the root of their wisdom. Aristotle, Plato, and Herodotus all said mathematics was brought from Egypt (Connor p. 123). Some said Pythagoras brought it, although Connor says that is unlikely; Thales was also reputed to have spent time in Egypt. Connor (p. 126, citing Martin Bernal) says that these statements by the Greeks were downplayed by "Classical Philologists" at the University of Gottingen in the late 1700s. Connor says that the scholars of antiquity apparently tried to explain away the Egyptian and Phoenician influence, including the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet, because Egyptians were a black mongrel race. Connor, citing Martin Bernal, is not exactly clear on how the influence is explained away. Among the scientists who extended this tradition was Georges Cuvier, the secretary of the Parisian Academy of Sciences. The Royal Society and the Academy were the two most prestigious scientific institutions of the day.

Connor argues that the Ionian materialists (Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander) had a pro-science philosophy which was supplanted by the highly abstract, teleological philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Benjamin Farrington has apparently developed the argument in Science in Antiquity that Plato's influence "was one of the main reasons for the death of science in the Greek world" (p. 146), as thought became increasingly a priori. Connor mentions something which I don't think was ever mentioned in my ancient philosophy class: only Plato's Timmaeus was known to European scholars up to the 1100s. Hippocrates stands out as an exception to the antiempirical Greek tradition. Commenting on Connor's perspective, I do think that the Greeks contributed to science (which was passed on to the Arabs), but I agree with Connor that Socrates and Plato probably had negative to neutral impacts. Aristotle was more of a scientist, but unfortunately he did not seem to emphasize the scientific method, as Francis Bacon later pointed out (leading to the "Baconian method"), although Bacon's thoughts were preceded by The Canon of Medicine and I believe Bacon's philosophy was more reflective of the culture than instructive. Galileo was studying physics in the early 1600s, while Bacon first published the Novum Organon in 1620.

Dirty Secrets of Scientific Elite

Like Howard Zinn, Connor digs up information deeply buried. The last half of the book focuses on how the scientific elite's emphasis on "value-free science" actually supported conservative politics and dubiously moral agendas (eg social darwinism, eugenics). Robert Boyle, the chemist known for Boyle's Law, could afford to hire numerous assistants ("Making Experiments by Others Hands", p. 330 - Tycho Brahe is another great patron, p. 324) and pursue scientific investigations. That and his undeniable scientific brilliance made him a major figure in the Royal Society. He along with others in the Royal Society believed in witchcraft and demonology (see, for example, his book The Devil of Mascon) and presumably did not oppose the ridiculous trials and punishments which went along with it. Connor notes that the burning of witches reached an all-time high in the 1630s (p. 365), coinciding with the rise of the Royal Society. Similarly, the famous proscientist philosopher Francis Bacon brutally tortured at least a few people (p. 363).

Connor frames the scientific landscape of the 1600s as a battle between the entrenched gentry elite (represented by figures such Boyle and Bacon above) and the craftsmen and artisans who do a lot of legwork. Connor chooses Bacon as a representative of the former group and Paracelsus as a representative of the latter (p. 305). Interestingly, neither figures were true scientists. Bacon isn't known for any science; Paracelsus had odd hermetical views on medicine and his theory on the "dose makes the toxin" is just common sense (and misleading common sense at that; some substances have negative effects at practically any dose while most substances are beneficial or neutral up to a hazardous exposure). Nevertheless, Paracelsus campaigned against a rotten Galenic medicine, preached the virtue of working with raw materials and alchemic exploration, which Connor says inspired revolutionary scientific figures such as Paracelsus admirer Johann Rudolph Glauber (p. 371), a notable chemist. The battle can be seen, for example, in the Parisian Royal Academy's rejection of Joseph von Fraunhofer, the inventor of the spectrometer, as a full member (p. 375). The last quarter of the book notes that programmers and "garage entrepeneurs" were the new craftsmen.

