The Paranoid Style in American Science

Slate has a very interesting three-part article by Daniel Engber: The Paranoid Style in American Science. Engber begins with a discussion of agnostic and sometime intelligent design proponent David Berlinski’s new book critiquing the “New Atheists”; Berlinski, explains Engber, is a archetypical embodiment of a recent trend in American culture of turning the scientific virtue of skepticism against science itself. Engber argues that the same approach, exploiting the limits the scientific knowledge and the evidentiary shortcomings that often accompany even the most complete scientific consensuses, is part of an unhealthy trend, what the defenders of science on Wikipedia call “pseudoskepticism”.

Pseudoskeptics — many of them with clear political, commercial or ideological agendas — sow doubt about human-caused climate change and suspected carcinogens, focus on the unproven safety of nonorganic food and GMO crops, and of course, point to gaps in evolutionary explanations to make room for religious ideas.

As Engber concludes, “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” He sees the trend of immoderate doubt as a parallel to what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics” in his 1964 essay by that title. (Famously, at least, among Americanist graduate students.)

I agree with Engber’s final conclusion, that “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” However, I don’t think the trend of increasing skepticism about scientific matters indicates the rise of a “paranoid style”, where society as a whole is moving toward immoderate doubt. Rather, it seems that people in general (and scientists themselves no less than nonscientists) are increasingly skeptical because they have a better understanding of the way science works and the social limitations of science on the large scale of modern research.

If the distribution skepticism in society is some sort of bell curve (not an unreasonable assumption), then the center of the distribution is moving closer to a point of healthy moderate skepticism, away from an overly credulous point (when it comes to science, among other things) where it has been in the past. The result of this is a dramatic increase in the number of people at the “immoderate doubt” end of the distribution, but the reduction of the other extreme more than makes up for it.

As an argument to retreat from the cliffs of untempered skepticism, Engber points to Simon and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump to the effect that despite the Royal Society’s motto of Nullius in verba (on no man’s word), “the first society members were just as dedicated to the notion that organized science engenders trust, and that it requires the acceptance of some degree of doubt.” But Simon and Schaffer famously conclude that “Hobbes was right”, that “Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions.” (Famously, at least, among history of science graduate students.) As that matter of fact about the way knowledge is generated increasingly becomes ingrained in American culture, it’s only natural that the political and scientific discourse will increasingly overlap. We can’t take the politics out of science, so the only way to overcome the problem of “paranoid style” science is to fix American politics.

The Future of Wikipedia (my take), part 1

The future of Wikipedia is a perennial topic of discussion among Wikipedians and Wikipedia critics. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while (see my prognostications from early 2007). I apologize in advance for a long post.

It seems like Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation are finally turning the corner in several long-anticipated respects. The two long-heralded software projects, Unified Login and Stable Versions, are functional and moving toward implementation. The professionalization of the Foundation is starting to pay dividends: in the last few days, Executive Director Sue Gardner announced a $3 million, 3-year grant from the Sloan Foundation, followed a few days later by a $500,000 grant from philanthropists Vinod and Neeru Khosla.

Financial stability, and even financial flexibility, may be on the horizon, and the harshest critiques that could potentially derail the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia (in particular, those of Larry Sanger and the recent, ongoing accusations by Danny Wool and Kelly Martin) seem to have spent most of their energy without much effect. That’s not to say that these critiques are entirely unfounded, but it’s becoming clear that the worst of them are either in the past or not of project-killing significance. So it’s a good time to reassess the big issues that will shape the project’s future.

The title and main topic of the newest Wikipedia Weekly podcast is The Future of Wikipedia. The discussion (the “feeback” and “Wii moment” sections, from 21:47 to about 52:52) is primarily about the future growth of Wikipedia; Andrew Lih and Liam Wyatt disagreed in the last podcast about how big we can expect Wikipedia to be in the years to come.

Andrew forcefully states an idea that parallels my own thoughts on Wikipedia’s future: to come anywhere close to “the sum of all human knowledge”, the project needs a “Wii moment”, a reformulation of what it means to contribute to Wikipedia (along the lines of what the Wii did for gaming) that opens things up to huge numbers of people who never would have participated so before. The podcast discusses some of the basic things that will make editing more accessible: what-you-see-is-what-you-get editing, and a gentler culture that is more appealing to people with little patience for revert wars and wikilawyering.

I have a more expansive vision of what Wikipedia and its sister projects ought to become. In this and some follow-up posts, I’ll lay out some of my ideas for major changes.

