OM114 - The Turboencabulator

Computer Maths (OM114)

"My teasing attitude toward computer maths is informed by a lifetime adjacent to it. My mother was a computer programmer starting in 1965, programming the IBM 1401 in Symbolic Programming Assembly Language (or whatever) before being trained in Autocoder. She worked on every subsequent mainframe computer throughout the 70s and 80s, wrote massive reams of code for Safeco and developed the law and justice systems for King County, WA. before being headhunted by Alyeska Pipeline in the late 70's. She ended up managing the Information Systems department of the pipeline with 130 engineers and programmers in her domain all the way until her retirement in the mid-90s. My attitudes towards engineers and programmers are a product of observing that world at her elbow for forty years, and listening to her rant about the current state of the business from an informed perspective for others have. She has strong opinions about engineers and so do I. There are plenty of people who studied computers in college and graduated in 2012 who think they have some super special insight into the mysterious and fantastical world of computers that I, as a layperson, can't possibly fathom, and perhaps it's true. But "is programming an art, science, craft or trade?" is what passed for dinner-table conversation my entire life." — John Roderick

"I wish that I could reply to this very interesting thread with all degree of candor, but as a minor public figure I have to be circumspect. Suffice to say that I am in favor of skepticism in all things. The intellectual world accepts too many inflated titles, too many peer-reviewed but untestable theories. Politics have infected all realms. Everything is a theory until you can prove it over and over again, and a lot of theories are incredibly tantalizing but remain either unprovable or demonstrably false." — John Roderick

Science getting politicized, liberal arts deconstructing itself (OM114)

J: There are a couple of different kinds of this jargon: There is jargon that is meaningful and actually refers to real processes that are made fantabulous by something called sesquipedalian obscurantism, meaning: ”Saying things in the most complicated manner possible, using the most polysyllabic words to describe a simple process.” You are going to take a thing and make it ridiculously complicated, but really what you are describing is something anybody could get.

K: Some of that might be to convey insider status, but you might also just get in the vein of talking that way. There is a specific way that people in the military or airline pilots talk, which is as close as a civilian like me actually gets to hearing that kind of ”At this current point in time” 1960s speak that is still in the military. You get in the vein of doing it and that is how everyone communicates.

J: That is hyper-true of academia, particularly liberal arts, where it developed an entire new lexicon. You can read texts within that framework that are unintelligible even to those of us who know what the words mean, just because they are put together in such an unusual way.

K: And is your take that all these liberal arts are essentially a hoax, it is this own little strange, insular, hermetically sealed world that is just being propped up by its own arbitrary inventions and has nothing to do with reality?

J: That is true of the Deconstructionist school, of the postmodern Derrida and Lacan kind of thing. As soon as the liberal arts got into a Marxist critique of itself and its own methodology, it is not just that your ideas are colonialist, but your whole way of investigating ideas is imbued with a colonialist mentality that you cannot even see unless you are critiqued from outside. Once it became that kind of ouroboros, it did become very hermetic. As the conclusions that it comes to get reinterpreted into common language and taught to high school students, an awful lot of contextualizing information is lost and you get these dogmatic productions of a theoretical machine coming out in the form of an exhortation or ironclad conclusion when really it just came out of a thought storm that got filtered through a succession of people that understood less and less about what the original critique was.

K: It is a game of telephone that ends with me as a freshman in college getting a one line definition of Postmodernism and having to write something in that vein without knowing any of the 50 years of French people wobbling and wiggling around that produced it.

J: The most famous critique of that was the Sokol Incident from 1996 where an American scientist by the name of Alan Sokol published an article in the post-modernist magazine Social Text called Transgressing the Boundaries Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity (here), arguing that quantum gravity was a social construct.

J: His critique was two pronged: One was that these words have lost all meaning and you can combine them in multiple ways that sounds convincing, but what you are really looking for when you read them is that they arrive at a conclusion that panders to your political beliefs. The editors of this magazine desired an affirmation of their critique of science as a colonialist enterprise. As the postmodernist communities ran out of internal questions to deconstruct, they started to turn their attention on the sciences, and to say that scientific conclusions were also tainted by the culture of science. Although his article made no sense at all, quantum gravity is not socially constructed, he came to those conclusions at the ends of his sentences and the publishers of Social Text were flattered by his conclusions and presumed that the evidence supported the conclusion that acquited with their political stance.

K: The critique is political as well though, because it aligned with all these people who are suspicious of anybody of higher learning and they want to demonstrate that any of these arguments about race or sexuality or whatever the social argument that's being made, is actually gibberish, just like this paper.

J: No, in fact Sokal is a Harvard professor who teaches Mathematics and Physics at Oxford. His critique was that they are not valid critiques of science and the scientific method. If you want to be over here talking about race and culture in your own silo at that side of the campus, please don't direct your attention over here to this side of the campus where we are using the scientific method.

K: But Sokal did create this cottage industry of people doing the same thing to tweak academia.

J: Other people followed in his footsteps and there was a lot of controversy about this incident. He didn't try to perpetrate it, but the day it was published he came out and said that this was a hoax, but it was still controversial that he had done this.

K: Just a few years ago somebody had some algorithm produce papers out of the right vocabulary and got hundreds of articles placed in non-peer-reviewed journals. Also, in 2017 a group of people with a political axe to grind tried to produce hoax articles on what they called ”grievance studies”, which seems like an obvious attempt to poke fun at modern academic politics, because all the pieces that got accepted had buzzword-filled names like ”Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon” (here), or ”An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant” (here).

J: Within the academy there is tremendous suspicion of the academy. A lot of post-modernism is founded on trying to break apart what they considered to be the ”old academy” and now they have become the entrenched academy. It is an open question whether this is producing new knowledge and whether it is truly academic knowledge or whether it is just essentially a culture war happening in the streets. It isn’t really theoretical.

K: It is something like liberal arts, if really all it is doing is creating a group of people that are super-excited about a new way of looking at a text or something. To me, that has already done its job if it made a generation of European kids really excited about something in Alice in Wonderland, even if they all were just waving their hands.

J: It gets filtered down through multiple iterations of telephone where people less and less understand that it originated as a critique of a text. It becomes more and more an exhortation to behave a certain way, up to a point, where we now culturally at large have arrived, where there are no more authorities that we can respect or that we all agree are authorities. Every authority has been deconstructed back to the conflict in its initial premise. Half the country doesn't allow scientists to speak authoritatively about the Earth. This isn't unrelated to this internal critique. It is not just coming from creationists, but also from within the academy where people on the post-modern side are saying ”Well, we can't just let these scientists operate in in their exclusive confines!”

K: The problem of course is that everything got exponentially more complex throughout the 20th century and there really is no way to expect that the average layperson on the street, myself included, could have an informed opinion on climate science, like ”I'm not sure if I'm going to believe the scientists, I'm going to have to get into this and that way my vote will be informed” Really, I can't! I am at the point where I have to trust climate scientists because if I read the literature I am going to be lost after the first sentence. That is true of every other field as well.

J: Something that postmodernists do is politicize things within the academy. Deconstruction is just the politicization of things. Once you politicize science it is very easy to say: ”Well, I can't counter these guys, but I know that these scientists are being funded by George Soros and they have an agenda!” This is a contemporary culture war.

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