30 August 2010

Weekend Roundup, 28 to 29 August 2010

This Weekend: Mark Taylor on the unsustainable finances of American universities; a "fresh" look at Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of science; three things wrong with the new "eusociality" article; the new linguistic relativity; a critique of the theory that language evolved through sexual selection; a series on the science of depression; the "biocultural" work of Carol Worthman; teaching virtue?; an interview with the author of The Book in the Renaissance; review of an exhibition on Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; Honegger and the Resistance; PBS's new arts push; a European perspective on the "Ground Zero" frenzy; Happy Birthday Bird, Katrina, and Anne (inter alia).


Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, has an op-ed piece in The New York Times, "Academic Bankruptcy." He argues that current financial trends at American universities are unsustainable:  ballooning tuition and other costs; students taking on crushing levels of debt; universities taking on levels of debt far beyond what they can sustain if something goes wrong.  Taylor cites the cases of NYU and Columbia, both of which have, perversely, recently undertaken extremely ambitious plans for the expansion of their physical plants. Taylor writes:
Last spring, N.Y.U. announced plans to increase its physical plant by 40 percent over the next 20 years; this summer Columbia secured approval for its $6.3 billion expansion in Upper Manhattan. N.Y.U. is also opening a new campus in Abu Dhabi this fall.

The financial arrangements for these projects remain obscure, but it is clear that they will not be completed without increasing the universities’ already significant and perhaps unsustainable levels of debt. Last year Columbia reported $1.4 billion in outstanding debt against a $5.89 billion endowment. N.Y.U. had a staggering $2.22 billion debt with a relatively modest $2.2 billion endowment — one that had shrunk by more than 11 percent over the previous fiscal year. For universities, as for banks, the question is not only the value of current and projected assets but also the availability of liquidity so they can pay off interim debt obligations during a time of financial instability.
Taylor's piece is obviously partly a plug for his forthcoming book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (he was also a contributor to the recent forum on tenure at the NYT, which also seems to have drawn on ideas from the book).  Although he's certainly right that the current financial situation is unsustainable, the framework of his arguments seems to me utterly misguided (or perhaps more accurately, willfully blind):  the problem with American universities is not principally that the current structure is financially unsustainable (although it is), but that the current structure of higher eduction is largely a scam, carried out through collusion among various large institutional actors (university administrations, lending institutions, the Federal government, and a "credentialist" hiring and employment system). Higher education in the U.S. by and large has almost nothing to do any longer with teaching students in a way that fosters individual intellectual growth in an efficient yet flexible way.

And that would be one of my definitions of "teaching."

Philosophy of Science

In August, Du Won Kang at The Epoch Times published a two-part series, "A Fresh Look at Thomas Kuhn's Philosophy of Science" (Part 1 and Part 2). Kuhn was the author, most famously, of the tremendously influential (and, I think, fundamentally wrong) study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

From my point of view, there's not much "fresh" in Kang's piece.  Sure, Kuhn felt he was misunderstood, both by his critics and some of his followers.  He later acknowledged that he hadn't explained the concept of "paradigm" very clearly, and use of the term had spun out of control.  None of this is new (although it may be new to some of those who cite Kuhn).  Kang's piece may serve, though, as a useful and relatively painless introduction to Kuhn's thought and to the some of the criticisms brought to bear on it.


Johnny at Ecographica lays out three reasons why he thinks the new "eusociality" article by Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson fails (on this, see my Digest for last Wednesday).  The content of the criticisms seems right, but I have no idea if they're apt, not yet having read the article.


Guy Deutscher has a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine, "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?"  Deutscher gives a clear and entertaining short history of Benjamin Lee Whorf and his notion of lingustic relativity, and of the total eclipse of that work because of the deficiencies of Whorf's work. All of this is a prelude to Deutscher's summary of the current revitalization of these ideas, albeit in milder form, this time with empirical verification.

As his principal example, Deutscher focuses on Guugu Yimithirr, an aboriginal language of Queensland in Australia.  In talking about position in space, Guugu Yimithirr relies entirely on the cardinal directions (east, south, west, north), and lacks words like "left," "right," "in front of," and "behind."  This is fascinating stuff, and it's worth reading the article just for this.

However, Deutscher's article suffers from the some of the deficiencies typical of pieces published by some old-school media, like The New York Times, which treats this as a print piece that is also put on line, as a kind of afterthought.  There are no links out to any relevant sources of additional information (not even Wikipedia articles), no suggestions for further reading (with links)—in fact, no references of any kind, or names of current researchers.  It was particularly odd not to find the name of Lera Boroditsky, who has received quite a lot of attention in the press for her work in exactly this field (see my link on Boroditsky here).

See also Vaughan's short post on this article at Mind Hacks, which brought the article to my attention.

[As this post was about to go to press (or wherever it is that posts go), Mark Liberman published a post at Language Log critiquing Lera Boroditsky's piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this summer.  Looks like a good read, with a more detailed discussion of actual evidence.  But I haven't had time to get to it yet.  He promises also to critique Deutscher's piece.]

Anne Pritchard at a replicated typo has an interesting post, "The Problem with a Purely Adaptationist Theory of Language Evolution."  She dismisses Geoffrey Miller's theory that the evolution of language was driven by sexual selection, a theory Pritchard describes as "not viable."  Although I haven't read Miller's work (he has also claimed that sexual selection drove the evolution of music, a theory that seems to me to be simply out of touch with the roles music actually plays in various cultures), I'm inclined to be highly skeptical, and most of Pritchard's criticisms seem right on. 

I'm uneasy about one of her points, though.  She writes:
From the viewpoint of most linguists then, Miller’s theory runs into a glaring paradox: Language could not have evolved primarily as a result of pressure for verbal creativity, because language would have to evolve to a substantially sophisticated degree beforehand in order for verbal creativity to be evaluated.
(I'm oversimplifying her point by cutting off the quote there.)

