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Aaron Swartz: The Book That Changed My Life (aaronsw.com)
274 points by k1m on Jan 15, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 173 comments

"Reading the book, I felt as if my mind was rocked by explosions."

If you've only had this experience from _one_ book, you aren't reading enough.

"Questions that had puzzled me for years suddenly began making sense in this new world."

If, on reading a book, you don't know of at least one other set of alternative answers, you aren't reading enough.

No doubt Chomsky is a powerful and persuasive writer. But there are many thought-systems of similar extraordinary explanatory power. At some point you have to realize that the ones that hit you, hit because you share their basic premises and took the time to understand the explication of the thought-system. Without the ability to identify and examine those premises, your thinking is more an accident of which powerful system clicked with you first.

You have to read enough to intelligently criticize those opinions you hold most dear and believe most certainly. It's very hard. The "terrifying side effect" of being "left all alone" is not quite so terrifying as the gut-wrenching feeling you don't actually know _anything_.

It is an amazing and wonderful and terrifying experience to see the world in a new way. But you cannot stop at _that_ new way of thinking.

> If you've only had this experience from _one_ book, you aren't reading enough.

He was 17 years old when he read the book.

And later in the comments he said the same happened to him with other books. i.e. purely intellectual math. The more I read about Aaron he more I'm impressed and even though I didn't read enough about Chomsky I think he's right on far too many issues (the ones I encountered so far).

You really need to do some more research before you make statements like "you aren't reading enough". In fact, I don't think I've read or heard of a person more well-read than Aaron. For example, he read 130 books in 2009[1]. That's a book every 3 days.

[1]: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/books2009

"Well-read" doesn't equate with "much read". It's a long list, but most of it is left of center contemporary analysis. The only notable right-wing book is "Seeing Like A State." But for a little Plato, there zero philosophy or political philosophy there. Had he gone on to read the entirety of "Republic", rather than Book One, he'd have seen an exercise in criticism, exploration of ultimate values, and theoretic construction -- if nothing else, a demonstration that Chomsky himself was following a model. There is no Rousseau, which might have hinted at where Chomsky started, and neither Locke nor Hobbes, which might have suggested an entirely different approach.

No Boethius, which later would have been a very apt touchstone for a person feeling the weight of persecution.

Nor is there much story on the list. No Shakespeare, no Milton, one Hemingway, no Faulkner. No poetry. Nothing about about what it is to be a man, to live in conflict with one's self and with others, or to live among contradictions.

Some of it is just a waste of time. "Secrets of the Temple" is at best a nothing book.

Perhaps he read more widely and deeply at some other time than 2009. But there is precious little on this to challenge a progressive-liberal viewpoint, or to provide a basis of fundamental criticism, or to suggest a perspective on politics generally. To read like this is neither healthy nor interesting. It certainly isn't "well read".

>I don't think I've read or heard of a person more well-read than Aaron

Mosey on over to your local University, flail your arms around until you hit a non-STEM grad student, and voila -- you've met someone who reads at least this much, probably much more.

Further it isn't difficult to read one light book every three days (looking at Aaron's list, the vast majority of titles are light reads). Retention and understanding are also dependent on how well you read, i.e. how deeply you focus and digest information. Plenty of people read hundreds of books each year, but read so quickly that nothing sticks. It's only when they read a title that feeds into some deep-rooted emotional issue or agrees with already-established biases that they claim "genuis! mind-shattering!" and so on. Could have been the case here, and I think that's the spirit behind saying "you aren't reading enough". It isn't always a question of volume, but rather whether or not you're actually reading.

Chomsky is one of the most eloquent people that I've ever come across. Manufacturing consent and Understanding power are indeed life changing books. They are in the sense that after reading them you will look at the media and politics in a new way and that that way will never leave you. It's like putting on glasses when you didn't know you needed them.

Your glasses analogy is interesting but I think is misleading, in that it assumes there's a correct way to view things. This approach is one of the major problems I have with Chomsky and other writers like him, i.e. "you have been duped by the (mostly US) media, the military-industrial complex, by the secret powers that may be; here is the real truth about matters". Rather than being presented as the truth, these opinions be seen to be another viewpoint that enhances your understanding of the situation.

Let me give an analogy that may not be totally appropriate but I find is kind of illuminating: Many people, based on their everyday experience, believe in the existence of the centrifugal force (otherwise how to explain what they are experiencing daily). Then, their physics professor explains to them that in reality there is no such thing. Only if they study physics farther than the freshman year do they learn that that is not true either. Other similar examples of hypercorrection can be given (see this interesting answer: http://physics.stackexchange.com/a/13568/852). The intent of the professor is benign, i.e. not to confuse the students, but it perpetuates a half-truth.

Coming from a non-US country, I have to say that those of you who heavily criticize US media for manipulating opinion should look deeper into the media of other countries (not that I'm saying that the US media is non-manipulative, it's that the breadth of publicly sharable opinion is astonishing).

If you judge Chomsky by his fans, it is easy to dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist. That's not what he's doing.

He's presenting another view of the world where, even in a free and democratic society, the media has institutional, structural weaknesses that cause it to serve power. To amplify certain messages, and attenuate others.

It's an attempt to explain how a free society could have committed such atrocities as the Vietnam War, and later, gotten suckered into the Iraq War.

I have seen the debate about this shift in my lifetime. In the early 90s, when the Manufacturing Consent movie came out, I was in a journalism program and even interviewed the makers of that film. Many of the other students in my classes found the film bewildering. They quite honestly believed the media were just serving the people in the great engine of democracy.

Nowadays everyone is aware of how badly the media is failing the public. There are satirists who make this point on a literally Daily basis.

Of course, the general public's cynicism is often unsophisticated, and manifests itself as accusations of intentional bias. But there is more and more awareness of how the structure of the media itself affects what gets covered - perhaps because the Internet offers a counterexample.

> Nowadays everyone is aware of how badly the media is failing the public.

I so hope that you are right about that one.

Here's a recent survey that shows the media's credibility has dropped in the double digits over the past decade:


Per Chomsky, suckered into both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan.

It would help Chomsky's case a lot if he identified a post-WW2 "good war". Does he think intervening in Korea was a good idea?

It would help Chomsky's case a lot if he identified a post-WW2 "good war".

It would help him identifying a "good war" if there were one.

EDIT: I'm not saying there's no such thing as a "good war", though I probably have a vastly higher bar for what might qualify for that than most. Instead, I'm saying that the "wars" the US has engaged in post-WWII have largely been motivated by cynical self-interest, and often at the expense of everyone involved, including — perhaps even especially — itself.

> the secret powers that may be

I think this is a concept inserted by a lot of Chomsky nay-sayers. I don't recall that being part of the worldview. My limited reading and viewing has left me with the impression, perhaps more disturbing, that there is no secret power. This really is just how people behave, and to really understand what's happening in real time, so that better interventions can be made, is going to take whole new fields of study.

I think the solutions of anarchism or communism that some Chomskyites put forward are mainly bold attempts to add those vectors into the other much larger vectors that are already present in the public debate and tend to make the space appear very inhospitable to alternative view points. Much like Aaron described, the world seems very lonely afterwards, and hearing a shout in the distance is very welcome to the man alone in the desert.

> there is no secret power

Yap and I think mixing Chomsky up with conspiracy theorists and building straw men arguments is a common tactic of those who are ideologically minded and want to protect their preconceived notions. "Chomsky is a commy nut", "CNN isn't in cahoots with Walmart and FBI, he is just crazy".

The point to take home, I think, is that there are rules and assumptions built into the system that make it evolve in a certain way. There aren't necessarily heads of state and corporations sitting down in dark basement and scheming against the poor and the weak.

Now this doesn't mean the rules cannot be changed. It just means there isn't one central surface of attack. Like "well if we just replace all these people, things will fix themselves" one sort of has chip away and find what incentive and rewards there are.

However, this also doesn't mean that individuals who are part of the system and play by its rules even when that is at odds with basic morality (like in the case of Aaron) shouldn't bear responsibility. Both approaches should be taken.

Although I cannot site specific examples from Chomsky right now (wish I had books other than programmin ones at work, but it may freak out my colleagues) I find that belief in a "secret coalition" is as common in the left as it is in the right. This is understandable, because people don't want to believe the alternate (and, I think, much more correct) idea that you have mentioned, i.e. "This really is just how people behave." It's much easier to believe that some powers are manipulating people.

For the record, I'm not a Chomsky nay-sayer, any intelligent person's (and he's brilliant, of course) opinion needs to be taken into account to update our worldview. It's just that the extremity of some of his positions (in linguistics, too) has made me lower the weight I use while I incorporate his views in the periodic update of my worldview on things.

