CLIOPATRIA: A Group Blog





Timothy Burke; Oscar Chamberlain; Jonathan Dresner; Kenneth Heineman;
Robert "KC" Johnson; Ralph E. Luker; Wilson J. Moses; Thomas G. Palaima.

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JONATHAN DRESNER: A TEACHER'S LAMENT (PART 1 OF MANY) 12-26-03:

According to the NY Times, computer scientists are developing software that can produce credible paraphrases of English-language texts. Yippee. It's hard enough assigning papers to students today, with the ease of computer-aided plagiarism. It's pretty easy to track down most copying from the internet (do they really think I don't know how to use Google?) though subscription encyclopedia are becoming more popular and are a little harder to get a look at. But paraphrased material can be very hard to track down if it isn't cited.

Some teachers have abandoned research papers entirely in favor of in-class writing, but I find it hard to see how to teach writing about history without students having the time and space to read and consider their sources, develop arguments, and consider alternatives. I don't want to become a writing teacher, spending class after class on the argumentative essay and citation standards; that's what we have writing courses for. But if (when) this tool becomes widely available, I'm going to have to seriously rethink the papers I do assign. I already assign most of my papers based on specific course texts, with questions quirky enough to be hard to find the answers elsewhere (though I have to start changing them, because I suspect there are starting to be copies of answers to my questions floating around). It's tough to be very original, particularly in classes like World Civ surveys where the students have very weak backgrounds in the subject matter, in writing and in analysis. I do what I can, but students don't always appreciate my assigning questions without clearly predetermined answers...

This raises other questions, as well, about the nature of authorship, about the nature of education,  about the automation of supposedly intellectual tasks, and about honor and ethics in modern society. But at the moment I'm really much more concerned with my students' intellectual and ethical development than with first principles and intellectual property.

posted by Jonathan at 10:40 a.m. H.S.T.

RALPH LUKER: NETGIFTS AT CHRISTMAS ... 12-26-03

The net is largely on a holiday, but do not miss reading Tony Kushner's"The Genius of O'Neill" in the Times Literary Supplement.

I am used to mean-spirited exchanges among the usual suspects on History News Network's comment boards, but when Christopher Hitchens's interview by Jamie Glazov for David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine was re-published on HNN, it provoked a harsh rebuke by Sean Wilentz and a bitter series of comments by Hitchens, Wilentz, Todd Gitlin, Irfan Kawaja, Richard Wolin, and others. The left intellectuals believe that Hitchens is a turncoat and he rubbed his erstwhile comrades' noses in it by appearing in Horowitz's netrag. The closest parallel I can recall to this is when Garry Wills seemed to abandon his colleagues on the Right at National Review 35 years ago and found a broader audience by appearing to be on the Left. William Buckley then wrote of it more in sorrow than in anger, however, and, truth be told, Wills is still more deeply conservative than Buckley ever was. That could be a warning to Hitchens's critics. He may yet be more radical than thou.

Update: Take heart, the offerings are more gracious elsewhere. At Informed Comment, his indispensable blog about Middle Eastern affairs, Juan Cole has an introduction to the little known history of Christianity in Iraq. If you don't know about Nestorians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians, he can tell you about them.

At Liberty and Power, David Beito looks at the election of 1900 and wonders about options for libertarians and anti-war conservatives in 2004. The choices don't look very encouraging.

Kieran Healey at Crooked Timber knows where the defense planning screw ups occurred.

Tyler Cowen at The Volokh Conspiracy offers an interesting series on"Law and Art." See: here, here, here, and here.

Posted by Ralph 4:00 a.m. EST

RALPH LUKER: NOTED HERE AND THERE ... 12-24-03

Do they move and reproduce like man and woman? Well, no. Like ocean waves, perhaps? Not that either. Sometimes they pass through each other, like a ghost through a wall. Other times, they co-mingle and reproduce. The New York Times has a fascinating piece about what happens when one sand dune meets another. It's a lesson in the problem of analogies.

You say it happened in the 14th century? Oh Lord, there goes my hockey stick. Reactions to Michael Crichton's Commonwealth Club address led to extended discussions on Cliopatria's comment boards (scroll down). There, Jerome Sternstein recommends this article in Technology Review and its supporting links. Good science proceeds slowly, it argues: on the one hand, but on the other ....

The Economist has an interesting piece which compares the internet to 17th and 18th century European coffee houses. I've thought it more comparable to a library. Mildly Malevolent is skeptical about the coffee house analogy, but like him, I find the Economist piece's point about coffee as the anti-alcohol interesting. Give me a fresh pot of coffee, a little stack of cookies, my keyboard, and I'm ready to get at it. I don't know whether I'm in a coffee house or a library, but it seems like where I ought to be.

It didn't end in 1865. It doesn't happen only in Africa's heart of darkness or Islam's lesser realms. It isn't just Walmart on the sly. It is slavery and it's right down here in the heart of Limbaughland. The Palm Beach Post has a three part series on slavery in 21st century Florida. Isn't this where my generation came in? Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame," Michael Harrington's The Other America, and all that?

