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Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

Should we pledge to enact sanctions against ancient Carthage?

It’s time to start marginalizing Grover Norquist.

Haven’t heard of him?  That’s because he hasn’t really done anything noteworthy.  Sure, he got an M.B.A. from Harvard, and he did write speeches for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for one year in the 1980’s, but other than that he’s done nothing except be a lobbyist.  He’s never had an elected position.  His reputation is based on lobbying.

Have I said he’s just a lobbyist?

Now, to the guy’s credit, he’s good at his job, and he wields power through his personal instrument Americans for Tax Reform.  That’s the lobbying group he founded.  Its only purpose is to advocate for Norquist’s world view.  Part of that world view is to lower tax rates in America, and I won’t comment on whether that’s a good idea or not…that’s a problem for economists to sort out.  But part of that world view is getting politicians (by scare tactics and intimidation) to commit to a “no tax raises” pledge.

I can’t think of anything sillier than a politician making such a pledge.  What is this, the days of Hamilton and Burr at Weehawken?

First of all, tactically, it’s always better to have options than to not have options.  If you pledge to never raise taxes, ever, then you’re a fool, plain and simple.  You’re locking yourself into a position that might make no sense at some point in the future.  When taking such a pledge, you’re saying, basically, the following: “I don’t think raising taxes is a good idea.  In fact, I feel strongly that it’s a bad idea.  But I am also convinced that I will never change my mind; I will never let new data change my mind; even if the circumstances change, it is logically inconceivable that I will ever change my mind; and even if I want to change my mind I won’t be able to because I am locked into a pledge.”  By taking a pledge, you are thumbing your nose at a future self (and potential wiser self) and forcing them down a path they might not agree with.

[Of course, there’s another reason to take such a pledge: you may not agree with it, but you take the pledge anyway in order to get elected.  Anyone who falls into that category is beneath contempt.]

What if scientists took pledges?  Newtonian physics was on very firm footing in 1904.  What if every physicist signed a pledge saying that Newtonian physics was 100% correct and was never to be doubted ever again?  What, then, would have happened with patent clerk Einstein in 1905?

Suppose everyone in Congress took the Norquist pledge.  And then suppose that aliens visited Earth, and offered to give us an unlimited source of clean energy.  The catch is, we have to raise taxes on upper incomes by, say, 1%, in order to pay for distribution costs.  I guess we’d have to say, “Sorry, we all took a ‘pledge’ so we can’t do it.  Fealty to Grover Norquist and his 18th century ‘pledge’ takes precedence over the country, over science, over common sense, and over anything else you can think of.  Have fun with your infinite energy, rest of the world.”

My point has nothing to do with the merits (or lack thereof) of the pledge.  I have a problem with the idea of such a pledge itself.  A pledge is indicative of an anti-science mentality; a tendency towards dogmatism; a lack of mental flexibility—and those are not traits I want to see in our country’s leaders.  Leaders need to keep everything on the table.  You have to decide based on current data what the best course for the country is.  You cannot let a decision made 20 years ago affect your thinking today.  I’m sure that 2200 years ago I might have been in favor of sanctions against Carthage; I may have even signed a pledge to that effect.  Today, though, that pledge wouldn’t mean very much…

Let’s all agree to never mention Grover Norquist again.  He’s irrelevant.  He’s a lobbyist, and his only purpose is to push his own agenda.  His tax foundation doesn’t do scientific research, doesn’t create jobs, doesn’t build things, doesn’t design things, doesn’t contribute to science, or culture, or human knowledge, or service, or humanity.  Norquist himself is not a super villain.  He’s just a random dude with a loud megaphone.  Luckily, we have the ability to ignore him if we like.  Maybe then he’ll just go away.

Then again, probably not.  After all, he is a lobbyist.

(Photo credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CarthageElectrumCoin250BCE.jpg)

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Poor Einstein.  Is there anyone else who is misquoted more often?  Is there anyone else to whom more nonsense is attributed?

I have no desire to rehash things that Einstein said about “God”.  Einstein was by all accounts an atheist, an agnostic, or a pantheist—depending upon your definitions—and various religious apologists have been trying to co-opt the man for years by misquoting him.  Others have already discussed this at length.

My goal today is to tackle that old chestnut, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” as seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and even on the packaging of the Albert Einstein action figure.  Did Einstein really say this, and if so, what did he mean?

Here’s the quote in context:

“At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.  When the [solar] eclipse of 1919 confirmed my intuition, I was not in the least surprised.  In fact I would have been astonished had it turned out otherwise.  Imagination is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”  [From A. Einstein, Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms, p. 97 (1931).]

So Einstein did say this.  However, I maintain that the full quote in context has a different feel to it than the quote in isolation.

When I see “Imagination is more important than knowledge” on a bumper sticker, I think this: “Flights of fancy and imagination are more important than learning stuff.  So why should I study?  Einstein didn’t study.  He just sat around and daydreamed and came up with the most remarkable breakthroughs about the workings of our universe.  Imagination is more important than learning all the proofs and figures ranged in columns before me.  So I am going to follow good ol’ Einstein and daydream about being Batman.”

The New Age meaning of the quote is this: “I’d rather daydream than study.”  It’s Walt Whitman’s “learn’d astronomer” nonsense all over again.

In context, it’s clear that Einstein was talking about doing science.  Imagination is more important in making scientific breakthroughs than knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that knowledge is not important.  Einstein worked very, very hard to learn an awful lot of physics.  By all accounts, it took him almost 10 years to flesh out general relativity, during which time he had to acquire a lot of mathematical knowledge about Riemannian geometry and tensor analysis.  The “intuition” that Einstein developed during this time frame is what allowed him to be so confident of the results of Eddington’s expedition.  What Einstein calls “intuition” is just knowledge that has become so ingrained that you are no longer cognizant of it.

Einstein may have been more famous than most of his contemporaries, and it was probably due to his superior imagination.  But take Einstein’s imagination today and give it to a twenty-five year old high school dropout, and he’d be lost in obscurity, stocking shelves at Wal-Mart.  Imagination is more important than knowledge.  But only slightly more.

[Note: my book Why Is There Anything? is now available for download on the Kindle!]

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When I heard the poet talking about hearing the learn’d astronomer,
When the poet mentioned how all the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before him,
When the poet described how he was shown the charts and diagrams, and how to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the poet where he read with much applause in the lecture-room,
When I realized of a sudden, how the theme of the poem was “ignorance is bliss” and “beauty and science are incompatible,” and [holding hands over ears] “please! O please! don’t tell me how anything in this Cosmos works, since then it would cease to be ‘poetic’!”
How soon very accountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the rational moist night-air, time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars,
Thinking about the fascinating Bethe-Weizsäcker-cycle.

(Sept. 25, 2009)

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