The Place of Rational Choice

After criticizing Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s antiscientific and dangerous attack on Rational Choice Theory, I then turned around and attacked Rational Choice Theory itself for not being a scientific theory (though it can be a useful tool).

The lesson, I guess, is that simply having the right enemies does not make you right yourself.

My critiqued of both Jackson and Rational Choice attracted the attention of Phil Arena, both regarding antiscience and, more interestingly, regarding Rational Choice. Phil was kind enough to provide with me two articles, “Does Preference Cycling Invalidate “Rational Choice Theory”?,” and “Rat Choice Apologetics II” in which he had previously attempted to defend Rational Choice Theory from similar attacks.

Phil’s posts emphasize that Rational Choice is not a scientific theory.

The first post, on preference cycling, is an extended “just-so” defense of Rational Choice theorizing against laboratory falsification. Phil writes:

My big point here is that those who seek to justify a wholesale rejection of “rational choice theory” by observing that some laboratory experiments have found that some individuals exhibit behavior that appears to reflect cyclical preferences are overplaying their hand.

But Phil’s bigger points seems to be that any laboratory finding does not falsify Rational Choice, because some collection of mathematical formulas can be modified post-hoc to account for the behavior observed. This speeks to the cleverness of the Rational Choice theorists — like Freudians or Jungians, any observation of evidence of their model.

Rational Choice is like Interviewing, because just as no experimental result can falsify Rational Choice, no experimental result can falsify the feelings of an interview subject. Few who are planning a complex intervention would do so without interviews of one sort or another, and it may be that Rational Choice is likewise useful. But just as the interview is a tool, not a scientific theory, Rational Choice is a tool, not a scientific theory.

In the follow-up Post, Phil goes farther to protect not just Rational Choice Theory, but any implementation of a rational choice theory, from falsification:

Amongst formal theorists, there is significant disagreement about how to evaluate models in general. On one end of the spectrum, you have the strict interpretation of EITM, as espoused here and seems to be Morton’s preferred view here, though she does discuss other views. This view holds that formal models are important for ensuring logical consistency of theoretical arguments, but the value of these arguments is ultimately judged empirically. On the other, you have Primo and Clarke, who argue that there are many different roles we could ask our models to serve, some of which do not require any kind of empirical assessment. My own views, as I’ve indicated before, are closer to those of Primo and Clarke.

This is not scientifically serious. But Rational Choice Theory is not a scientific theory, so of course it doesn’t have to be. The purpose of science is to improve, predict, or control behavior (at whatever unit of analysis we are working), but the purpose of tools such as interviews, case study, and rational choice is to inspire scientists to come up with scientific theories that can make control, predict, and improve behavior.

Phil’s a clear writer, so his point is written clearly. And he’s write that science has certain requirements — such as predictive validity — that are as hard to get away from as Rational Choice Theory’s unfalsifiable assumptions:

When we evaluate arguments empirically, we make a huge, non-falsifiable assumption that the future will be like the past. Otherwise, it would be meaningless to claim to be testing the claim that X causes Y by observing historical patterns of association between X and Y. On a certain level, we all understand this. That is why folks worry about omitted variable bias with observational studies and external validity with experiments. But I’m not sure how many people really appreciate the depth of the problem.

But of course the difference is that the scientific requirement for predictive validity enables it to fulfill its mission of predicting, improving, and controlling behavior (at whatever unit of analysis we are functioning). Rational Choice Theory rejects the scientific need to predict, improve, or control behavior, because it is a “formal model” which are “logical consistency” and thus do not need “empirical assessment.” That is, Rational Choice is a form of “qualitative” (or better, investigatory) analysis, where mathematical equation balancing takes the place of interviews or subjective impressions.

Rational Choice has a place in science, like any investigatory or qualitative method (introspection, interviews, case studies, etc): to generate hypotheses. Rational Choice should be a part of science to the extent its scientifically useful. But like interviews, case studies, and the such, we can’t generalize from rational choice theorizing, but of course we can generalize from the empirical findings such theorizing might lead us to.