To some extent I would find a shadowy conspiracy more comforting than what I perceive to be the truth: That plenty of intelligent people do considerable damage to the world without it being their intention. At least a shadowy conspiracy sounds like it would be relatively easy to fix.

I suggest reading _Understanding Power_ (the book Aaron Swartz recommended). He's against conspiracy theories, and instead uses institutional analysis. Sorry for the wall of text:

"It’s precisely the opposite of conspiracy theory, actually—in fact, in general this analysis tends to downplay the role of individuals: they’re just replaceable pieces.

"Look, part of the structure of corporate capitalism is that the players in the game try to increase profits and market shares—if they don’t do that, they will no longer be players in the game. Any economist knows this: it’s not a conspiracy theory to point that out, it’s just taken for granted as an institutional fact. If someone were to say, “Oh no, that’s a conspiracy theory,” people would laugh. Well, what we’ve been discussing are simply the institutional factors that set the boundaries for reporting and interpretation in the ideological institutions. That’s the opposite of conspiracy theory, it’s just normal institutional analysis, the kind of analysis you do automatically when you’re trying to understand how the world works. For people to call it “conspiracy theory” is part of the effort to prevent an understanding of how the world works, in my view—“conspiracy theory” has become the intellectual equivalent of a four-letter word: it’s something people say when they don’t want you to think about what’s really going on."


"Well, this term “conspiracy theory” is kind of an interesting one. For example, if I was talking about Soviet planning and I said, “Look, here’s what the Politburo decided, and then the Kremlin did this,” nobody would call that a “conspiracy theory” — everyone would just assume that I was talking about planning. But as soon as you start talking about anything that’s done by power in the West, then everybody calls it a “conspiracy theory.” You’re not allowed to talk about planning in the West, it’s not allowed to exist. So if you’re a political scientist, one of the things you learn—you don’t even make it into graduate school unless you’ve already internalized it—is that nobody here ever plans anything: we just act out of a kind of general benevolence, stumbling from here to here, sometimes making mistakes and so on. The guys in power aren’t idiots, after all. They do planning. In fact, they do very careful and sophisticated planning. But anybody who talks about it, and uses government records or anything else to back it up, is into “conspiracy theory.”

"It’s the same with business: business is again just operating out of a generalized benevolence, trying to help everybody get the cheapest goods with the best quality, all this kind of stuff. If you say: “Look, Chrysler is trying to maximize profits and market share,” that’s “conspiracy theory.” In other words, as soon as you describe elementary reality and attribute minimal rationality to people with power—well, that’s fine as long as it’s an enemy, but if it’s a part of domestic power, it’s a “conspiracy theory” and you’re not supposed to talk about it."

If anyone can grasp that the interactions of not-inherently-wrong-nor-malicious behaviors can lead to unintended but harmful consequences it ought to be programmers.

There is an inclination for those suspicious of mass media to believe in a shadow government, etc, pulling the strings of social control. The reality is more disturbing: for the most part, so-called elites conduct their business completely openly, shouting their intentions from the mountaintops, albeit sometimes masked in code, or through narrative framing.

Chomsky is extremely methodical in citing references and providing evidence to back up his narratives.

Any over correction is on the part of the reader, not the writer.

You can always support any position with ample evidence. The problem is balance. Chomsky doesn't cite the evidence that does not support him, even though there is always plenty of such evidence. This is considered normal, but it means you always only get part of the story, need to get the other parts elsewhere and then make up your mind. It's daunting.

Digressing . . . centrifugal force is a non-inertial force.

It's roughly equivalent to being in a car which accelerates quickly so that you feel pressure from the seat on your back. The centrifugal force in this case would be the pseudo force that's propelling you backward with respect to the car.

The seat's force pushing you forward is analogous to centripetal force.

So I would argue it's a full truth with a pedantic asterisk - you can make any force appear by moving the reference frame. The same "force" would be present if you were standing stationary on the sidewalk and the car were accelerating toward you.

Thanks! I've long understood that the centrifugal "force" appears due to an accelerating reference frame, but the comparison to an accelerating car makes it much clearer.

Your glasses analogy is interesting but I think is misleading, in that it assumes there's a correct way to view things.

I took it to mean you will see things more clearly, yourself. I may be wrong though.

Completely agree. I didn't before. I come from a strict conservative and authoritarian background where glorification of the state (as long as it was run by the Christians) was the default assumption.

Someone pointed Chomsky to me. I read some. I think it was Failed State or Manufacturing Consent. And thought, well, surely this is all liberal commy bullshit. Except for one little problem -- Chomsky seemed to have thorough references and footnotes, with which it was very hard to argue.

Stuff like "Well those countries hates because of our freedoms", a common slogan, kind of ingrained in many people's minds by now. Well it turns out that that isn't the case. Even results from National Security Council' finding show that (Many hate us because we installed and supported brutal dictators and suppressed locally elected governments). That's just one silly example.

Or, for example, assumption about how we have free media who regularly reports objective and informative news as opposed to media, that is heavily biased. Then Manufacturing Consent carefully dissects that and presents a different picture. I read that not wanting it to be true, however Chomsky has this nasty habit of providing good references for his points, not accepting them would be intellectually dishonest.

I really have to congratulate you, I've personally found breaking free from the defaults set at birth to be nigh on impossible. It's incredible how deep some of those hooks have been sunk and it gets me every time I discover a new one. It looks like there is no end to them.

Is there any updated source for the statistics he gives in the first couple chapters? They are about 30 years out of date now, so the book is much less useful from that perspective. The Wikipedia page on media consolidation isn't very detailed, nor do I know of any updates sources for the military/pentagon propaganda budget.

I really hate google on some days. More days as of late.

Anyway, if you google "the herman chomsky propaganda model twenty years on" and then click the pdf link you may find what you want.

I can't post the link here because google is so paranoid about being crawled that they obfuscate links to the point where you can't get easily get a link to a pdf without going through the search manually.

There's a greasemonkey script called google result privacy (several actually), which very simply turn off the url dickery so you can right click and so forth as expected.

Thank you, installed and working :)

It's not a fear of being crawled, it's link tracking. It has been discussed a bunch of times (how they show the link in the status bar but then the internal link is what shows up in the clip board).

The easiest way around this is to just click the link and copy it from your browser.


That works with any link type except for pdfs which start 'okular' on my machine, and then I don't have access to the link.

Ah, that makes sense. PDFs render in the browser for me so it's no different than any other URL.

I believe this is the link you are talking about: http://www.fifth-estate-online.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011... It also references a number of other papers that discuss the current relevance of the propaganda model.

Funny you mention glasses.


I love Manufacturing Consent (the documentary) and it inspired me to read some of Chomsky's books on politics and see him live. It didn't change my life though.

In general, I think the fundamental problem with Chomsky's compelling and very well buttressed description of The Way Things Work [in the US(1)] is that it really doesn't offer much hope. (This actually comes up towards the end of the movie, and his answer -- essentially that people are smarter than we think -- is pretty thin.)

In the end, the great mass of Americans are too busy with their day to day lives to parse out what's going on with their government and the corporate state. US democracy has essentially been reduced to a sporting event. As long as those in power don't drive the voting population into absolute misery (and it's hard to figure out just how much misery that is) they're happy enough with business as usual.

(1) I'm not saying that Chomsky's observations apply uniquely to the US or that other democracies are great, but many of Chomsky's observations are rather specific to the US, either because of peculiarities of the US political system or the US's undeniably unique position in world affairs.

I am unclear on how your "fundamental problem" is a problem. I was not aware that when making arguments that offering hope was a prerequisite for validity or truth. Because if that is not the case, then offering no hope is not a fundamental problem.

You're right that I haven't expressed myself clearly.

The terms "manufacturing consent", "necessary distraction" etc. are taken from a political science treatise arguing that for a democracy to be a world power it must essentially distract the great unwashed from the political process so that the smart people can run things correctly. Chomsky's aim is to expose the workings of this process (and no, he's not a conspiracy theorist -- he's simply pointing out naturally emergent behaviors of large institutions) arguing that if only the great unwashed were aware of what's going on they'd suddenly start participating and everything would be better.

But as the discussion proceeds, it really seems to be arguing that people are stupid and uninformed and like it that way, and when presented with this argument, Chomsky makes the claim that no they're smart because they can learn to talk -- which I think is weak. (It's like arguing that basketball players must be good at physics.) This leaves the original thesis -- that people are stupid and ignorant and like it that way -- essentially standing, and thus argues in favor of the entire political philosophy he's trying to take down.

And that's a fundamental problem with Chomsky's political philosophy, but not with his observations. (Much as Marx was a great social critic, but his remedies weren't much use.)

>In general, I think the fundamental problem... is that it really doesn't offer much hope.

Do you mean to say this is why some people so strongly dislike Chomsky?