One of the most promising avenues for expanding the scope of the Wiki(p/m)edia community is news. Right now, Wikipedia has a troubled relationship to the news. One recent example: Obama’s race speech, “A More Perfect Union“, was undergoing a deletion discussion from the evening of March 18 (the day the speech was made and the article was written) until yesterday. In the meantime, the article got 4000 hits the first day, and after the initial news burst has been holding steady around 1000 hits per day. For news topics, people want the kind of synthetic, continually updated neutral view that Wikipedia (at its best) provides. But neither mainstream media nor the new media of partisan blogs and social news sites provide this, Wikipedia avoids this except for “notable” stories, and Wikinews operates no differently from traditional news, calling a story “done” once it’s published.

In my view, most of Wikinews ought to be merged with Wikipedia, leaving only Original Reporting for Wikinews. For big topics that have both ongoing news and a long, broad history, Wikipedia ought to have separate subpages for more detailed explanation of specific news events (a la Wikinews articles, but continually open to update). This will encourage the participation of the thousands of news junkies who, at present, are not particularly welcome on Wikipedia (and don’t want to waste their time writing Wikinews articles no one will read, if they even know about Wikinews).

Wikimedia could do even more with news. News is the subject of continual, massive interest, and the there is a large–and mostly unmet–demand for internet discussion of news. Most internet news sources do not have even rudimentary forums for discussion, and even for the ones that do, much more discussion happens offsite than on. For example, the top link on social news site reddit right now is this article on Time‘s politics blog, which does not allow comments. The reddit discussion is 140 comments long and counting. Even traditional news sites that do allow comments rarely have anywhere near that level of participation, even for articles that are heavily discussed at Digg, Reddit, slashdot, and the blogosphere.

The top social news sites are only modestly popular, and there is still plenty of room for new players. If Wikimedia started a social news site, and melded it on to Wikipedia along with other features that give users more of an outlet for interaction that is not centered on article improvement, Wikipedia could probably go from the #9 site on the internet (down from #8 last year) to the #1 site. That’s not an end it itself, but it would have a huge impact on content in terms of turning readers into discussants, and discussants into contributors. Every article and news story would have a sleek discussion thread (maybe dynamic ones based on users’ Wikimedia social networks, or imported social network data from Facebook, MySpace, and the others).

I realize that bits and pieces of this are being done elsewhere (including Wikia, e.g., with their politics site), but Wikipedia has the userbase and reputation to actually make it work.

Along with social networking and free discussion, article policies would have to be liberalized; at the very least, the notability concept should be retired, although a more integrated system of sorting articles based on the level of reliable sourcing could be put in place instead, so that readers always have a clear idea of whether they are reading a biography of a significant figure based on the work of professional historians, or the biography of somebody’s grandfather pieced together from newspaper clippings and family records.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my ideas about Original Reporting for Wikinews; although my above proposals would gut the current core of Wikinews, I envision a future for Wikinews even brighter than Wikipedia’s, based primarily on citizen journalism.

What’s missing from the Democrats’ health plans

Despite the importance of health care (and particularly health care costs) in this U.S. election cycle, neither of the Democrats include any mention of tort reform or health courts in their health plans (Obama’s; Clinton’s). This has traditionally been a partisan issue, with Republicans for reforms to limit malpractice awards and Democrats against.

If is to be believed, Democrats don’t support tort reform because trial lawyer associations are big donors. gives a good rundown: Clinton has received over $13 million from lawyers and law firms (her top sector); Obama has received over $11 million (his top sector); McCain has received over $3 million (his second top sector after retirees). It’s not that surprising that lawyers are the biggest sector for campaign donations, considering that they are wealthy and have more direct interest in politics and laws than any comparable profession. But without breaking those totals down more, it’s hard to say that is specifically the reason why Dems oppose tort reform (since surely many lawyers support it, in addition to many many doctors).

Clinton does not mention malpractice or tort reform in her health plan at all. Obama, supposedly free of lobbyist influence and mostly free of big money special interest influence, mentions malpractice obliquely: “Obama will also promote new models for addressing physician errors that improve patient safety, strengthen the doctor-patient relationship, and reduce the need for malpractice suits.” (p. 8) McCain’s outline of a health care plan includes tort reform as one of its planks.

Hopefully more will come of that once the nomination is settled; if Obama is the Democratic nominee, that may be likely. Short of a single-payer system that eliminates the huge overhead of commercial insurance or doctors factoring cost into treatment decisions in a more serious and systematic way (both long shots for the near future), tort reform and/or health courts are the only things likely to make a serious impact on reducing the cost of health services. (Inflated pharmaceutical costs are another matter, the dynamics of which I’m still trying to figure out.)

