In this episode, Paul and Bill are back together for a conversation that catches up on past episodes which pondered big problems in science, government, the economy, personal well-being, and more. The pondering focused on solutions as matters of step-by-step processes, but as our conversation starts, we’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems, their quantity and complexity. Society relies more and more on government, which has proven it does not perform long-term planning very well. And it doesn’t really have the needed resources and insights it claims to have.
Ultimately, the solutions are at the individual level and in communities and communion. Paul recommends Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Church does have amazing resources for building up faith and hope in ourselves and others—with insights at the local and global level. Of course, the Church too is in a vulnerable and broken position in its circumstances as a human institution. Paul and Bill wonder how the Church can exercise influence in the nature of evangelization and civic duty at a time when the world needs better problem-solving that respects but transcends our various individual differences and weaknesses. Collectively, intellectuals are a tiny minority, and God must love rednecks (literally with red necks) because these are the working people. Here’s an inspiring story about rednecks. We must aim to do much of our work, with God’s help, in small steps and initiatives that growing corporations and growing empires of power will consider small and off-the-radar. The reference to “Let’s Get Small” looks to Steve Martin and an old “Saturday Night Live” performance in which he left a message that stuck with Bill.
A big part of the answer is Catholic Social Teaching. These principles can give us approaches and motivation and starting points for conversations about a sense of purpose to unite us. Again, it entails humility, not pontification, because at the individual level we need to act in our families and communities to get involved in bringing these principles to life—perhaps by going into politics, or getting involved in a civic organization, or simply accepting responsibility to assist some kind of repair work on one of society’s obvious wounds. This may involve joining groups, like the Knights of Columbus, to fight for many causes including racial justice. If we join the Democratic Party, our role would be to push for reform and renewal—but then again, the Lord would require us to do the same thing in the Republican Party.
Hilaire Belloc said the defining feature of the self-proclaimed “practical man” is his inability to reason back to first principles or forward to final consequences. Our politics are likewise defined by politicians thrashing about myopically trying to win individual elections. We need to provide our own grass-roots strength for each other, through solidarity, that gives us confidence to approach the public square with the particular abilities we may have to help. Often, this participation is best done at the local level, through family and community and small groups where we can make a distance and experience people’s needs, strengths, and dignity. This is the principle of subsidiarity.
Overall, the solutions and principles point us toward small, not huge solutions. Paul and Bill have talked in the past about how the fields of science and government, for instance, are hobbled in handing us solutions because there is little capacity for long-term planning or even long-term thinking at those grander scales. Many gaps appear in such an entrepreneurial macro-setting: Why did we fail to plan for this or that? Why did we not see this coming? We must be thinking small but thinking big. This is the economy of God and a strength of the Catholic Church, whose purview is local and global, individualistic and cosmic.
A solo episode from Paul. These are the notes I used... the audio is balanced differently.
Insight by Bernard Lonergan and 20/20 hindsight.
What else (besides the coronavirus and similar epidemics) are we not preparing for? Can we? We can't know all the unknowns, and it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to quantify the risks even for the things we can anticipate. Yet quantification is reasonable and laudable because individual lives do matter... the 1,000,001st victim of a tragedy just as much as the first.
Education and the bureaucratic / engineering mentality "we already know everything we need to make a decision" and "let's do something to make it look like we're doing something."
Finance and the herd mentality. Bullwhip chains of overreaction in the face of unknown risks. A reacts semi-rationally to the situation, B overreacts to A's reaction, C overreacts to B, etc. Federal forgiveness, however good in itself, has the side effect of blinding banks to their own internal information channels regarding default rates, etc. Banks are looking around at employment figures and other data, guessing what to do, overreacting, looking at their peers and emulating the most extreme.
There are a lot of really tired people working in logistics right now.
Job seekers giving up due to pessimism and the difficulty in thinking statistically. It's hard for me to go ahead and spend the effort to do something when I know its individual success rate is well under 50%. Now things are worse. All that means is that more repetitions will be needed to achieve success. However, it is easy to fall into the fallacy of "it was hard before but worth trying; now it's harder and therefore not worth trying," making an all-or-nothing qualitative proposition out of something that in its nature is gradational and quantitative.
