In Search of Refinement

Dancing To His Own Tune (David Politzer)

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Image: Chris McKenna

It took a bit of time to get David Politzer to agree to sit down and talk with me. A co-recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, he was all too familiar with people approaching him out of the sheer excitement at being able to tell their friends that they had spent some time chatting with a Nobel Laureate.

That wasn’t my problem. By a curious twist of fate, over the years I had found myself spending enough time in the company of Nobel Laureates to know that it could often be a highly overrated experience. Indeed, other than a few notable exceptions (such as the almost overwhelmingly genial Tony Leggett), knowing that someone had a Nobel Prize invariably made me look searchingly towards the nearest exit.

Still, it was David’s Nobel that first brought him to my attention, as it were. Years ago an astute colleague urged me to read The Dilemma of Attribution, David’s clever, thoughtful, and humble Nobel lecture that detailed the communal nature of frontline scientific inquiry: using his own “Nobel-winning” work on asymptotic freedom to explicitly demonstrate how science builds shining edifices of our understanding by rigorously compiling insights by different researchers, one upon the other. (more…)

Equations of State (David Armitage)

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Why study history?

It’s a deceptively penetrating question, and asking it runs a serious risk of being subjected to a barrage of knee-jerk homilies, from the importance of a general cultural understanding to a basic appreciation of different ways of doing things. More often than not, however, you will hear talk of the importance of applying lessons from history to better navigate present challenges, typically invoking George Santanya’s famous quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

For David Armitage, Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, the reality is rather murkier: it’s not so much that studying history will enable us to avoid committing the same mistakes as our predecessors, but that considerable effort needs to be made to get a clear sense of what these predecessors thought they were doing in the first place.

“How are we to put ideas and other cultural forms into the past in such a way that they become comprehensible in past terms, but then can also be rendered comprehensible in the present?

“Whether it’s a Shakespeare play, an epic poem by John Milton, a work of political thought by Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, or performances of 16th-century music – we can’t hear with 16th-century ears, but we can approximate to 16th-century performance practices in singing: how does one bridge that gap to recover some kind of authenticity, to understand how the original creators, or in the case of music, performers, understood what they were doing?” (more…)

The Next Big Thing? (Elyn Saks)

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People like to talk about transformative social change, but almost everyone gets it wrong. When I was a teenager, for example, there was much talk about the pressing challenges of finding meaningful ways to fill the bourgeoning amount of free time that our rapidly improving technology would inevitably bring. These days, such talk produces the same sort of whistful smile as the flying cars that futurologists confidently told us that we’d be piloting, Jetson-like, to our personal helipods.

Meanwhile, gay marriage is now largely accepted throughout most Western countries, and recreational marijuana use is legal in no less than 8 American states. Maybe somebody saw that coming, but nobody I know did (myself most definitely included).

When it comes to mental illness, on the other hand, the record is much more mixed. As neuroscience strides ahead at stunning speed and psychologists rush to embrace the likes of fMRI and other real-time imaging tools, it’s difficult to say whether or not, when all is said and done, we live in a more or less tolerant society than when I was in high school. (more…)

A Work In Progress (Carol Dweck)

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Image by Brittany.lee2

Blame it on my physics background. When I first arranged to sit down with world- renowned psychologist Carol Dweck, I was pretty skeptical of the prospect of any genuine insights coming out of the experience. After all, I generally make a habit of avoiding the self-help section of a bookstore with a disdainful smirk, and Carol’s 2006 bestselling work, Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential seemed to me as good a poster boy of the pop psychology genre as one might find. Still, I told myself, as the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, she was a highly respected academic with a lifetime’s worth of accomplishment. Of course, I couldn’t help immediately reflexively adding, that was in psychology. Which is all to say that, awards, publications and an endowed chair at Stanford notwithstanding, expectations were still emphatically low. (more…)

Redefining Ourselves (Quentin Skinner)

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Sometimes it’s good to take a little distance.

As we begin the week that formally ushers in an era in American politics that few saw coming and many regard as little short of catastrophic, we turn to the eminent intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, Barber Beaumont Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary University of London for some much-needed perspective.

Not, as it happens, to try to understand how we got here, for Quentin will be the first to tell you that he is not that sort of historian.

“I’m very interested in the history of moral and political philosophy, but I’m not interested in the history because it’s what we talk about now.

“I believe that the sensibility of the historian is to try to study the past on its own terms, insofar as we can manage.  If we do that, then what we find is that in our modern culture there are many paths not taken.

“We tend to write history as the history of the winners. We write the history of wars as the history of the winners, but we also write the history of our culture as the history of the winners. But did the winners always deserve to win?” (more…)

Gesturing Towards Diversity (Carol Padden)

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Last week’s post, Reasons for Optimism, highlighted the work of famed primatologist Frans de Waal and our ever-growing, albeit gradual, acknowledgement of the deep similarities between humans and other animals across a wide range of domains, from the intellectual to the ethical.