I think most people don't like Chomsky because he tells uncomfortable truths.

"I remember vividly clutching at the door to my room, trying to hold on to something while the world spun around."

Some commenters treat this as if it must be hyperbole. But what Aaron describes is a typical reaction for someone who's just had their safe worldview shattered, and discovered that political reality is something far darker than they imagined.

There has been much written on the psychology of conspiracy denial, and the cognitive dissonance that keeps many corralled within the comforting (but false) narrative of the mainstream media propagandists.

One aspect of denial is a kind of self-worth self-preservation. To even contemplate that the world may be controlled by vastly evil powers, and that the historical fables we are all supposed to believe are actually gross lies purveyed by mass murdering psychopathic conspirators, one has to consider what that implies about one's self. To have been totally duped for so many years, by incredibly evil people... to have cooperated in their crimes, even if only by inaction... To discover that those one looked up to, respected, trusted with the wise governance of the state, are actually deranged elitist liars and criminals...

Most people simply cannot bear to contemplate such a level of gullibility and culpability in themselves. So they remain in vigorous denial. And in self defense, attack those attempting to enlighten them to the true state of the world.


"We'll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false." -- William Casey, Director of Central Intelligence. An observation by the late Director at his first staff meeting in 1981.

The extent to which Chomsky has remained relevant in both political and scientific arenas never ceases to amaze me.

What never cease to amaze me and fascinates me is how people can rationalize away simple concept like:

When the public pays for knowledge to be created, it should be that the public owns the knowledge it paid for, of all people Americans should live this truth.

But no, the majority really thinks that a small elite has the right to usurp this knowledge not paid by them and let the public that paid for it, pay more and more.

Who are guilty here? The oportunists that took the chance to usurp the knowledge, or the public that let it steal from under their nose and let the oportunists be oportunistic?

Who here dares to answer my amazement? I dare you to enter this debate!!

The public's taxes also fund the military. Extending your principle to this case implies that the public owns the countries nuclear arsenal. Can you advise what this ownership should practically entail? Should I get access to the weapons? Should I be able to use them? Or am I limited to indirectly benefitting from their existence?

The public does in fact own the country's nuclear arsenal. The nuclear arsenal is purely defensive and to be used only in the direst of circumstances in the defense of the nation (i.e. the public). No one individual or group of people has the right to use our nuclear arsenal to enrich themselves. I'm not sure what point you are trying to make, but you're not making a lot of sense. Perhaps you could try to explain yourself without the hyperbole.


When a person makes a claim like "All X's are Y's" then it is sufficient to provide a single example of an X which isn't a Y to demonstrate that the claim is false. The example is referred to as a counter example.


The most reasonable interpretation of the previous commenter which I could identify was:

"When the public pays for knowledge to be created, it should be that the public owns the knowledge it paid for...[but it is expect that] the public that paid for it, [must] pay more and more [to use it]."

To restate this in the counterexample language

(1) 'All [things which the public pays for] are [things which the public owns]'

(2) 'All [things which the public owns] are [things which the public should be able to freely access and use]'

Which combine to produce the claim

(3) 'All [things which the public pays for] are [things which the public should be able to freely access and use]'

with "knowledge" being one of the things which the public pays for and so "knowledge" being one of the things which the people should be able to freely access and use.


In order to demonstrate the flaw in this claim as just presented#, I brought up nuclear weapons as a counter example. It is an instance of something which the public pays for but of which the public shouldn't have free access to and use of.


In order to maintain the truth of the claim the previous commenter must show that my example is not a counter example by arguing that the public should have access to/use of nuclear weapons.

Alternatively, they can agree that the claim as presented is false, and then perhaps provide a different argument for the conclusion that 'the public should get use of the knowledge created.'


I hope this clarifies the point which I am trying to make. Regretfully, the hyperbolic inclusion of nuclear weapons plays a key role my argument and so I did not remove it.


# I acknowledge that my interpretation of the claim may not have been what the author intended. Statement (1) seems to be strongly implied by the author, but (2) is inferred. The role of the questions in my original reply was to draw out a precise explanation of what ownership entails. But certainly in the case of "knowledge" the person want to be able to access and use the knowledge.

You are not the first to make the mistake of comparing I.P. with physical property. They are not the same physically, in theory, in practice or in law.

The biggest problem with I.P. is that those of us who understand that it is in no way "property" continue to allow ourselves to be maneuvered into using that term. As long as we continue to use the term "intellectual property" then the duplication of it will be called "theft" or "piracy". We must stop using these terms with are inherently wrong. The truth is that copying is not only the way that human society advances (you cannot have innovation without copying) but it is how humanity itself evolves. It is inscribed in our DNA and we would not exist without it.

I really agree with you but boy I find it hard! The problem is that the legal framework as well as the general population knows it at I.P., even though this included far more than copyright and even though those different 'kinds' of I.P. are not similar at all (i.e. patents and copyright). I don't really believe in I.P. but how do I communicate with people without using terms such as Intellectual Property, Copyright, Patents, Trademarks and whatnot ? Information should be free, and as such so should be ideas.

Don't compare information with physical property :)

You're right. I also have no idea how to go about it. I can insist that I.P. is not property but there is no consensus for a replacement term. This is where an organization such as the EFF could be useful. Also, just a note, I'm not saying we shouldn't use terms such as trademark, copyright, and patent. I'm just saying that we need to find a way to indicate that broadly, none of these are property. They are monopolies granted by the government which in fact infringe on individual rights and property. If framed correctly, there is a chance that these monopoly powers can be restricted in such a way that they are used only for the betterment of society and not for the enrichment of the individual (i.e. in line with their constitutional mandate).

Better than nothing. In the short term I would be ok if it only applied commercially and not for private use but in reality we always created regardless of I.P. copyright or patents and i don't think these are tools for betterment of society but just betterment of some.

I can help here, just call it government granted monopoly, because that is what it is.

My argument is that the public paying for a thing is not sufficient grounds for claiming that the public should have use of that thing.

Since knowledge creation and nuclear weapons are both examples of things which the public pays for, I defend the comment as it stands. The distinction between IP and physical property does not enter into the claim.

My argument is that knowledge can't be stolen from the people or resold to the people at a profit. Immoral and even illegal in my view even if not backed by law.

Nuclear weapons are physical and as such can't be shared with the population but ultimately, assuming for a second that democracy works, american nuclear weapons belong to the american people, even though it is not under direct control of any singular citizen or at least it shouldn't be.

The distinction is fundamental. You can't copy at marginal cost nuclear weapons, but you can copy information indefinitely.

Agreed. Ironic that Chomsky still teaches at MIT

Not sure about his linguistics, but his politics is adolescent.

Norvig (Director of Research at Google, and author of the most popular AI book [1]) has written a criticism of Chomsky's linguistics in relation to AI: http://norvig.com/chomsky.html

tl;dr: Norvig argues that language is best modeled statistically, Chomsky's model is deterministic. He also disagrees about what makes good science (usefulness for engineering is a valid criterium & gathering facts over developing theories).

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_Intelligence:_A_Mode...

Norvig has written criticism about specific ideas that Chomsky uttered in some convention (which are also reflected in some of his written works on natural languages and their computational models).

But Chomsky's contribution to linguistics in general and computational linguistics in particular goes well beyond anything like that, e.g. [1]. I'm not sure, but I suspect that linguistics and computational linguistics where unrelated fields before Chomsky tied them together.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chomsky_hierarchy

You are minimizing the criticism, which isn't just about some utterance at a convention, it's about the core premise on which Chomsky's entire work rests, namely determinism. And more generally, that success of a model should be tested empirically rather than that it should "provide insight" in some abstract way. There is no doubt that Chomsky has done great work in the area of formal languages, it's just that the relationship with natural language is not as strong as initially hoped.

The scientific pedigree of Chomsky is beyond doubt. From a purely academic POV, with all respect due to Norvig, they are in a different league.

(that does not mean that Norvig may be wrong and Chomsky right on that point you are quoting. It seems you're suggesting that Chomsky is not a great linguist because he disagress with Norvig - that would be a mistake).

At worst, he is guilty of unrealistic idealism, in the same fashion as the original democratic philosophers. But his knowledge and understanding of real power (perception management) is more sophisticated than any adolescent, and for that matter, most adults.

Now explain to the world why you think that his politics is adolescent without the world thinking that you are behaving adolescent.

you're going to have to take that argument a bit farther for it to be convincing.

Are you suggesting that older people are not allowed to have ideals?

Adolescent in what way?

My CSS must be broken. I would expect such a useless, non-content-contributing comment to be greyed out by now.

He likes to be at the nerve of it all. It's an honest place for him to be and work, and in all fairness, they have really supported his enterprise there.