It seems to me that one could make a similar objection to any example of "runaway" sexual selection (the peacock's tail), and yet such runaway selection does, in fact, happen. Language is, to be sure, more complex than a peacock's tail, but that does not necessarily mean that it is different in kind from the standpoint of evolution.


Scicurious at Neurotic Physiology has been running a series (one among many) on the neuroscience on depression.  The series began in February 2009, but I just ran into it this weekend, via her post "Back to Basics 3: Depression post 4, the SEROTONIN SYSTEM," a good (if slightly overexcited) introduction to the current (very complicated) science of the neurotransmitter serotonin (the one with which SSRIs muck about).

Other posts in the series, which I have not yet read (but plan to) include:

Depression post 1 (theories of depression)
Depression post 2 (treatments)
Depression post 3 (the research behind the foregoing)
Depression post 5 (currently mislabeled post 6, on the genetics of depression)

I provide these links as a public service, since at the moment, the five posts are not consistently labeled on her site so that you can easily find them.

The Human

Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology has an interesting post on the work of his mentor Carol Worthman, "From Human Development to Habits of the Heart."

Christine Whelan has a post at Big Questions Online, "Doing Good and Doing Well," on teaching virtue to the current skeptical generation of college students. She talks about how she makes virtue a theme of her undergraduate survey, "The Sociology of Everyday Life," currently at the University of Pittsburgh.  There seems to be quite a lot to critique here, but I haven't got the time to do it at the moment.  I pass on the link because the essay has gotten a fair amount of attention (or at least linking) on other blogs that I follow.

This is my first experience with Big Questions Online.  I haven't quite figured out where they're coming from, but it looks as if there is at least a hint of "reconciling science and religion." 

Which can't really be done with traditional religions that have a supernatural component, in spite of quite a lot of people working very hard to pretend otherwise.


Tom Scocca at The Boston Globe interviews Andrew Pettegree, Professor of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews, and author of the recent The Book in the Renaissance. Scocca summarizes:
Inventing the printing press was not the same thing as inventing the publishing business. Technologically, craftsmen were ready to follow Gutenberg’s example, opening presses across Europe. But they could only guess at what to print, and the public saw no particular need to buy books. The books they knew, manuscript texts, were valuable items and were copied to order. The habit of spending money to read something a printer had decided to publish was an alien one.


Pettegree explores this time of cultural change by looking at the actual published matter it produced. Drawing on the power of 21st century information technology, he and a team of researchers pulled together the catalogs of thousands of small, scattered libraries, assembling the broadest picture to date of the earliest publications.

What made print viable, Pettegree found, was not the earth-shaking impact of mighty tomes, but the rustle of countless little pages: almanacs, calendars, municipal announcements. Indulgence certificates, the documents showing that sinners had paid the Catholic church for reduced time in purgatory, were especially popular. These ephemeral jobs were what made printing a viable business through the long decades while book publishers — and the public — struggled to find what else this new technology might be good for.
Sounds like a must-read, and I've put in my request through the Minuteman System (all copies are currently checked out).

Hannes Hintermeier at FAZ.NET has a review (auf Deutsch) of an exhibition at the Goethe-Haus in Frankfurt on Goethe's novel Wihelm Meisters Lehrjahre.  It sounds pretty wacky.

The item caught my eye because I happen at the moment to be playing Schubert's Lied der Mignon ("Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt") ; Mignon is a character in Goethe's novel, from which text of the song is drawn.

The pun in the title of Hintermeier's piece did not immediately register: "Mein Name ist Meister, Wilhelm Meister." But then I remembered that we had just celebrated Sean Connery's birthday....


Leslie Sprout writes at The New York Times on the rediscovery of the score for Arthur Honegger's "Chant de Libération," a work that it had been thought he composed in order to repair his standing with the French Resistance, from which Honegger had been expelled because of his public dealings with Nazi officials during the Occupation.

The truth turns out to be more complicated.

Oddly, Sprout is not identified at the online version of the article, although the article makes clear that Sprout is the one who uncovered Honegger's score.

The Arts

Bob Duggan at Big Think writes on the new web portal of the Public Broadcasting System for promoting the arts, PBS Arts. Duggan writes:
PBS Arts spearheads an overall expansion of arts programming to take place over the next year that will include a night each week dedicated solely to the arts. What makes this development especially encouraging is that the emphasis remains on the public, social component of art in America. From Katrina to Guantanamo Bay, the art appearing in these virtual exhibitions takes a no holds barred look at how contemporary art reflects what is happening in America. PBS Arts puts your tax dollars to work to show you just how relevant the arts are to American life today.
Yet another indication of an unhappy trend in the United States: believing that it is necessary to provide functional economic justifications for the arts (here the "public, social component...reflecting what is happening in America...," putting your tax dollars to work to show the "relevance" of the arts to public concerns).


Nils Minkmar at FAZ.NET gives a European perspective (auf Deutsch) on the media frenzy in the U.S. (which I have largely missed, since I don't watch TV) over the "mosque at Ground Zero" (which, I gather, isn't really a mosque and isn't really at Ground Zero).


Sunday, 29 August would have been the 90th birthday of Charlie Parker, and it was the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It was also my sister Anne's %)th birthday (sorry, there seems to be some static in my broadband connection).

In my sister's honor (and so that they will get more gigs), here is the webpage for the Cecilia String Quartet (based in Olympia, Washington), in which my sister is the violist.

(Other notable births on 29 August include John Locke, Jean Ingres, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Maurice Maeterlinck, Preston Sturges, Ingrid Bergman, and Dinah Washington.)
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