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This isn't wisdom. It's mere cynicism that's trying to pass itself off as wisdom.

>But society isn’t a building. Its parts are people, not struts or circuits. That is why a humanistic education is far more useful to the policymaker (and by extension, the citizen) than a technical one.

Of course society isn't a building. Who was arguing that it was? But many of our problems are technical in nature, or, at the very least have technical solutions. Moreover, without at least some understanding of the scientific background for these problems, it's very difficult for a policy maker to know whether their suggestions will have beneficial or harmful consequences. I mean, that's exactly what we're seeing in Congress right now, with regards to Internet regulation. Politicians are proposing laws for which enforcement is either impossible or for which enforcement would require massive infringements on freedom of expression. Do they do this out of malice? No. They do this out of ignorance. They simply don't know the consequences of the things they are proposing, and so they propose (and sometimes pass) laws that have harmful unintended consequences that wipe out any possible benefit from those laws.

>Here are some of the things that the humanities, and the habits of alertness that they foster, will teach you: that people have different but equally valid perspectives; that the truth is not necessarily hard and precise; that judgments of value cannot be reduced to judgments of fact; that society will never be a smoothly functioning machine.

People do not always have "equally valid" perspectives. That is the very centrist bias that allows out and out untruths to pass unchallenged. This is why it's possible for a creationist to come on television and have equal time with an evolutionary biologist. Your perspective is valid insofar as your premises are based upon evidence about the world as it is. It is not valid if your premises (e.g. all species on Earth were created by a divine intelligent designer) have been proven false.

In addition, while it is true that judgements of value cannot be reduced to judgements of facts (i.e. the "is-ought problem"), one must acknowledge that judgements of value must be based upon judgements of fact. If you're basing your values upon incorrect facts, your values are very likely to be mistaken. For example, if you state that another person is not deserving of moral consideration, that is a judgement of value which may or may not be valid. However, if your justification for that judgement is hearsay evidence or religious bias, then that judgement starts to look very shaky.

>It is characteristic of the engineering mentality—whose representatives are so often male and so often adolescent, in spirit if not in age—to suppose that our fundamental problems are resolvable.

What you consider adolescent, I consider hopeful. After all, what alternative do we have to supposing that our age-old problems are solvable? Your cynical resignation to the world as it is? If everyone on this planet had that attitude, we'd still be huddling in caves. Progress of every sort - technological, economic, social - occurs because there are individuals who believe that we as a society can do better. That we can resolve our problems. That we can dream of a world that is better than the one we have today.

For an article that speaks in such profundities about wisdom, I find this piece to be profoundly unwise.




Actually, I don't really see the problem with viewing society like a building. We have a constitution, an economic system, and the rule of law, all of which combine to form a societal foundation; this foundation has been flexible enough to scale our society from 13 states and a few million people to 50 and hundreds of millions; some people (slaves, etc.) were left out of the building and have slowly been brought in, though they were given the worst rooms...

The problem the author has with this is in the next sentence: "Its parts are people, not struts or circuits." I find this somewhat silly. When examined in numbers, humans are quite predictable, or fields like sociology and anthropology wouldn't exist. Advertising wouldn't be effective. Why shouldn't we approach the development of society from these perspectives? Even if it isn't some sort of panacea that can solve all our problems, it should at least be a step up from the mishmash of business interests, religion and pandering that controls large parts of our government and society currently.


> The problem the author has with this is in the next sentence: "Its parts are people, not struts or circuits." I find this somewhat silly. When examined in numbers, humans are quite predictable, or fields like sociology and anthropology wouldn't exist. Advertising wouldn't be effective. Why shouldn't we approach the development of society from these perspectives?

Of course we should. It's called abstracting things. And, just as you write, it's much more effective than "the mishmash of business interests, religion and pandering that controls large parts of our government and society currently."


> Why shouldn't we approach the development of society from these perspectives?

You probably didn't realize this, but the reason is that it's authoritarian and paternalistic. In a democratic society everyone, participates in public life, at least at some level. Organizing society so that experts rule gives them the power to dominate, control and exploit non-experts.


"This isn't wisdom. It's mere cynicism that's trying to pass itself off as wisdom."

Not to mention a blatant strawman argument.

The author never even bothers to defend his argument against the obvious counterargument that perhaps the same kind of politicians, and the same kind of political thinking, that has failed to solve (or outright caused) so many major national problems is perhaps not worth trusting to solve them in the future, and that maybe a more pragmatic approach is needed.

From reading through some of his other pieces, I'm fairly certain that he doesn't know his subject well here. Does he seriously think that engineers think in binary and idolize Mr. Spock?


> It is not valid if your premises (e.g. all species on Earth were created by a divine intelligent designer) have been proven false.

Sigh...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability


How is taking one isolated sentence and pedantically linking to a Wikipedia that highlights a subtle error while missing or ignoring the obvious thrust of the entire argument in any way adding to this discussion? Come on now.


It's not a subtle error, and it's not peripheral to the argument either.

The entire middle third of the comment is the standard engineer's fallacy that because the laws of physics are absolute and not relative, people's values should be also, and all conflict could be avoided if people were just rational. The main evidence offered is this aside about "science" "proving" the non-existence of god, so its fallaciousness is highly relevant. (There's also the fun of pointing out a fallacious and therefore irrational arugment in support of being rational, I'll admit it.)

Every college student in a technical major who has to take a humanities class for general ed goes through this phase, it's understandable. But it's just as important to grow up and leave it. Values are not rational, but that doesn't mean you get to ignore them.