Language, however, seems to be different. While it’s clear that other animals have developed numerous ways to effectively communicate with each other, it’s equally clear that the gulf between animal and human communication is overwhelmingly vast. In other words, however much we narrow the gap between humans and our fellow creatures, to speak of a chimpanzee or dolphin Shakespeare seems to stretch credulity to the point of absurdity. Little wonder, then, that throughout the ages many have regarded language as the single most defining characteristic of being human.

But what, you might ask, is language anyway? This might seem an obvious question, but a few moments of reflection demonstrate that it’s hardly so simple. While most languages exist in written form, not all do (or did). And while language obviously allows us to communicate basic information to each other (The food is over there), by limiting any definition to such a rudimentary level we are running a serious risk of blurring the very distinction that gives language its unique evocative power. (more…)

Reasons For Optimism (Frans de Waal)

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Young Chimps by Tambako The Jaguar

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about our fellow humans these days, but starting a new year is as good a reason as any to embrace a little bit of optimism.

An obvious way to proceed is by appreciating the progress recently made that, due to its gradual pace, has been largely imperceptible. A noted example involves Frans de Waal, the noted primatologist and writer.

Frans has been urging us to focus our attention on the animal kingdom for years now, through such books as Chimpanzee Politics, The Age of Empathy, The Bonobo and the Atheist and, most recently, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

These books, I must confess, hardly produce unequivocally positive sentiments, filled as they are with untold examples of our collective sense of grandiosity and hubris as we continue to dogmatically maintain our own superiority – emotionally, intellectually and ethically – to the other nonhuman life that surrounds us, often in the face of much concrete evidence to the contrary. (more…)

What Memories Are Made Of (Elizabeth Loftus)

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Elizabeth Loftus in conversation with Howard Burton

The holiday season, for better or worse, is a time of year richly associated with memories: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but nearly always formative.  Or so we all believe.

We usher in the new year with Auld Lang Syne, the Robert Burns poem that begins Should old (auld) acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind and continues for a further five verses or so that most of us have, rather ironically, either resoundingly forgotten or never bothered to learn.

In short, memory is the vital human ingredient for reflection, taking stock, and – hopefully – making progress.

But what if memory itself is far more tenuous, very far from the reliably objective record of the past that we all believe? What if, instead, they are foggy, unreliable accounts that can be fairly easily manipulated? (more…)

Telling It Like It Is (Paul Steinhardt)

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Paul Steinhardt in conversation with Howard Burton

One of the greatest challenges for teachers of science and mathematics, it is often declared, is finding ways of attracting young people to their vitally important subjects.

All too often this results in skeptical students being bombarded with an uninspiring mix of obvious propaganda (Science is fun!), appeals to self-interest (Mathematics is the key to unlocking doors to a successful career!), and a bit of social guilt thrown in for good measure (A background in science is essential for grappling with the next generation of societal issues!).

Unsurprisingly, such tactics don’t tend to work very well. The very nature of fun is that it is inherently self-evident: trying to convince people that something is fun is very much like trying to convince them that their healthy vegetables are also great-tasting. (more…)

The Relevance of Human Wrongs (Emilie Hafner-Burton)

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Emilie Hafner-Burton in conversation wit Howard Burton

There’s a growing tendency these days for academics to justify the relevance of their work. To my mind, that’s certainly not without its dangers, often leading otherwise boldly idealistic researchers to publicly shy away from their true motivations as they desperately try to demonstrate how current interpretations of Renaissance humanism, say, can positively affect our GDP.

I’ve done my share of this sort of silliness myself. Years ago, when running a physics institute and lobbying hard for government funding, I’d frequently cite how Einstein’s general theory of relativity – once considered impossible to even conceive of applying to everyday human life – was now actively used in GPS devices. This is the sort of story that academic administrators and government officials love: a tangible “you never know” example of how supporting basic research might one day help give us a better widget. There is something pretty loathsome about the whole business, I must admit: “justifying” general relativity through GPS technology is pretty much like “vindicating” the collected works of Shakespeare by its effectiveness as a paperweight. After all, if revolutionizing our understanding of space and time only counts if it can be used to assist us in finding the right highway exit, that’s pretty good evidence that we’ve well and truly lost the plot on what the human enterprise should be all about.

But there are many areas of scholarship when the “relevance” shoe is very much on the other foot, when burying oneself in detached theoretical frameworks turns out to be just as counterproductive as groping for vacuous “applied rationalizations.”

Take human rights research. It’s pretty hard to imagine studying human rights without tangibly grappling with the horrors of what’s actually happening on the ground, and why. And yet, to a very real extent, that seems to be what many human rights experts actually do. (more…)