Circus Maximus MMXVI: Don’t know much about history

9 11 2015

On the one hand, voters shouldn’t worry that Ben Carson doesn’t know much about policy because he’s like Solomon:

“There are a lot of policies that I lack knowledge on,” he told reporters during his book signing in Miami on Thursday. “I’m gaining knowledge. But I don’t by any stretch of the imagination confess to knowing everything. That’s the reason you have advisors.”

“Even Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, said, ‘A multitude of counselors is safety.’ The real question [about candidates] is, after they’re informed and have an opportunity to digest and talk about it, can they make a wise decision? It’s a false narrative that you have to know everything.”

Yet on the other hand he know more than any stupid experts about the purpose of Egypt’s pyramids:

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Now all the archeologists”—here, Carson waves his hand dismissively—“think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time, to store that much grain.” Carson had his own take on the engineering: “When you look at the way that the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they’d have to be that way for a reason.” The King’s Chamber, as he saw it, was not an instrument panel or a power substation, but a big Tupperware container.

“It’s still my belief, yes,” Carson said, on Wednesday, when CBS News asked him if he still held to this theory. Then, with an almost pitying smile, Carson explained again, as if to a child, that “the pyramids were made in a way that they had hermetically sealed compartments. You wouldn’t need hermetically sealed compartments for a sepulchre. You would need that if you were trying to preserve grain for a long period of time.”

So, riddle me this: how does Carson know what he knows and know what he doesn’t know so that he’ll know when to go with what he knows and when to defer to those who know what he doesn’t know?


We are the champions of the world

8 03 2015

Might makes right—that is the basis of morality.

That’s not all there is to morality, but lack the might, and you lack the ability to determine the right.

(And as for God(s) as the basis of morality? What is he/she/they/it but Mighty? the Mightiest of the Mighty?)

Might makes right is also the basis of knowledge. Of course, what counts as “might” varies considerably across time and space: might could mean “ability to summon spirits” or “to discern the secrets of nature” or, of course, to point a sword or an axe or a gun at a person’s head and say “believe” or “recant”; it could also refer to people or resources or the production of results.

Thomas Kuhn referred, famously, to paradigms: scientists operate within a particular paradigm or set of theories of how the world works, and new scientists are inculcated with and succeed according to their ability to produce new knowledge based on elaboration of those theories. Over time, however, those elaborations may run into trouble: the theory leads to x result, but y is what is witnessed. There may be some way to accommodate these anomalies, but eventually the anomalies will overwhelm the paradigm; upon the presentation of a new theory which can account not only for the old knowledge, but also the anomalies, the paradigm will shift.

(Imre Lakatos attempted to meliorate the harshness of this shift (and to mediate between Kuhn and Karl Popper’s strict falsificationism) with a notion of “research programmes” and whether they are “progressive” or “degenerative”, but he, too, allows that new research programs may emerge.)

Older or established members of a field may not accept a new paradigm or research program, but, as Max Planck famously observed, “science advances one funeral at a time”. Einstein, one of the most intelligent men of the 20th century, perhaps ever, just as famously never accepted quantum theory (“God does not play dice with the universe”), but he couldn’t foil it; he is dead, and the theory lives.

What, then, is the paradigm or research program but a form of might? It declares what counts as true and false, what is considered evidence and how to make sense of that evidence, what counts as science—and thus knowledge—at all.

None of this is meant to be argumentative, but axiomatic. This doesn’t mean there is no knowledge or no true knowledge, but that what counts as knowledge and truth is bound up in the conditions of the production of said knowledge and truth. Knowledge depends upon what we say knowledge is (“intersubjective agreement”), and there are a lot of ways to say it.

I’m a fan of science, and consider its methods to be powerful in eliciting knowledge about the natural world. I don’t think it can tell me much about poetry, but if I want to understand how a fertilized egg can turn into a person, then I’ll turn to a biology textbook rather than, say, a book of poetry.

Even the most potent forms of knowledge—the mightiest of the mighty—have their limits (see: embryology won’t teach you much about rhyme and meter), and potency itself is no guarantee against the loss or overthrow of a particular form of knowledge, an insight long known by tyrants, torturers, and con men alike.

