Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lessons from Iran

(1979 & 2009: Protests in Tehran)

Thirty years after the Revolution of 1979, Iran finds itself involved again in a crisis of legitimacy and popular upheaval against both current oppression and amidst real fears that future reforms might hold similar problems. The difficulties with understanding this conflict from the United States are many. Should we intervene for the cause of democracy and freedom? Does our track record of intrusive support in the region really allow for such intervention? After all, Sadam Hussein, the Taliban, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi , Osama Bin Laden… all were supported by American interventionist policy during the Cold War. There’s no lack of consensus that Ahmejinedad should be opposed, but what should be done in terms of positive action isn’t so obvious.

Add to that the current American phobia and misunderstanding of the Iranian situation. Mousavi is a “reformist” or a “moderate”, but he and his supporters are not just secularist or leftist or Westernized revolutionaries out to make Iran into something that neo-conservatives or neo-liberals might recognize as a worthwhile state. Here is a good article on the complexities of the situation, discussing the clerics and the revolutionary guard as they relate to the political situation. The story playing out on news channels can read as a simple Hollywood narrative of speaking truth to power, but both the truth and the power involved here are much more complex… or rather just different... than much of the American commentary assumes.

At the same time, matters aren’t so very far away from that with which readers of our blog might be familiar. The protests in Iran are apparently occurring largely amongst college students, in more affluent areas in the city of Tehran. Reading about the influence of twitter and social networking on the negotiation of protest logistics, one would think that this was an anti-globalist movement in some hip Western European host city for an IMF meeting. The rural population is much more supportive of Ahmejinedad, and reformist elements are surfacing largely because of technology and privilege. This isn't meant to detract from the authenticity of this sort of popular uprising, however. If anything, it should remind us that there is no one sort of "real" Iranian that has a right to their political voice, any more than there is one sort of "real" American. A political cause need not have the support of the mythological everyman- often enough it is instigated by intellectual or social elites.

The life of leisure is what was initially upheld in the Socratic tradition as the basis for philosophical reflection, and while that sounds horribly patriarchal to our populist and Protestant-work-ethic ears, it may very well be true. The leisure to stop and think critically, the resources to disseminate this critical thought, and perhaps even the youthful innocence to be imprudent enough to take political action based on that thought, is the stuff of real reform.

There seems to be a lot to learn from current events in Iran... I think foremost amongst those lessons are a bit of pause before jumping in as we Americans are wont to do, recognizing that "reform" isn't necessarily reform as we would see it or be comfortable with it, and acknowledging that reform movements are not simply a matter of change "from below". In our haste to point out the sins of power, we shouldn't be so naïve as to assume that the powerless magically rise to the task of freedom. We must be realistic about the structural bases of political action of any sort, for just or unjust causes.

Untangling the Popular and the Democratic in Iran

I think Evan is very good to caution us not to take a cookie-cutter Western approach to Iran, at the same time that we unequivocally support the protesters there. This is essentially the conclusion that I've come to as well.

When we address the issue of how America and Americans should be involved, I think we need to pay very close attention to history. In the U.S., 1979 is remembered as a black year for democracy in Iran. In that year, a theocrat overthrew the existing government, which was credited with modernizing Iran. Americans were held hostage until Ronald Reagan - the strong-man of Western liberalism - ensured their safe passage home. Since 1979, Iran has been perceived as an enemy force in the region; threatening Israel, funding terrorism, and opposing secular democracy. This is all true...
...and yet at the same time it really isn't.

Khomeini was a theocrat, with all the autocratic pronouncements of the old caliphate, and none of it's assimilating Oriental spectacle. Nevertheless, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a thoroughly popular revolution. Khomeini did not empower the Iranian people, but he did liberate them from what was popularly perceived to be a Western client state. This is no reason to laud the changes that occurred in 1979, but it should help us to understand that the protests happening now are an outgrowth of the 1979 revolution, not a repudiation of that revolution.

As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out (and, I should note, the Daily Dish has been offering absolutely exceptional coverage of the protests) the leaders of this current movement are not the "next generation" of democratic outsiders, rather "the leading faces speaking out — Mousavi, Rafsanjani, Montazeri — are figures who were among Khomeini’s inner circle in 1979". I think, to put it very roughly, we may be witnessing the transition from a popular regime to a democratic government. This is not the fall of the Berlin Wall, in other words, so much as it is the fraudulent, bloody, and haphazard transition of a long revolution.
I think a lot of people, out of rightful outrage at Ahmadinejad and the spawn of the 1979 revolution, are too quick to assume that those elements need to be forcibly replaced or challenged by an outside force. In my mind this would take us out of the frying pan and into the fire. In 1953 the Central Intelligence Agency, on the order of President Eisenhower, replaced the duly elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, and allowed the Shah to consolidate his power and banish all prospects of a constitutional monarchy, which Mossadegh had been trying to establish.