Hope really is a virtue.
Audio editing by Morgan Burkart.
or Paving Paradise and the Parking Lots
Bill and Paul discuss attitudes toward masks, and then consider why the science wasn't more settled on the subject long before Covid-19. We discuss the obsession of modern society with all things novel and consider how this plays out in science, politics, and our individual lives and families.
1. A discussion of masks as defenses against the pandemic led Paul and Bill to ponder how scientific knowledge about the functionality of these masks for the common good is not always viewed as a fundamental, enduring value. In our media, the mask discussion gets wrapped up in political and symbolic and power-struggle considerations. The methodical pursuit of knowledge based on shared values and needs has been partly replaced by a marketplace of ideas that gets bored with what we know. Support for ideas gets hijacked by pursuits of vaguely defined notions of progress which are relativistic and individualistic and not systematically carried out through time.
2. Paul pointed out that he sees in the world of science that there are some surprising gaps in knowledge about certain things that resulted partly from people seeing no particular motivation—or research grant money—to drive knowledge forward. With some important exceptions, knowledge in some fields grows more randomly than through a coordinated sense of purpose. Paul recalled an earlier discussion about “p values” that can fail to give researchers the persistence born of confidence that next stages of knowledge will give us what we need to solve problems in a meaningful way.
3. As Paul put it, a “p value” may tell you the likelihood of your data given your hypothesis, but what we’d really like is to know the likelihood of our hypothesis given our data.
4. Bill pointed out that traditional notions of the university seemed to have a more obvious commitment to nurturing, collecting, and spreading knowledge so that it could become the reliable framework for incrementally building new knowledge that brings us closer to solving problems. But there is a notion in the present-day university—and in the marketplace, as Paul agreed—that progress is gained through disruption—dismissing or dismantling or deconstructing current knowledge because it isn’t as exciting or satisfying as a march toward future knowledge can be. That knowledge is seen as inherently better, Bill said, but our eager disregard of today’s knowledge suggests we will treat tomorrow’s knowledge in the same dismissive way. So we’re moving but not really expecting to get anywhere better as a society.
5. We’re caught up in the search for novelty. We’re looking for the next revolutionary thing that makes old learning moot. Shouldn’t we be trying to build and improve upon the good parts of the status quo. Can we find a golden mean between a love for innovation and a desire for preservation (a conformism?) that values the knowledge already acquired. In some sectors, has innovation been redefined at its very roots? Are we disinterested in the long-term trajectories of our human engagements and projects? Are we only focused on doing what’s new, bigger, and better in the current moment, leaving little interest in yesterday or tomorrow?
6. We’re describing a disposable mindframe. Today’s sense of urgency amid impending crises can make us so focused on new action for its own sake that we are willing to disrupt or tear down much of our current life and the history that brought us here. There seems to be too little argument in favor of recognizing the good things we have achieved and our responsibility to conserve/preserve these things. We have so much social capital built up over time, we feel less responsibility to preserve current sources of stability and sustainability. It seems okay to tear these things down. In periods of human history where survival has been more at stake, where there has been less of a cushion of social capital, the marketplaces of ideas and capital have more doggedly pursued incremental change which values and builds upon what has come before. On a grand scale, we don’t expect to feel a pain of loss, but at the personal and spiritual level, people are feeling the pain of loss, fear for the future, dislocation and disconnection, all the time. Indeed, our overall happiness as a society has eroded.
7. People have come to see the future as so urgently problematic that they’re more willing to quickly and readily dispose of stuff from the past without allowing any grounded time or space for wise transitions. No one is coaching us to press pause.
Audio editing by Morgan Burkart.
This is part 2 of our interview with Richard Garrett, author of The Kids Are Smart Enough, So What’s the Problem?
Find an overview of his distinguished career in this story about Dick’s zeal for researching and promoting education reform. (The story was written for Purdue’s College of Engineering by Bill last year.)