So, this veteran of the civil rights and anti-Viet Nam War movements bequeaths problems more complex than his generation's to that of his much loved, many pierced, tattooed, punk, Green, and post-Goth #2 daughter who works at Brooklyn's Soft Skull Press. She is home for Christmas and, briefly, we are whole again. We are so much alike that there are some things that we simply cannot discuss. One of them is this. Don't tell her I sent you, but as we say here in the South:"Vote early and vote often." And, frankly, my dear, Mort Sahl and Rv. Agnos agree with me that "Al Franken is objectively less funny than Al Haig."

Posted by Ralph 1:30 a.m. EST

RALPH LUKER: CLIOPATRIA WELCOMES THOMAS G. PALAIMA ... 12-23-03

Cliopatria welcomes Thomas G. Palaima to its group. Palaima is Raymond F. Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics and Director of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas. A former MacArthur Fellow, he has also been a Fulbright professor at the University of Salzburg and a visiting professor at the University of Upsalla. Palaima is the author or co-editor of six monographs on ancient administrative and writing systems and decipherment studies. He also teaches and writes on war and violence studies. In addition to many scholarly articles in classical studies, Palaima is a regular reviewer for the Times Higher Education Supplement and regular op ed contributor to the Austin American-Statesman. His op eds have also appeared on History News Network.

Posted by Ralph 12:15 a.m. EST

TIMOTHY BURKE: HOORAY FOR WATERGATE ... 12-22-03

I am finding myself more and more thankful for Watergate as the years pass.

Not because of any personal animus towards Richard Nixon--my only personal beef with the President at the time was that Watergate hearings used to interrupt my favorite cartoons in the afternoon. I am of course like many unhappy about its legacies: there is no question that late 20th Century American antipathy towards government and politics finds its deepest and most wounding origins in the career of Richard Nixon and the traumas he visited upon his office and his society. Even Nixon's curiously moderate record has to be stacked up against the kinds of political careers he helped set in motion, more than a few of which have come back to haunt us in the current Administration.

My gratitude has to do with the composite impact of the tape transcripts which continue to be made available: 240 more hours were made available to the public this month. That has obvious specific relevance to scholars working on the Nixon Administration, on the US government in the early 1970s, on the history of the Presidency, and so on. But I think it has a deeper relevance, one that has still gone largely unappreciated.

The tape transcripts, taken as a whole, show us an unintended, relatively unmediated view of the interior culture of political power, something that ordinarily historians know almost nothing about whether we're dealing with ancient or recent cases, Western or non-Western societies. Most of the people who have listened to the tapes released in recent years come away with rather ordinary, even banal, revelations about Nixon's character and worldview, more or less confirming things that we already guessed or knew anyway, that Nixon was an anti-Semite, or disliked Kissinger, or that he hated the Eastern Establishment.

What I think is more useful is to begin to think about Nixon not as the atypical, psychologically curious figure that he undoubtedly was, but also to see him and his conversations with aides and visitors as a revelation of what the typical business of political decision-making and information-gathering may look like in its general outlines. Yes, certainly, there is a Nixonian particularity to the more recent transcripts that have been released--it is hard to imagine Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton having quite the same loopily off-the-cuff, awkwardly polite locker room discussions with aides about Greek homosexuality and the character of political enemies and so on. But what I strongly suspect is quite typical about the transcripts is the decidely non-Olympian, non-omniscent perspective they display. The later, non-Watergate tapes tend to show that while Nixon and his aides knew more than the average citizen or the average pundit or the average Congressman about national and international affairs, and had far more ability to move events and institutions in a direction that he desired--that's what power is, in the end--his knowledge and influence were also finite, sometimes strikingly so. I have argued this before, but it seems to me that the total body of tapes offers a fairly striking rebuke to ideas about historical causality that require power to always do that which it ought to do, and to always have a transparent command of the social and cultural landscape it inhabits. The tapes reveal that there were numerous conspiracies within the Nixon White House--but they also tend to undercut a conspiratorial conception of history.

Posted by Timothy 4:23pm. EST

RALPH LUKER: SEPARATED AT BIRTH ... 12-22-03

The last time we were in Edgefield, South Carolina, a stranger rushed up to my wife on the street and said:"Why, Miss T, it's so good to see you out today." We hadn't the slightest idea who"Miss T" was and assured the stranger that my wife was not her. The embarrassed stranger told us that"Miss T" was Strom Thurmond's niece, Mary T. Thompkins Freeman, and it was simply a case of mistaken identity. Just between you and me, I prefer it when my wife is mistaken either for Carol Burnett or Barbara Streisand, as she commonly is.

But, finally, we know why almost any stranger on the streets in Edgefield might be mistaken for one of Strom Thurmond's relatives. There are simply a whole lot more of them than the family ever acknowledged. About 30 years ago, I first heard the rumor that he had a daughter of color and had little reason to doubt it. I didn't comment on Essie Mae Washington-Williams's belated acknowledgment that she is the daughter of ol' Strom Thurmond, but this widely reprinted piece in the New York Times about the reactions of the old man's white relatives summons me.

According to"Miss T," my wife's look-alike, Ms. Washington-Williams's announcement was"was like a blight on the family."