Breitbart’s Reviewer of “America 3.0″ didn’t read the book!

America 3.0, which I previously reviewed, is something of a hit. The authors have appeared on the radio (Mark Bernier, Bob Dutko, Chuck Morse, Nick Reed, Mike Rosen, Bruce Wolf), public speaking (University of Chicago, Western Conservative Summit), and TV (Lou Dobbs).

America-3_0-480px

The book had good pre-publication publicity too, with an impressive list of folks willing to lend their credibility to it (the foreword was by Glen Reynolds, with Jonah Goldberg and John O’Sullivan providing “blurbs”) for the book.

And reviews have been good — everything from my post to Michael Barone‘s review in the Washington Examiner to the 16 5-star Amazon reviews.

All of which makes Brietbart’s “review” inexplicable. Not just that it was a negative review — someone is free to dislike a book of course — but the Breitbart reviewer did not read the book. I can’t be too shocked at Breitbart — after all CNN’s Fareed Zakaria used a ghost-writer who was also a plagiarist — but it’s deeply disappointing.

Boo for Breitbart. Raise your standard. Actually read the books you review.

Co-authors James C. Bennet and Michael Lotus have issued a statement on this. Breitbart should take down the fake “reiew” and issue an apology.

Against Rational Choice

I recently wrote two posts, “Four Types of Anti-Science” and “Academia, Science, and Anti-Science,” which took Patrick Thaddeus Jackson to task for his post, “The Society of Individuals.” I even criticized Phil Arena for not being sufficiently critical of Jackon’s writing in his post, “Should We Keep Hidden the Way People Behave When their Actions are Hidden?

But here’s the thing: I’m not a fan of “Rational Choice.” It’s a useful tool, but Rational Choice Theory is not a scientific theory.

For emphasis: Rational Choice Theory itself is not a scientific theory — it’s a tautology that’s used for creating theories, but it’s based on a basically absurd premise that is as protected from refutation as the worst nonsense from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

The core foundation of Rational Choice Theory is that individuals have a discoverable complete transitive preference schedule. This is a ridiculous assumption. It’s also unfalsifiable in terms of the theory that generated it.

  • Discoverable means it is possible for researchers to uncover this. A list of desired possibilities, which occurs entirely in the mind and doesn’t consistently direct action, is irrelevant to Rational Choice Theory.
  • Complete means it contains all possible actions and choices. Some of these may be unknown at the time that a decision is made, but once it is known, it does not change the order of preferences.
  • Transitive means the order is consistent, that there are no loops or self-referential cycles. For instance, if you would rather have money than a job, and would rather be comfortable than have money, therefore you would rather be comfortable than have a job.
  • Preference Schedule means that this is the list that controls actions. It’s important to note that Rational Choice Theory is not a psychological theory. There is no need, whatsoever, for Rational Choice to explain the “reasons” for choices, or the subjective experience of the chooser.

It is the transitive requirement which prevents Rational Choice Theory from being a scientific theory. For instance, in the example above, even if we could discover that the subject who prefers a job to comfort, then the Rational Choice Theorist would say there must really be some other elements we hadn’t considered — say a desire to be useful and a desire not to be worthless, which are the real preferences.

Rational Choice Theory is the No True Scotsman fallacy writ large.

All that said, Rational Choice is a method for generating theories. Some are falsified. Others are not and are found to be useful. Like Evolutionary Psychology with its mythical “Era of Evolutionary Adaptation,” Rational Choice’s discoverable complete transitive preference schedule is a tool that enables scientists to create scientific theories about the world, rather than a scientific theory in itself.

Dr. Jackson’s attack on Rational Choice Theory was anti-science, because it privileged his idiosyncratic idealistic prejudices against the scientific method.

He would have been far more useful if he had merely stated it was not a scientific theory at all.

How to Scan Multi-Page Documents in Windows 8.1 Preview

I just set this up for my mom, so I thought it might be interesting for others too.