More forceful American intervention right now wouldn't introduce a new Shah. But that really doesn't matter. The point is, from 1953 to 1979 American and British intelligence ultimately decided who would rule the Iranian people out of a fear that popular government would privilege the communists. In many ways, 1979 replaced one autocracy for another; nevertheless, it replaced an imperial autocracy with a popular autocracy. For those concerned with the advance of liberal democracy, that's small consolation. For the Iranian people, I imagine that is a much greater and more positive shift than the American public generally supposes. And clearly, the seismic changes occurring now are positive from both the American and the Iranian perspective, and we should support them. But we need to remember that this long march to democracy started in 1979, not 2009, and that it is certainly not a reassertion of some imagined liberal orientation that reigned in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, only to be repressed by the dark Khomeinian cowl.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Postmodern Scientific Inquiry

The world of the policy analyst doesn't often coincide with the world of broad trends in intellectual history. As such, words that I know appear overwrought to Evan - such as "postmodern" - can be quite exciting for me when I get the chance to re-engage them. It brings me back to the halcyon days of studying sociology at William and Mary, when I was able to put down the math and the economics and dive into "theory". Recently I ran into postmodernism twice in the same day: first, at the Postmodern Conservative blog, and second, in an old book on postmodern literary criticism I discovered at my mother in law's house, which had belonged to my late grandfather in law, a University of Chicago classicist. The postmodern conservative (pomocon) blog was a new application of postmodernism, for me. The use of postmodernism in literary criticism is obviously an old (the oldest?) endeavor.

It raised a question for me - and perhaps other people have already engaged this - about what "postmodern science" would look like. Postmodern humanities, literary criticism, and philosophy are quite clearly delineated. Certain social sciences have strong "postmodern" trends; in sociology this paradigm is more often referred to as "poststructuralism". But the natural sciences are grounded in empiricism and positivism, and therefore seem to me to be far more closely tied to modernism. It has been suggested that the future will increasingly privilege science, but is there an inherent contradiction if the future also continues to displace modernism with some variant of postmodernism? Will science survive in a postmodern future, or will it have to change to survive?

I suppose from a relatively sophomoric perspective on intellectual history (i.e. - mine), postmodernism is most starkly characterized by three qualities: (1.) self-referentialism, (2.) deconstruction, and (3.) a residual "skepticism of modernism" category. Instead of concluding that science is doomed to irrelevance in a postmodern future (and clearly, the future may not be postmodern at all), I want to assume that it will survive and highlight some ways in which the natural sciences are already adapting to the three foundational qualities of postmodern inquiry.


Self-referentialism


Postmodernism is often dismissed as "relativism" because of its insistence on the acknowledgement of self-referentialism: simply put, that our reality is often contextual. While this could clearly degenerate into a crass relativism, the value of a self-referential outlook is also obviously capable of illuminating individual biases. The application of self-referentialism to art and literary criticism is obvious; everyone enjoys these things differently. The application to the social sciences has also occurred smoothly (albeit somewhat later). Sociologists speak of the "social construction of reality" and the dependence of our interpretation of reality on the social environment in which we develop. While these versions of self-referentialism are clear, the existence of self-referentialism in the natural sciences may not be as evident. One development in physics that I've always found interesting is string theory, particularly M-theory, which predicts the existence of 11 dimensions of spacetime and the coexistence of multiple universes, each defined by the vibrations of sub-sub-atomic particles known as "strings". While TV shows treat multiple dimensions as paranormal, serious physicists understand that the existence of multi-dimensional spacetime opens the theoretical possibility of time travel, multiple dimensions, and parallel universes. The first link I provide is to a synopsis of the "Fringe" series on Fox, describe their foray into multidimensional reality in the season finale. It all sounds fantastic and fictional until you listen to the second link I provide to Dr. Michio Kaku of the City University of New York. His description of string theory is eerily similar to the fictional Dr. Walter Bishop, of "Fringe". As I understand it, string theory is definitive of physics today, in much the same way that evolution undergirds all of modern biology. String theory also forces us to acknowledge that our casual understanding of reality is inseparable from the fact that we are tied to four-dimensional spacetime and cannot conceive of other dimensions that define unknown worlds beyond our own. Sociologists can talk about how our social environment influences our understanding of reality, and art critics can talk about how an understanding of art is dependent on contexts, tastes, and personal experiences, but these sorts of self-referentialism pale in comparison to string theory's assertion that there are whole dimensions beyond the grasp of our minds.


