Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Hedgehog’s Array: February 20, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Where do Morals Come From?,” Philip Gorski
“The social sciences have an ethics problem.”

“The Hunger Artist,” Bee Wilson
“Many authors whisper, as though to a diary, or chat, as though to a friend, but Fisher communicates with the heady directness of a lover. She writes to confide her secret delights and to impress someone with her mastery of the table.”

“There’s Not Always a Pill for That,” Jen Bannan
“If you talk to literature professors, you may have heard them wonder aloud at the tendency of their students to diagnose characters. Anna Karenina clearly has borderline personality disorder, Holden Caulfield seems to have been abused as a child, Raymond Carver’s characters wouldn’t have these problems if they’d just go to AA.”

“Harper Lee—A Life in Pictures”
“Nelle Harper Lee, loved around the world for the Pulitzer prize-winning book To Kill A Mockingbird, has died aged 89.”

“Looking for Beauty in the Age of Design,” Alexandra Schwartz
“If there’s something post-apocalyptic about the notion of making a crushed plastic water bottle into a home, there’s an optimism to it, too.”

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Why It’s Good to Love Football (Or Any Sport)

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Depiction of a ballcourt and players in the Codex Borgia Fol. 42. Wikimedia Commons.

To be a sports fan in academia is to be a little out of place. There simply aren’t that many of us (particularly once you take out the soccer fans). Sports like baseball and American football are either ignored or dismissed. So, against the prevailing prejudice of my peers, I would like to propose, if not a full moral and intellectual justification of sports fandom, at least something in the way of an apologia. I do so with a special sense of urgency, counting the few days that remain before my favorite National Football League team, the Carolina Panthers, enters Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California to play in the Super Bowl.

Writing in The Atlantic three years ago on the eve of the forty-seventh Super Bowl, Michael Serazio, an assistant professor of Communication at Fairfield University, observed that “if you look hard at sports, you can’t help but see contours of religion.” Serazio had no pretensions of original insight. He cited the early sociologist Émile Durkheim, for whom religion was of interest not so much as a body of scripture or doctrines but as a means of social solidarity and common purpose. When people come together to worship, whether the ostensible object of their worship is a religious totem or a battalion of athletes, they are affirming themselves as a community.

But a complete self-portrait of sports fandom requires me to call upon another pioneering sociologist, Max Weber. In his famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber took note of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which holds that only some souls are chosen (“predetermined”) by God to be spared damnation, and that such selection can be neither earned nor altered through one’s own efforts. As Weber writes of Calvinism, “God’s grace is, since His decrees cannot change, as impossible for those to whom He has granted it to lose as it is unattainable for those to whom He has denied it.” Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: February 5, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The Flowers of Romance,” Heather Havrilesky
“At a time when popularity is taken not just as a signifier of value but as the exact same thing as value, it is necessary and worthwhile to absorb just how bad the really bad books manage to get away with being while still selling millions of copies internationally.”

 “What To Expect When You’re Expecting The Collapse Of Society As We Know It,” Anne Helen Petersen
“Forget the color-coded bunker, the carefully organized bug-out bags, and the piles of cash she keeps strategically stashed around the house. The most compelling thing about Bedford is how much sense her entire philosophy makes—and how it casts the rest of our utter unpreparedness into sharp relief.”

“How Many French-Literature Degrees Is Kentucky Really Paying For?,” Eric Kelderman
“Data from the state’s Council on Postsecondary Education show that relatively little state money supports students in any foreign-language field.”

“Eight Excuses I Have Told My Son to Use for His Failure to Hand in English Homework, Excuses I Have Learned are Acceptable During a Thirty-Year Career in Journalism, Books,
and Film,” Nick Hornby
“Dear Mrs D,
Thanks for your homework. Your idea of writing a Christmas ghost story was a good one, but it’s not really the kind of thing I tend to do—it’s a little bit too genre for my tastes. Try Kevin, who sits next to me. He loves that stuff.”

 “Of Love and Politics,” Aurelian Craiutu
“True to his commitment to moderation, Oakeshott sought to put politics and political participation in their right place, neither too high nor too low. Our first business, he argued, is to live, the second is to understand life properly, and only after that comes changing the world, to the extent to which that might be possible.”

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Against Flat-Earthers (No, Really)

A "flat-Earth" map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A “flat-Earth” map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week the Twitterverse was abuzz over the argument between rapper B.o.B and astronomy popularizer Neil DeGrasse Tyson over whether the earth is flat. The hip hop star’s recently released song “Flatline” included samples from Tyson, as well as lyrics implying that the division of the oceans into thirty three degrees of latitude is a Masonic conspiracy. (The oceans are not divided into thirty three degrees of latitude.)

Songwriting is not a very effective means for providing evidence and scientific argument, but B.o.B did take to that most conducive forum for public reasoning, Twitter, to provide evidence in the form of cameraphone photos of the apparently uncurved horizon, along with some aerial photos of the pyramids, from which the surface of the earth does not appear noticeably round. Still, weighing in on the controversy yesterday, PolitiFact issued a “Pants on Fire” rating for B.o.B’s claim on Twitter that “You’ve been tremendously deceived” by those who say that the earth is round, so we can all rest assured that we need not take the claim that the earth is flat too seriously.