That's probably because you don't really know who Chomsky is or what the breadth of his work has been. Even if you choose to discard all his work in politics, he's a towering figure in linguistics.


I meant this in a positive way, ie, that the breadth is so enormous and he is so prolific that I am constantly impressed.

That's how I took it when I upvoted you.

Uh, didn't he criticise scientific epistemologies in relation to so-called scientism? I read briefly about some of his remarks on the matter, and he just seemed like most of his fellow sociologists: ignorant of the relevance of science to sanity, probably caused by not having been trained in physico-mathematical rigour.

He made a distinction between describing something well enough to correctly predict its behavior and understanding the common mechanisms leading to those behaviors. He then critiqued science for focusing exclusively on correct predictions, without also searching for insight into the underlying order.

The problem with science focused exclusively on correct predictions is that it encodes implicit assumptions, and if the surrounding conditions change the previous evidence is no longer valid. It also has a tendency to lead people to think they are observing some final and universal Truth, when really they are just observing a system that is in a relatively stable equilibrium.

Thanks for your contribution. But, regarding the first paragraph, I need to ask – are you sure? I cannot sense the distinction you describe.

As for the second paragraph, I completely do not understand what it means.

For the second paragraph: Imagine a man warped out of the past somewhere into the future. His clothes look funny and any interaction he makes with people draws an odd response. Some give him money, some people say "no thank you" for some reason, and so on. He can test this, he can see that nearly everyone behaves this way. So he assumes this is simply how people here behave.

Later on, something happens that forces him to wear clothes like everyone else is wearing. And how people react to him changes completely. All his testing proved that people react one certain way, but he didn't understand why so he didn't realize what his testing had showed was actually just a small subset of the actual behavior and was actually an extremely rare case.

I really like your comment, and I really wish to reply with a video with a Louie CK stand-up comedy piece about a lion and a giraffe. But I'm not sure if I can post the link here.

Edit: oh well, what the heck, maybe mods can delete this if it's inappropriate. http://www.putlocker.com/file/718CD52BD479CE4A#, the joke is at minute 2:00!

This essay of his is the closest I've found to a summing up of his perspective: http://bostonreview.net/BR30.3/chomsky.php

The second paragraph was me trying to, very briefly, sum up the consequences of positivist epistomology. The alternative that Chomsky proposes is that observational knowledge can only describe the things that are true given the process that generates the interactive behaviors we observe. This applies to everything from humanities and linguistics to physical interactions (which is why people have such difficulty explaining quantum physics). Consider, for example, the idea that computers think in zeros and ones: it is usually plenty accurate, even though it is really an abstraction of high/low voltage signal. But if we encounter random bit flips it may be helpful to know that actually we are working with high/low signal and so a cosmic ray interacting with our RAM could produce a flip. Equally, we write programs in higher level languages without worrying that loops aren't an inherent property of the computer. "Loops" aren't a lie, but they also aren't a fact: they are useful knowledge.

Most knowledge falls into this area, of being the product of current, generative interactions. In this world it is possible to say that some statement isn't supported by evidence, so we can still have science based on falsifiablity. We can even fully describe the observed behavior of some system under a set of conditions. That knowledge is likely to be useful, even. But it is incomplete, and shouldn't be elevated to a place of infallible "fact" lest we miss the additional capabilities we might acquire by manipulating those assumptions.

Thanks. Your summary was eloquent, but I'll have to read the article as well to make sure I understand correctly. What strikes me is that Alfred Korzybski spoke about those same issues (and much more) in his 1933 book called "Science and Sanity" (well worth a read, although bare in mind it took me several years to finish it). So when Chomsky wrote his stuff, Korzybski had already addressed this very comprehensively.

Does Chomski at any point addresses these issues as well? http://www.scribd.com/doc/41399205/Alfred-Korzybski-General-... (jump to p86).

that version of the book is incomplete, but page 86 seems alright.

That might win the prize for most ignorant comment ever on HN. While you can level a number of criticisms at Chomsky, lack of mathematical rigor is not one of them. I would assume people here were If anything, Chomsky is guilty of over-reliance on mathematical formalism in his linguistics.

well, there is absolutely nothing wrong with conjecturing, when one presents it as such. Thanks for making a case against what I said, I may give Chomsky a second chance.

Edit: by the way, I'm a bit suspicious of your phrasing in "mathematical formalism in his linguistics". Mathematical verbalism does not qualify as sane. I know a case of a person who does speak as a mathematician (very convincing!), even uses mathematics in his expositions, yet he is completely insane and what he says makes no sense whatsoever. I can share a recording of one of his lectures if you wish, but unfortunately he speaks in Romanian.

Your description of this "mathematician" intrigues me. And, since I happen to speak Romanian, I would love to have a link to one of his lectures. Thanks! However, I agree with "mtraven" that you should not be leveling this kind of accusation until you have read Chomsky's work.

Duly noted! The lecture is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-30t8pSd7s0.

Thanks... The video was hilarious but the dude is truly insane. I assure you that, whether you agree or disagree with him, Chomsky has absolutely nothing in common with this guy. Wow! If any other Romanian is reading this, check out that video. After a couple minutes you won't know whether you should laugh or you should cry.

I can also recommend Power and Struggle (Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part 1). It is an absurdly trenchant look at how power is derived from and maintained in a society. Gene Sharp is unparalleled in his research into effecting change through non-violent action and should be required reading for activists of all kinds.

I used to be a nuclear submarine officer, but left the US Navy as a complete pacifist and conscientious objector. What the pacifist movement needs is books willing to engage nonviolent strategy in the same way that military tacticians do it. That's what Gene Sharp's books claim to be, but IMHO they fail. They paint nonviolence in a little bit too good of a light, without fully acknowledging its limitations.

From one conscientious objector to another (ages ago), thank you.

Would you mind sharing your experience? I like collecting other people's CO stories, and I've never heard of another computer nerd doing it. If you prefer privacy, my email is mike@izbicki.me.

The NY Times did a write up on my court case: (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/nyregion/23objector.html?p...), and I've written up some of the testimony from my hearing on my own blog (http://izbicki.me/blog/category/religion/my-co-discharge).

hey Mike,

I don't mind, it's long ago and I'm not at all ashamed about it.

In the Netherlands, where I was born lots of people were doing it. There was the threat of jail time and there was a bunch of military police sent to pick up people to force them into the army. Lots went to prison or were forced to do a replacement service. I managed to stay ahead of them for quite long but I did have a regular place to stay so that wasn't a tenable situation in the longer term. It also made my mom quite nervous. Finally we got a summons from the regular police, I could choose to come in to talk with one particular officer or I'd be picked up. I went there nervous as hell and fully expected to be arrested but in fact the guy was very reasonable.

I explained my issues with authority (this was at the time that our military was sent to the middle east), and that I have a pretty bad streak running through me from a military point of view: that I can't handle injustice and that putting me in a situation where injustice is perpetrated on an ongoing basis is likely going to blow up sooner or later, likely sooner. I was 17 at the time, I'd just quit school and I still didn't have my aggressive streak bottled up (much better now, and it should be, approaching 48) and I really foresaw trouble.

The guy said he'd see what he could do, he asked me to call him in a few days. And so I did, he asked me to come in and sign some papers that essentially came down to me not being able to reverse my decision later or become a police officer and that was the end of that. No jail time, no formal court case or hearing.

I realized later that I got off really light compared to some in my age group. This was one of the last, if not the last year when there was still a draft in the Netherlands.

The thing that bugs me about the military and this is something that I really don't understand is the blind obedience expected of the soldiers. I have no doubt that I can be pretty nasty to people if the circumstances would push me that far but to blindly follow orders is not in my genetic make-up.

> The thing that bugs me about the military and this is something that I really don't understand is the blind obedience expected of the soldiers

There is a level in which it is expected; and at that level, the soldiers are basically pawns in a game, and the only reason they have not been replaced by robots is that we're not sufficiently advanced technologically.

At a higher level (how much higher depends on country and branch), you're actually expected to think, although not to disagree often.

As a corporal, I routinely told my (several level up in the chain of command) lieutenant colonel that, (respectfully and less respectfully), he is talking nonsense, and as long as I was able to substantiate it (I was), it was accepted as criticism. It didn't work as well with his superior (a colonel) - I got listened to once, and basically told to not do that again. Yes, I got to talk to these people often -- as in daily and at least monthly respectively.

But that depends on the culture of the army and branch you end up with - in many places, any individual thinking before you reach captain is reprimanded. I was lucky to be somewhere where it was usually merit that was judged, rather than seniority.

Thanks. That's the main thing that bothers me about the military too.

Surely he's not perfect in his views but he is highly objective, intelligent and visionary.