"I went to a church meeting the other day and all these people came up to me and you could tell they didn't know what to say," Ms. Freeman said."For the first time in my life, I felt shame."
Ms. Freeman also said that had the secret daughter been white,"it would be a whole other situation," because public criticism would not have been as harsh.
"Strom rose to such stature, you just wonder how in the world this could have gone on," said Ms. Freeman, 64, a retired teacher in Lugoff, S.C."My family always had help around the house. But it just seems Strom would have been above that."
Really, my dear, both you and I have known about this for years. Years of knowing it -- years of Strom's winking and nudging you in the ribs with his elbow -- should have prepared you with something more gracious than this. What astonished me then and astonishes me now is, by contrast, the quiet dignity of Strom Thurmond's oldest daughter. She had deferred to her father's public career for nearly 80 years. Only after his death did she tell their secret. Whether the other Thurmond relatives acknowledge her or not is a matter of some indifference to Ms. Washington-Williams. She knows that she was there first.

Recommended Reading: the interesting discussions of this story, hosted by Kieran Healey and John Quiggin at Crooked Timber, the thoughtful editorial column by Cynthia Tucker in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and this fascinating story of detective work in the Washington Post.

Posted by Ralph 1:30 a.m. EST

JONATHAN DRESNER: HAPPY TO BE HERE ... 12-21-03

I'm really happy to be joining Cliopatria, most of whose members are HNN contributors I've come to deeply respect over the last year or so. I'm deep in the middle of grading this weekend, but I'll be coming out from under shortly. Until then, I'll just open with something that my students know but my colleagues don't....

I'm a life-long science fiction and fantasy fan, with a preference for short stories, and for novels that take exeptionally long historical perspectives. This is an exciting time for an F/SF fan, because the technology now exists to depict on the screen anything that can be pictured in the mind. The reason nobody's made a really good version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings until now (though I still have a fondness for the old animated version, which is a little more whimsical but no less rich) is that the technological hurdles were too great. The final frontier in movie/TV, though, is not smell-o-rama (though I wouldn't be surprised to see USB-ready aroma peripherals in a few years) but really good emotional and historical and philosophical background/context. Perhaps the DVD, with it's hypertext-like flexibility and supplements, is the format in which the novel will truly be realized on screen.

One of the reasons I still enjoy F/SF is its experimental nature. Not so much as a literary form (I'm pretty conventional when it comes to the writing I like) but as an emotional and historical test-bench."What if" is a far more fundamental question in history than we like to admit (though I'm ironically leery of large-scale alternative history) and futurism is a powerful tool for thinking through the implications of ideas and processes, alternative visions, and the human potential under different circumstances. Plus, why should our imaginations always be limited by convention and reality?

OK, just to give people something to complain about, here's my off-hand, very incomplete list of favorite authors and works: Frank Herbert (Dune series of course, though White Plague is frighteningly, increasingly plausible); Isaac Asimov; some Robert Heinlein (especially his future history series); Harlan Ellison (Deathbird Stories is my candidate for single-author short-story collection of the century); Olaf Stapledon (deep and rich stuff); Ursula LeGuin (Left Hand of Darkness is a mind-bending experience); Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams for humor (also Asimov); Ray Bradbury (indescribably powerful ideas and writing);  Neil Gaiman (probably the finest fantasist at work today, and one of the best word-on-paper writers since Bradbury); Henry Kuttner (energetic writing and ideas that will trouble you for days, if not years) and C.L. Moore, his wife and collaborator and a fine writer in her own right (I'm particularly fond of her Jirel of Joiry stories, which look like pulp fantasy but are much deeper meditations on humanity). I'm a current subscriber to Fantasy and Science Fiction. I'm sure I've left stuff off the list.

OK, back to the grading. Next time, some history, or politics, I promise! Happy Hanukah, everyone!

Posted by Jonathan 10:45 a.m. HST

RALPH LUKER: CLIOPATRIA WELCOMES JONATHAN DRESNER ... 12-20-03

Cliopatria welcomes Jonathan Dresner to its group. A specialist in modern Japanese history, he earned his doctorate at Harvard and teaches east Asian and world history at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo. Dresner has contributed articles to History News Network and op-eds to History News Service. He is also active in the Association of Asian Studies.

Posted by Ralph 6:00 p.m. EST

KC JOHNSON: DEMOCRACY BY DECEIT 12-20-03

I have an article in this week’s Weekly Standardabout a dubious new curricular program called “The Arts of Democracy.” Funded by a Department of Education grant coordinated by an organization called the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), “The Arts of Democracy” teaches students that “democracy” entails support for “diversity” and “multiculturalism” and opposition to U.S. foreign policy. The project performs this task through carefully selected course clusters that present one-sided, politically-oriented messages.

Readers of my postings in Cliopatria might wonder why I seem so concerned with what might loosely be labeled excessive political correctness in both personnel and curricular matters. Partly, of course, my approach to these matters arises out of my tenure case: when an institution tries to fire you for advocating merit rather than gender quotas in hiring and criticizing a college-sponsored educational event on Middle East international affairs that had no supporters of either the US or Israel, you become sensitive to how ideologues can abuse the personnel process. And, as a glance through the cases handled by FIRE suggests, it seems that in the academy today, the threat to academic freedom more often comes from an extremist “left” than from the right.

But I also am so interested in such curricular matters because of the situation on my own campus, Brooklyn College. It never seemed to me a question that the job of a professor was to teach students about academic content rather than behavioral skills or what to think about political “values.” At Brooklyn, now, however, that question is very much up for debate, partly due to the apparent attitude of the campus administration. I’m a believer in Alan Charles Kors’ argument that sunlight—public exposure—is the best way to combat such ideas.