Democratic Debate on NPR

Finally, a debate with a little bit of actual substance. The Democratic presidential candidates debated on National Public Radio this afternoon, and not surprisingly it was a far better debate than any of the television (or YouTube) debates so far. (I caught it intermittently as I was going from store to store looking for Wiis to sell on eBay…I got one from Toys’R’Us, which should net me about $150 profit.)

The debate was focused on Iran, China, and immigration. There was nothing exciting about the Iran discussion except Clinton’s dogged defense of her support of the resolution labeling the Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. Aside from wishful thinking about a Kucinich presidency, I don’t have strong feelings about the Democratic field except that Clinton would be the worst choice; she’s too much of a hawk and wouldn’t be likely to shift the center of American political discourse far enough away from where it is now.

With the China section, I was really disappointed that none of the candidates see trade with China as primarily or significantly an ecological problem. Among other things, the ongoing New York Times series about China’s pollution crisis, Choking on Growth, has convinced me that, more so than human rights, labor standards and the effects on U.S. jobs, the biggest problem with outsourcing manufacturing to China is that China has far looser environmental regulations. Trade with China (or anyone) ought to be dependent on the environmental impact of the traded product’s manufacture. Unfortunately, global warming is pushing so many other acute environmental issues into the background. And even still, “make and use less stuff” isn’t a solution that is a viable political position.

What sort of libertarian supports “don’t ask, don’t tell”?

I don’t know what everyone sees in Ron Paul, the great hope of the Internet libertarian masses (especially on Digg and Reddit). Sure, he’s the only Republican candidate who has a sensible position on the Iraq War. But I just watch him wriggle away from taking stand on “don’t ask, don’t tell“, and it’s pathetic. Either he’s playing politics just as cynically as the rest of them (the fundamentalists excepted), or he doesn’t actually know what the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is. Fortunately, it’s not a winning issue; 60-80% of Americans now think gays should be able to serve openly (as opposed to 25% of military personnel).

Jon Stewart asked Paul the right questions on The Daily Show last night: it will be a long, long time before a libertarian gets elected on a platform of ending all the government programs people want.

Democratic Debate on CNN: No word yet on “without restriction”

The first CNN debate came and went. It’s been almost a full day, and still no word about CNN’s promise to release the debate videos “without restriction”.

In early May, CNN announced, with all due bloviation, they would release the video for their 2008 US Presidential debates for free use “without restriction” at the conclusion of each live debate. As a Wikipedian, I naturally wondered whether “without restriction” would mean “with too many restrictions for use on Wikimedia projects”.

LostRemote reports that an “industry source” email clarified that “As previously announced, CNN’s debate coverage will be made available upon the conclusion of the live telecast and may be used without restriction throughout the 2008 election cycle (emphasis added).” It’s an open question whether that qualification is a time limit on freedom or just a reminder that debates in the election cycle may not be released without restriction; if it’s a time limit, then CNN deserves a storm of angry emails.

Naturally, there are already spliced videos and snippets appearing in the political blogosphere, and bloggers and YouTubers can confidently rely on CNN’s vague promise of “without restriction” to know that they won’t be facing copyright lawsuits any time soon. But they would be making and uploading the same videos whether or not CNN allowed it, and they would still be safe under fair use in almost every case.

Unless “without restriction” means we can do something that we couldn’t otherwise do (e.g., store and distribute it perpetually, even commercially), CNN’s celebrated nod toward free culture is just a cheap and meaningless publicity stunt.


My own take on the debates: My favorite part was the responses to the lame question “Gas prices are at record high levels…What would you do to reduce gas prices?” Dodd started off by going through a number of positive things that should be done with energy policy; he didn’t come out and say the straight answer to the question, but it was there between the lines. Then Gravel came right out and said it: the solutions to our energy problems are not going to involve lower gas prices, period. A couple others (Edwards and Richardson in particular) tried to pussyfoot around the issue, implying that investigations of energy company profit-taking would stop rising gas prices, but after Gravel, the tenor of the conversation definitely shifted. The sooner the public discourse moves away from thinking that the solution to energy problems is to lower gas prices, the better.