My employer recently released the Windows 8.1 PreviewModern Scan app. I’ve been a fan of the possibilities of Modern since I heard early rumors of it. The original “manifesto” just looks cool :-)

Microsoft-METRO-UI-Description_svg

Anyway, here’s the process of scanning multiple page documents in Windows 8.1 Preview.

Once the scanner’s driver is installed and the Scan app is present, simply click on it in the Start Screen. When it opens the UI should look something like this:

scan_1

You can click ‘preview’ and the scanner will send you an image of what the document will look like.

scan_preview

But you can select other options, like XPS for file format (which will create a multi-page document), Greyscale (appropriate if you’re working with text, and other options)

scan_2

And then it will save in your Documents folder! Voila!

Reviews of Histories of Communist Regimes

Reviews of Histories of Communist Regimes

Books reviewed:

Coat_of_arms_of_the_Soviet_Union_md

I’ve read numerous histories of the Chinese Communist Party, its leaders (Mao, Zhou, Deng, etc.) and enemies (Chiang Kaishek, Chiang Chingkuo, and Mao himself), but my knowledge of the Communist experience elsewhere has not grown much over the psat few years. Indeed, the ferocity with which Mao destroyed the Soviet system in the Cultural Revolution has left me feeling vaguely sympathetic to the Stalinist bureaucrats.

So I read three books, Iron Curtain (by the wife of a Polish Foreign Minister), The Real North Korea (by a Soviet-trained North Korea area expert), and The North Korean Revolution (by Charles Armstrong, a former student of Bruce Cummings, who has the reputation of being the most sympathetic to North Korea of any mainstream historians).

iron_curtain_crushing_eastern_europe_md

Iron Curtain is itself a comparative history of Soviet occupations of Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, so The North Korean revolution allowed me to witness the post-Soviet invasion in four countries, on opposite ends of Eurasia. The political dynamics of the four countries were similar, but North Korea from the beginning was a special case:

Political Composition of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia in 1945:
1. Middle class parties associated with business
2. Populist farmer’s parties associated with the Catholic Church
3. Social Democratic parties associated with workers and intellectuals
4. The indigenous Communist Parties
5. The Soviet Occupation

Political Composition of North Korea in 1945:
1. Middle class Christian parties associated with the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches
2. Syncratic Buddhist-Farmers Party-Religion (Cheondogyo)
3. An “indigenous” Communist Party” centered around the future South Korea
4. Chinese-trained guerrillas who returned to North Korea (New People’s Party)
5. Soviet-trained guerrillas who returned to North Korea
6. The Soviet Occupation

When written out in a list, North Korea immediately appears more confusing. Three separate vocal religious movements, each deeply suspicious of each other but each with deep roots, are active in the country. Simultaneously, the “local” Communists find themselves under American Occupation, while the Soviet-ordained capital of North Korea (Pyongyang) is in the most heavily Christian part of the country.

the_northern_korean_revolution

The confusion doesn’t end there. The indigenous Korean Communist Party had been eradicated by Imperial police, and the Japanese Communist Party (which absorbed its remnants) called upon Korean Communists to turn themselves in (!!!), with the reasoning that such would allow them to act as missionaries to prisoners.

The two rival groups of guerrillas, the Soviet-trained and Chinese-trained, were both survivors of the defunct Manchurian Communist Party, which in spite of its name was predominantly Korean and, (like the KCP) was obliterated by a successful Imperial counter-insurgency campaign. Those who fled to the Soviet union would largely wait in Siberia until the Empire fell. Those that fled to China likewise waited in Yenan, building up close connections to Mao, Zhou, and the rest of the Chinese Communist leadership.

Kim_Il-sung_1946

It was perhaps this confusion that allowed Kim Il Sung to pull off a trick that would prove impossible anywhere else. Elsewhere, the Communist regimes would either turn into Soviet occupation state with the indigenous Communist leaders imprisoned or killed (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc), or else as home-grown regimes which were never under Soviet occupation (Cuba, China, Vietnam, etc.). In North Korea alone the Soviets came, Soviet allies were set up, and Soviet spies died as the local Communist party triumphed.

