"I’ve become increasingly worried that science’s replication crises might pale in comparison to what happens all the time in history..."

-Anton Howes

"You know, I read these history books... And whaddaya know? The good guys win! Every single time!"

-Norm MacDonald

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re: “Intellectual discovery and truth-finding would be better served by back-and forth conversations.”

Indeed. And perhaps even more importantly conflicts about competing values more fully developed and new outlines of compromise discovered through debate.

At Quillette, Brian Kallar has a piece entitled “Our Lost Classical Learning” ( https://quillette.com/2023/09/05/our-lost-classical-heritage/ ) that asserts:

“The Western canon was not an unchanging set of texts, but an ongoing conversation that lasted thousands of years—enabling each generation to build on the intellectual heritage of the past. It gave people a set of cultural reference points: Homer, Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Dante, Milton.” Having this as a common “vocabulary” facilitated “discussing big questions and arguing over grand theories.” One sees how valuable the big idea back-and-fourth exchange was in former days in books such as Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. And Algernon Sydney’s Discourses Concerning Government in response to Robert Filmer's Patriarcha has been described as "the textbook of the American revolution." Yet, requiring the basics of a classical education to appreciate, these classics largely go unread, and current debate is all the poorer for it.

I am struck whenever I come across a paper that places its argument in the context of a dialogue more than 10 years old. Perhaps I read the wrong journals but it seems like clouds of supportive citations from the last 10-20 years is the norm for a paper today. New academic books often seem to average a parenthetical citation to an article published in an obscure journal in the last 10 years every third sentence. Perhaps this serves some socially useful coordinating function in directing research inputs. And perhaps hyper-specialized small-potatoes research is an adaptation to the geometric rate of increase in the number of articles being published: https://direct.mit.edu/view-large/figure/3750245/qss_a_00177_f001.tif . One can’t help but think the trade-offs involved with hyper-specialization suggest the academy is substantially over-funded and over-staffed much in the same way the officer corp in the military is top-heavy and over-staffed. Compare this list of PhD programs offered in the United States: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_doctoral_degrees_in_the_US to the list of Army officer occupational concentrations: https://api.army.mil/e2/c/downloads/2022/05/24/9513c3e9/chapter-2.pdf . Every officer concentration requires at least 40 positions and the rank structure requires x number of captains to support x numbers of majors to support x numbers of colonels to get a general rank out of the deal and this calculus largely drives organizational design. Similarly in academia to offer a PhD in Church Music you need to have x number of faculty to offer x number of classes and sit on x number of committees. So it would seem hyper-specialization is financially costly. Add to that the perhaps more important opportunity cost of lost generalist research, and the added cost of literature reviews that must span an ever increasing number articles in an ever increasing number of journals and the return on social return on subsidies to academia seem debatable.

It is not surprising then that there is so much interesting and valuable research being conducted by generalists outside the academy and that one rarely hears much public complaint about the output of the academy inaccessible and locked behind publisher gates: the good stuff is elsewhere.

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About big ideas . . .

Maybe the biggest is . . .

Is infinite regress possible?

Aristotle no. Must be a prime mover.

Aquinas agreed. God exists.

Kant refused to decide. Destroyed reason

Deciding to avoid this fundamental, absolutely basic question, leaves subsequent questions without support.

The first thing that existed, whatever it was, had no start.

Conclusion of clear reason.

Material universe had a beginning.

Therefore . . .


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Actually having some knowledge in materials sciences and a Professional Metallurgical Engineer (PE) in Calif. I had to read the paper on the invention of iron rolling by "76 black metallurgists". Apparently the grooved roller design used for crushing and mixing sugar cane was applied before the patent.

The problem to be solved was how to use scrap iron materia with surface contamination (rust etc.) without fully melting the iron like we do today in an electric furnace. If you heat iron to close to the melting point it can be hammered together causing two pieced to become welded into one. The Japanese discovered that using this heating, hammering and then folding process again and again the impurities can be mixed and control carbon concentrations resulting in very strong steel. This was accomplished about 700 (CE) not 1700's. Long before this we had Wootz steel from India at a 1000 BCE that was later used to make Damascus steel.

The actual important invention was the grooved sugar cane roller which would help mix impurities throughout iron matrix and free the sugar solution from the complex matrex. She didn't demonstrate whether 76 black blacksmiths did the invention or were just following directions of the "white enslaver, John Reeder". The observation that the ability of an individual to work with iron is not determined by so-called race demonstrates a fantastic grasp of the obvious.

The use of iron bars as an exchange medium and source of value reminded me of poor people in Brazil in the early 60's using reinforcing steel as a source of value and defense against a runaway inflation of the currency.

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A couple thoughts:

1 I wrote a few engineering journal papers but depending on the research, I usually found it difficult to include everything I thought was needed within the ten to twenty page limit that was typical.

2 This morning I was listening to an old interview of Marc Andersen about bitcoin. The host asked a question about an alternative use of blockchain. Marc suggested it would take about six hours to answer the question. Maybe this was just because the host knew virtually nothing about blockchain, not unlike almost everyone else, but the point is most new things are built on a lot of people existing knowledge. It often takes a lot of study just to be competent enough on the existing in order to even understand what is being added.

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An additional datum in the same area is


Part of the problem is the low level, "What is interesting?" X causes Y when Y is something either good or bad and X had not previously been though of as relegated to Y really IS interesting. But given enough X's and little enough data, some X is bound to be found.

The greater problem is researching a field with conflicting pre-established hypotheses. Brown considered that the major question (or at least the question that an editor thinks is major) is whether climate change has large costs or not and that could have (whether it did or not in this case is a different question) affected his research.

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