Given the chance to sit in on a random lunch with Chomsky or a captain of industry (Buffett, Gates, etc.) I'd pick Chomsky without pause.

Yes, I agree with you.

I remember vividly clutching at the door to my room, trying to hold on to something while the world spun around.

Maybe I'm a bit too simple or pragmatic but I sincerely hope that this was simply hyperbole. If not, I think we might have an early glimpse into a special, yet troubled, mind. From a lot of things I've read about Mr. Swartz since his suicide, it doesn't seem like he was all that mentally stable.

Are you really stating that his feeling physically dizzy at comprehending something that changed his world view is a "glimpse into troubled mind"? Seriously?

Please, for all that is holy, unless you have a background in mental health, please avoid making armchair diagnoses. (Those that have that background are loathe to jump to conclusions, for example.) It's neither your place, nor your field. Don't do it.

I'll stand by what I said, he seemed very troubled and it is clear that he was since he killed himself. Suicide typically doesn't happen overnight so I'll assume he's had issues long before the DOJ decided to target him.

I'm not getting this from one single blog post. Others have posted how he had trouble communicating personally. There was another blog where he was sympathetic to the Joker from 'The Dark Knight'. If his blog was a personal one I bet there are probably hundreds of other examples.

If you hear something that is so profound that the you get physically dizzy at the thought, enough to require you to hold onto something, there's nothing else to say but you should get help. Like I said, if it was just hyperbole, fine, but I don't get the feeling it was.


This book may very well have changed his life, but I suggest that discovering that there are serious problems with our society is not really that enlightening. Far more important is learning why and how we got here.

My view is that John Raulston Saul has identified the very essence of the beginning of this mess and the good intentions that started it hundreds of years ago in his book, "Voltaire's Bastards". Further, the identification of the fundamental (flaws/errors/oversights) that became a part of the fabric of our civilization now based on reason.


The link to the torrent for Manufacturing Consent at the end of his piece no longer works, but the full film is up on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AnB8MuQ6DU

I found the following review of the book interesting. I always like to read the "negative" reviews of something because I find it easier to make a decision whether to read something or buy something (books, software, food, etc...) based on whether I can identify with the negative comments or not.

If someone has recommended something to me, and the negative comments are inconsequential to me (or absurd, etc...), I'm more likely to follow that recommendation. Likewise the reverse.



Understanding Power is, without question, the most comprehensive and compelling presentation of Noam Chomsky's ideas. Reading this book will change the way you see the world. If you are interested in Chomsky, it is likely that you are a noble person who genuinely cares for others and yearns for a better world. Beware, reader, and make sure you choose the right vehicle for your hope. While his intentions are for a peaceful, safe, and healthy world, Chomsky's political writings systematically assume conscious malevolence without evidence, ignore context, and romanticize Third World struggles, regardless of their goals.

Let's briefly examine some of his convictions on a pressing topic: the War on Terror. Following the September 11th attacks, Chomsky immediately presented them as our fault: the result of U.S. Middle East policy, and equally evil U.S. Cold War efforts (training Mujahadeen to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan). His presumption here is that if the United States changes its behavior, that terrorist attacks will then cease. Islamic terrorists, in fact, want a pan-world government under Talibanesque repressive sharia law, a vision that mandates the overthrow of all free nations beginning with ours. These facts are easily learned by reading about the historical development of Islamic radicalism, which is rooted in reinterpretations of the Qur'an's dictates for action, NOT in wishes to live peacefully in a U.S.-free Middle East. These facts, however, do not enter into the Chomskyan world-view, which romanticizes Third World underdogs as brave and legitimized no matter what they stand for.

The linguist also described the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan as a conscious "silent genocide," predicting wrongly that millions would be severed from food supplies. As is typical, Chomsky here focused solely on the negative aspects of the situation, those for which the U.S. deserved his bitter recrimination. For a man who lives prosperously in America and is supposedly the voice of the downtrodden, Chomsky certainly did not put himself into the shoes of the Afghan women. For them, whose existence was akin to slavery, the liberation was a cause for great joy. Actual sentiments were fully antithetical to Chomsky's condemnatory remarks to his villainous U.S. government, which he and he alone believed was consciously bent on killing as many innocent Afghans as possible. Omitting what is significant (the liberation of people living under tyranny, in this case) to emphasize his often ludicrous misperceptions about American motives and motivations is a constant in Chomsky's writings. His Cold War depictions are even more stunning, as Understanding Power's abundant examples attest.

In the case that you are already entrenched in his manner of thinking, at least admit that Noam Chomsky MIGHT be wrong, and see if his positions hold up under review: read Chomsky's articulate, sane critics (The Anti-Chomsky Reader is a good place to start). If he is perfect, then you have nothing but gain to acheive from this exercise; it will only serve to strengthen your ability to effectively argue and implement Chomsky's ideas in the world. After clear-eyed reassessment of his political writings, if you STILL think he is on-point, then all the best to you. If, however, you reevaluate his "wisdom," you will have saved yourself from much needless confusion and despair.

Were Chomsky's views simply false, there would not be need for this posting. They become perilous, however, in their blind, wholesale demonization of the United States. Chomsky's own fear and anger about the state of our world are projected, with great urgency: anger at and fear of U.S. "elites" is the Chomsky program. The result is often flat-out hatred. What would Chomsky do were he President? We do not know; he avoids that inconvenient question by telling us that were he to run (which he admits he would never do), the first thing he would do is tell us not to vote for him. Furthermore, why does Professor Chomsky not include himself in the "elites" so prominent in his analyses? Does he not pay taxes, and drive a BMW, and teach at a cushy, prestigious university? The questions may seem too simplistic, but they point to a core issue: if Chomsky cannot look into the mirror regarding his own status and societal position, then how much more impaired must his assessments be of things outside of himself? On paper, it is unclear exactly what Chomsky IS calling for, and putting aside the constant onslaught of judgment-filled writings and audio programs, neither does his life provide us an example of what he conceives to be right-action. Those who want an idea of who believes IN Chomsky, however, need look no further than Hugo Chavez, who recently proclaimed allegiance and military support to his "brother" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad, for anyone who needs reminding, daily denies the Holocaust, and calls for the destruction of Israel and the United States. Is it a coincidence that those who love Chomsky also embrace a world-view rooted in blame, anger, and vilification?

Good and evil do exist in this world, but Noam Chomsky is not capable of distinguishing between the two. The U.S.A. is not perfect, and never will be. Nevertheless, if we fail to recognize the good that IS here, we may soon lose our nation. Chomsky's writings are little more than a good reminder that appearance is not essence. It is worth noting as well, that Chomsky is an avowed atheist, and believes that life is meaningless. If we bear in mind that evil is in the eye of the beholder, then Chomsky--an American, an Israelite, a millionaire--is instantly unmasked in all of his self-revulsion. Understanding Power should be retitled as "Understanding Blame." Stear clear and take heart, reader; there is hope in this world, and your country is good, but you will discover neither in Avram Noam Chomsky.

People who disagree with Chomsky usually characterize his views as this review does, as blind, wholesale demonization of the United States.

Chomsky's views are in fact the ultimate form of patriotism. he expects more of our nation and isn't sentimentally attached to the kind of hero and "good guy" stories that so many people need in order to be able to sleep at night.

Anyone who truly cares about America will read as much Chomsky as they can and will take action to make the US live by the values that supposedly guide its existence. There are some very inspiring things about the US, but also a very ugly side that much effort is undertaken to hide from view.

So please watch Manufacturing Consent with an open mind and observe the incredible patriot Chomsky for a while before you have the knee-jerk reaction that the reviewer would like you to have.

Al Franken describes it best in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them:

"They don't get it. We love America just as much as they do, but in a differenct way. You see, they love America the way a four-year-old loves her mommy. [We] love America like grown-ups. To a four-year-old everything mommy does is wonderful and anyone who criticizes mommy is bad. Grown-up love means understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad, and helping your loved one grow."

President Obama's war on whistleblowers is generally an attempt to silence the stories that present the US in an unflattering (though true) light. Just mentioning this in case anyone thinks that Franken's quote indicates that the mainstream left actually shares Chomsky's principled stance.

Obama is not "mainstream left" or any other kind of left. He's best characterized as a moderate conservative. In Canada, where I live, Obama's beliefs would be considered to the right of our Conservative Party, which is considerably to the right of the Canadian mainstream but managed to win the last election because the centre and centre-left votes were split among three or four parties.

No disagreement here. I used that term b/c in the US the mainstream left broadly supports Obama and many consider him to be part of it.

As a 'mainstream lefty', I feel pretty safe in saying that Obama has generally been considered by many of us as right of center.

Agree. In another time, he would be a moderate Republican, in the time when the Republican party allowed moderates.

