September 14, 2020
A solo episode from Paul. These are the notes I used... the audio is balanced differently.
Insight by Bernard Lonergan and 20/20 hindsight.
What else (besides the coronavirus and similar epidemics) are we not preparing for? Can we? We can't know all the unknowns, and it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to quantify the risks even for the things we can anticipate. Yet quantification is reasonable and laudable because individual lives do matter... the 1,000,001st victim of a tragedy just as much as the first.
Education and the bureaucratic / engineering mentality "we already know everything we need to make a decision" and "let's do something to make it look like we're doing something."
Finance and the herd mentality. Bullwhip chains of overreaction in the face of unknown risks. A reacts semi-rationally to the situation, B overreacts to A's reaction, C overreacts to B, etc. Federal forgiveness, however good in itself, has the side effect of blinding banks to their own internal information channels regarding default rates, etc. Banks are looking around at employment figures and other data, guessing what to do, overreacting, looking at their peers and emulating the most extreme.
There are a lot of really tired people working in logistics right now.
Job seekers giving up due to pessimism and the difficulty in thinking statistically. It's hard for me to go ahead and spend the effort to do something when I know its individual success rate is well under 50%. Now things are worse. All that means is that more repetitions will be needed to achieve success. However, it is easy to fall into the fallacy of "it was hard before but worth trying; now it's harder and therefore not worth trying," making an all-or-nothing qualitative proposition out of something that in its nature is gradational and quantitative.
Hope really is a virtue.
Audio editing by Morgan Burkart.
August 25, 2020
or Paving Paradise and the Parking Lots
Bill and Paul discuss attitudes toward masks, and then consider why the science wasn't more settled on the subject long before Covid-19. We discuss the obsession of modern society with all things novel and consider how this plays out in science, politics, and our individual lives and families.
1. A discussion of masks as defenses against the pandemic led Paul and Bill to ponder how scientific knowledge about the functionality of these masks for the common good is not always viewed as a fundamental, enduring value. In our media, the mask discussion gets wrapped up in political and symbolic and power-struggle considerations. The methodical pursuit of knowledge based on shared values and needs has been partly replaced by a marketplace of ideas that gets bored with what we know. Support for ideas gets hijacked by pursuits of vaguely defined notions of progress which are relativistic and individualistic and not systematically carried out through time.
2. Paul pointed out that he sees in the world of science that there are some surprising gaps in knowledge about certain things that resulted partly from people seeing no particular motivation—or research grant money—to drive knowledge forward. With some important exceptions, knowledge in some fields grows more randomly than through a coordinated sense of purpose. Paul recalled an earlier discussion about “p values” that can fail to give researchers the persistence born of confidence that next stages of knowledge will give us what we need to solve problems in a meaningful way.
3. As Paul put it, a “p value” may tell you the likelihood of your data given your hypothesis, but what we’d really like is to know the likelihood of our hypothesis given our data.
4. Bill pointed out that traditional notions of the university seemed to have a more obvious commitment to nurturing, collecting, and spreading knowledge so that it could become the reliable framework for incrementally building new knowledge that brings us closer to solving problems. But there is a notion in the present-day university—and in the marketplace, as Paul agreed—that progress is gained through disruption—dismissing or dismantling or deconstructing current knowledge because it isn’t as exciting or satisfying as a march toward future knowledge can be. That knowledge is seen as inherently better, Bill said, but our eager disregard of today’s knowledge suggests we will treat tomorrow’s knowledge in the same dismissive way. So we’re moving but not really expecting to get anywhere better as a society.
5. We’re caught up in the search for novelty. We’re looking for the next revolutionary thing that makes old learning moot. Shouldn’t we be trying to build and improve upon the good parts of the status quo. Can we find a golden mean between a love for innovation and a desire for preservation (a conformism?) that values the knowledge already acquired. In some sectors, has innovation been redefined at its very roots? Are we disinterested in the long-term trajectories of our human engagements and projects? Are we only focused on doing what’s new, bigger, and better in the current moment, leaving little interest in yesterday or tomorrow?
6. We’re describing a disposable mindframe. Today’s sense of urgency amid impending crises can make us so focused on new action for its own sake that we are willing to disrupt or tear down much of our current life and the history that brought us here. There seems to be too little argument in favor of recognizing the good things we have achieved and our responsibility to conserve/preserve these things. We have so much social capital built up over time, we feel less responsibility to preserve current sources of stability and sustainability. It seems okay to tear these things down. In periods of human history where survival has been more at stake, where there has been less of a cushion of social capital, the marketplaces of ideas and capital have more doggedly pursued incremental change which values and builds upon what has come before. On a grand scale, we don’t expect to feel a pain of loss, but at the personal and spiritual level, people are feeling the pain of loss, fear for the future, dislocation and disconnection, all the time. Indeed, our overall happiness as a society has eroded.
7. People have come to see the future as so urgently problematic that they’re more willing to quickly and readily dispose of stuff from the past without allowing any grounded time or space for wise transitions. No one is coaching us to press pause.
Audio editing by Morgan Burkart.
