Just a quick post to let anyone who stumbles across this blog know that it’s not yet abandoned.
Two weeks ago, I was sworn in as an attorney in the State of Connecticut. Now waiting to receive my Juris Number. I hope it begins with 007…
Just a quick post to let anyone who stumbles across this blog know that it’s not yet abandoned.
Two weeks ago, I was sworn in as an attorney in the State of Connecticut. Now waiting to receive my Juris Number. I hope it begins with 007…
More than two years ago, I wrote about taking the bar exam. See here and here. I took the bar exam three times and failed each time, the last time by 4 points out of around 250. I signed up for a fourth shot, and then, early in studying for the exam, I realized what I should have realized the first time.
Evidence: Looking at the essay answer examples provided by the bar examining committee, I finally saw that the exam was not about the correct answer. In any given legal situation, there are a number of different positions you can take. Some of these are reasonable positions, some are not. But often—frequently, in fact—within the set of reasonable positions there are diametrically-opposed positions. When I reviewed the example answers, I looked at the ones that had been given different scores.
Seven is the highest score, and then the scores drop point by point. What I noticed was (for example) that a score of 7 was based on position A; a score of 6 was based on position B; but a score of 5 was based on position A again. Four points for position B. And so on, though you got some unreasonable positions for the questions that scored 1 or 2.
Conclusion: It isn’t the answer that matters. It’s how strongly you make your case for the position you’ve chosen (so long as the position is reasonable).
During my first year of law school, I had a year-long class on contracts (everybody does) from an excellent professor (not everyone is so fortunate). One of the cases we read was Peevyhouse v. Garland Coal & Mining Co., 382 P.2d 109 (Okl. 1962). You can read about it here. The case outraged the class. I remember asking the professor something like “but couldn’t the outcome have been different if the plaintiffs had made out a more persuasive case?” His reply was simply “but they didn’t.”
So at that point I should have realized (as I have gradually) that law is not necessarily (and perhaps not ever) about getting the right answer.
So anyway. I signed up for the last minute for the next bar exam—which was in July—and studied only fitfully. I had no thought that I would pass, but I swore to myself that this would be the last time, either way. I relaxed, riding multiple century and metric century rides in the months before the exam, and I started to do volunteer work at a food pantry in part on a theory of the importance of self-esteem. I got to the exam knowing I was going to fail, and that I wouldn’t have to take any more. I was cool. Then it was over, and I was off to my son’s wedding and lots of other stuff happened and I really didn’t think much about the bar exam again until two weeks ago, when someone mentioned it. But I managed to drown it again.
But it was not with quite the minimum of trepidation I had hoped for that I opened the envelope yesterday. Inside was this:
What the hell? I guess now I know what I should have been doing all along.
In the final words of Robert Redford’s character in The Candidate, “Now what?”
About two weeks or so ago, I started work on a new Chautauqua entry. It started with something about an excommunication, a quote from Maude in Harold & Maude, and evolved into a debate about classical analysis that ended with the following words:
Kings Play Chess On Funny Green Squares. And what of the platypus?
Anyone who has had high school biology should recognize the first. It’s basic taxonomy, minus a few sub-categories. Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. At each level, you can ask a basic question, and that question will direct you. In fact, you can write a simple computer program—a dichotomy tree—that will help you navigate taxonomy. I wrote one in the early ‘70s in BASIC. By following the twists and turns of the tree, you find out what kind of life form you have, by a process of elimination. For example, human beings fit into the categorization like this:
Animal, Chordata, Mammalia, Primate, Hominidae, Sapiens. Yeah, I had to look it up. Essentially, you choose: animal or vegetable? We’re animals, so we eliminate all plants. Backbone, or no backbone? We have backbones, so that eliminates insects and pretty much everything with an exoskeleton. And so forth. Ask the right questions, and you end up at homo sapiens. Us.
And what of the platypus?
Well, it’s like this. The platypus is an animal that is warm-blooded, has fur, has a duck-like bill, webbed feet, secretes poison, lays eggs, and nurses its young—through its skin. In other words, it’s a biologist’s nightmare. It’s interesting to look at its taxonomy, which looks something like this:
Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Monotremata, Ornithynchidae, Ornithynchus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus.
Now, when we get to order, humans have a lot of relatives. There are 16 families of primates. Consider the poor montremes. Once you say “primate,” you have families that branch into multiple genera and species. Once you say “monotremata” you get five species. Period. Four of these are echidnas, and one, one is the platypus.
Which means that the taxonomic classification is, in essence?
Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Monotremata, Platypus, Platypus, Platypus.