Well this may be true, but the mainstream left gives Obama a TON of slack on many of his worst policies.

Manufacturing Consent is unavailable for streaming via Netflix. It is available via DVD.

It is also available on Amazon Instant Video: http://www.amazon.com/Manufacturing-Consent-Noam-Chomsky-Med...

Last time I checked it was also available on Hulu Plus.

His presumption here is that if the United States changes its behavior, that terrorist attacks will then cease. Islamic terrorists, in fact, want a pan-world government under Talibanesque repressive sharia law, a vision that mandates the overthrow of all free nations beginning with ours.

First, It is not the US's fault it got attacked, Gandhi changed British foreign policy with peaceful protests. The terrorists chose murder and the attacks are their fault. Having said that.

We have Bin Laden on video tape explicitly explaining why they attacked the US. And why they did not attack Sweden for example. And it is because of the US foreign policy in the middle east. Supporting the regime in Saudi Arabia, etc. Straight from the hose's mouth.

If you are going to claim Chomsky is just plain wrong, please provide supporting evidence.

And please try to stay away from equating critique of US foreign policy as "demonizing the USA."

And "we may soon lose our nation." is just plain baseless fear mongering.

And the fact that Chomsky is an "avowed atheist" has nothing to do with anything.

The analysis of Islamic terrorism in the Amazon review is not wrong. Nor is it wrong to say that Bin Laden explicitly blamed his 9/11 attack on US foreign policy in the Middle East. They are both true and compatible.

Chomsky presumes that the US and US foreign policy are evil, when in fact the US is good and US foreign policy is often seriously mistaken (but not evil), with occasional evil individuals in leadership and non-leadership positions.

So, Chomsky is wrong, and he does demonize the US and US foreign policy.

And "we may soon lose our nation" is not at all wrong. The US government conducts constant surveillance on practically all citizens, as I imagine you're aware of, and Obama is trying to violate the Second Amendment of the Constitution (which he clearly has no respect for) using executive orders. At what point is freedom "lost"? In principle, a long time ago. From here on out, it's just a slippery slope.

I say this as an atheist, so I agree with you that Chomsky being an atheist has nothing to do with anything.

>Chomsky presumes that the US and US foreign policy are evil

Tending towards an anarchist position, he presumes all concentrated power is bad. On what metric is the US government and foreign policy (like any) a clear, unequivocal 'good'? Take Vietnam for example. You seem to have enough issues yourself with overarching, expanding state power, but think these issues stop at the border?

But Chomsky has never called the US, it's government, or it's foreign policy 'evil'. Care to refute a position he has actually taken?. I don't believe he has any bias against the US, it obviously attracts most attention because of it's place as the world's current superpower (and as such holds the most power too).

I say this as an atheist, so that we are all in a hug to begin with :)

Disagree that Chomsky is demonizing the US by being critical of our foreign policy.

Chomsky is very specific with his criticism of foreign policy, and one of the things that impresses me is that he seems to read more of 'Foreign Policy' and the Wall Street Journal than most of the right-wing, and certainly more than most of his critics.

Have you read much or any of his political writing? The dude is huge on footnotes and resources.

Often in his political lectures, Chomsky will quote very non-lefty sources for quotes and context, to demonstrate the rather matter-of-fact nature of what they say their true goals are.

> Chomsky presumes that the US and US foreign policy are evil

Chomsky presumes that the US domestic and foreign policy are tailored to the narrow self-interest of US elites.

It's telling that you are supporting a person who thinks governments routinely lie, then you auto-assume that anything Bin Laden says is a representative of the entire motivating ideology of all terrorism.

The spirit of modern political analysis is to judge organizations as they do, not as they say through a mouthpiece. Terrorists don't get a free pass on this. The activity of Al-Qaeda and similar organizations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan seems, to my eye, not oriented around fighting global capitalist oppressors or that sort of first-world ivory tower nonsense, but oriented around killing a lot of people who don't believe what they believe.

'entire motivating ideology of all terrorism', hello strawman!

I find it helpful to cut through the BS in these cases to consider what would be the case if the roles were reversed. American citizens would be the first to form 'freedom fighter' guerilla armies to fight off an occupying nation.

For me it what OBL claims on the matter is not the most important; Chomsky's proposal for the likely underlying motivations for attacking the US are just far more credible than yours. The fact that he said it just strengthens the case. It's worth noting that OBL doesn't have electoral motivation to lie, too.

Indeed. Keep in mind that for months Bin Laden denied even having anything to do with it.

So it's a ruse? What motive does OBL have to lie about here? I don't disagree that al qaeda has the unobtainable goal of creating a world califate, but I also do think that American policies could have been a factor in strategic decisions for where to attack. I also think the main line of arguing here is not about al qaedas long term goals, but the recruiting. Things like invading Iraq on false pretenses, abu garab, guantonimo, the cia coup in Iran. These things create anger in the arab world that al quaeda can channel for whatever goals they want. From his critics you would think chomsky consideres al qaeda and taliban to be freedom fighters. Which I've never heard. Maybe parts of the palestinian resistance, but that's another beast.

While there are many reasons to be careful when reading Chomsky, his description of the rationales/causes of 'war of terror' are quite consensual. They are actually boringly consensual, and it says quite a lot that they are not considered as such.

Thinking in term of good and evil is useless when thinking about world affairs. The US did not spend 100 of billions of $ and 1000s of dead American soldiers for Afghan Women rights (they had no trouble financing/helping the mujahideen when they were fighting against USSR). While the human rights situation in Afghanistan was (is) appealing, the US have no trouble supporting Saudi Arabia, whose record is significantly worse than Iran. The reasons for this situation are painfully obvious.

While terror acts on American are not US' fault, or 'deserved', they are certainly an expected consequence from the US actions (and their allies) in certains areas of the world. Particularly, it was a well known risk when the USA became more involved in Afghanistan in the late 70ies that it could have some bad consequences: it was deemed a worthwhile risk for USSR containment. I unfortunately can't find any reference right now, but there are top foreign advisers on record saying that 11th September was an acceptable price to pay to have contained the USSR 15-20 years before.

Not entirely convincing. I personally prefer Falkenstein as my Chomsky critic:

The spread is a debating tactic where you present a set of supporting arguments so wide and particular your opponents are unable to rebut them all because 1) they have day jobs and 2) they have limited space or time to address them in any particular forum. A champion spreader is Noam Chomsky, who selectively recites facts of world history from Indonesia, Russia, to El Salvadore and 200 places in between, which no one but a professional in Comparative Economic Systems would be familiar with (indeed, comparative economic systems was a flourishing economic subdiscipline precisely because it couldn't be easily refuted because those communist countries didn't have a free press and made up their production data, but after 1989 it was obvious this field was simple wishful thinking dominated by deluded Marxists-note:of the ones I knew!).


Well that's a new one: the evidence he cites is so voluminous and wide-ranging, there must be something wrong with him.

The problem is the amount, it's the fact that it's wide-spread (i.e. horizontal) but when you examine deeply any one piece you find it to be quite weak, i.e. shallow.

It's a similar technique used by conspiracy theorists and Creationists.

The author is quite explicitly saying that the problem is the volume and variety of information. There is no mention of the 'shallowness' of any one particular reference.

The author justifies this by saying no reader can reasonably be expected to be "familiar with" the references Chomsky uses. So what? The references are all there and available for the reader to look up. Once looked up, the reader is familiar with it. No problem. Incredibly weak argument and one that can only be accepted if we accept lazy reading as a given.

I think it is quite obviously implied that Chomsky's understanding of all his examples is quite shallow and that they are being used mainly to add weight to a predetermined world view. falkenstein's point is that it is almost impossible to understand such a variety of examples in real depth and it is also unlikely that Chomsky himself is using them all correctly. To dismiss this criticism as simply an acceptance of "lazy reading" seems a little naive.

> it is also unlikely that Chomsky himself is using them all correctly.

That's low hanging fruit then, go for it. After all proving Chomsky decisively wrong on a large number of things is something a lot of people would like to be able to do, by reading you I get the impression that this is easy. After all criticizing Yehudi Menuhin does not even require one to be able to play the violin.

The criticism is laughable. It amounts to saying that because most people aren't Chomsky, and I am not Chomsky, Chomsky must not be Chomsky either. But the man is simply prodigious, as even his detractors routinely admit. There are countless examples.

I've had occasion to examine "any one piece" a few times and found Chomsky's citations to hold up quite well. This sort of criticism has been around as long as he's been publishing on politics and is almost invariably completely determined by pre-existing ideology.