I really wish someone had taken Kucinich‘s bait on trade issues, for example, to debate the merits of NAFTA. I understand the union argument against NAFTA, but not the fair trade argument; Mexico and Canada aren’t problematic in terms of human rights abuses, so ceteris paribus, it seems like a clear case for the free market. On the related issue of immigration, there was some real conversation and some attempt to parse it in ways that move the public discourse closer to where it ought to be, treating immigration as primarily a moral issue. No one is yet willing to concede the rhetoric of “amnesty” or start from the premise that being born in America shouldn’t entitle one to a better life than someone born in Mexico. But with a path to citizenship in place, we’ll be moving in that direction.

I also liked the role call votes (and the way Clinton and Obama handled the lame ambiguous ones). The roll call was, for example, an effective way to wrap things up after Biden said all that needed to be said about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (“Peter Pace is flat wrong. Lemmee tell ya something. Nobody asked anybody else if they were gay. Brits, French, all our allies have gays serving. Our policy is not a rational policy.”). Biden had a number of blusterous moments that will probably help his poll numbers, but he’s driving the whole Democratic field to the right on military issues (except Gravel, and maybe not Kucinich, but their only purpose in the race is to pull the center of gravity leftward).

Joe Lieberman and the spectre of an Iran war

My occasional hobby is sending emails to my elected officials about important issues. The nice thing about this is that somebody, at least, reads them (enough to figure out what I’m complaining about) and I often get back a response with a moderately detailed position statement following a moderately coherent argument.

After the recent news about Iranian weapons in Iraq, which seemed like a possible repeat of the prelude to Iraq, I sent a letter to (among others) my senator, Joe Lieberman, urging him in the strongest terms not to let this turn into justification for another war fiasco. Fortunately, it looks like the White House is not going to use this to launch another war, but whether that was the original intention is an open question. Anyhow, here’s the message I got back from Joe:

Dear Mr. Ross:

Thank you for contacting me about the escalating situation in Iran concerning its nuclear program.

So now EFPs contribute to the “escalating situation” of the Iranian nuclear program? I’m confused. Tell me more, Joe.

As you know, the accession of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President of Iran has increased the concern of the United States, as well as our allies, due to his recent remarks regarding the annihilation of Israel and the United States, as well as his support for Iran’s nuclear program. President Ahmadinejad’s declaration that Iran had enriched uranium, and Iran’s refusal to date to suspend enrichment in defiance of a call by the United Nations (UN) to halt its nuclear program, further complicates an already troubling situation.

U.S. sanctions currently in effect ban or strictly limit U.S. trade, aid, and investment in Iran and penalize foreign firms that invest in Iran’s energy sector; but unilateral U.S. sanctions do not appear to have materially slowed Iran’s weapons of mass destruction programs or shaken the regime’s grip on power. Over the past two years, the Bush Administration has been engaged with our partners and allies, particularly European nations and Russia, to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, the Government of Iran has responded by reneging on multiple treaty obligations and other pledges and continuing to push forward with its nuclear program.

Hmm. I thought there was a distinction between Iran’s nuclear program and the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Guess not. Wait, I think I’m starting to understand. EFP (of dubious provenance)=IED=bomb=weapon of mass destruction=nuclear weapon=nuclear program. Ok, go on.

It also contains provisions that authorize assistance to peaceful pro-democracy groups inside and outside Iran and provides additional tools to curb money laundering efforts that finance and support weapons of mass destruction proliferation. I cosponsored an earlier version of this legislation (S. 333) in 2005, and I supported H.R. 6198. I was very pleased that the measure was adopted by the Senate and that it is now law. In addition, I supported S.Res. 633, which the Senate adopted by unanimous consent in December 2006. S.Res. 633 condemned a conference in Iran denying that the Holocaust occurred. The Conference was hosted by the Government of Iran and its President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

We cannot, and must not, stand on the sidelines while Iran continues to develop nuclear capabilities and threaten the security and stability of the world. I strongly believe the United States must work diplomatically with our allies as well as the UN to alleviate this situation. I believe all options for dealing with Iran’s quest to develop nuclear weapons should remain on the table. As your Senator, please be assured I will continue to monitor this situation closely.

So all options should remain on the table (such as pre-emptive nuclear strikes) despite the fact that UN inspections and extensive investigation by US and other intelligence agencies have revealed nothing to contradict the Iranian public position that it is abiding by the NPT? Given the candor of Ahmadinejad about Holocaust denial and the annihilation of Israel, it doesn’t make sense (to me at least) that he would in such strong terms not only endorse the NPT, but also state that developing nuclear weapons would be against his nation’s religious principles, unless it was true. It’s certainly prudent not to take the word from Tehran as gospel, and to make contingency plans, but can we at least refrain from saber-rattling until we evidence and/or statements from Iranian official to suggest that they actually are trying to develop nukes?