Now, I started off going in one direction with this, when I realized I had made a mistake. I started off with the intent that I was going to show the flaws with scientific classification, because it had to fit the platypus into an extent category, when—perhaps—monotremes should have formed a whole new class, parallel to mammals. But in fact, genetic analyses show that for all their weirdness, platypi are closer to mammals than they are to other critters.
What all of this points to is not that the questions make up the classification, but that that the classification dictates the questions. This means that the problem isn’t necessarily with the classification, but with the questions that we derive. And all of this wraps back around to the relationship between theories and hypotheses.
Having a good theory—or a good taxonomy—doesn’t automatically mean that we will have good questions—good hypotheses. Sometimes we have to refine them. But it does suggest that there may be points at which we need to be careful; if we classify the platypus as a mammal, we need to do so for more reasons than the fact that’s covered in hair. It has to be a mammal for reasons that it shares with all other mammals, and it also has to be a mammal for reasons it shares with no other class.
This tells us something about science. Next time, I’ll try to open that up a little bit, and explain the ways in which science is analogous to, but completely different from, the United States Supreme Court.
Last Friday, my spouse and I were sitting in a soul food restaurant waiting for two couples with whom we’re friends. Both were running late, but that’s normal. Then my phone rang. It was Ken, one of the people we were waiting for. He wasn’t coming because “AJ’s been in an accident, and he’s in the hospital in critical condition.” Ken and Sue were heading to visit AJ’s parents. Then I spoke with Ron, who was at the hospital with the Bishop; Ron’s spouse was headed there, too. It wasn’t certain that AJ was going to survive.
AJ, 18, had just graduated high school this past spring. He was working and taking care of other people as he always did. He went to pay a traffic ticket, then saw some other people at the same office building who needed rides. On the way home, maybe he was going too fast. His car crossed the road at a curve and struck a utility pole. His three passengers were injured, but the collision drove the pole through the engine compartment and into the driver’s seat. By Saturday morning, we knew he was brain dead.
Yesterday, I was at the hospital to visit AJ’s parents as his organs were harvested; his heart, his lungs, his kidneys–all will go to help other people. Which is exactly what AJ would have wanted.
I didn’t know him well. He seemed like the kind of person you want to like, even though generations stand between you. A skinny, muscular kid with long hair and an easy laugh. He seemed comfortable in his own skin and made other people comfortable around him.
Now he’s gone, and I won’t get to know him any better.
Perhaps this is the time to take a small lesson: pay attention to those around you. I wish I had paid more attention to AJ.
I’m 55. My age makes me a bit of a survivor. I’ve seen lots of people die. Many older than me, a few younger. All I can tell you is that it happens to everyone, so get to know them now.
They say when you can’t do what you want, do what you’re good at. And there’s always a bright future in computer maintenance. It’s kind of like this:
I want to be a mediator, but it’s slow starting, so I’m back to computer work. No, I’m not giving up the mediation, but working in a law office for low wages is driving me insane and eating my soul, so I’m thinking about a change in secondary careers. Interestingly, Phaedrus (the philosopher) became the technical writer Pirsig (working on computers at the time he wrote Zen & The Art…)
Anyway, I was just thinking (again) today about all my friends who ended up doing computer work. My friend Marty, a musician, got a PhD in computer science. Her brother, Otto, my college roommate, studied philosophy at the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, and became a programmer. I have a friend, David, an avid cyclist who works designing web pages.
And here I am, mediator, ex-law student, ex-sociologist. And, of course, ex-software engineer.
I first started playing with computers when I was in Junior High, some time in the early 1970s. Got my first machine in 1984. Became a computer professional around 20 years ago. And here I am again!
What amazes me is how little effort, in the past 40 years, people have invested in learning to use computers rather than to be used by computers. In a very real way, we have become prisoners of our own devices.
We now return you to your irregularly scheduled Chautauqua.
I’m still moving slowly through the book, taking time to read other things too. But something I came across requires comment.
When I first read Zen & the Art, I was in my third year of college, and emerging from an interesting religious experience that had lead to my being “born again” while in high school. While I was within that first religious community, everything had made sense. But once I had emerged, I began to have a different perspective. While I still put some value on faith, the, well, externalization of faith (what was called in those days “witnessing”) started to seem positively creepy.
And so I read, with some approval, and took to my bosom, with considerable agreement, a set of statements that Pirsig makes about Phaedrus. Pirsig has just written about a lecture that Phaedrus gave in an English class he was teaching, which he calls the “Church of Reason” lecture. It was about the idea that a university is not made of bricks and wood, but rather of ideas (see previous posts regarding TRUTH) and that the faculty are merely (my interpretation) the priests of the Church of Reason–in essence, that The Church continues to exist even if and when a church (or even every church) is shut down.
Cool. I can get into that.
