Thursday, December 27, 2012

Our Dark Ages

"The densest of the medieval centuries - the six hundred years between, roughly, A.D. 400 and A.D. 1000 - are still widely known as the Dark Ages. Modern historians have abandoned that phrase, one of them writes, "because of the unacceptable value judgment it implies." Yet there are no survivors to be offended. Nor is the term necessarily pejorative. Very little is clear about that dim era." - William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire, p. 3

Thus the historian begins his study of the late medieval period culminating--and closing--with Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe.  There is seemingly little evidence that the Dark Ages will be returning anytime soon, if not in the pejorative sense--the resurgence of barbarism--certainly in an absence of information about our own era.  Indeed, with the continuous communication provided by the Internet in the Age of Twitter, it seems a jest to suspect that they could ever return, at least in this sense.

I offer a few points by way of consideration.  But first, we should be aware that the mere accumulation of data doesn't exclude a lack of clarity about the world in which we live.  Actually, the immense quantity of data makes it necessary to search among the chaff for the useful wheat.  This is a difficult task, the demands of which should not be understated.  

For now I'll give but two indicators for my tentative proposal.   We start with a paradox: politics becomes more important, even as its utility becomes increasingly dubious.  It's totally unclear what either political party is capable of achieving at a federal level, yet this has only increased the fervor with which we seek to elect the right people.  This is partially because the State touches every aspect of society, but it's also because very few of our institutions have maintained a healthy existence apart from it.  Marriage is doing very badly, we've abandoned traditional religion for worrisome heresies, we even bowl alone

Politics works no better than our other institutions--in fact, it has probably fared worse--but it has become, to borrow a colloquialism, too big too fail.  But because it does not work, we relate to it in ways that are hard to rationalize.  The most common technique is to ghettoize ourselves among those who agree with us.  Both the left and the right are guilty of this--as are libertarians, and probably socialists, too.  This last presidential election provided an interesting example. 

Nate Silver, a stat geek, calculated the chances that either candidate would win the presidential election.  As the probably of an Obama reelection increased, the right turned on Silver, insisting that he was a partisan hack, and that polls that showed that Romney was dead even were far more accurate.  We all know what happened: Silver was vindicated and the right graciously admitted as much.  I kid; our politics are too poisonous for charity.  The right insisted--what else?--that massive voter fraud had prevented Romney from winning. 

I'm actually sympathetic to this assessment, in some respects, only: 1) I'd like to see some proof of the accusation; and 2) if the Democrats are capable of stealing elections so easily, and without negative ramifications, why on earth should anyone devote any time or money to the political process? 

It will be interesting to see what historian make of this particular period.  This disengagement from reality is, I argue, an indication that the Dark Ages may not be so far away as we think.

The second indicator again involves politics, specifically the issue of gun control.  No one has offered an explanation that I have seen as to what laws would have prevented the CT tragedy.  And, in fact, focusing on this sort of tragedy makes little sense.  Only a small portion of gun deaths occur when someone decides to gun down children at a school; such crimes are the apotheosis of outliers. 

Now, the mere presence of guns is clearly not the cause of crime, as our most thinly populated states are rife with firearms.  A far better explanation for gun deaths can be had by examining the demographic data.  The link explains what everyone knows, but what no one can say: certain groups of people commit violent crimes at a higher rate.

For now, these explanations are still available to us, but when one considers the sheer number of imbeciles who believe, with apparent seriousness, that guns are the real problem, one begins to realize that our own grasp of reality may be far more tenuous than it appears.  Which is not to say that the Dark Ages are upon us, only that dimness seems to be encroaching on our ostensibly enlightened time.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The decline of debate

Steve Sailer has an excellent post up over at his blog.  He writes:

Much of the intellectual progress the world has made over the millennia is due to men managing to turn argument into sport rather than either a test of popularity or of physical strength.

Two points here: 1) this attitude is rare, both historically, in that few periods of time have treated disagreements as other than a personal affront; and 2) men here should be read in the exclusive sense, i.e. excluding women.  Anyone who has attempted to discuss things with women is familiar with their tendency to personalize every issue. 

This second point is made more clear when Steve continues, quoting Alastair Roberts:

Granted immunity from this process [of debate as sport], sensitivity-driven and conflict-averse contexts seldom produce strong thought, but rather tend to become echo chambers. Even the good ideas that they produce tend to be blunt and very weak in places. Even with highly intelligent people within them, conflict-averse groups are poor at thinking. Bad arguments go unchecked and good insights go unhoned and underdeveloped. This would not be such a problem were it not for the fact that these groups frequently expect us to fly in a society formed according to their ideas, ideas that never received any rigorous stress testing.

For confirmation, I suggest reading the sycophantic drivel bouncing around the echo chamber of your favorite feminist blog.   It would be unfair to blame women entirely for this; many men are similarly ill-equipped to handle the rigors of debate.  Still, I think we could fairly categorize the sensitivity-driven approach as feminine, while debate as sport is essentially masculine. 

Roberts does a good job of highlighting the shortcomings of the feminine approach.  I think it would be instructive to examine some of the benefits to the masculine alternative.  The fact that ancient Greece and ascendant Britain perfected this model of discourse is probably not an accident.  One may still find it this type of discourse in strange corners of the Internet, and in small circles of people, if one is fortunate enough to know enough holdouts to the dictates of the Zeitgeist, it has become exceedingly rare. 

This is all very befuddling to me because I have a hard time imagining that debate could be anything other than sport.  Taking offense over a difference of opinion is, in my estimation, petty and absurd.  This would not be the first time I have discovered that what I perceived as transparently true is almost universally doubted, but it is unfortunate all the same.  Sailer, who no doubt came to this realization many decades before me, is to be commended for expressing so clearly what I had only half grasped:

In general, the contemporary mode of emotionalism and herding is the human default. The great ages of intellectual progress via debate were rare social constructs, and it's not surprising that they easily break down.