16 September 2010

Breakfast Sausages

More later today — running off to a post-op appointment —

  • As proof that nobody really reads the classics and thinks about them any more, consider a book review of Mark Taylor's screed against university tenure. On the one hand, Taylor does identify some real problems with the tenure system as it has been implemented. Bluntly, there is no excuse for the kind of deadwood often maintained by the tenure system... and particularly not given the hostility of much of the wormiest deadwood to effective teaching of their inevitable successors (and even those who will not be their successors). On the other hand, Taylor's entire argument — and, in parallel, the argument against tenure for public school teachers — is a classic example of the Aristotelian fallacy. In good classical syllogistic form, the argument looks like this:
    • The tenure system as it actually exists has significant inefficiencies and has been abused. No argument here; it is, after all, the real world.
    • The only possible alternative to the tenure system as it actually exists is a free-market, at-will-employment system that will inevitably be operated by efficient, disinterested decisionmakers to the ultimate benefit of all. That's what they said at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, too.
    • Therefore, tenure must be abolished.

    Based on that, I'm not sending my kids — or any kids I know — to study in the Department of Religion at Columbia. One could even argue that the existence of Professor Taylor's book is, itself, proof of flaws in the tenure system... because only through tenure could such an ignoramus rise to the department chairmanship at an Ivy League institution, even in a department of religion. To name just two of the problems with Taylor's implicit syllogism — and yes, I have read the underlying op-ed closely, although not the entire book yet — consider the converse straw-man approach. Ordinarily, a straw-man argument sets up its untenable hypothetical alternative as the negative outcome; this time, he has set it up as the positive outcome to be achieved. This, though, is as much a problem with the particular argumentation as with the premise itself. At the premise level, though, Taylor's proposals fail by ignoring the flaws inherent in every system that is implemented by human beings. If a corporation whose motto is "Don't Be Evil" so often acts so, by (for example) violating privacy and turning silently collected personal data over to totalitarian governments without regard to how that data will be used, perhaps — just perhaps — we should stop and think about the inevitability of abuses that will occur in an alternative to tenure... such as the firing of law professors at religiously affiliated universities for daring to suggest that the Jeffersonian wall between church and state might be a good thing not just for secularists, but for religion itself. (Not, I'm afraid, entirely hypothetical.)

    xkcd, 'Physicists'The irony that the American university system is based upon a competition of diverse ideas, and is here being opposed through refusal to accept any but the most doctrinaire, artificially defined alternatives, appears to have escaped Professor Taylor. (Snide aside: Of course it has; he's in a department of religion, although it appears that he actually wants to be a physicist as in the illustration.)

  • As a conceptual follow-on to the preceding sausage, consider actors "teaching" medical subjects... and whether that just might describe Professor Taylor, who clearly has managed to convince some specialists of his personal authority: That's how he got tenure.
  • As a second follow-on to the preceding sausage, ask yourself which holy book says x, let alone which one really means it... and ponder the gap between that and doctrine, let alone the behavior of the religious oligarchs in charge of that doctrine (and their secular acolytes).
  • Speaking of mixed motive, consider motivations for arts patronage among the ultrarich... but not too closely, given the source. Or, in a less-obvious manner, consider airport libraries and how the nature of the collection can be warped to undermine a great idea.
  • Eventually, robots will be as good as men: They will be able to lie. Perhaps sooner than we thought. Shortly thereafter, there will be a Robot Tea Party, which we won't be able to tell from the Human Tea Party. But their spelling probably won't be any better.