Posted by KC, 12.14pm EST

RALPH LUKER: ON THE PLEASURE OF BEING REVISED ... 12-20-03

Happy Chanukka to all of those who celebrate it. As for me, imagine a technically inept academic caught in a tangle of Christmas lights and reaching for his keyboard as a desperate act of self-liberation. I grew up in a rather traditional German-American family which allowed no tree in the house before Christmas Eve and it promptly came down on New Year's Day. All the technical and logistical problems get crammed into a short span. Don't even ask about the family crises when I haven't been able to make the bloody tree stand up for a whole week.

Over at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke expands on his thoughts about"The Return of the King" with a second essay about genre and the problem of what I would call"disciplinary discipleship." Odd that I'd never thought how those two words had the same root. Followers of the same discipline would be disciples, but Burke sees the problem in thinking and working that way. Sure, we need to learn from the learned in apprenticeship, but a follower cannot transcend the achievement of the leader. That's the problem of derivative scholarship and derivative literature. No wonder that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth denied that he was a"Barthian." Lately, I have to kick myself and say:"Don't try to be a Burkean or a Johnsonian. They'll always be better Tim Burkes and KC Johnsons than you can ever hope to be."

Fortunately, my own apprenticeship as a historian was an easy mantle. My dissertation director allowed, even encouraged, me to disagree with him -- to"revise" him, if you will. So, on the one hand, I've never experienced the horror stories of those who ran afoul of rigid taskmasters and, on the other, I've never understood the cry against"revision," as if it were ipso facto distortion. In many, if not most, cases, to do worthy history is necessarily to"revise." Nor do I understand the umbrage some historians take at being challenged. To be challenged, after all, means that the good Lord or fate or happenstance has allowed you to live so long that some reasonably intelligent historian thought that you had once said something that was worthy of debate and has finally gotten the challenge into print. Many historians never have the pleasure of having lived long enough to see themselves"revised." What's wrong with that?

At Atlanta's recent AAR convention, I introduced myself to Oberlin's A. G. Miller. On hearing my name, he smiled and referred obliquely to his new biography, Elevating the Race: Theophilous G. Steward, Black Theology, and the Making of an African American Civil Society, 1865-1924. I first encountered T. G. Steward's legacy forty years ago, when I was interning as an assistant pastor for the summer of Macon, Georgia's First Baptist Church, an African American congregation. Just up Cotton Avenue from us was Steward Chapel A. M. E. Church. In that building named for its early pastor, I heard Martin Luther King, Sr., raise some righteous hell with Macon's white folks. Years later, I wrote a bit about T. G. Steward in The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912.

Miller was kind enough to send me a copy of his fine new book and, behold, I was revised. The larger context for his disagreement with me is this. I surveyed a spectrum of white attitudes in race relations at the turn of the century and identified spokesmen for each position: radical assimilationism (Josiah Strong), conservative assimilationism (Josiah Royce), conservative separatism (Edgar Gardner Murphy), and radical separatism (Thomas Dixon). Based on a definition of what"racism" is, I said that only the separatists, Murphy and Dixon, might rightly be called racists. That definition held that"racism is a pattern of thought that relates mind to matter by making culture a function of physiology." Racial separatists held that people of African descent could not and should not try fully to exemplify high culture as defined by the canons of western civilization. Racial assimilationists held that people of African descent both could and should expect to do so.

My friend, A. G. Miller, challenges my argument that a radical assimilationist, such as Josiah Strong, is not rightly understood as a racist. He and many others by now and by implication would argue that my definition of racism is inadequate. For one thing, it allows for the possibility that some African Americans are racists. If"true culture" is rooted in an Africanist frame, those who reify biological descent would say that we white folk are just out of luck or, at best, in a separate sphere. I cannot fully appreciate the blues, for example, because I am not an African American. Secondly, and by extension, I think Miller would argue that my definition of racism is inadequate because it takes no account of power or structural relationships. Only when racial prejudice wields power is it truly racist. Racial prejudice lacking power is no significant threat.

These are significant issues, I think."Racism" and"racist" continue to be bandied about. We need to understand what people mean by them when they use the words. I still disagree with Miller because I think one must give definitional precision to them, lest they lose all utility. Like the Mother Hubbard dress of yesterday's modesty, they could cover everything, but touch on nothing. Miller does convince me that the problems of a" cultural assimilationist" position are as real as the problems of a" cultural separatist" one, but I still would like to hear a definition from him of what"racism" is. In any case, I am grateful for having lived long enough to witness having been revised.

For the moment, however, this revised historian needs to get to bed and deal with those tangled Christmas lights in the morning.

Posted by Ralph 2:30 a.m. EST

KC JOHNSON: AMERICAN EMPIRE 12-18-03

Interesting piece in Slate on, of all things, Vice President Cheney’s Christmas cards, which contain the following quotation from Benjamin Franklin:

And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?

The article, by Timothy Noah, comments on what I consider one of the most interesting aspects of American diplomatic history, namely the tensions between the consistent expansionism of the United States and the persistent strand of anti-imperialism in American political culture.

My first two books examined Senate anti-imperialists—figures such as Ernest Gruening, Robert La Follette, or George Norris, dissenters who would make the anti-war stance of someone like Howard Dean look tame—and I always ask my classes to consider not only the question of why the United States has embraced empire throughout its history but why its doing so has so consistently stirred domestic opposition.