Nowhere in the "entire middle third of the comment" does he mention, or allude to, any of the following:

- That people's values are absolute, or in anyway similar to the laws of physics.

- The existence, or non-existence of god, proving it, or otherwise.

- That values are irrational.

- That you get to ignore people's values.

You're putting words into his mouth. I think he's got quite interesting things to say about moral relativism, and his view point is hardly as naive as you think it is, but you're not hearing it.


seems he/she should be able to take apart an argument in any way he/she wants. It contributes to the conversation by pointing out another poorly thought out/worded/constructed argument. True, there are bigger fish to fry and more important points to address, but that doesn't have to be everyone's prerogative.


Seems I should be able to contribute to the discussion in my own way too then, doesn't it? It contributes to the conversation by pointing out another poorly thought out/worded/constructed argument. True, there are bigger fish to fry and more important points to address, but that doesn't have to be everyone's prerogative.


While I agree with the falsifiability comment, I think the "sigh" was unnecessary.


I'm sure you're right. In my defense, I didn't write "sigh" the first hundred times I pointed out that error on the Internet.


> In addition, while it is true that judgements of value cannot be reduced to judgements of facts (i.e. the "is-ought problem"), one must acknowledge that judgements of value must be based upon judgements of fact. If you're basing your values upon incorrect facts, your values are very likely to be mistaken. For example, if you state that another person is not deserving of moral consideration, that is a judgement of value which may or may not be valid. However, if your justification for that judgement is hearsay evidence or religious bias, then that judgement starts to look very shaky.

You've committed the same error. One ramification of the is-ought divide is that ultimately, ethical norms are assertions divorced from empirical basis. Saying that 'murder is wrong' is epistemologically very similar whether it is based on some religious text or something like "what would society be like if we allowed people to murder each other?". It is simply expressing a preference for one empirical state over another empirical state, and absent some transcendental determinant, no final conclusion can decisively be reached.


> It is simply expressing a preference for one empirical state over another empirical state, and absent some transcendental determinant, no final conclusion can decisively be reached.

But humans tend to universally value some states over other, and it seems to be hard-wired into our brains. I think that when the neuro/cognitive scientists finally disassemble our firmware, we should have a new, interesting take on this problem.


*relativist bias, not centrist.

centrist means that the average of the positions probably has some sense to it; relativist means "everyone can be right at once, children..."

I'm a centrist, and I violently disagree with the dude! :)


The point about a humanities background and internet regulation reminds me of some great dialogue from a Stephenson novel: "Randy was forever telling people, without rancor, that they were full of shit. That was the only way to get anything done in hacking. No one took it personally. Charlene's crowd most definitely did take it personally. It wasn't being told that they were wrong that offended them, though it was the underlying assumption that a person could be right or wrong about anything... "Very well, let me put it this way," Kivistik said "How many on ramps will connect the world's ghettos to the Information Superhighway?" The words came out of Randy's mouth before he had time to think better of it. "The Information Superhighway is just a fucking metaphor! Give me a break!" he said. "That doesn't tell me very much," Kivistik said."Everything is a metaphor. The word 'fork' is a metaphor for this object." He held up a fork. "All discourse is built from metaphors." "That's no excuse for using bad metaphors," Randy said. "Bad? Bad? Who decides what is bad?" Kivistik said, doing his killer impression of a heavy lidded, mouth breathing undergraduate. Randy could see where it was going. Kivistik had gone for the usual academician's ace in the hole: everything is relative, it's all just differing perspectives. People had already begun to resume their little side conversations, thinking that the conflict was over, when Randy gave them all a start with: "Who decides what's bad? I do." Even Dr.G.E. B. Kivistik was flustered. He wasn't sure if Randy was joking. "Excuse me?" Randy was in no great hurry to answer the question. He took the opportunity to sit back comfortably, stretch, and take a sip of his wine. He was feeling good. "It's like this," he said. "I've read your book. I've seen you on TV. I've heard you tonight. I personally typed up a list of your credentials when I was preparing press materials for this conference. So I know that you're not qualified to have an opinion about technical issues.'' "Oh," Kivistik said in mock confusion, "I didn't realize one had to have qualifications." "I think it's clear," Randy said, "that if you are ignorant of a particular subject, that your opinion is completely worthless. If I'm sick, I don't ask a plumber for advice. I go to a doctor. Likewise, if I have questions about the Internet, I will seek opinions from people who know about it." "Funny how all of the technocrats seem to be in favor of the Internet," Kivistik said cheerily, milking a few more laughs from the crowd. "You have just made a statement that is demonstrably not true," Randy said, pleasantly enough. "A number of Internet experts have written well reasoned books that are sharply critical of it." Kivistik was finally getting pissed off. All the levity was gone. "So," Randy continued, "to get back to where we started, the Information Superhighway is a bad metaphor for the Internet, because I say it is. There might be a thousand people on the planet who are as conversant with the Internet as I am. I know most of these people. None of them takes that metaphor seriously. Q.E.D." "Oh. I see," Kivistik said, a little hotly. He had seen an opening. "So we should rely on the technocrats to tell us what to think, and how to think, about this technology." The expressions of the others seemed to say that this was a telling blow, righteously struck. "I'm not sure what a technocrat is," Randy said. "Am I a technocrat? I'm just a guy who went down to the bookstore and bought a couple of textbooks on TCP/IP, which is the underlying protocol of the Internet, and read them. And then I signed on to a computer, which anyone can do nowadays, and I messed around with it for a few years, and now I know all about it. Does that make me a technocrat?"


Bravo sir.




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