Deconstruction


As I understand it, deconstructionism in postmodernism emerged with Heidegger's engagement of understandings of "being" prior to Plato, and is more famously associated with Derrida's method of textual criticism. Derrida's deconstructionism essentially sought to break out and understand a problem (or a text) in terms of it's constituent parts and foundational assumptions. These constituent parts are often inherently contradictory and may reveal an underlying instability or conflict in a superficially coherent text. Berger and Luckmann connect this method of understanding "knowledge" with the contextualism of self-referentialism by reversing Derrida's project and explaining how various social environments "construct" a fundamentally contingent reality that people experience as they develop. Deconstruction can therefore be understood as the skeptical unearthing of the contextual contingencies that were touched on, above.

Once again I feel that although on the surface the natural sciences seem adroitly tied to the superficially tangible "reality", they have actually been quite willing to deconstruct their understanding of phenomena. One example that stands out in my mind is Richard Dawkins's selfish gene theory, which has revolutionized "Darwinian" evolution by pointing out that reproduction by organisms is really a sideshow to the reproduction of genetic material that occurs considerably less visibly, not to mention less salaciously. The selfish gene fits Derrida's understanding of deconstructionism beautifully. Seeming contradictions such as intragenomic conflicts, "junk DNA", the sacrifices of a vast majority of a bee hive for the reproductive prospects of a single female, female cannibalism, etc. are all explained by gene-based rather than organism-based evolution. As far as we know, we can't take this process any further than the gene because genes are the most fundamental reproducing biological component.

I include a graphic of what is known as a Mandelbrot Set in this section as a teaser for further exploration of the relevance of complex adaptive systems for the practical application of deconstructionism in the natural (and social) sciences. Suffice it to say that complex adaptive systems research explores how the non-linear interaction of very, very simple processes can produce an "emergent" pattern that is not only surprisingly complex, but also surprisingly robust and ordered. Breaking down our complex reality into these (1.) non-linear interactions, and (2.) simple foundational processes certainly seems to me to be an endeavor of which Derrida would approve.

Skepticism of Modernism



I'm not entirely sure whether the renowned Kurt Godel would appreciate my inclusion of his visage in this section or not. Godel is famous for his "incompleteness theorem", which in a nutshell said that a finite set of axioms that are universally true cannot prove all theorems that are true, specifically theorems that incorporate more information than the set of axioms themselves. The incompleteness theorem has huge implications for both falsification in general (the foundational empirical paradigm of science under modernism), and also for "theories of everything" pursued by scientists like Hawking and Kaku (granted, they both know this of course!). The incompleteness theorem's relationship with falsification is probably best explored in the context of what's known as the "liar's paradox". I'll take the liberty of expanding on the basic liar's paradox to make it applicable to the problem of falsifiability, and hope that I don't jumble things too badly:

It is a trivial task to prove my evaluation of a random person on the street that "that man is a liar". We can investigate the congruence of the man's statements and reality and ascertain whether my statement about him was true, or false. The falsification criteria, presumably, is that if he has told no lies he is not a liar. Since he has certainly made only a finite number of statements over the course of his lifetime it is theoretically possible to catalogue and evaluate them and apply certain decision rules to determine whether my statement is true or false. This is an admittedly weird example of the every day task of science. But what if that man were to approach us and say "I am lying"? That statement cannot simultaneously be true and consistent with any of the decisions rules (axioms) that we have identified for the purpose of falsification. His statement can only be "true" if he is in fact lying. But if he is in fact lying, then it is not true that he is lying!


I personally haven't completely wrapped my mind around the implications of the incompleteness theorem, but I do know that it did irreparable damage to the strong claims of positivists like Russell to identifying complete systems of mathematical truth. While practical applications of the incompleteness theorem aren't presented here, it certainly raises doubts about the limits of falsification as a vehicle for scientific inquiry if indeed some theories cannot be falsified without revealing the axioms utilized for falsification to be inconsistent themselves. Falsification has already been challenged by Thomas Kuhn, and we may find that a postmodern science will have shed it's Popperian pretensions for a more Kuhnian outlook. As a statistician of sorts myself, I don't say this lightly, and I also don't think we'll totally abandon falsification - but the shortcomings may stand out in sharper relief. As a final note on the problems of modernity-as-a-system-of-positivist-falsification, I'd note that George Soros in finance (and certainly others in other fields) more explicitly connects the practice of self-referencing with the inherent incompleteness of any axioms used to explain a system that incorporates oneself. Indeed, the implications of Godel are probably going to be much broader in the social sciences (where the scientist is part and parcel of the object of analysis) than in the natural sciences. As Keynes has said: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else." But natural scientists can still be more circumspect about the validity of their methods of falsification, particularly when the theorem being falsified involves multidimensional space that our axioms may not be able to grapple with (Obviously it's trivial for our math to grapple with multidimensional space - students learn how to do that in middle school! But in the natural sciences, axioms of falsification involve broader empirical techniques than mathematics alone, and it is these that may not be up to the task).