August 10, 2020
This is part 2 of our interview with Richard Garrett, author of The Kids Are Smart Enough, So What’s the Problem?
Find an overview of his distinguished career in this story about Dick’s zeal for researching and promoting education reform. (The story was written for Purdue’s College of Engineering by Bill last year.)
Dick’s book traces his growing concerns about problems in public elementary education. Those concerns led to extensive research from a business executive’s perspective, applying systems analysis skills from his background in engineering. Our interview probed not only the findings from that research, but even more current knowledge of education reform efforts which Dick continues to harvest and share. He has created an online gallery of videos for the general public, explicating what he has learned about educational-outcome statistics and various efforts to improve the outcomes. The videos are part of his “Elevate Teachers” website, which champions robust investments to help both teachers and students succeed.
July 13, 2020
- Paul and Bill welcomed Dick Garrett to our podcast. Find an overview of his distinguished career in this story about Dick’s zeal for researching and promoting education reform. (The story was written for Purdue’s College of Engineering by Bill last year.)
- Dick’s book, The Kids Are Smart Enough, So What’s the Problem?, traces his growing concerns about problems in public elementary education. Those concerns led to extensive research from a business executive’s perspective, applying systems analysis skills from his background in engineering. Our interview probed not only the findings from that research, but even more current knowledge of education reform efforts which Dick continues to harvest and share. He has created an online gallery of videos for the general public, explicating what he has learned about educational-outcome statistics and various efforts to improve the outcomes. The videos are part of his “Elevate Teachers” website, which champions robust investments to help both teachers and students succeed. .
- Observed as systems established to give students the knowledge and skills they need, elementary schools face a number of challenges, Dick said. They include segments of young people whose daily classroom behavior is a major burden, requiring teachers to pull away from educating in order to focus on discipline during sizable portions of the school day. He says the lack of self-discipline stems from parenting experiences and other factors tied to low-income community conditions.
- Students exhibit the combination of discipline problems and poor academic achievement not because of low intelligence—there is no doubt that they are smart enough to perform well—but because educational systems don’t appropriately respond to gaps in their non-cognitive abilities, according to Dick. He says schools must get better at forming general traits he summarizes as character and grit. His book presents examples of educational approaches that have aimed to enhance those traits, making classroom success more likely for all students and teachers.
- Where that success is lacking, schools fall behind in graduating students with key competitive metrics—especially a grasp of reading and math skills. This shows up in poor rankings for United States schools in statistics tallied by the Program for International Student Assessment, the US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, and other oversight mechanisms.
- A 2004 Public Agenda survey found that 85 percent of teachers felt new teachers were particularly unprepared to deal with disciplinary problems in their classrooms.
- A recent study by the Kirwan Commission yielded a comprehensive report on problems and prospective solutions in elementary education, and this became the basis of a legislative action plan for Maryland schools. The state government acted in early 2020 to approve funding for preliminary implementation of a major initiative based on Kirwan Report recommendations. Dick said one part of the plan envisions hiring 15,000 teachers. A major thrust of the plan is improved education of low-income children, including a cadre of teachers for smaller class sizes.
- One of Dick’s aspirations is to help in spreading the word about the Kirwan recommendations so that educational and governmental leaders elsewhere, such as his home states of Wisconsin and Indiana, will consider and implement similar proposals.
Episode 107 of “That’s So Second Millennium” next month will include part two of the interview with Dick Garrett. If you find the audio quality for this episode a little lacking, don't blame Morgan... she's on vacation this week. It's all Paul's fault (as usual).
June 22, 2020
- At the time of this taping, Paul was in the middle of the Metis “bootcamp” program learning the capabilities, tools, and insights of data science. This conversation ranged widely in the realm of data analysis and management, examining its relevance to Paul’s field of geology but also exploring the world’s immersion in what Bill would call a data ecology: It seems every datum is connected, or connectable, to every other datum That word is the original singular form of the plural word “data.”
- The growing plethora of data has to be tracked and organized, even though today’s computer hardware doesn’t allow all the world’s data—or even relatively large slices of that data—to be stored and analyzed in one place at one time. Realizing that words are data, too, Paul pointed out that geology encountered a data explosion crisis a few decades ago as science developed enough new names for various rocks to make the new information less useful. That was until geologists produced a plan for sorting out and categorizing rock names according to rocks’ bulk chemistry instead of their constituent minerals (example here). Paul came to see the value of advanced organization in obtaining, thinking, and acting upon geological data—hence, his pursuit of this certificate in data science.
- Discussion of this specific field of science led to the use of various other terms, with various meanings, none of them fully understood by Bill. The terms included informatics, data scraping, the analysis of data clustering, “big data,” and “machine-learning algorithms.” These terms can be anticipated to be influential in nearly all fields, so it behooves the layperson to develop some familiarity with them. It is quite possible to become skeptical of such a body of knowledge and skills that can be used for benevolent or malevolent purposes, like everything. But Paul said the hopeful side of his personality recognizes what data scientists already recognize—namely, that this amazingly powerful field also has its limitation.