In Eastern Europe the People’s States would be “local in form, Soviet in content.” While much hay was made out of local architectural adornment, local folk art, and such, the Soviet Empire was run bureaucratically from Moscow. In North Korea, by contrast, the state was “Soviet in form, local in content.” Subsequent to North Korea, the only internationally active government that could challenge it for lack of educational attainment among its leadership was Taliban Afghanistan. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that the Kim Il Sung and his acolytes would give speeches against women working outside the home, against wage leveling, and against the Communist Party serving as a vanguard.

Andrei_Lankov_The_Real_North_Korea_md

The Real North Korea updates this to the present day. While Lankov notes that North Korean, alone among Communist languages, has two different words for “comrade” depending on the relative social status of the speakers, Lankov’s book describes the implications of such a non-egalitarian “Communism.” Indeed, there are no longer references to Communism, Marx, or Lenin, in North Korea’s interpretation: it is only foreign countries that insist on treating North Korea as Communist, whether it is China (which communicates to North Korea thru Chinese Communist Party Korean Workers Party channels) or the United States (which views North Korea as the last remnant of the Soviet Empire). Rather, as B.R. Myers implied in The Cleanest Race, North Korea is a fascist, explicitly racist state that is a successor to the Empire of Japan.

All of these books are well worth written. Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is somewhat tedious, but that is because the story is tedious: the Soviet obliteration of civil society in Eastern Europe. Armstrong has fallen in love with his subject — a naive reader would believe it was “natural” for Kim Il Sung to ban all dissent, because dissenters wanted someone else to lead them. Lankov’s The Real North Korea is the best of these, the perspective of someone who feels the Soviet system to be natural, but is deeply weirded out by North Korea.

I read (Iron Curtain and The Real North Korea), and The North Korea Revolution on a dead tree.

Academia, Science, and Anti-Science

Dr. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s anti-scientific critique of rational choice theory made me think more of Academia, and its relationship to Science.

Academia and Science are not the same thing. Indeed, for a long time most U.S. government science funding was channeled thru the Department of Agriculture. Many of the great scientific advancements in the United States were likewise made outside the typical academic environment, such as Bell Labs, General Electric, the Manhattan Project, and the Apollo Program. While academia were involved in these places to varying extent, none of them ran on the basis of academic freedom.

How Academia works is not the only way of how Science works. Science already has too many enemies to be dragged down into the political muck with Academics who themselves attack science in addition to creating political enemies. Academia is already under too much attack — such as from teachers union attempting to harvest profits from the public school system – to stay healthy under the anti-Scientific strain.

The proper role of non-Scientific academics is teaching, service, and research that builds useful things. The digital humanities are an amazing and lucrative example of such useful, non-Scientific work in Academia. Jason Heppler of Stanford University runs an awesome blog on such things, Likewise, the cool Geographic Travels blogs emphasizes the utility of spatial and cultural geography. There’s plenty of room for such activity in Academia, too.

But that space is threatened by the anti-scientists — especially elite anti-scientists — who simultaneously attack Science and also generate political enemies. Dr. Jackson’s post titled “The Society of Individuals,” for instance, is an attack on Rational Choice research programs while also attacking politically relevant philosophers for being sexist and morally repugnant.

Science in the Academy is too precious for those who attack Science and the foundations of the Academy. It is a tragedy such parasitic rhetoric is found in the system. It is a waste of resources all around.

A further tragedy is that when non-scientific academics engage in tangential political debates, the (natural) political reaction can be ineffective, counterproductive, and chaotic. Dr. Jackson’s piece is surely an example of the sort of research that Senator Coburn hoped to put a stop to by taking away National Science Foundation support for political science.” But the NSF supports actual scientific work, so the consequences of the defunding are to weaken the Academy, weaken Science, but previously strengthen the voices of those anti-scientific talking heads who might otherwise be drowned out by scientific Academics.