Maybe I should look at this optimistically: nobody actually read my message, and a computer automatically put it in the “Iran weapons of mass destruction” inbox based on keywords. It’s good that my senator has everything figured out already, so he doesn’t have to pay attention to the silly ideas of his constituents.

The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, then and now

This week in Peter Westwick’s Science, Arms and the State, I got a chance to reread Paul Forman’s seminal “Behind quantum electronics: National security as basis for physical research in the United States, 1940-1960”. (Gender-sensitive young scholar that I am, I don’t use that adjective lightly; in addition to originality, the essay is remarkable for its macho-ness: dense graphs, dense footnotes, and a dense argument; sparse examples and lots of data… it’s enough to fill out a 400 page book, distilled into 60 pages.) My HSHM compatriot Brendan and I were both much more impressed with it than when we first encountered the “second Forman thesis” last year (I think we both remain skeptical of the first). The connection between scientific culture and military funding seems like a rich historical vein that hasn’t been explored enough yet. How much was the turn in physics from a positivistic, universalizing philosophy to more instrumentalist, application-oriented approach the result of the forces of money, and how much was just the manifestation of American pragmatism as the U.S. came to dominate the field (or whatever other cultural/philosophical/sociological/scientific-intellectual reasons might apply)?

As a historian of science and ex-scientist, I always find it astounding every time I see the breakdown of R&D budgets (even though by now, I’ve seen the statistics many, many times). All I’ve seen is university research, and all the professors I worked for were funded by the NSF, so it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that the scale military research simply dwarfs so-called basic science. Science had always been nationalistic since there were nations, and was always shaped by patronage, but Big Science—which in the context of the military also means classified science—was and is a whole different beast.

Obviously military funding of applied science has produced major dividends in terms of technology that can be used for basic research (and consumer technologies), and to some extent scientists are able to utilize grants for their own ends that only tangentially contribute to the goals of military planners. But I can’t help thinking that for the physical sciences, probably 75% of the money (and researchers’ time) since the rise of the military-industrial-academic complex has essentially produced nothing of lasting value (I’m trying to be conservative here; Forman argues that only about 1% of federal funding went to what can reasonably be called “basic” research). Maybe historically that’s an unfair deprecation of national security concerns (coming from someone approaching history from a post-Cold War perspective), but at least since the first Gulf War (when our military showed the world that it was overwhelmingly superior—thanks to all those nice toys the researchers built—to any other convential forces), I can’t see any reason to continue pouring money into military research at the current levels.

Coincidently, I heard two segments on NPR relevant to Science, Arms and the State. The first was about Bush’s FY 2007 budget: former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (who sounds a lot like the annoying yet charismatic host of NOVA, Robert Krulwich) cuts into Bush, oddly enough, for not being enough of a capitalist. Reich is outraged that Bush is spending $6 billion on the NSF for basic physical science research, which he characterizes as corporate welfare, and it doesn’t even give us a leg up on foreign competition, since the whole world has access to the results. And funding alternate fuel technologies (nuclear power and ethanol) undercuts the economy as well; apparently, the profit motive should be sufficient to solve the nation’s energy problems…despite that unaided capitalism really has no way to deal with the consequences of peak oil until the crunch actually sets in.

I’m much more concerned about the fact that while NSF gets $6 billion, up slightly from last year (with some more grants coming from DOE) , education funding is being cut almost 20%, from $90 bn to $74 bn. Meanwhile, defense spending is going strong at $504 bn (actually down $8 bn, but up very significantly over pre-Bush levels, with the $43 bn for Homeland Security as an added bonus). And nearly half the the DOE’s $23 bn is for the National Nuclear Security Administration, i.e., for upkeep on our nuclear stockpile, which serves no purpose after the end of the Cold War anyway. To repeat, NSF: $6 bn, nuke warehouses: $9 bn.

The second NPR segment was a interview/political analysis with Joseph Cirincione, looking at the problems with trying to stop Iran’s nuclear program. In a nutshell, if we bomb the easy targets, it will only push the program underground and cement Iranian support for the nuclear program (plus the likely proxy war in Iraq and possibly even outright war with us or our allies). If we impose sanctions and actually managed to get other major players in the global economy to go along with them (namely, India and China), there would be a global oil crunch; Cirincione suggested $5/gallon gasoline. Thus, statements like McCain’s “the only thing worse than a military action is a nuclear armed Iran” are basically just talk (though perhaps talk that serves a purpose).