That said, I agree with Noah that Cheney’s celebration of empire is rare among American policymakers, especially since 1900.

Posted by KC, 9.50pm EST

Oscar Chamberlain: MICHAEL CRICHTON, A SECOND-RATE MICHAEL MOORE? 12-18-03

A speech of Michael Crichton's on the dangers of"religious environmentalism" has been well-received in some conservative and libertarian quarters. If Crichton's speech reflected his own advice within it, environmentalists be scientific I'd have no problem with it.

Instead his Remarks to the Commonwealth Club show him to less an advocate of science and more of a second-rate Ann Coulter or Michael Moore.

The points that he really made were these: (1) most environmentalists are religious airheads, just like Christians, and (2) most people, including most members of the Commonwealth Club, are dumber than Michael Crichton.

The way he made those points was easy. He made scores of unsubstantiated claims. If he had followed his own advice and used science scrupulously to make his points he would have had problems.

For example, the one issue he discusses at length is DDT. He argues that its banning is one example of environmental-religious blindness in that it did not harm animals. But the only"evidence" he gives for this is asserting that it was falsely labeled a carcinogen. That may or may not have been true, I don't know the regulatory history/ But I do know the studies that indicated DDT caused harm concluded that it did so by impairing reproduction, not by causing cancer.

I might not be writing this if he had given even one authority to show that it did not hurt animals. That would have been consistent with his call for a scientific environmentalism. But he doesn't.

Someone reading this might reasonably say,"But in a speech, does he have time to do that? Maybe there is a good study out there that refutes clearly the previous findings on DDT."

Maybe there is. And if any readers know of one I will be happy to post information on it here. I do believe in using science honestly, even when it reveals that I have been wrong.

For the moment, however, Crichton's own words will do for a response. This long excerpt will show his real attitude toward scientific debate and for giving sources. (It will also document my comment about his ego).

I can tell you that second hand smoke is not a health hazard to anyone and never was, and the EPA has always known it. I can tell you that the evidence for global warming is far weaker than its proponents would ever admit. I can tell you the percentage the US land area that is taken by urbanization, including cities and roads, is 5%. I can tell you that the Sahara desert is shrinking, and the total ice of Antarctica is increasing. I can tell you that a blue-ribbon panel in Science magazine concluded that there is no known technology that will enable us to halt the rise of carbon dioxide in the 21st century. Not wind, not solar, not even nuclear. The panel concluded a totally new technology-like nuclear fusion-was necessary, otherwise nothing could be done and in the meantime all efforts would be a waste of time. They said that when the UN IPCC reports stated alternative technologies existed that could control greenhouse gases, the UN was wrong.

I can, with a lot of time, give you the factual basis for these views, and I can cite the appropriate journal articles not in whacko magazines, but in the most prestigeous [sic] science journals, such as Science and Nature. But such references probably won't impact more than a handful of you, because the beliefs of a religion are not dependant [sic] on facts, but rather are matters of faith. Unshakeable belief.

He does have time. He knows it. He chooses not to because he does not respect his audience. He says so himself.

So why have some pretty intelligent people latched onto this speech? I think it's the same reason Coulter and Moore are popular. They pick targets that their audiences hate and caricature them. Crichton chooses those environmentalists who tend to have an Eden-like view of nature, caricatures them, and then implicitly connects them with everybody concerned about the environment, except for himself or course.

Some readers I think saw the caricature, liked it, and didn't look carefully at what followed. It's a mistake I've made.

The sad thing here is that Crichton's a smart man and a rich man. If he truly wants to support good environmental science, he can do much good. But if this is any indication, good science is the last thing on his mind.

PS Here's the link to Science. Crichton is right that it is good. Put Global Warming and CO2 into the internal search engine and ask yourself if he's read it lately.

Posted by Oscar at 12:10 pm CST


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Jerry Sternstein - 12/23/2003

On Crichton's point about the "religious" character of the debate about global warning (and other deeply held controversial scientific concepts) here is an article from MIT's Technology Review that gives weight to Crichton's argument. The author, Richard Muller, a physicist, is a former MacArthur fellow. Also, you might want to follow the very useful links.

http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/wo_muller121703.asp


Oscar Chamberlain - 12/22/2003

I just started "Good Omens", and have neverwhere waiting for the end of finals. You've pulled it to the top of the stack.

I like the idea of ending World with a bit of sci-fi. In a course on the history of science that I co-teach, we showed the bit from "Hitchhikers Guide" where the dinner has a discussion with the prospective diners over which of his (its?) cuts were best. It added a bit to the last discussion of genetic engineering.


Jonathan Dresner - 12/22/2003

Oscar,

I had the good fortune to be the son and grandson of F/SF readers, so when I started reading there were shelves of old Science Fiction Book Club selections around for me to start on. Heinlein's "Past Through Tomorrow," Asimov's Robot stories and the "Best of Henry Kuttner" were just sitting around the house. (And the "Annotated Alice" by Lewis Carroll/Martin Gardner, and the complete Sherlock Holmes, and some Eugene O'Neill that is forever blazed on my brain....)

My personal favorite Neil Gaiman novel is "Neverwhere" which is much more complex and powerful than "American Gods," but I have to admit that I came to Gaiman through his graphic novel work, mostly "Sandman." But the novel that I recommend to everyone is his joint effort with Terry Pratchett, "Good Omens," which is the funniest apocalypse you'll ever read.