Over at gnxp, Razib Khan has surged that anti-science cultural anthropology “be extirpated from the academy.” More generally, anti-scientists of all types should be too. But there’s no easy or obvious way to do this without risking the Academic Freedom that anti-scientists use to attack science

In conclusion, anti-science should be extirpated from the academy. But I have no idea of how this should be done.

Happy 4th of July!

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Read the rest

Review of “America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century-Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come ,” by James Bennett and Michael Lotus

America 3.0, by James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus, is a description of the current problems facing America, the origin of those problems, and solutions for them. But it’s more than that. With only two references to President Obama in the work, America 3.0 focuses on the structural causes for the emergence of our current system of government, along with the cultural context in which those structural causes work.

America-3_0-480px

The Structural Causes

The “3.0″ in the title refers to an emerging system of government, but the implication of the work is that the system of government is a funciton of the economy. Unstated, the system of government appears to be a function of the material basis for the organization of the commanding heights of the economy.

The three stages that Bennett and Lotus describe, as I understand them, are:

american_rivers_map_md

    • “America 1.0.” Politically, organized around the original intent of the Constitution, with power highly distributed. This was structurally encouraged by the distributed nature of production, which was centered around many farms and small towns with a few small cities acting as trade ports. The major power source was water — rivers, rain, and the sea. While parts of the America 1.0 culture survive, America’s transition figure was Abraham Lincoln: born in a rural and isolated community, his professional life centered around doing professional work for railroads.

american_railroads_md

    • “America 2.0.” Politically, organized around militaristic police forces, professional bureaucracy, with power highly concentrated. This was structurally encouraged by the nature of steam power and the massive economies of scale that it enables. The America 2.0 political-economic, which is visibly failing in many ways, itself was the solution to the breakdown of the America 1.0 system in the face of the initial problems created by concentration and economies of scale.

american_cell_maps_md

  • “America 3.0.” An emerging political-economy system that is itself a response to economics shift, primarily (though unstated) the decrease relative importance of steam power as the ratio of GDP (as measured in pounds) to GDP (as measured in dollars) decreases through miniaturization and electronics Tom Friedman’s work The World is Flat is uncited, but this trend (“how heavy is your economy”) was, I believe, prominently noted there several years ago. The source of power is information.

The Cultural Context

What keeps America 3.0 from being simply an economic-determinist, however, is Jim Bennett’s focus on the Anglosphere, and particularly Lotus’ and Bennett’s theory of what makes English-speaking countries nearly unique in the world: the “Absolute Nuclear Family” and the Common Law. According to America 3.0, this style of family is shared between English speaking countries, and some areas of Denmark and the Netherlands where the Anglo-Saxon-Jute peoples were active fifteen centuries ago. The Common Law, a result of the eradication of Roman Law and subsequent British hostility to the re-imposition of the Roman-based Laws latter (partially as a result for how Roman Law conflicts with the Absolute Nuclear Family type), also creates a difference.

family_types_in_europe

The Absolute Nuclear Family and the Common Law acts as a superstructure, but not a superfluous one, in the Lotus-Bennett model. A transactional view of government, a focus on individual liberty, individual independence, and family mobility are all seen as effects of the Absolute Nuclear Family and the Common Law, apart from the structural causes of farm-, steam-, or information- power.

LegalSystemsOfTheWorldMap_md

Analysis

There’s three big questions that come to mind after reading America 3.0:

  • First, does the economic foundation of the economy actually matter?
  • Second, do the Absolute Nuclear Family and the Common Law actually matter?
  • If so, to what extents?

The standard economic-determinist answer to the important of economic foundation is “a whole lot.” This makes sense to me. We’re still a way from a scientific study of history — a cliodynamical analysis of the role of steam, say, in American history — but all-in-all I found this part of the book to be insightful and non-controversial. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy all differed on many things, but all agreed on the importance of economies of scale, which were themselves clearly enabled by steam.