Not surprisingly, however, think piece writers have come to B.o.B’s defense—not because contrarian nonsense makes for great clickbait but because the defense of the flat-earther attitude (as opposed to the actual claim that the earth is flat) isn’t contrarian at all. It taps into an idealized version of how the scientific community is supposed to work. As Lizzie Wade argues in her defense of B.o.B at the Atlantic:

B.o.B’s Twitter crusade illuminates the best qualities of outsider physics: its skepticism, its curiosity, and its fierce desire to make sense of a confusing world in a rigorous way. These same values lie at the heart of mainstream science, too. They are what make science special. They are what make science science.

Thinking of science as iconoclastic and free-thinking draws ultimately on the memory of Galileo, who, in standing up to the Church and the schoolmen, refused to accept their authority when it contradicted what he found by his own reason and senses to be true. How far that memory corresponds to the actual history is beside the point. It’s become a myth because it is such an appealing image for scientists to have of themselves—courageous and skeptical, holding evidence dear and dogma cheap. Continue reading

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Speaking Truth to Power

Roger Boisjoly holds a model of the O-rings, 1991; AP photo.

Roger Boisjoly holds a model of the O-rings, 1991; AP photo.

As we remember the Challenger disaster, let’s not forget the engineers who tried to convince NASA not to send up the Space Shuttle on a cold morning thirty years ago. Armed with data, models, and perseverance, a group of Morton Thiokol engineers implored their managers and NASA officials to cancel the launch. It was too cold, they argued, and there was a very real danger that the O-rings around the joints of the booster rockets would not seal properly. This, sadly, is exactly what happened.

A few weeks after the disaster, two of these engineers were interviewed by NPR under conditions of anonymity. One, Roger Boisjoly, who died in 2012, told NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling in 1986, “I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I’m so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.”

Although well-respected by his peers before the disaster, Boisjoly became a pariah for his cooperation with the presidential commission investigating the disaster. He testified and provided internal documents, including the memo that he had submitted six months before the explosion in which he warned of the possible seal failure and that “the result could be a catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life.” Boisjoly was forced out of space work and his colleagues shunned him. He suffered from depression and moody behavior. As a sort of therapy, Boisjoly began lecturing at engineering schools around the world on ethical decision making, corporate ethics, and trusting data. The experience helped him feel that he had made an impact on the students and it restored some of his lost self-esteem.

Another Morton Thiokol engineer has recently come out from under the protection of anonymity to speak about his experiences. The night before the launch, Bob Ebeling told his wife that the shuttle was going to blow up. Ebeling joined Boisjoly in that confidential NPR interview after the launch, both despondent and tearful as they recounted how they argued with their vice presidents and NASA for hours. “NASA ruled the launch,” the eighty-nine-year-old Ebeling told NPR last month. “They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.”

Ebeling didn’t experience the kind of atonement that came to Boisjoly. In fact, his faith has been deeply shaken by what he sees as his failure to convince NASA. He believes that “God picked a loser” and that he should have done more to stop the launch.

Without diminishing the impact of the Challenger disaster on the families of those lost, the fate of Boisjoly and Ebeling also merits attention. One man sought restitution by bringing his expertise in science and ethics to a younger generation of engineers. Given the investigating commission’s conclusion that there was a flaw in NASA’s decision-making processes, it would seem that Boisjoly’s efforts were well directed. Ebeling, on the other hand, describes the past thirty years as full of unrelieved guilt with his peace of mind constantly eroded by “what if” scenarios.

Why did the NASA engineers think it was so important for Challenger to launch that morning? They wanted to show that the space program could attain a regular launch schedule and that NASA could demonstrate reliability—they weren’t even willing to postpone the launch. The space program also served, as Ned O’Gorman has argued, an ideological function. As O’Gorman put it in describing Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation on the night of the disaster, “Reagan framed the shocking and manifest character of the Challenger disaster as a normal product of political freedom.”

Further, as O’Gorman notes, the Challenger incident opened up the space program to new possibilities of commercialization. Today, successful entrepreneurs vie with the government in the race to space. The traditional goals of exploration, conquering new frontiers, and advancing science have been overtaken by the ambitions of Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos, all of whom say they want to make space accessible to private citizens. Even if space travel is privatized and made open to the public, risks remain high and there will be new, unanticipated ethical responsibilities for those who put people in rockets. Part of that responsibility would seem to be the study of the history of the space program and the experience of Roger Boisjoly and Bob Ebeling.

It is fairly certain that neither Boisjoly nor Ebeling were naive enough to believe that Morton Thiokol and NASA operated as democracies. But they probably did believe that the expertise and experience for which they had been hired would be respectfully considered when it came time to assess the conditions of the launch and the viability of the equipment. After all, Morton Thiokol was the manufacturer of the component parts that failed and its engineers might be expected to know how their products would react under a given set of conditions. Yet when Boisjoly and Ebeling spoke truth to power, they found that their representation of objective risk was misconstrued by NASA managers as merely a case of subjective risk. Armed as they were with data and models, Boisjoly and Ebeling probably weren’t quite prepared for being accused of “going with their gut”—and of learning where the pragmatism of science must give way before the exigencies of bureaucracy.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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