And if you haven't read Heinlein's more recent work, "Friday" has the most plausible dystopic vision he's ever created. It's a bit cheesy in spots, but it's very surprising to me that it hasn't been optioned by Hollywood yet (the cheesy bits would work just fine on screen).

If I'm not running behind, I end my second semester world civilization survey (1500-present) with a day of discussion of the future, and I always spend some time talking about SF as a "historical laboratory," and citing some of the SF that's come true and some of the work that recently been put on the screen.


Oscar Chamberlain - 12/22/2003

Jonathon,

It's great to know of your interest in science fiction. Although my family was always interested in history, I suspect that running across the Heinlein collection, "Green Hills of Earth" when I was in Junior High was a turning point of sorts.

His "future history" timeline was just right to capture the not-very-full mind of a kid who liked the past but was also really really really into the space program and sci-fi movies (regardless of quality).

Like you I found Herbert's "White Plague" to be scary as hell. Like much of his later work, it slid toward the didactic, but unlike many didcatic people, Herbert nearly always had something worth saying.

Neil Gaiman really is wonderful: at least "American Gods" is.

A couple of the authors that you mentioned I have not heard of and will be adding them to my holiday reading list if possible.

Have you checked out Neil Stephenson? I think some of his later work is a bit too wordy, but "Snow Crash" and Diamond Age" are fascinating.


Oscar Chamberlain - 12/20/2003

Thanks you for the sources. As Charles noted both finals and Christmas are upon us, but I will peruse them as time permits. Hopefully other readers will do so too.

I understand the problem of giving sources in a general presentation. What I did not understand was Crichton's rhetorical flourish in which he said there was no point bothering with giving sources, even to an audience interested enough to pay him to speak.

Concerning support for global warming you might check out this recent article in Science. Karl and Trenberth, Modern Global Climate Change, Science 2003 302: 1719-1723

Unfortunately online access to the abstract and the article has just shifted from free to pay. As I copied the abstract earlier, I will post it here and hope the good folk at Science don't mind too much.

By the way, I do not suggest that this one article trumps the others.

"Modern Global Climate Change
Thomas R. Karl1 and Kevin E. Trenberth2
Modern climate change is dominated by human influences, which are now large enough to exceed the bounds of natural variability. The main source of global climate change is human-induced changes in atmospheric composition. These perturbations primarily result from emissions associated with energy use, but on local and regional scales, urbanization and land use changes are also important. Although there has been progress in monitoring and understanding climate change, there remain many scientific, technical, and institutional impediments to precisely planning for, adapting to, and mitigating the effects of climate change. There is still considerable uncertainty about the rates of change that can be expected, but it is clear that these changes will be increasingly manifested in important and tangible ways, such as changes in extremes of temperature and precipitation, decreases in seasonal and perennial snow and ice extent, and sea level rise. Anthropogenic climate change is now likely to continue for many centuries. We are venturing into the unknown with climate, and its associated impacts could be quite disruptive. "


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/20/2003

Here are two opposed views on the effect of DDT on birds. One dates from 1988, and claims a great impact. The other dates from 2002, and disptes the claim of a great impact.

http://www.stanfordalumni.org/birdsite/text/essays/DDT_and_Birds.html

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,55843,00.html

On the subject of second-hand smoke, a federal judge did rule that the EPA had massaged their findings of an impact (the Director of the EPA at the time was Carol Browner, the reputed shadow author of Gore's Earth in the Balance). I do remember the WHO study had been withheld from publication for some time (it was reported) because it had discovered a slight DECREASE in lung cancer rates in people who had been exposed to second-hand smoke as children (an innoculation effect, so to speak?).

On the subject of global warming, satellite readings had shown a slight decrease in temperature, but when corrected for orbit decay, and normalized by balloon readings, there was found an increase of .13 degrees C. You can find the results by Googling "James Christy". Note, this increase is indeed less than that found by other terrestial measures, which had found a much larger increase (but the size of the increase had been decreasing due to corrections for the heat island effect, the Northern hemisphere bias, and recalibrations from different measuring methods). There is some interesting work being done by Sallie Baliunas of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, showing a very high correlation between temperature change and variations in the solar cycle. I've seen it estimated that a third or more of the reported increase in temperature could be thus accounted for. All this is from memory, so I regret that I don't have the sources at hand, but I've furnished the clues and anyone that wnats to do the Googling can. I think Crichton is largely correct in his claims -- or at least there is evidence to that effect. I agree that he should cite sources, though I'm not sure that would have met with the approval of the Commonwealth Club, whose audience is a more general one.


Charles V. Mutschler - 12/20/2003

Professor Chamberlain,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I'll be busy for the next few days, and I realize you are also, as you are dealing with exams. I'll try to respond to your remarks in more detail later. I also look forward to the expanded remarks following your discussion with your chemist colleague.

Charles V. Mutschler


Oscar Chamberlain - 12/19/2003

My thanks to you and to Richard Morgan for your comments.

You are right of course. Going by credentials, Michael Crichton would be the one to trust. I think that was one reason that his remarks so angered me. He knows what a good scientific approach is--or at least should know. He calls for it, but then he doesn't deliver it himself.

As you both note, his discussion of DDT was too clever by half. If one is worried about species death, then lack of reproduction is very much a key, even if you can argue that individuals are not dying. If that sort of play was deliberate, is that really the good science he said he was calling for?