Dick’s book traces his growing concerns about problems in public elementary education. Those concerns led to extensive research from a business executive’s perspective, applying systems analysis skills from his background in engineering. Our interview probed not only the findings from that research, but even more current knowledge of education reform efforts which Dick continues to harvest and share. He has created an online gallery of videos for the general public, explicating what he has learned about educational-outcome statistics and various efforts to improve the outcomes. The videos are part of his “Elevate Teachers” website, which champions robust investments to help both teachers and students succeed.
...or as Paul wanted to put it, "Lies, D--d lies, and p-values."
- This episode contains a conversation between Paul and Bill in which you’ll learn new things about their experience in particular fields—geology and journalism, respectively—and where their zeal to harvest and connect information bumps up against troublesome uncertainty. You’re accustomed to hearing us as podcast co-hosts, sharing our opinions and our interviews with experts to explore insights at the intersection of science, everyday human experience, and the values of theology and philosophy. We welcome an audience that, like us, hungers to understand the details that well-informed research provides—in light of the wonder, mystery, and uncertainty that we complex human creatures provide. We embrace deeper and broader consideration and communication, and these values feed into our “day jobs,” which involve writing, teaching, consulting, and more.
- Paul’s efforts to dig more deeply into the methods of purposeful scientific learning recently prompted him to enroll in a data-science “boot camp”—an intense, 12-week course offered by an organization called Metis. He wants to extract every bit of value from the oceans of data generated in this world. Or at least he wants the value that will serve his own colleagues and clients as he tackles projects and secondarily adds content to “Dr. G’s Blog,” named for him—Dr. Giesting. One of his guiding maxims is mentioned here: “No Data Left Behind.”
- (Testifying to the diversity of the “That’s So Second Millennium” duo, Bill likes to focus on story-telling for clients to describe various accomplishments of science and values, sometimes faith and reason. And he’s writing in his OnWord.net blog these days about crucial times in our world today that will require rich knowledge and deliberation alongside problem-solving strategies marked by prudent, civil, inclusive dialogues and inquiries. This is an example of the approach he’s formulating. But today’s podcast draws its energy mostly from the Paul’s recent ruminations.)
- Those thoughts include a look back at something called the “p-value.” Their discussion of p-values in the world of scientific statistics led Paul and Bill into consideration of the co-existence of intellectual rigors necessary to the practice of research and unavoidable uncertainties inherent in the real-world application of data-driven knowledge. That co-existence of firm principles and subjective interpretation turns out to be a phenomenon that both co-hosts have experienced in their respective fields. They agreed that the pursuit of more and more data, nurtured by practicality and idealistic values, is a beautiful thing, but it’s not always possible. In many cases where a specific project is choosing and using a finite set of data, the consumers of scientific or journalistic information have reason to quote the skeptic’s famous aphorism that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
- Bill cited examples from the past reporting of political polls, which too easily can neglect important nuances that should influence an audience’s interpretation. Both Bill and Paul noted that, during the Covid-19 crisis, the public is seeing science and its generation of statistics play out in real time, with massive policy implications, and the practice of “objective” science now seems to many people as iffy and subjective as theology-based interpretations of the world. That’s ironic since observers have said the availability of scientific certainty and experiential knowledge has driven them away from religion as a poor, mythological substitute for reality.
- Neither co-host called for a dismissal of the knowledge gained through religion, philosophy, or statistics; after all, in many policy matters surrounded by uncertainty, statistics are a huge part of the guidance empowering human reason. But there is much going on behind the scenes at every point in a statistics-driven exercise, with some of that context warranting caution in our binary decisions about importance and implementation. Paul acknowledged that he encountered this in preparing his capstone report for the Metis data-science program. Scientists have grappled with ways to assess the validity of some data, the replicability of some experiments, and the dominance of some assumptions about statistical analysis. Indeed, the “p-value” suggests good examples of doubts that have arisen.
- This podcast discussion did not unearth any solutions for doubts about statistical findings, but it did prompt a meeting of the minds. Both the scientist and the journalist determined that all of us seeking to optimize understanding for reasonable policies and practices must continue our zealous pursuit and values-informed stewardship of data.
Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay
- Paul and Bill welcomed Dick Garrett to our podcast. Find an overview of his distinguished career in this story about Dick’s zeal for researching and promoting education reform. (The story was written for Purdue’s College of Engineering by Bill last year.)
- Dick’s book, The Kids Are Smart Enough, So What’s the Problem?, traces his growing concerns about problems in public elementary education. Those concerns led to extensive research from a business executive’s perspective, applying systems analysis skills from his background in engineering. Our interview probed not only the findings from that research, but even more current knowledge of education reform efforts which Dick continues to harvest and share. He has created an online gallery of videos for the general public, explicating what he has learned about educational-outcome statistics and various efforts to improve the outcomes. The videos are part of his “Elevate Teachers” website, which champions robust investments to help both teachers and students succeed. .
- Observed as systems established to give students the knowledge and skills they need, elementary schools face a number of challenges, Dick said. They include segments of young people whose daily classroom behavior is a major burden, requiring teachers to pull away from educating in order to focus on discipline during sizable portions of the school day. He says the lack of self-discipline stems from parenting experiences and other factors tied to low-income community conditions.
- Students exhibit the combination of discipline problems and poor academic achievement not because of low intelligence—there is no doubt that they are smart enough to perform well—but because educational systems don’t appropriately respond to gaps in their non-cognitive abilities, according to Dick. He says schools must get better at forming general traits he summarizes as character and grit. His book presents examples of educational approaches that have aimed to enhance those traits, making classroom success more likely for all students and teachers.
- Where that success is lacking, schools fall behind in graduating students with key competitive metrics—especially a grasp of reading and math skills. This shows up in poor rankings for United States schools in statistics tallied by the Program for International Student Assessment, the US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, and other oversight mechanisms.
- A 2004 Public Agenda survey found that 85 percent of teachers felt new teachers were particularly unprepared to deal with disciplinary problems in their classrooms.
- A recent study by the Kirwan Commission yielded a comprehensive report on problems and prospective solutions in elementary education, and this became the basis of a legislative action plan for Maryland schools. The state government acted in early 2020 to approve funding for preliminary implementation of a major initiative based on Kirwan Report recommendations. Dick said one part of the plan envisions hiring 15,000 teachers. A major thrust of the plan is improved education of low-income children, including a cadre of teachers for smaller class sizes.
- One of Dick’s aspirations is to help in spreading the word about the Kirwan recommendations so that educational and governmental leaders elsewhere, such as his home states of Wisconsin and Indiana, will consider and implement similar proposals.
Episode 107 of “That’s So Second Millennium” next month will include part two of the interview with Dick Garrett. If you find the audio quality for this episode a little lacking, don't blame Morgan... she's on vacation this week. It's all Paul's fault (as usual).
- At the time of this taping, Paul was in the middle of the Metis “bootcamp” program learning the capabilities, tools, and insights of data science. This conversation ranged widely in the realm of data analysis and management, examining its relevance to Paul’s field of geology but also exploring the world’s immersion in what Bill would call a data ecology: It seems every datum is connected, or connectable, to every other datum That word is the original singular form of the plural word “data.”
- The growing plethora of data has to be tracked and organized, even though today’s computer hardware doesn’t allow all the world’s data—or even relatively large slices of that data—to be stored and analyzed in one place at one time. Realizing that words are data, too, Paul pointed out that geology encountered a data explosion crisis a few decades ago as science developed enough new names for various rocks to make the new information less useful. That was until geologists produced a plan for sorting out and categorizing rock names according to rocks’ bulk chemistry instead of their constituent minerals (example here). Paul came to see the value of advanced organization in obtaining, thinking, and acting upon geological data—hence, his pursuit of this certificate in data science.
- Discussion of this specific field of science led to the use of various other terms, with various meanings, none of them fully understood by Bill. The terms included informatics, data scraping, the analysis of data clustering, “big data,” and “machine-learning algorithms.” These terms can be anticipated to be influential in nearly all fields, so it behooves the layperson to develop some familiarity with them. It is quite possible to become skeptical of such a body of knowledge and skills that can be used for benevolent or malevolent purposes, like everything. But Paul said the hopeful side of his personality recognizes what data scientists already recognize—namely, that this amazingly powerful field also has its limitation.