Knowledge, for all of its power (Bacon), is also fragile: because there is nothing necessary or autonomous about any one form of knowledge, it can be lost or shattered or tossed away—which means it must be tended, and, when conditions dictate, defended.

All of which is a very long way to saying that the notion of “Let the public decide what’s the truth” with regard to the existence of climate change is a terrible, terrible idea, and as an attack on science itself, deserves to to be driven back to the gaseous bog from whence it came.

Map of the world

11 02 2015

My medieval-modernity project may have fallen apart, but I’m still hoovering up books about old Europe.

And the words do work for me—I’ve said in the past that I’m a text- rather than visually-oriented person—but sometimes, mmm, sometimes you need a map to make sense.

To cite one example: I just finished John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium (great fun: I want to track down the 3-vol. series), and I kept flipping between the copy and the maps at the front of the book to figure out where, exactly, were the boundaries of the empire or the position of yet another battle. It helped, some, but the maps were few and small and I couldn’t always determine where the characters or I were.

So I happened to ask my colleague and friend Jtte. if she had any suggestions for atlases (Jtte. does historical research and has constructed a number of terrific maps for her work), and she immediately said “William Shepherd, Historical Atlas“.

Shepherd constructed his atlas in the early 20th century, so I wouldn’t be surprised if archaeological work in the intervening years might yield different maps, but oh, are these maps beautiful.

Jtte. pointed me to the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at UT-Austin, which includes a section on historical maps, and a link to a 1911 and 1923-26 edition of Shepherd’s work.

Here’s one from the 1920s edition, of Asia Minor:


Reference Map of Asia Minor under the Greeks and Romans

Or this one, of Europe under Rome (I’m finally reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire):


Reference Map of the European Provinces of the Roman Empire

Click to make ’em see-able & zoom-able.

These are gorgeous, and a bit of a mess, but isn’t that exactly what an historical atlas should be?

Happily, the Strand had an 8th edition (1956, with maps added to Shepherd’s final 1929 edition), so I won’t have to go online to see, say, The Growth of Russia in Europe, 1300-1796 or The Ottoman Empire, 1481-1683 or or the Growth of Frankish Power 481-814 or or or. . . .

(Of course, the zoom feature is pretty handy: lifting my glasses and sticking my nose an inch or two from the page isn’t always enough.)

Oh, I am going toss away so many hours leafing through and peering at these maps, and to no discernible productive end whatsoever.

Ain’t knowledge grand?

It’s too late, baby

12 01 2015

Not only am I lazy, I am also a bossy broad.

Bossy and lazy: and I wonder why I don’t date!

Anyway, Amy Klein writes in aeon about her reluctance to tell her 42-year-old friend that it’s too late to begin thinking about freezing her eggs:

What I really want to tell my friend is that if she is serious about having a baby, her best bet would be to go out to the nearest bar and hook up with a stranger – during her 36-hour ovulation window, of course. But I won’t tell her to sleep with a random guy, I won’t ask if she ovulates regularly, nor will I say anything else about the state of her ticking – nearly stopped – biological clock: it’s too delicate a subject.

To which I can only say: if someone brings up her ovaries to me, then I’ma gonna go ahead and tell her that thinking and freezing are not going to get the job done—although I’d recommend a sperm bank rather than the local pub.

Will I also tell her that chances are she’s already infertile? That would depend on the course of the conversation, and, in any case, I’d tell her to talk to her OB-GYN.

Klein is right, however, that most women don’t know that, for most of them, the fertility window is closed by the early forties, and that it begins closing in the late-twenties/early-thirties. Fertility rates do decline throughout the thirties (entering a period of greater variability in the late thirties), but, again after 40 the decline is precipitous.

And IVF won’t help—not if you didn’t create embryos before entering your fifth decade. Yes, some women do conceive their own children throughout their forties, but, as Klein points out, all of those well-known women birthin’ babies at 48 or 50 are either using embryos frozen some time ago or someone else’s eggs. Liza Mundy has more about this in her terrific book, Everything Conceivable:

Studies show that among ART [assisted reproductive technologies] patients who are forty years old and using their own eggs, there is a 25 percent chance of pregnancy over the course of three IVF cycles. The chances diminish to around 18 percent at forty-one and forty-two, 10 percent at forty three, and zero at forty-six.