Faulting me on my not including his claim about DDT and malaria deaths is reasonable. I should have, but I was feeling pressed for space and I wanted to double-check the 30 million figure and did not have time. Finally, his denunciation hinged in part on the "cleverness" alluded to above. Still, I should have done so.

Finally, the point I considered most important was his claiming to have sources and then deliberately not giving any sources because there was no point.

I don't think you can have good sciences without sources. I am postive that someone who calls for good science and then says there is no reason to bother with it is simply not being very honest. After all, what is the point of calling for good science if you don't want to follow its precepts?

Postscript: While I did give a source--or at least a route to sources--concerning global warming, I did not give a source for my remarks on DDT. I did not find online search very useful; in general, it is easier to find dissents on line than the mainstream. I did consult with a colleague in the Chemistry department who confirmed my general knowledge and gave more specifics. After he and I emerge from finals (which run to the 22nd where we teach), I will ask him about sources.


Charles V. Mutschler - 12/19/2003

I think it would be interesting to know more about the educational background of both Mr. Crichton and Professor Chamberlain. However, from the little I can reall offhand, my theory would be that Crichton may be a better judge of science than Chamberlain gives him credit for. Before he went off to a very successful career in literature, Crichton trained to be an MD, which would require much more course work in the natural sciences than is required for a degree in history.

I think Professor Morgan is correct in his assessment - Crichton was perhaps overly narrow in overlooking the damage DDT *can* do to birds, but Chamberlain is being overly general, and ignoring Chrichton's main point, which is the *number* of human lives which were lost due to the discontinuance of use of DDT.

I suspect that a very detailed and lengthy study of the scientific literature will not give overall comfort to either the folks who argue that global warming is largely man-made, or those who argue that it is not; or to either side of the many currently contentious environmental issues. Most scientists I know talk about probabilites rather than certainties in such cases.

Charles V. Mutschler


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/19/2003

Chamberlain, on the subject of Crichton, asserts:

"For example, the one issue he discusses at length is DDT. He argues that its banning is one example of environmental-religious blindness in that it did not harm animals. But the only "evidence" he gives for this is asserting that it was falsely labeled a carcinogen. That may or may not have been true, I don't know the regulatory history/ But I do know the studies that indicated DDT caused harm concluded that it did so by impairing reproduction, not by causing cancer."

Crichton actually asserted:

"So I can tell you some facts. I know you haven't read any of what I am about to tell you in the newspaper, because newspapers literally don't report them. I can tell you that DDT is not a carcinogen and did not cause birds to die and should never have been banned. I can tell you that the people who banned it knew that it wasn't carcinogenic and banned it anyway. I can tell you that the DDT ban has caused the deaths of tens of millions of poor people, mostly children, whose deaths are directly attributable to a callous, technologically advanced western society that promoted the new cause of environmentalism by pushing a fantasy about a pesticide, and thus irrevocably harmed the third world. Banning DDT is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the twentieth century history of America. We knew better, and we did it anyway, and we let people around the world die and didn't give a damn."


I believe Chamberlain is right -- DDT, in large concentrations where not properly administered, caused reproductive problems in birds (actually, malformation of the eggshell). Yet Crichton does not make amy claim about "harm", only that DDT did not cause birds to "die". One may fault Crichton for not going into the reproductive problems, but one can't saddle him with the "no harm" claim. Similarly, one may then, by extension, fault Chamberlain for not going into the other part of what Crichton did claim -- that many humans have died as a result of banning DDT. This is not a controversial claim. Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Prizewinning immunologist made the same point at length, time and again. The claim by Crichton is thus that DDT didn't kill birds, but its banning did and does kill humans. I think he is literally correct.


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/17/2003

Actually, I'm a fan of much of his writing. I reread once a year his 'Lincoln at Gettysburg'. I just think he goes off the deep end on the subject of guns. You might trying to Google '"Garry Wills" AND guns' sometime for yourself and get a gander at some of his extreme remarks about guns and gunowners.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/17/2003

Richard, You may very well be correct in these observations. I sure do value your determination to subject every position to critical evaluation. What caused me to post this was a frustration with the lack of a real conservative tradition in American public life and a deep skepticism about virtually everything in our public life which currently passes for conservative. The deep traditionalism of someone like Garry Wills is about as close to the real thing as I have found, but I know he isn't one of your favorites!


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/17/2003

Ralph, a few quibbles. Crichton does characterize environmentalism as a "religion" (a term of abuse to someone trained in the sciences as he was). But he does not do so simply based on the morphological similarities you (and he)point out. Crichton adds:

"Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday---these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs. They may even be hard-wired in the brain, for all I know. I certainly don't want to talk anybody out of them, as I don't want to talk anybody out of a belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God who rose from the dead. But the reason I don't want to talk anybody out of these beliefs is that I know that I can't talk anybody out of them. These are not facts that can be argued. These are issues of faith.

And so it is, sadly, with environmentalism. Increasingly it seems facts aren't necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It's about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them."

Whether there is a connection to conservatism, properly understood or not, is not the issue I take here. Crichton lays his finger upon the Popperian button that distinguishes science from faith, whether that faith be religious or secular. The distinguishing mark of faith is immunity from contrary evidence. Julian Simon once attended an environmentalist revival session, where he stood up and asked the faithful whether there were any facts he could recite that would cause them to change their minds -- they answered, in unison, no. He then excused himself, saying, "Pardon me, I didn't know I was in church".

