Monday, February 10, 2014

What I've Been Reading

Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent by Garrett Hardin. I had knowingly forever postponed reading this book for no reason; I guess, I wanted to save some books in that anti-library.
Hardin warns that no single filter is sufficient for reaching a reliable decision, so invidious comparisons between three is not called for. The well educated person uses all of them. The three timeless filters are (excellent review here):

The first filter is LITERACY - "the ability to understand what words really mean."

Literacy - skill in the written and spoken language - enables us to draw on the wisdom (and foolishness) of human beings distant from us in space and time. In his discussion of the sins of the literate, Hardin contends that language has two functions beyond communication - "to promote thought and to prevent it." He spends most of the chapter identifying ways in which we use language to prevent thought. While his discussion of the "verbal diarrhea" or the merely eloquent and the misuse of poetic license is fascinating, it is Hardin' s discussion of the use of such discussion stoppers as "infinite," "inexhaustible," "non negotiable," "self evident," "must" and "imperative" to prevent the use of the other two intellectual filters against folly that is most revealing. Hardin also asks why we always talk about shortages rather than about "longages" of demand or of people. He concludes that it is in large part due to the fact that virtually no one profits from supplying less. Hardin's penetrating analyses of how language has been used to distort our perception of the world echos the concerns of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote, "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

The second is NUMERACY - "the ability not only to quantify information, but also to interpret it intelligently."

Numeracy involves the ability to measure and to interpret quantities, proportions and rates. Hardin points out that human beings have all too often learned how to use the resources of literacy to hide numbers and the need for numerate analysis. Hardin draws attention to the problems created by always thinking solely in terms of dichotomies (safe vs unsafe, pure vs impure) rather than in terms of relative risks and benefits, etc. The widespread apathy to quantitative analysis which is so important in science, technology, business, and government, while understandable as an emotional reaction to the remarks of the more arrogant of the practitioners of numeracy, bodes ill for a complex and fast moving society where quantities, ratios, rates and duration of time all matter. Hardin also discusses the limitations of numeracy - that the conclusions of an accurate mathematical analysis is only as good as its premises. Hardin concludes that "Given effective education - a rare commodity, of course - a numerate orientation is probably within the reach of most normal people."

The last filter ECOLACY - "the ability to take into account the effects of complex interactions of systems over time."

Some ecologists have tried to draw attention to the interrelatedness of our world by stating that everything is related to everything else (sometimes called Barry Commoner's first law of ecology). This statement has been criticized by many scholars because while it is valuable as a warning it is useless as a guide to action. While all things in the environment interact they interact in different ways. The ecologist Garrett Hardin restated this important ecological understanding in the following language so that it can serve as a guide to action: WE CAN NEVER DO MERELY ONE THING which is now known as Hardin's Law. The language that we have used to describe the effects of our actions demonstrates the reality that Hardin's Law draws our attention to. We talk about effects and side effects, products and wastes.

Hardin contends that since we cannot do just one thing we must always ask and answer the question and  THEN WHAT? when we try to ascertain the benefits and costs of proposed courses of action on both the individual as well as social levels. The ecological systems way of thinking employs modern scientific theories and knowledge to study a world of interlocking processes characterized by many reciprocal cause effect pathways. The ecological systems way of thinking has to become an integral part of the thinking of the well educated person if we are to adequately control technology rather than fall victim to the forces we generate and are unable or unwilling to control. Ecological systems thinking provides well educated persons with the opportunity to act more rationally, because they have learned a more comprehensive and more accurate way of estimating the probable costs and benefits of their actions.

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