In 2005, a group of doctors at Cornell surveyed IVF patients over forty-five who had attempted to conceive using their own eggs. Among women between forty-six and forty-nine, not one get pregnant using her own eggs. (p. 42)

And, it should be noted, the odds are even worse for poorer and non-insured women of every age, who may have had untreated medical problems which interfere with or nullify their fertility.

Mundy and Klein both note that a previous attempt by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine to raise awareness that the biological clock only has so many ticks in its tocks caused controversy among (hangs her head in sorrow) some feminist groups (well, the National Organization for Women), for the “pressure” such information would place on women, making them “anxious about their bodies and guilty about their choices”.

(Do I mention here that loooooong ago I was a member of the Sheboygan chapter of NOW? Those women, who fought to bring Planned Parenthood to the county, who had been harassed and threatened, would have hooted then-prez Kim Gandy out of the room for thinking they would have been afraid of a little information.)

Klein quotes Naomi Cahn, author of Test Tube Families, who notes that

‘the politics of reproductive technology are deeply intertwined with the politics of reproduction’ but ‘although the reproductive rights issue has a long feminist genealogy, infertility does not’. Discussion of infertility is threatening to feminists on two levels, she contends: ‘First, it reinforces the importance of motherhood in women’s lives, and second, the spectre of infertility reinforces the difficulty of women’s “having it all”.’

That is not any reason, however, not to spread the word as far and wide as possible:

‘Shunning that information about the relationship between fertility and age, however, ignores biological facts and, ultimately, does a disservice to women both in terms of approaching their own fertility and in providing the legal structure necessary to provide meaning to reproductive choice,’ writes Cahn.

. . .

‘It is only with this information that reproductive choice becomes a meaningful concept,’ Cahn writes. ‘Choice cannot mean only legal control over the means not to have a baby, but must include legal control over the means to have a baby.’


It is sometimes pointed out that it is unfair that men have no legal say in whether a women chooses to continue or to end a pregnancy—and maybe it is, but it’s also how it is. Similarly, maybe it’s unfair that men remain fertile throughout their lives but women do not—and maybe it is, but it’s also how it is.

So better to say how it is (and the earlier the better) than pretend otherwise, so women have the knowledge, and the time, to make the choices that make sense for them.

And if we’ve got to be a little bossy to get the word out, well, then that’s how it is, too.

Just let the red rain splash you

9 12 2014

The executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence torture report.

16 absolutely outrageous abuses detailed in the CIA torture report, as outlined by Dylan Matthews.

I was naïve, years ago, in my outrage at the torture committed by the CIA. Yes, the US had enabled torturers (see: School of the Americas) and supported regimes which tortured (see: US domestic surveillance and foreign policy), but somehow, the notion that torture was committed by US government agents seemed over the line in a way that merely enabling and supporting had not.

I don’t know, maybe US-applied torture was over the line in a way US-enabled/supported torture was not, and busting righteously through it busted something fundamental in our foreign policy.

But given, say, the Sand Creek and Marias massacres amongst the general policy of “land clearing” and Indian removal—policies directed by US politicians and agents—wasn’t it a bit precious to decry this late unpleasantness?

Naïveté, I wrote above. No: ignorance. I’d studied (and protested) 20th-century US foreign policy and ignored its 19th century version, the one directly largely against the indigenous people whose former lands now make up the mid- and western United States.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote that paeans to nonviolence are risible in their ignorance: Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. Yes.

A country born in theft and violence—unexceptional in the birth of nation-states—and I somehow managed not to know what, precisely, that birth meant.

I’m rambling, avoiding saying directly what I mean to say: there will be no accountability for torture. Some argue for pardoning those involved as a way to arrive at truth, that by letting go the threat of criminal charges we (the people) can finally learn what crimes were committed, and officially, presidentially, recognize that crimes were committed.

It is doubtful we will get even that.

Still, we have the torture report, and (some) crimes documented which were only previously suspected. Good, knowledge is good.

But then what? Knowledge of torture committed is not sufficient inoculation against torture being committed.