Never read the guy, but this is a real:

Shotgun argumentation - the arguer offers such a large number of arguments for their position that the opponent can't possibly respond to all of them [1]

Gish has been characterized as using a rapid-fire approach during a debate, presenting arguments and changing topics very quickly [2]

Also, this might be relevant (?):

Proof by intimidation (or argumentum verbosium) is a jocular phrase used mainly in mathematics to refer to a style of presenting a purported mathematical proof by giving an argument loaded with jargon and appeal to obscure results, so that the audience is simply obliged to accept it, lest they have to admit their ignorance and lack of understanding. [3]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gish_Gallop#Debates

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proof_by_intimidation

I had a history professor notorious for assigning dense reading. Students would often complain about it. His response was that it's not the author's fault the reader is too lazy and unwilling to keep up.

   > your opponents are unable to rebut them all because
   > 1) they have day jobs and 2) they have limited space
   > or time to address them in any particular forum.
There are plenty of people on the right whose day jobs involve addressing the issues that Chomsky addresses. They do not lack space, either in terms of disk storage on Web servers, and column-inches on hard copy publications. What they lack are logic, facts, and a cohesive conceptual framework.

I've listened to and attended plenty of talks by Chomsky, and this "review" does not in the slightest represent Chomsky's actual thoughts on anything. This "review" is nothing but a caricature.

Furthermore, it is hypocritical; i.e., it is guilty of its own criticism by hating on atheists.

You didn't write this, so why repost it unless you wanted to appear 'concerned' about the topic? Worst HN comment in a while, at least just link to it and provide your analysis.

So much of this is bullshit, and I notice that the author doesn't give any references at all. Which is very different from Chomsky's approach.

I think if someone is going to criticise Chomsky, they need more than strawman arguments to do so. Of course proper criticism would require proper analysis, and thus probably be a lot longer than a typical Amazon review.

What do you find interesting about this review?

I have read some amount of Chomsky and do not find these to be strawman arguments. An "us vs them" attitude pervades his writing. One common pattern is overweening assumption backed by laser-guided cherry picking of examples.

You can see the above pattern all throughout this thread, in fact. Broad assumptions that seem true enough at first, but are overwhelmingly applied in a toxic way. Meanwhile people are sick of this proselytizing attitude, only to be accused of setting up "strawmen" or "not understanding Chomsky" or something. There is something dangerous about an ideology that causes people to devalue the opinions of those who don't understand it.

But one of the characteristic features of this kind of position is that the people who live in a world of "good vs ignorance" are generally unable to self-examine, at least for that particular facet of their ideology.

Chomsky does round up a lot of criticisms and put them in one place. I'm not sure what 'ideology' you are referring to, unless you view 'reason' as an 'ideology'. But perhaps I am missing some over arching agenda Chomsky has... ?

They ARE strawmen arguments because they present partially related items as reasons for chomsky being wrong. If Chomsky is cherry picking, then the way to respond is to bring ALL the information to light, and show that Chomsky is misrepresenting it... Not to cherry pick something else...

I don't really understand your "Good vs Ignorance" reference, who are you referring to? and why are they unable to self-examine? which ideology are we talking about?

"unless you view 'reason' as an 'ideology'."

hah. talk about an inability to self-examine...

So what is the ideology?

Are you perhaps being counter constructive by just attacking me, rather than my argument.

Feels good, but gets us no where.

Most people choose the blue pill, a ka it seems Chomsky is not for everyone.

It seems easy to debunk that whole criticism, but what is the point. People believe what they want to believe (which is what benefits them to believe).

Just an example: Islamic Terrorists. Of course fanatics want to kill everybody in the western world or whatever. The question is however, why do people become fanatics. Think about it...

What a horrible and ignorant review. The person could have saved everyone time by simply summarizing what they actually mean: "USA, USA, USA!".

>His presumption here is that if the United States changes its behavior, that terrorist attacks will then cease. Islamic terrorists, in fact, want a pan-world government under Talibanesque repressive sharia law, a vision that mandates the overthrow of all free nations beginning with ours.

Yeah, they hate our freedom. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlAh-WnAoSE

>The linguist also described the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan as a conscious "silent genocide," predicting wrongly that millions would be severed from food supplies.

As I recall he didn't do this investigation himself but cited some organization's analysis, but sure, he basically endorsed the analysis and said state planners must have been aware of it (wrongly discounting that they might have thought it was a bad analysis, which it was).

>Chomsky certainly did not put himself into the shoes of the Afghan women.

Looking at the US's stance on the recent Bahrain protests, I somehow doubt this had anything significant to do with why we went into Afghanistan. One of our biggest allies in the middle-east is Saudi Arabia, champion of women's rights?

>These facts are easily learned by reading about the historical development of Islamic radicalism, which is rooted in reinterpretations of the Qur'an's dictates for action, NOT in wishes to live peacefully in a U.S.-free Middle East.

What spurred the reinterpretations? Simple scholarly random happenstance, or post WW-II reality on the ground? Am I really to believe the US's support for Isreal had nothing to do with these developments? Even hardcore Zionists acknowledge that (though with a framework of thought that paints such impetus as completely morally bankrupt).

>His Cold War depictions are even more stunning, as Understanding Power's abundant examples attest.

I've never heard someone set him straight on Indonesia/East Timor, but I would love to.

>Furthermore, why does Professor Chomsky not include himself in the "elites" so prominent in his analyses? Does he not pay taxes, and drive a BMW, and teach at a cushy, prestigious university?

I've heard him include himself, but perhaps not in Understanding Power. He says his position of privilege is exactly what puts a burden on him to take our crimes seriously. I hadn't heard about the BMW, but he certainly does like to sport a nice sweater. Re: elite university both Chomsky and Norbert Weiner (whose father was a linguist) have/had some interesting things to say on why people of Jewish descent ended up at MIT and not Harvard back in the 40s.. it wasn't pretty. I'm not sure Chomsky was affected by Harvard's policies, he was associated with them for a while.

>Chomsky is an avowed atheist, and believes that life is meaningless.

I have seen talks where he claims free-will is something we can probably never prove but that he thinks it is correct and he asserts that if it isn't correct, then life would be meaningless. I don't agree with that implication, but it blows this part of the review out of the water (to be fair, the review was probably written prior to the talk I am remembering).

The main thing I've seen Chomsky get wrong is some of his speculations on the existence of the master control gene being a major challenge to standard Darwinism ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PAX6 ); he has talked about it in several talks, but in one Q/A he really really got it wrong (see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/04/4/text_pop/l_04... for an account of its alignment with Darwinism).

"Chomsky is an avowed atheist and believes life is meaningless." This review really jumped the shark when he resorted to bigotry. Nothing about being atheist makes life meaningless. It actually makes it more precious to believe this is our only shot at life. Instead of treating life as some testing ground for earning rewards in some hypothetical afterlife. If I knew there was life after death I don't think I'd be as worried about getting things right this time around since I could always hope things are better after I die..

I pretty much agree with this analysis, minus the dig against atheism. I haven't read Chomsky in detail, but this seems to be an accurate description of what he claims on the surface (e.g. in public interviews).

It seems likely that hatemongerers like Chomsky were an influence in leading to Aaron Schwarz's eventual suicide.

I apologize for the insensitivity towards Aaron here, but it seems worth saying.

>I haven't read Chomsky in detail

Did you stop to think that maybe this is why you agree with someone who is making overbroad generalizations about Chomsky's work? How can you agree with any analysis if you're ignorant of what it's analyzing?

The culture of "right to criticize without reading" in the US astounds me.

Further it is amusing to hear a self-proclaimed objectivist asserting that external forces played a role in causing a free agent's suicide.

The culture of "right to criticize without reading" in the US astounds me.

There are a lot of large-scale cultural problems here, but I don't think that in particular is one of them.

I can't count how many times I've looked up Chomsky's views over the years, and every single time I've looked them up, it's become immediately clear that he is completely dishonest.

Normally, I do some background research before I read primary sources, and for the reason I stated above, I've never gotten past the background research.

If you think there's some particular primary resource from Chomsky I could read that would completely alter my worldview (and change my above analysis), please let me know, but you would have to convince me that this is likely enough that it's worth my time to look into it.

Until then, I have to take his statements on face value, albeit I am (admittedly) "taking" them without the full context of the surrounding literature.

Further it is amusing to hear a self-proclaimed objectivist asserting that external forces played a role in causing a free agent's suicide.

I mean, it's pretty obvious that people fall for bad ideas and then act on them. I guess you must have a pretty strawman-ish grasp on Objectivism.

I can't count how many times I've looked up Chomsky's views over the years, and every single time I've looked them up, it's become immediately clear that he is completely dishonest.

It would be interesting if you gave us a few examples of where you looked up his views, and found him to be completely dishonest.

He contends that there is little moral difference between chattel slavery and renting one's self to an owner or "wage slavery". (from Wikipedia)

There is just one example, taken relatively randomly.