But Pirsig notes that Phaedrus lectured on the Church of Reason with more appearance of certainty than he actually felt:
The explanation I’ve come to [for this stridency] arises from the discrepancy between [Phaedrus's] lack of faith in scientific reason in the laboratory [NB: see discussion of hypotheses, above] and his fanatic faith expressed in the Church of Reason lecture. I was thinking about the discrepancy one day and it suddenly came to me that it wasn’t a discrepancy at all. His lack of faith in reason was why he was so fanatically dedicated to it.
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
When I was 20, I agreed with Pirsig without reservation on that last line. That dedication, fanaticism, emerged from a lack of certainty. Indeed, in an honors thesis I wrote on the emergence of the Gay Rights movement, I bootlegged in the assumption that people who were nearer in time to their “conversion” to a movement or an idea were necessarily more strident. I discovered some problems with this hypothesis, but I did not make them explicit at the time, and besides, internally I still had not distinguished belief systems and theories (again, see above. Sorry).
I no longer agree.
I think that there are beliefs, ideas–dogmas, if you prefer–and goals that one can believe in with certainty and yet regarding which one can be a zealot.
Consider climate change, nee global warming. I’m absolutely convinced it’s happening. I’ve seen the data. More to the point, I’ve seen it. It’s not a question of having faith in it any more than it’s a question of having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow. And yet, I am a zealot with respect to global warming, in two respects. First, in saying that we should do something about it, second, in trying to convince skeptics. The first, Phaedrus might turn aside by saying that I’m a zealot with respect to policy, and that policy remains uncertain. I suppose he’d be right. But the second:
I’m not trying to convince people that global warming is real because I’m uncertain. I’m trying to convince them that it’s real so that they’ll do something about it.
And there are people who are certain to the bottom of their feet that their god is real, that X is Y, etc. And they’re zealous about those beliefs even though they’re by no means uncertain.
I suspect here that Phaedrus was bringing in the world-weariness of the 1970s in which he was writing, but I can’t be certain.
The one thing I can be certain of here is that he’s making an argument that only looks logical. It’s a deductive argument. And as a brown-dirt inductivist, that makes me suspicious.
Let’s be careful out there.
In Zen & The Art, Pirsig talks quite a lot about his younger self, Phaedrus. One of the things he wants to point out is that Phaedrus went the way that he did because he had discovered a fundamental flaw in the taproot of western rationalism, the scientific method.
Pirsig points out that Phaedrus was not into science for career reasons, but rather, for the love of the pursuit.
(This is something with which I can identify, and it’s something probably lost today, for reasons of simple economics. When I was an undergraduate, at a Major Midwestern University (incidentally only, the same one that Phaedrus attended), you could register for as many classes as you liked for about $300. Of course you had to pay for the books, but—I’m wandering. The point is that for that kind of money in the mid-1970s, college was insanely affordable. You didn’t go to school to get a career, but an education. School was (I suspect) even more affordable when Phaedrus attended college.)
Phaedrus was also young, fifteen or so when he started college (at that same Major Midwestern University). Being young, Pirsig was, as noted, in it for the love of the pursuit, and what he was pursuing was science and the notion of TRUTH through science.
Of course, he attached himself to the taproot, and quickly learned how scientific method works: you have a theory about how the world works (theories, to be fair, are usually developed from past experience). You examine a particular problem (e.g., what is fire?), state a hypothesis that is consistent with your theory (“it is the rapid oxidation of fuel”) and then you conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis. Note that I am vulgarizing here. For a full discussion of scientific method, see something like Wikipedia. Phaedrus realized that there was a problem, in that science was eating its own tail; so many discoveries, so many ideas, had flourished, that there were a potentially infinite number of hypothesis to explain any one phenomenon.
This is a problem, because it means you can’t test all of the hypotheses—and new ones emerge even while you test extant ones. Consequently, Phaedrus, for whom a search for TRUTH was everything, found himself grappling with what was (in his view) a dead taproot. For without the ability propose and to test hypotheses, the scientific method is bankrupt. You can never discover TRUTH.
This is where I think Phaedrus went wrong, and I’m writing this Chautauqua because he isn’t the only one. I’ve said before that I am a recovering sociologist, and my spouse is a statistician, and there’s an aspect of scientific method that gets a little more attention paid to it by such folk than by undergraduate biochemistry students.
This is the null hypothesis, what we might call the Default Truth, for lack of a better term. This is not the same thing as TRUTH. The null hypothesis (let’s use the standard notation, H0, to simplify things) essentially says that the world is boring, and that there is no relationship between any two variables X and Y. Let X=whether one’s income is above or below the poverty level. Let Y=one’s children’s educational attainment. H0 says that there is no relationship between these two things, and that, consequently, holding everything else constant, the children of a corporate executive should have on average, the same kind of academic performance as those of an immigrant janitor. That’s a Default Truth about the world (sort of like “any child can grow up to be president”).