Coming clean will not make us clean.

Boom boom boom

18 09 2014

I am a mine-layer.

Some days—most days?—the most I can accomplish is to fling out enough mines that at least some will burrow into rather than merely roll off of my students.

I’m a pretty good teacher—I’d put myself in the B, B+ range—but I think even the best teachers fail to impart whole systems of thought or history or formulae to their students. One might be able to lay out the sets and subsets, the permutations and exemplars and exceptions, in as straightforward a manner as possible, noting what syncs up with which and where it all falls apart, but beyond the assignment or the test or the essay, the knowledge dissipates.

This isn’t their fault—the student’s, I mean—nor is it the teacher’s. Most of the material covered in a college course can only be fully taken in through repetition, and for many students in many classes, it’s one-and-done: the ticking off of requirements on their way to a degree. What they remember may be courses in their major, and that’s because they run into the same concepts and theories and studies over and over again.

If students are able to see the connections amongst ideas laid out in a 3- or 4-hundred-level course in their field, it likely has less to do with that particular professor than with the accumulation of bits from the 100- and 200-level courses.

So what to do when teaching a 1 or 200-level class, or even an advanced class which is supported by no major?

Lay mines. Try to expose the students to concepts they are likely to encounter again, so that the next time they run across “Aristotle” or “Arendt” or  “deontological ethics”, that little bomb will go off and they’ll say to themselves, Hey, I recognize this! and maybe not feel so estranged from what had seemed strange.

So many metaphors could be used here: taking a student down a path and pointing out enough landmarks so that when they traipse down it again, they’ll say Hey! . . . , and feel more confident in their surroundings, more willing to push further on. Tossing out enough seeds in the hopes that a few take root, sprout. Or maybe repeated vaccinations, priming the immune system to respond when next encountering the invasive idea (tho’ there are clear limits to this last analogy insofar as the knowledge isn’t to be annihilated).

Maybe it’s different for professors at elite schools, with students who’ve already been exposed to and are comfortable with these ideas. Or maybe even at my CUNY school I’d find less mine-laying if I were to teach more advanced-level courses in my field.

But maybe not, or, at least, not the way I teach. Yes, I want them to perform well on tests and papers, but more than that, much more than that, I am greedy enough of their attention that I want them to remember this stuff for the rest of their lives.

I’d rather they get a B and be bothered for decades than get an A and let it all go.

So this might explain why I’m partial to the mine idea: because it allows for the possibility of little bits of insight to explode whenever the student strays over forgotten territory. And if those mines are powerful enough and buried deep enough, there’s a chance those explosions might rearrange her intellectual landscape, might change how he looks at the world.

And yeah, I like the idea of blowing their minds, too.

Blown backwards into the future

14 05 2014

Benjamin conjured history as an angel.

Let’s sit with that for a bit, as it’s a lovely sad conjuring.

There is no repair, not for the angel, not for us. Sad, perhaps, but not unbearably so.

There is also no going back, as that angel learned. If the past is an ocean, then history is diving in and bringing the bits and debris and life to the surface, to the present, to see what we’ve got. We can bring what’s down below to the surface and we can make sense of it, but it is our sense, a present sense. And the things themselves, especially the lives themselves, are changed for having been dragged from the deep.

Diving, digging, spelunking: all this bringing to the surface the bits and debris in attempt to recreate life. History as simulacrum.

And the epochs and eras and moments? Those are the bits highlighted or strung together: the Renaissance or Scientific Revolution or Modernity or the Enlightenment. It gives us a way to see.

Usually, when I speak of seeing, I speak metaphorically. But I wanted literally to see where these different moments were in relation to one another, so I ran parallel timelines of European history—scientific, cultural, religious, political, trade—down sheets of paper taped in my hallway, then plotted out those moments.


This is an incomplete draft—I clearly need to allow more room on the final version—but it’s not hard to see how this moment was understand as Italian Renaissance at its ripest.

Or here, as what we now call the Scientific Revolution gets underway:


These give me that bird’s eye view of the middle centuries of the last millennium; they also make me wonder what isn’t there, isn’t recorded in any of the texts I’m using.

What moments are still underground? And what stories will we tell if we ever unearth them?



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