Concluding Thoughts

Even over the course of writing this post I've become more optimistic, not only about the fact that the lessons of postmodernism are not lost on natural scientists, but that the future will provide an intriguing and fruitful synthesis of modern scientific foundations and postmodern deconstructions of those foundations. Indeed, many of the greatest discoveries of the past century have already embraced this synthesis.

Postmodernism in the scientific communities

Daniel offers quite a wide-ranging discussion of postmodernism and science, and I'm somewhat hesitant to pursue the question with the same vigor. As much as I'm sure there are lessons to be learned, one need only mention the Sokal Affair to conjure up some severe misgivings about the project. That said, neither Daniel nor I am especially "postmodern", and my sense is that this exchange is just an exploratory venture to see what good ideas might pop up. In any case, postmodernism can mean any number of things; it doesn't need to be making any definite philosophical point any more than a word like modern or medieval might. It's just as much a cultural term as anything else, and I think that this is more what Lyotard was getting at when he defined the it in 1979 as an 'incredulity towards meta-narratives'.

The narrative that is perhaps most helpfully questioned in the hard sciences will cover some of what Daniel discussed in his first and third points, on self-referentialism and skepticism towards modernism. What I'm thinking of is a progressivist narrative in science that excludes a sense that scientific knowledge is especially colored by its cultural context or independent of the human relationships of scientists.

A turn to the community of scientists might helpfully change the general perspective of how scientific knowledge is obtained-- a flat empiricism is already acknowledged as impossible insofar as the interpretive views, the limited perspective, or even the body heat of a scientist cannot necessarily be fully bracketed off from the object of study. But more than this, what a postmodern integration in the sciences might develop is a sense that the actual scientific knowledge itself, as processed, compiled, and made sensible, is dependent very much on the networks of communication that bring it to analysis and analysis to public consumption. Talk of "paradigm shifts", if they aren't going to be implausibly free-floating eucatastrophies, will probably be accounted for by the social and textual interactions of scientific communities as communities of knowledge.

A dashing of the modern progressivist narrative will probably be the greatest help of all postmodern influences in the sciences. Not in a strong sense- it would be pointless to reject all coherent steps forward in knowledge whatsoever, and science must press back hard against this tendency to render all knowledge subject to the whims of culture. But in a weaker sense, it would behoove those in scientific research to remain more rather than less open to the possibility that shortcomings are inherent in their methodology such that no steady progress is a foregone conclusion.

Daniel brought up Dawkins in his discussion, and while his contributions to evolutionary biology have been immense and praiseworthy, I think Dawkins could also stand as a post-child for the modernist idea of progress that assumes certain beliefs, supposedly of the past, are done and gone amidst the steady move forward of scientific knowledge. The rampant atheism that has popped up amidst scientists should itself clue us in to the fact that sometimes science doesn't progress in a linear fashion... sometimes it gets caught up in ideological ruts and is more concerned to make a cultural statement than really think hard about what scientific knowledge implies. Some weariness about the modernist narrative espoused by Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and others would be helpful. (And the ironic thing is, Dawkin's thoughts on this are diametrically opposed to his idea of the selfish gene, leading him to propose the idea of "memes" to make sense of a cultural progress that couldn't be accounted for by simply a reductive genetic survival game)

Much of what I've discussed isn't especially revolutionary, and I think people should keep that in mind. 'Postmodernism' itself is becoming increasingly passé in the very humanities departments from whence it came... not, I think, because it has nothing to say, but partly because it said too much and, on the other hand, because some of its lessons have been learned. The initial critique of the movement may be somewhat blunted, but some of the mundane points that it has made about life remain, and are usefully considered in certain scientific fields where the default might be to reject the very idea as so much silliness.

A Happy Birthday Note

Facts and other stubborn things wishes to extend a warm Happy Birthday to the renowned economist, statesman, philosopher, and public intellectual John Maynard Keynes. It is probably safe to say the Keynes is second only to Adam Smith in his impact on the discipline, and even Adam Smith's contributions are better classified as synthesis of previous work and popularization, relative to the truly novel insights of Keynes.

I think Keynes would have appreciated the mission of Facts and other stubborn things. Keynes is both celebrated and derided for being a very speculative thinker. He would tinker with ideas even if he wasn't exactly sure where he fell on an issue. He felt free to muse - sometimes quite comically -about issues without cowering at the thought that some people might target and try to discredit him for those musings.

But we know that Keynes would have appreciated the work we do here, and we heartily agree with the old Cambridge don that:

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of
thoughts on the unthinking
".

-J.M. Keynes 15 July 1933