- He recalled there is an author who currently is writing books with a robust skepticism about machine-learning. Separately, one can get a laugh from the current results seen in the hybrid field of machine-learning poetry. Bill guessed the author was Julia Evans, but it was likely Janelle Shane, the author of You Look Like a Thing and I Love You.
- The bottom line is that, as with all science, its tools and results cannot provide their own guidance on how to use wisely the fruits they bear. The guidance must come from external forces driven by human virtue and values.
Liner notes by Bill. Audio editing by Morgan. Cover art for this epsiode was produced by Paul... in conjunction with the Landsat 8 mission, the scikit-learn and seaborn libraries, and Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes. (See his final project slides here.)
June 8, 2020
Bill interviewed a leading Catholic voice in public affairs, especially in bioethics and the culture of life: Richard Doerflinger.
- His latest column for Catholic News Service examines the implications of the “Science Wins” maxim publicized by Pfizer Inc. in a recent TV commercial. You can see the commercial here.
- Doerflinger mentioned libertarian bioethicist John Harris in connection with the developments and moral controversies surrounding research on embryonic stem cells some years ago. Once concerns about human dignity were successfully eased by the development of pluripotent cells, science and society both did win from a prudential pullback from reliance on embryonic cells.
- Phronesis is practical moral judgment that integrates human wisdom and prudence to make the best decisions possible on public policy and practice given the facts human beings know from science—in light of virtue as a crucial factor.
- In the Catholic journal First Things. James Hankins has written recently about Machiavelli as the political guru of his day, who introduced scientism as a values-free guideline for geopolitical strategy. Machiavelli’s own predictions about outcomes in the absence of moral judgments led to strategic failures rather than successes, Doerflinger pointed out.
- The only law of history is the law of unintended consequences, according to Niall Ferguson, famed analyst of history, economics, and science. Doerflinger commented that unintended negative consequences have indeed been known to result from cases where science was unleashed without the exercise of human prudence.
Photo credit: The Criterion (Indianapolis)
May 25, 2020
Paul and Bill discussed autism—a subject that arose in Paul’s discussion with Pat Flynn in his own podcast.
John Ratey, popular psychologist, talks about how our sensory apparatus affects how we function in everyday life.
Paul’s comments on the subject of autism connect candidly with recollections from his early life.
Hilaire Belloc, a legendary British author of the early 20th century who wrote on many topics, famously was a friend and Catholic “fellow traveler” with G.K. Chesterton.
“Never waste a good crisis.” Bill says crises in our polity and society are often weaponized rather than used as a learning, community-building experience. This maxim, worded in different ways, has been attributed to various persons, from Rahm Emmanuel to Winston Churchill to Saul Alinsky.
Image by Sukinah Hussain from Pixabay
May 11, 2020
Part 2 of a three part conversation between Paul and Bill, where the main themes are skepticism, Catholic education, the mysterious absence of the Spanish Flu from our historical consciousness prior to 2020, and the philosophical conundrums of materialism, transgenderism, and scientism.
- Paul and Bill continued their conversation about skepticism toward science and religion. They touched on several examples of science failing to show that it “knows everything” or gets everything right. There must be a constant push for additional inquiry and knowledge. Bill said the teaching of religion in K-12 Catholic schools needs to express the hunger to learn more—the dynamic sense of joy in seeking God—just as the teaching of science sets an exciting stage for learning.
- The co-hosts discussed the lack of sure scientific knowledge about the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to references to the Spanish flu. Its history is poorly understood by most people, just as there was poor understanding in 1918 about the flu’s origins and impacts.
- Philosophy and natural science became unmoored from each other after the 17th century. Bertrand Russell appeared to share an opinion that Paul considers quite natural—the reluctance to accept that no philosophical inquiry into reality can be conducted without employing at least some original, foundational assumptions.
- Stephen Pinker acknowledges that materialistic thinking suffers from logical inconsistencies, Paul said. He referred to Pinker’s landmark book, The Blank Slate, an inquiry into the origins of human nature.
- Quantum physics, in its effort to explain how everything works by describing the behavior of atoms, is full of paradoxes, Paul said.
Image by Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay
April 19, 2020
I had the privilege of being on the Pat Flynn show on Holy Saturday (episode here). Pat comes from the worlds of both fitness / bodybuilding and philosophy and puts out new episodes nearly every day on those topics. He is a revert / convert to the Catholic faith and has an intriguing life story. If you're not familiar with him, definitely go over and fish in his well-stocked pond for topics of interest. You would do well to listen in to his conversation with Jared Zimmerer of Word on Fire, for starters! He has also had Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS) president Stephen Barr on not once, but twice.
Happy Divine Mercy Sunday, everyone. Bill and I will be back with another episode (or two... depending on how chatty we get) next week.
If you happen upon this post as a Pat Flynn fan, may I suggest checking out our homepage where you can find links at the upper right to our interviews with many members of the SCS, especially speakers at the 2019 SCS Conference, and to a list of other popular episodes.
If the SCS specifically intrigues you, they have a ton of media, like videos of talks both at SCS Conferences and elsewhere, and an impressive archive of biographies of Catholic scientists. Definitely go to their homepage to learn more.