Religion may be, unfairly, a pejorative polar opposite to science for Crichton, but what he is really criticizing is not so much the starting place of religion (or Marxism, or Freudianism), but the fact that the starting place has too often become a resting place, as many environmentalists simply hold their beliefs immune from criticsm.

I've encountered this mindset before. Once, when a grad student, I was approached to sign a petition asking the government to ban irrediated food. I was assured by the bearer of the petition that such food was toxic. I replied that the first rule of toxicology is that just about everything is toxic at some dose. If you drink enough water, you will die, no matter the purity of the water. I asked about mortality and morbidity rates, LD50 rates with animal models, cost-benefit analyses. All I got in return was a look of such profound contempt, you would have thought I had spit on the eucharist during a Mass. Through conversations with others, I've discovered that such encounters with environmentalists are hardly rare at all.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/12/2003

Fred, Thanks for the comment. I think that you will find that Cliopatria as a group is quite diverse. As one who has grown used to being attacked from the left and the right, I am very comfortable with my colleagues and very certain that they should speak freely here, whether I agree with them or not. Where were you when I was calling for historians on the left coast to get on the picket lines in front of California's grocery stores?


fred - 12/11/2003

Way too right leaning. How about a few radicals? When I was at Wesleyan, there was no such thing as a "conservative historian." The concept is absurd on its face.


Oscar Chamberlain - 12/10/2003

Thank you.

I've always liked poetry, and I ran across this poem sometime in the 1980s. Like you, it stunned me with its compressed experience.

More and more lately I have wanted to find the time to think carefully about the different ways, and mediums, with which we understand the world and our past. Probably an occasional musing on this topic will slip out here.


Ed Schmitt - 12/9/2003

Oscar, that is an amazing quote that goes, as poetry and artwork should, to the heart of human beings as historians so much more effortlessly and economically than paragraphs and footnotes. Beautiful. From one UW-system teacher to another, I look forward to reading your posts.

Ed Schmitt
UW-Parkside


Ralph E. Luker - 12/8/2003

Mitch, Thanks for this. It is possible for us to enable comments at each post. In my case, at least, we are talking about a very primitive level of skills so it will take some real learning, but we should be able to make the curve. Look for it to happen.


Mitch Mills - 12/8/2003

Would you consider attaching comments to each post? At first I didn't even realize there was a way to make comments until I happened to scroll all the way down. It would be easier to discuss each post if under it there were a "Comments" link where you could see how many comments had already been posted and click to be shown those comments and post your own.

I really like Cliopatria so far and am looking forward to reading it regularly, but I think post-specific comments would aid discussion.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/8/2003

David, Let's be clear, David. "Cliopatria" turns up in Joyce's _Finnegans Wake_. I didn't say that "transmogrify" turns up anywhere in Joyce's work, tho it may. But I have a patent on "transblogrify." Even Joyce was above that.


David Salmanson - 12/5/2003

I'm betting a guy who names his comic strip after Enlightenment philosophers and had predesitination vs. free will as a theme (with Calvin advocating predestination of course) probably got transmogrify from Joyce. Can't sombody e-mail him to ask? Somebody here has to know him. Love the eclectic line up of historians. There may be more discussions between the bloggers than on the comment boards!


Alan Kellogg - 12/5/2003

Hope it all goes well. You have been bookmarked and I'll be dropping in the see how things are going.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/4/2003

I don't have the faintest idea what an RSS feed is, but those who know tell me that HNN doesn't have it yet and that it is about to be installed. Check back!


Ralph E. Luker - 12/4/2003

Thanks very much, Mac. I checked it; you got it!


Mac Thomason - 12/4/2003

I've added you as well (http://warliberal.com/mt/blog) if I've gotten the link right...


William O. Pate II - 12/4/2003

Used by the indie rock band hot little rocket in their song "transmogrifier."


Ralph E. Luker - 12/4/2003

Thanks, Gary!


Ralph E. Luker - 12/4/2003

Mike, I think before "Calvin and Hobbes," important a cultural benchmark as it is, William Buckley may have been the only living human being known to use the verb "to transmogrify." Some thought it almost a signature of his intellectual pretentiousness. He could linger over his use of the word -- draw it out -- in a way that I, at least, found amusing. Yet, he taught me that such a word existed in the English language and "Calvin and Hobbes" gave it more popular circulation. Other readers may be able to add to this brief history of the use of "transmogrify" in 20th century American English.


Gary Farber - 12/4/2003

You've been done blogrolled, at http://amygdalagf.blogspot.com">Amygdala.


Mike - 12/4/2003

Calvin and Hobbes, a syndicated comic strip from a few years back, had the "Transmogrifier." This was a cardboard box with a dial on it, which would transform those who entered the box (usually Calvin) into any desired creature, real or imagined, sometimes even intentionally rather than randomly. Thanks for pointing the Joyce reference out, I wonder if the comic author (Bill Watterson?) created his device, similar to Joyce's, from whole cloth in a form of parallel linguistic evolution.


Eric in TX - 12/4/2003

Where's the RSS feed?


Richard Jensen - 12/4/2003

Congrats to the Cliopatria Clan-- keep the ideas flowing!

Richard