The portions about the Common Law and the Absolute Nuclear Family, though, are less clear. What is the relative impact of the Common Law against, say, the influence of Christianity, of of being an England being an island, or of north-west European weather systems, or of other things? It makes sense that the Common Law and the Absolute Nuclear Family are not entirely superfluous, but it also makes sense that other things may matter as well. How might these be discovered? Or tested?

Final Thoughts

America 3.0 is an eye opening book, for explaining the rise of the bureaucratic-military state in the United States, and also for its description of the Common Law and the Absolute Nuclear Family. The former strikes me as more explanatory than the latter, but all was interesting.

I read America 3.0 in the Nook Edition.

Four Types of Anti-Science

There are scientists, but this post is not about them.

(If you want my career advise for folks who like science, please read the following posts instead: “How Academia Works,” “When It Sucks to Be Young, “Science, Paradigms, and the Old Boys Network,” and How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto.”)

There are people who oppose science in ideological grounds, either out of a specific distaste for science, or else because scientific research or findings leads (or is seen to lead) to objectionable conclusions, or else because they do not know what science is and attack it as part of their other activities.. This post is about them.

Let’s consider two dimensions of anti-scientists, by the nature of their strength.

  • The size dimension accounts for the number of their confederates int their attempt to retard or stop scientific progress.
  • The seriousness dimension accounts for the intellectual rigor and elite infiltration that they and their confederates have gained.

antiscience_dimensions

We can describe each corner of this taxonomy:

  • Popular X Elite: The elite and the public are united against scientific investigation. This is the case in most non-medical human biodiversity research, because of the ideological and historical connotations of such research in the eyes of many. Thus, Human Biomonoculturalists are examples of popular, elite anti-scientists.
  • Popular X Downtrodden: Large, widespread public animosity towards science, but without elite support. In the United States and many Muslim countries, attitudes toward evolutionary biology fall into this category. So Creationists are examples of a popular, downtrodden anti-scientists.
  • Small X Downtrodden: A politically unpopular and generally disenfranchised group is opposed to science, but has not yet gained any form of transaction. So Flat Earthers are examples of small, downtrodden anti-scientists.
  • Small X Elite: A small, highly trained cadre of experts, with elite credentials, attempts to overturn scientific funding. In this post I’ll describe Collectivist Ideologues as examples of small, elite anti-scientists.

An example of such a small but serious attack on science — of Collectivist Ideologues — is Dr. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s recent post, “The Society of Individuals,” which appeared at the popular political science blog Duck of Minerva

antiscience_types

The writing in Dr. Jackson’s article is dense, but the argument boils down to the following

1. Rational Choice Theory immorally operationalizes social decisions on the individual, not the society level

So we have two fundamentally different models here: autonomous individuals — prototypical males? — with preferences making strategic calculations, and relationally embedded actors (I’m not going to push the gender point any further here, but I think that many feminists might agree with me about the relative depictions of autonomy-vs.-embeddedness in a patriarchal society) engaged in deliberation and discernment looking for the right course of action. While the former might end up conforming to one or another moral code, only the latter can actually engage in “moral action” per se, because autonomous individuals would be choosing whether or not to act morally while embedded actors would be endeavoring to suss out the moral thing to do and then doing it.

2. The implications of this are morally objectionable twiceover, for being based on individuality and sexism

I still maintain that rational choice theory — and indeed, the broader decision-theoretical world of which rational choice theory constitutes just a particular, heavily-mathematized province — endorses and naturalizes a form of selfishness that is ultimately corrosive of human community and detrimental to the very idea of moral action.

3. Thus, rational choice research programs — and the communication of those programs are “basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable.”

I think that things like Freakonomics [tdaxp excerpt] are basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable. We owe it to the broader society not to simply tell stories that reaffirm the value-commitments and modes of person-hood prized by dominant social actors who want us to equate our happiness with the satisfaction of personal desires

Dr. Jackson’s collectivism idealism states (apparently) that scientists are immoral if they attempt to help control, predict, and improve variation in the world in a way that doesn’t fit with Jackson’s ideals, biases and sentimentalities.