Concluding thoughts

The book brings together several amazing scholars in the history and philosophy of science. Reading their Wikipedia articles, it is clear that these people's works were often more controversial than Connor makes them appear. Avoiding the appearance of dishonest bias is one of the most important techniques for a good nonfiction writer. By relying on concrete and well-cited facts for his case, Connor actually manages to avoid seemingly dishonestly biased, even if his bias is clear. Connor doesn't say that the great scientists were not great scientists, but he isn't afraid to point out their flaws whereas most history draws a whitewash.

One New York Times review says that the book misses something when it doesn't describe the personalities of its individuals. I didn't get that impression; I get enough description of individuals, and he certainly doesn't avoid going deep into individuals. Disorganization is the biggest problem; the same people will be covered in different places on only slightly different topics. The NYT review also criticizes the extreme use of quotes. Again, this doesn't bother me - I like to know exactly what the cited source is saying, and if someone with more expertise has said something eloquently before, why not repeat it?

I definitely disagree with Connor on strange pseudosupernatural scientific theories. For example, he doesn't criticize the problems with Paracelsus' medical philosophy, and later he appears to defend Franz Mesmer's animal magnetism movement as a "people's science movement" when it was actually superstitious and possibly fraudulent. It sounds like a precursor to the modern "therapeutic touch":
Mesmerist therapy consistened in channeling the magnetic fluid through the patient ... often though not always the magnetic power was directed into a patient by a laying of hands ... the patient would report ... intense heat ... patients tremebled violently, went into trances... (pp. 404-5

You get the picture. Don't get sucked into thinking that anything is valid science.

As far as another theme, the values embedded in science - raw scientific data is value-free. The processing, interpretation, and application are not value-free. The decision as to what science to pursue is not value-free. Scientists cannot hide behind science for their values (or lack thereof). While it should go without saying, I think it's worth it to say that scientists, even brilliant ones, are not always good people. In many cases they are reactionary and immature.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Corporate auto mechanics, or lack thereof

I've been looking into auto mechanics because I'm worried about the clutch in my car. I felt some shuddering the other day. I think I tend to ride the clutch. I'm a bit worried about taking my car to the shop. I'm not rich. The last time it seemed like the small-town mechanics kept my car for a couple weeks and charged me what seemed like a lot for essentially just an inspection.

After doing some research I've learned that I should be looking for ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified mechanics. I've been looking for a corporate auto mechanic. People who know me might find that strange, but I've had a favorable view of corporations for a long time. As a gluten-intolerant person, the businesses which have are organized in their response to gluten are usually corporations (PF Changs and Red Robin come to mind). I used to have my oil changed by Jiffy Lube. Corporations have professional managers who are looking at the global scale. The services they provide are fairly predictable from location to location (eg McDonalds food). They often allow the customer to have an account with past history (my Jiffy Lube account) which can be pulled up anywhere.

I found an excellent analysis by Fulcrum Inquiry of the auto repair industry which confirmed my suspicions: the industry is highly fragmented with few to zero corporate giants; The Pep Boys (NSYE:PBY) and Monro Muffler Brake (NASDAQ:MNRO) are the only ones worth mentioning, and they're both basically small caps. I find this surprising. Corporate auto repair shops would have the following advantages:
  • More oversight to keep the mechanics "honest".
  • Organized customer account records showing the parts repaired, overview of issues, ect. This would be one of the biggest draws for me. The data could later be sold if the ownership changes.
  • Market power in buying equipment, which could be passed on to customers.
  • Systematic tracking of the reliability of parts, to locate the best deals.
  • Prioritization of the training on common auto issues.
Although I recognize the advantages of corporations, I don't like corporate governance. Dispersing ownership among countless small owners and putting all the power in a professional manager with relatively little ownership doesn't make sense. The ideal system is a few medium-sized owners, each of whom has a representative on the board. I don't really like leveraged buyouts as an alternative to our flawed corporate governance system, either. But that's a discussion for another post.