"Wage slavery" is a completely invalid concept. If I want to work, and somebody wants to pay me a wage, that is moral and proper and free. It's called trade.

Someone who holds a gun to my head to force me not to engage freely in trade with others is immoral and evil.

Clearly, Chomsky has the latter view, unless I'm misunderstanding.

Actual slavery is an institution supported by immorally coercing someone, too, like the position Chomsky is advocating.

So Chomsky's views have much more in common with slavery than the views he criticizes as being like slavery, i.e., trading one's effort in return for payment.

Chomsky claims to be against "unjustified authority," but he is actually a major proponent of force in human relationships.

I can't take someone seriously who makes these kind of blatantly ridiculous statements.

Of course, I am taking this from Wikipedia, not in the full context of what he has actually written. So, maybe he didn't actually say that. Or maybe he actually said it, but proceeded it with, "The following sentence is false." I would need to hear something to this effect before I would consider taking someone seriously who says the thing that I quoted from Wikipedia.

Because what he's said is in the same broad epistemological and moral category as a verse from a holy book commanding people to kill others for religious regions. In other words, completely unrelated to reality, and completely evil.

From the Wikipedia article that you mention: The term wage slavery has been used to criticize economic exploitation and social stratification, with the former seen primarily as unequal bargaining power between labor and capital (particularly when workers are paid comparatively low wages, e.g. in sweatshops), and the latter as a lack of workers' self-management, fulfilling job choices and leisure in an economy. [1]

I think the article itself is quite clear. The notion of wage slavery does not imply everyone who accepts wages is a slave. Taken without the qualification of bargaining power and such, Chomsky would be MIT's slave. I don't think he subscribes to that view.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wage_slavery

I downvoted you because you took that sentence from Wikipedia completely out of context, not just out of context with regard to its surrounding paragraph on Wikipedia, but also because its out of context with regard to the citation at Wikipedia and what Chomsky has to say about worker ownership.

I summarized the essence of why I disagree with the article, and with what Chomsky said. I cannot address all the low-level details here and give a precise rebuttal to everything.

So I acknowledge that I have taken it out of context, but in a more neutral sense. That's just the nature of taking a very detailed point of view, and trying to discuss it on HN with people who have totally different underlying assumptions.

I do want to thank you for explaining why you downvoted me, and for standing up against the person who called me an "imbecile" in a different comment. I really value this community and even when we disagree on philosophy, it's really good when we can all be civil to each other.

It seems likely that you are an imbecile. Thanks for letting everyone know that you agree with everything the review says about Chomsky despite the fact that you haven't actually read Chomsky.

I think the imbecile comment is unnecessary.

One can still have a conversation about a subject without having much depth in the subject. If you haven't read Taming of the Shrew, you can still understand the story if I give you a quick version, and we can talk about that meta-story, because there are things in the text (via my description) that we both understand. However, it's difficult to have a conversation with much specificity or depth having not both read the text.

You'll note that javert's posts here lack both specificity and depth. It's probably best to just leave it at that note.

Thanks for letting everyone know that you agree with everything the review says about Chomsky despite the fact that you haven't actually read Chomsky.

You're welcome. I think that's the intellectually responsible and honest thing to do. And it gives people a chance to point out what I am misunderstanding and educate me, if they really think I've gotten it wrong.

It seems likely that you are an imbecile.

I gave an explanation for why I haven't read his actual literature in another comment. I mean, I don't read the Quaran in order to learn about science, either. Does that mean I can't criticize those who do? Anyway, I'm pretty sure I'm not an imbecile.

"And it gives people a chance to point out what I am misunderstanding and educate me, if they really think I've gotten it wrong."

Just a friendly note that this notion will cause you much grief.

I used to think that it was the best way to quickly get to the point and figure out what is what in the matter. What happens instead is that people will call you an imbecile and go off on tangents about subjects they have recently read a story about instead of addressing the core issues, of which they know less about.

In reality most people do not know much about these complex issues and you will not really learn anything by trying to make them educate you. They are not able to.

You will need to investigate the issues yourself, including reading a lot of literature by those you think are wrong. Eventually you will be able to understand where those opposing viewpoints are coming from and if you are lucky you will learn something that can adjust your own views and you will no longer have the "us vs them" feeling and instead think of it as "those who are wrong on this point and those who are wrong on this other point".

Getting to that place is impossible by imploring others to educate you. They will at best try to convert you, which is entirely different.

Thanks for the advice.

I mean, it's not my primary motivation in making comments, for other people to "educate me" in a broad sense.

I meant something more like, "If I happen to have misunderstood some particular concrete thing, people can provide a citation that shows the opposite."

Which, indeed, didn't happen this time. Instead, as you said, there was just a bunch of very high-level disagreement without any "meeting of the minds" on some important lower-level details.

Anyway, my real motivation for posting on the Chomsky stuff was because I feel compelled to call out truly evil pseudo-intellectuals, as I see them, when I see them. Chomsky advocates "anarcho-syndicalism," which is just low-level rule by gangs. He wants to dismantle civilization, which he preaches hatred for. To me, he is in the same moral standard as the intellectuals that came before and enabled the likes of Stalin and Hitler.

You missed an essential point in the introduction of the review. Chomsky is not a hatemongerer: he is honest, hard-working and idealistic. It's just that the worldview underlying his arguments, the worldview that guides how he chooses subjects and supporting arguments, may be unbalanced and consequently 'wrong' in the eyes of many others.

Did anything ever come from the book he was talking about writing?

He was 19 when he wrote that blog post.

A life changing book in a similar vein is "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman: http://tinyurl.com/a26wscp . I found out about it via Alan Kay's excellent reading list ( http://tinyurl.com/c6fjhj )

Not sure why the above links were obfuscated/minimized but this is what they point to:



If Postman strikes your fancy, another good one is "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America" by Daniel Boorstin.


Interesting thing about Noam Chomsky: he goes face to face with the US government on a lot of issues and is smart enough to not have ever got in serious trouble over it.

During the 1960s he faced prison due to his opposition to the Vietnam war.

I don't know the specifics, but I recall in one interview about his personal life he mentioned that his wife finished her degree so that she would be able to support their family while he was in prison.

Or perhaps the government considers him radical enough (without advocating violence) to not be a threat.

What is the purpose of posting this? My cursory looks into Chomsky's writings showed me there might be a serious intellectual honesty problem with the man, but I admit I haven't bothered to look into it deeply. So is posting this about praising Chomsky and by extension Aaron's admiration of his book, or is it a sly low blow against someone's impressionable reaction at a young age, after that person can't defend themselves? The answer depends on what the poster thinks of Chomsky....

Anybody care to comment on the validity of the following? The first followed from reading the comments in Aaron's post.



Anyone who can call Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens "religious fanatics" with a straight face is either attempting to deceive the audience or themselves. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zt9QCAUPPeY

Welcome to my world.. a place where I'm more or less convinced that every mainstream news report is more lies than truth, carefully shaped and spun to support some not necessarily evil, but definitely manipulative agenda. And the worst part is, even though you're reasonably sure of it, you realize that most people around you are either more invested into this invented narrative than you are in your "maybe real" one... or they are just apathetic to the whole thing and even if they did care they can't be bothered to put in the effort and imagine the consequences of every society running what's basically a global public opinion manipulation engine.

It’s undoubtedly the best documentary I’ve seen, weaving together all sorts of clever tricks to enlighten and entertain.

This is sadly ironic; since Chomsky is one of the most manipulative and dishonest writers I've had the displeasure of reading. I'm not going to engage in an exhaustive deconstruction of any of his work here, since I don't keep any of his books on my shelf. I'll just say that I think his mischaracterization of the source material that he refers to in the endless footnotes is beyond biased and falls into being outright dishonesty. There is no question but that he is smart enough to know better; as an academic linguist he would never accept such shoddy arguments if they were submitted to him for peer review.

He's the left wing's Ayn Rand, and I don't mean that as a compliment.

Thanks for your argument, I'm sure you've enlightened everyone who's had the pleasure of reading your post.

You're the whatever wing Sean Hanity, and I don't mean that as a compliment.

Fateful Triangle is another fascinating book. Highly recommended, especially in times like these. Chomsky is marvellous.

Dennis Ritchie is an unforgettable person in history because if it weren't for his inventions, most of today's technology wouldn't exist or be very different.

If you have the time, I'd recommend reading one of his books.

R.I.P., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Ritchie

Interesting, but ironic given that Reddit is and was a powerful engine of disinformation. Aaron can't be faulted for that, though.

Aaron can't be faulted for that, though

Chomsky also knows the real inventor of email.

I recommend.



Btw in Lost why did sayd was nice guy in the beginning and died as an evil torturer ? And why does every action series and movies, event toy story 3 promotes torture ?

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