The first thing you should notice about H0 is that I said it’s provisional. It’s what we assume until we know better. And it’s not hard to know better. We test H0 by conducting an experiment, or the natural equivalent of an experiment—a survey. We collect data on parental income and academic performance and we look at the relationship. H0 tells us what to expect. Our data tell us what the world really looks like. If the data we collect are sufficiently convincing (and statisticians have a very rigorous set of methods to tell whether or not they are) we do not proclaim that we have the TRUTH—but we do reject H0, the Default Truth. Generally, we substitute for H0 what we discovered (call it H1) and start looking to see if there’s anything we can do to improve on H1. Or reject it. So we have a new Default Truth. But still not the TRUTH.
Because, here’s the trick—Phaedrus thought scientific method was a tool for discovering TRUTH, and it’s not. It’s a tool for disposing of untruth, of Default Truth that doesn’t measure up. No scientist ever claims to have TRUTH, which is why even things like evolution and relativity are called theories. They can be challenged. They can be tested. They’re falsifiable.
When I was an undergraduate, I could not for the life of me grasp why I would want a theory to be falsifiable. And then I realized that what falsifiable means is not that the theory is wrong, but that if it is wrong, there is a way to show that it is wrong. It can be tested. Usually, this means that the theory makes predictions (hypotheses) about the way the world works. Show that the hypotheses are wrong, and you start to cut away at the support for the theory. Eventually, if the hypotheses keep coming up wrong, at some point you will abandon the theory. Both good and bad theories thus lead to falsifiable hypotheses; in the case of bad theories, the hypotheses are not only falsifiable, they are falsified.
If, by the way, you run into something that claims to be a theory but which does not yield falsifiable hypotheses, it’s not a theory. So-called creation science is an example. Why?
Because it works like this. Creation science claims that the world is around 7,000 years old. If that’s the case, it should be possible to develop hypotheses that we can test, like (for example) that carbon dating will show that no evidence of human existence in more than 7,000 years old. The problem is that creation science advocates attack the accuracy of carbon dating, because it falsifies the hypotheses derived from the theory. In fact, any method that does validate the theory comes under attack, and since (1) there are many such methods and (2) these methods have independent validation (that is, apart from their application), it becomes impossible to falsify any hypotheses derived from creation science, and so, impossible to invalidate the theory. And that means, in turn, that it is not a theory. It’s a belief system.
So—scientific method cannot give you TRUTH; it can only point out that what you thought was true, isn’t. It’s a tool for paring away falsehoods a la Sherlock Holmes’ famous dictum that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Except, of course, that the world is so very complex, that TRUTH is elusive. We can approach it, but (science says) we can never reach it.
But for Phaedrus, young and a believer in TRUTH, there were two related stumbling blocks here. First was the connection between theory and hypothesis—that a theory could in fact generate multiple, potentially, infinitely many, hypotheses. Second was the impossibility of testing all of these hypotheses. Like Xeno’s paradox (I am thinking of the Arrow paradox, here)1, this reduces the system to incomprehensibility.
What Phaedrus missed is that, first, theories do not generate infinite, unbundled, discrete hypotheses. That’s what theories are for: they constrain bootless speculation because they have to be internally consistent. So the hypotheses deriving from a given theory are both (a) limited in number and (b) related. Second, he missed the notion that it is possible for a single test to eliminate not only an individual hypothesis, but an entire class of hypotheses at the same time.
Let’s take a fairly stupid hypothesis for an example. Let Hi=”the number 4 is prime.” It’s easy to show that Hi is false, because 4 is not only divisible by 1 and 4, it’s divisible by 2. But the implication of this test is that we need not test the hypothesis that concerns any number that ends in 4. 1004? 123,776,304? Mathematical theory tells us that any number that terminates in 4 is divisible by 2 (hidden assumption: we’re talking about Base 10). Therefore, we can know without testing that all hypotheses that suggest such numbers are prime have been falsified. (One way to tell a mathematician is off the rails is when she conjectures that there is an unknown Base-10 prime that ends in 4; that mathematician wouldn’t be talking about a theory, but a belief system.)
More generally, if we have a well-validated tool (like carbon dating) we can automatically invalidate any hypotheses that suggest that the Earth is less than 4.5 billion years old and, what’s more, every hypothesis that takes that as one of its assumptions.
Consequently, while science cannot point us to the TRUTH, it needn’t plod along eliminating falsehoods one at a time—and since hypotheses derive from theories (see the discussion about Creation Science, earlier) they tend to come in the kind of bundles that can be dealt with by large whacks of the scientific method, rather than as an infinite number of discrete random ideas.