- He recalled there is an author who currently is writing books with a robust skepticism about machine-learning. Separately, one can get a laugh from the current results seen in the hybrid field of machine-learning poetry. Bill guessed the author was Julia Evans, but it was likely Janelle Shane, the author of You Look Like a Thing and I Love You.
- The bottom line is that, as with all science, its tools and results cannot provide their own guidance on how to use wisely the fruits they bear. The guidance must come from external forces driven by human virtue and values.
Liner notes by Bill. Audio editing by Morgan. Cover art for this epsiode was produced by Paul... in conjunction with the Landsat 8 mission, the scikit-learn and seaborn libraries, and Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes. (See his final project slides here.)
Bill interviewed a leading Catholic voice in public affairs, especially in bioethics and the culture of life: Richard Doerflinger.
- His latest column for Catholic News Service examines the implications of the “Science Wins” maxim publicized by Pfizer Inc. in a recent TV commercial. You can see the commercial here.
- Doerflinger mentioned libertarian bioethicist John Harris in connection with the developments and moral controversies surrounding research on embryonic stem cells some years ago. Once concerns about human dignity were successfully eased by the development of pluripotent cells, science and society both did win from a prudential pullback from reliance on embryonic cells.
- Phronesis is practical moral judgment that integrates human wisdom and prudence to make the best decisions possible on public policy and practice given the facts human beings know from science—in light of virtue as a crucial factor.
- In the Catholic journal First Things. James Hankins has written recently about Machiavelli as the political guru of his day, who introduced scientism as a values-free guideline for geopolitical strategy. Machiavelli’s own predictions about outcomes in the absence of moral judgments led to strategic failures rather than successes, Doerflinger pointed out.
- The only law of history is the law of unintended consequences, according to Niall Ferguson, famed analyst of history, economics, and science. Doerflinger commented that unintended negative consequences have indeed been known to result from cases where science was unleashed without the exercise of human prudence.
Photo credit: The Criterion (Indianapolis)
Paul and Bill discussed autism—a subject that arose in Paul’s discussion with Pat Flynn in his own podcast.
John Ratey, popular psychologist, talks about how our sensory apparatus affects how we function in everyday life.
Paul’s comments on the subject of autism connect candidly with recollections from his early life.
“Never waste a good crisis.” Bill says crises in our polity and society are often weaponized rather than used as a learning, community-building experience. This maxim, worded in different ways, has been attributed to various persons, from Rahm Emmanuel to Winston Churchill to Saul Alinsky.
Part 2 of a three part conversation between Paul and Bill, where the main themes are skepticism, Catholic education, the mysterious absence of the Spanish Flu from our historical consciousness prior to 2020, and the philosophical conundrums of materialism, transgenderism, and scientism.
- Paul and Bill continued their conversation about skepticism toward science and religion. They touched on several examples of science failing to show that it “knows everything” or gets everything right. There must be a constant push for additional inquiry and knowledge. Bill said the teaching of religion in K-12 Catholic schools needs to express the hunger to learn more—the dynamic sense of joy in seeking God—just as the teaching of science sets an exciting stage for learning.
- The co-hosts discussed the lack of sure scientific knowledge about the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to references to the Spanish flu. Its history is poorly understood by most people, just as there was poor understanding in 1918 about the flu’s origins and impacts.
- Philosophy and natural science became unmoored from each other after the 17th century. Bertrand Russell appeared to share an opinion that Paul considers quite natural—the reluctance to accept that no philosophical inquiry into reality can be conducted without employing at least some original, foundational assumptions.
- Stephen Pinker acknowledges that materialistic thinking suffers from logical inconsistencies, Paul said. He referred to Pinker’s landmark book, The Blank Slate, an inquiry into the origins of human nature.
- Quantum physics, in its effort to explain how everything works by describing the behavior of atoms, is full of paradoxes, Paul said.