December 31, 2021

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, December 2021

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the fountainheads of the western philosophical tradition, the history of 17th century science, political philosophy, cognitive psychology, the transmission of inequality, or even social-scientific measurement.

Plato, trans. and ed. Christopher Rowe, Theaetetus and Sophist
Theaeatetus is about knowledge, and more specifically how false belief is even possible --- say, falsely identifying someone else as Socrates, if we (supposedly) know Socrates. It's notable for Socrates propounding at least three distinct theories of knowledge, and undermining them all, ending in perplexity. There are some deeply interesting pieces here, including bits (like the analogies of the wax impressions, and of the aviary) where Plato is trying to think through how to make something knowledge-like work. Then there are the bits of metaphysics about being and not being which I frankly cannot comprehend, and have to hope sounded more plausible in Greek. (I do not think this is Rowe's fault.)
(The dialogue is also notable that early on Socrates makes a big song and dance about how he's just a "midwife" and is only going to help bring out the ideas already in young Theaetetus's mind. Then the whole rest of the dialogue is Socrates setting up and knocking down theories, with one piece of criticism from Theaetetus's teacher Theodorus [161]; the youth contributes exactly nothing, beyond the usual "just as you say, Socrates" or "I do not altogether follow, Socrates". [See also.])
Sophist is, supposedly, a sequel, where Theatetus converses with another distinguished visitor, an unnamed philosopher from Elea. (Socrates has vanished.) The goal here is to try to define the character of the sophist, by means of a series of binary distinctions. The visitor propounds a series of very distinct-looking definitions, all unflattering, which are held to be equivalent. To give something of the flavor, one definition (223) is
Then according to what we are saying now, Theaetetus, it seems that if we take expertise in appropriation, in hunting, in animal-hunting, in land-animal-hunting, in the hunting of humans, by persuasion, in private, involving selling for hard cash, offering a seeming education, the part of it that hunts rich and reputable young men is --- to go by what we are saying now --- what we should call the expertise of the sophist.
while another (268) is
The expert in imitation, then, belonging to the contradiction-producing half of the dissembling part of belief-based expertise, the word-conjuring part of the apparition-making kind from image-making, a human sort of production marked off from its divine counterpart --- if someone says that the one who is 'of this family kind, of this blood' is the real sophist, it seems his account will be the truest.
In between, there is a lot of discussion of, essentially, how multiple statements can all be true of the same object.
(Theaetetus opens with a frame-story about someone having witnessed, and taken notes on, the original conversation between Theaetetus, Socrates and Theodorus, and ordering his slave to read the dialogue that follows. This conceit is forgotten in Sophist.)
I am impressed with Theaetetus (though not with Theaetetus), but both books are strange, and left me feeling I'd missed the point. §
Mary Sisson, Tribulations
Mind candy science fiction, sequel to Trang and Trust. It's deeply enjoyable and I hope we don't have to wait another seven years for more. §
Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric and the Shaman, Penric's Mission, Mira's Last Dance, The Prisoner of Limnos, The Orphans of Raspay, The Physicians of Vilnoc, The Assassins of Thasalon, Knot of Shadows
Mind candy fantasy, following on from Penric's Demon but all, I think, self-contained. These are short, minor Bujolds (except for Assassins, which is a full-length novel), but even minor Bujold is a treat. (No purchase link since these only seem available electronically.) §
Domenico Bertoloni Meli, Mechanism: A Visual, Lexical, and Conceptual History
This is a brief but deeply erudite historical study of what "mechanism", "the mechanical philosophy" and mechanical explanations meant during the long 17th century that gave us the Scientific Revolution. Bertoloni Meli has read, seemingly, absolutely everything, in multiple languages, and can move skillfully and insightfully from historiographic debates about "the mechanization of the world picture" to contemporary ideas in the philosophy of science about explanation by mechanisms to the details of how ligature of arteries were drawn in anatomical texts, and what this tells us about how doctors' understanding of what ligatures did changed. All of this is done with very graceful writing and elegantly-chosen illustrations. It's incredibly impressive and makes me want to read a lot more of his work. §
(On a local and merely personal note, this book is based on lectures given at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. I was told about those lectures and invited to attend them by a then-new acquaintance who worked in the history of science. Only in retrospect did I get why she seemed so disappointed when I had to cancel on short notice. I am not very swift on the uptake, but --- Reader, I married her.)
Joseph Heath, Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives
2800 word review: Enlightenment Is Other People. §
Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality
Sharkey's primary emprical finding is that, among all black families, there is a substantial minority of very poor black families living from generation to generation in neighborhoods with many other poor black families, and who mostly move (if they move at all) from one such neighborhood to another. Moreover, these families are really much worse off than typical Americans, in every way which we can measure, and which drags down over-all averages for blacks as a group. What Sharkey wants to argue, on this basis, is that part of the reason for these persistently bad outcomes is that concentrating these poor, troubled families in neighborhoods with a lots of other poor, troubled families makes it harder for any of them to improve their situation.
The natural methodological worry goes like so: suppose that there are some poor, troubled families who will struggled to improve their situation, partly because of internal issues, partly because of larger social forces which would afflict them wherever they lived. But because they are poor and troubled, all sorts of processes, starting with housing costs, will concentrate them in neighborhoods with other families in similar situations. Even if the neighborhood has no effect on life prospects, it would still be a sign of those prospects. Under mild assumptions, it'd be a stronger sign the longer a family has been stuck in such a place. More plausibly: regressions of life outcomes on neighborhood of residence, neighborhood of origin, parents' or grant-parents' neighborhoods, etc., could all be explained through infinitely many combinations of genuine neighborhood effects, and neighborhoods acting as signs.
Now there are ways you can begin to pick apart this causal-inference tangle, and in various of the journal papers on which this book is based Sharkey does so. (Some, but not all, of this material is covered in the online appendix.) In particular, his joint paper with Felix Elwert on the inheritance of dis-advantage is actually just as good as I'd expect of Felix. But in this book I grew impatient, while reading, with the feeling that I was just being told about every possible linear regression which you could run on the Panel Study of Income Dynamics where both race and neighborhood poverty rate were regressors, as though that addressed the issue. I realize that this says more about my professional deformations than the merits of this book.
I read this for the inequality class, and while I didn't assign any of it this time, I might well do so if I re-teach it. I will definitely be recommending the backing papers as supplemental reading. §
Richard A. Zeller and Edward G. Carmines, Measurement in the Social Sciences: The Link between Theory and Data (1980)
I wish I liked this more, because it's heart is in the right place. In particular, trying to see what remains of psychometric's classical test theory after admitting that systematic error is possible is a worthwhile undertaking! But this book's faith in what can be achieved through factor analysis and comparing correlation coefficients is utterly misguided. (Cf., though Clark doesn't discuss this book explicitly, Glymour.) I had hoped I could recommend this to The Kids, but an adequate exposition of necessary caveats would rival the text itself for length. §

Scientifiction and Fantastica; Enigmas of Chance; Writing for Antiquity; Philosophy; Commit a Social Science; The Dismal Science; The Beloved Republic; Teaching: Statistics of Inequality and Discrimination; The Progressive Forces; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; The Continuing Crises The Great Transformation

Posted at December 31, 2021 23:59 | permanent link

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