At first glance, Dr. Jackson’s post is odd. It’s too dense and abstract to gain much popular traction. And his description of Rational Choice theory is ridiculous to anyone familiar with it. But such talking heads have wracked havoc in other ares, by attacking science for opposing their sentimentalities and prejudices.

At second glance, Jackson’s post is somewhat more understandable. Political science does not progress like a normal science, and many people who use terms like “Rational Choice” may themselves have no idea how science works. Few anti-scientists are driven by animosity towards humanity. Ignorance of science, and a love of their idealized and wished-for worlds, doubtless plays a larger part.

Anti-science is dangerous. Popular-elite anti-science most of all, but even popular-downtrodden (like the hapless Creationists) and small-elite (like Dr. Jackson’s arguments) should be recognized as the threats to human progress than they are. Human history is a record of one stagnation after another, with brief bursts of progress in between. I hope the anti-Scientists do not stop our current progress, and consign us all to castrated academia composed of ideologues and their pet biases.

Review of “The Frozen Sky: A Novel,” by Jeff Carlson

Several months ago I reviewed the short story The Frozen Sky, by Jeff Carlson. I loved it, and in an email to the author called it”a hard science-fiction that’s worthy of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Recently, Jeff has published an expanded version of the story with the same name as a novel. Here’s my take.

Frozen-Sky-md

The novel is composed of roughly three sections. The first is largely identical to the short story, a description of a critically wounded astronaut attempting to escape from aliens on the moon Europa. Jeff’s original contribution is to have a narrator so badly damaged — blind, crippled, and bleeding — but possessing a space suit capable of both locomotion and artificial intelligence. The suit’s ability to “auto-attack” is placed aside the seemingly unthinking, untalking, and uncaring aliens — called starfish — who likewise appear to be incapable of sight, intelligence, or warmth, and whose reaction to the wounded astronaut is auto-attack.

frozen-sky-detail

This section survives intact in the novel. As in the short story, it is amazing.

The second section is an extended description of politics between the European Space Agency, the Brazilian Space Agency, scientists on the moon Europe, and various others. This is by far the weakest section of the novel, and the long time it took me to finish the novel was due almost entirely to this portion.

As I told Jeff during my reading of the book, if I had been involved with the meetings that had gone into launching such a complex mission to an alien moon, I’d be willing to just nuke the starfish and get on with the original objectives. I wasn’t being entirely facetious. I work in corporate research & development, where my discovery of new things works hand-in-hand with furthering practical objectives. I am responsible for two major research efforts, and am familiar with the amount of “political?” work it takes to get many people with many different interests in agreement with a research direction. But the actions and thoughts of the characters in The Frozen Sky during this section did not appear realistic to me.

In my interview with the author, he said:

It’s my humble opinion that many people are stupid, inconsiderate, unimaginative, delusional, self-centered, greedy, or cruel. Heck, a lot of the time they’re some combination of all of the above.

I think human motivation is more complex and ambiguous than this. So it was more difficult for me to understand the actions of the characters than of the starfish, or of the AIs.

The last section of The Frozen Sky is a return to form. The last portion is the story of the ESA’s attempt to communicate with a group of starfish, which involves empathy with an alien intelligence. Basic assumptions — but not obvious ones — are shown to be incorrect, and the writing’s fast pace caries the reader along.

The weakness of the middle section of The Frozen Sky keeps me from being able to recommend the book. I loved the short story (read the review and buy it), and the last portion is enjoyable. Indeed, the last section could easily make a great short story, whether or not the author kept the same characters from early on. But my unusual position of being an applied researcher meant that passages that involved corporate politics did not have verisimilitude, and so hard to be trudged through.

On his blog, Jeff has an awesome collection of photos of the Jovian system, with captions and explanations.

I read The Frozen Sky in the Nook edition.

The tDAxp eXPerience