Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Modern Conceit

One of my hobbies is cooking from very early cookbooks, including one big one from the tenth century. Recently I had an online exchange with a friend who had made a fermented drink from a recipe based loosely on—which is to say sharply modified from—a period recipe. When I asked why she didn't use one of the period recipes from the same source her response was that she would rather have something that tasted good than something that was historically authentic.

There are  some things which moderns do better than people in the past, such as curing diseases. But I know of no reason to believe that cooking is one of them. As evidence against that conceit, consider traditional cuisines such as Chinese or Indian. They are different from modern western cooking, but if they were strikingly inferior they would not be as popular as they are. For more examples of things we aren't better at, consider Jane Austen's novels, Bach's music, Donne's poetry, or the jewels of the Sutton Hoo Treasure.

It's true that we have access to some ingredients not available to a medieval European cook, most notably New World foodstuffs such as peanuts, potatoes, and tomatoes. But in the particular case I am discussing, the alteration in the recipe consisted of adding an ingredient that we know the author of the original had access to, since he used it in an unrelated recipe. My friend's unstated assumption was that either she or whoever online had created her recipe knew more about the making of fermented drinks than someone who had much more extensive experience making them than most moderns have. Because modern people know more.                       

I have no objection to making things that are not historically authentic—most of what I cook and eat isn't. But the argument struck me as an example of an error I have seen before in a variety of other contexts. Hence this post.

Another example that I have encountered repeatedly is the Columbus myth, the belief that the difference between Columbus and those who argued against his voyage was that he knew the world was round and they thought it was flat. It is a widely believed story, but it is not only false, it is very nearly the opposite of the truth. A spherical earth had been orthodox cosmology ever since classical antiquity. The difference between Columbus and his critics was that they knew how big around the earth was, they knew how wide Asia was, they could subtract the one number from the other, hence they could calculate that he would run out of food and water long before he got to his intended destination. Columbus, in contrast, combined a much too small estimate for the circumference of the earth with a much too large figure for the width of Asia in order to convince himself that the difference was a short enough distance to make his planned voyage possible.

Why is this wildly ahistorical account so widely believed? Because it lets moderns feel superior to all those ignorant people in the past. 

I could offer other examples of the same pattern, beliefs about people in the past inconsistent with the historical evidence, based on and supporting the unstated assumption of our superiority to them. It is the same motive that makes men believe they are superior to women, women that they are superior to men, Americans that they are superior to foreigners, Frenchmen that they are superior to everyone. Feeling superior feels good, and the less likely you are to confront the people you feel superior to, the easier it is to maintain it. 

Men often meet women, women men, Americans foreigners, Frenchmen non-French, which can be a problem. Believing in your superiority to people long dead is safer.

The Spanish Do Great Covers

Friday, September 05, 2014

A Small Mistake

I have been reading How China Became Capitalist by Ronald Coase and Ning Wang. It's a fascinating account and I will probably post more on it later, but one detail struck me.

When Mao died, The Economist wrote:

“In the final reckoning, Mao must be accepted as one of history’s great achievers: for devising a peasant-centered revolutionary strategy which enabled China’s Communist Party to seize power, against Marx’s prescriptions, from bases in the countryside; for directing the transformation of China from a feudal society, wracked by war and bled by corruption, into a unified, egalitarian state where nobody starves; and for reviving national pride and confidence so that China could, in Mao’s words, ‘stand up’ among the great powers.” (emphasis mine)

The current estimate is that, during the Great Leap Forward, between thirty and forty million Chinese peasants starved to death. Critics questioning that figure have suggested that the number might have been as low as two and a half million.

I am curious—has the Economist ever published an explicit apology or an explanation of how they got the facts so completely backwards, crediting the man responsible for what was probably the worst famine in history with creating a state "where nobody starves?" Is it known who wrote that passage, and has anyone ever asked him how he could have gotten the facts so terribly wrong?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Global Warming: Eyeballing the Data

Looking at the temperature data for the past century, the obvious interpretation is the combination of an upward trend with a roughly sinusoidal term of comparable magnitude and a period of about sixty years. When the additional term is going up, temperature rises at about twice the long term trend. When it is going down, it roughly cancels the trend, giving you stable temperatures from 1950 to 1980 and again from about 2000 to the present. I do not know if the oceanic model recently proposed to explain the additional term is correct or not, but that's the pattern suggested by the data.

If my interpretation is correct, there are two implications. One is that estimates of the rate of warming based on a period when the two effects were reinforcing each other will be too high. If we take 1940-2000 as one full cycle, the increase is just under .6°C, giving a trend of about .1°C/decade. That's one third as fast as the rate estimated in the first IPCC report, about half the rate estimated in later reports. If it holds, total warming by the end of the century, about half of which has already occurred, will be slightly under two degrees.

The other implication is that the current pause does not mean global warming is not real. If the pattern holds, warming will start again in about another fifteen years.

Paradoxes of an Interventionist Foreign Policy

In case you hadn't noticed ...

The U.S. has long been a critic of Assad's government in Syria, supporting, at least verbally, the insurgency against him. Military intervention in support of that insurgency seems to have been seriously considered although never actually implemented. Then ISIS, one of the groups fighting Assad, invaded Iraq and seized substantial amounts of territory, raising the possibility of a takeover of the country by Sunni fundamentalists. The U.S. government responded by air attacks against ISIS in Iraq. It now seems to be seriously considering air attacks on ISIS in Syria.

In other words, they are considering military intervention in support of the same government they were, quite recently, considering military intervention against.

Which reminds me of something I wrote more than forty years ago:
The weak point in the argument is its assumption that the interventionist foreign policy will be done well—that your foreign minister is Machiavelli or Metternich. In order for the policy to work, you must correctly figure out which countries are going to be your enemies and which your allies ten years down the road. If you get it wrong, you find yourself unnecessarily blundering into other people's wars, spending your blood and treasure in their fights instead of theirs in yours. You may, to take an example not entirely at random, get into one war as a result of trying to defend China from Japan, spend the next thirty years trying to defend Japan (and Korea, and Vietnam,. ..) from China, then finally discover that the Chinese are your natural allies against the Soviet Union.
(The Machinery of Freedom, Chapter 45)