ARTICLE: Movies: "American Beauty" is blooming but rank
SUBJECT: "Nihilism"? Try Tragedy.
FROM: Dave Zimny
DATE: Mon Sept 20
The heart of Edelstein's negative assessment (and "rank" seems to be a negative word indeed to summarize a movie that draws a great deal of praise in the course of the review) seems to be his assertion that "American Beauty" is:
... [S]aying that our only hope is to cultivate a kind of stoned aesthetic detachment whereby even a man with his brains blown out becomes an object of beauty and a signpost to a Higher Power. But to scrutinize a freshly dead body and not ask how it got that way--or if there's anyone nearby with a gun who might want to add to the body count--strikes me as either moronic or insane or both. The kind of detachment the movie is peddling isn't artistic, it isn't life--it's nihilism at its most fatuous. In the end, American Beauty is New Age Nihilism.
I suggest that Mr. Edelstein take a closer look at the end of the movie. He might notice that ONLY Ricky Fitts, a seriously damaged character, is shown regarding the body with aesthetic detachment. The daughter is frozen in fear when she enters the room; Lester's wife, who also apparently sees the body, is consumed with horror and revulsion at her own murderous intentions. Other characters are only shown reacting to the sound of the gunshot. Nor does the film suggest that Lester shares Ricky's world view. The montage of Lester's memories at the end of the film is hardly nihilistic: He remembers the closest relationships in his past life with wonder and gratitude. At the moment of his death he is looking lovingly at a photograph of his former self and his young family, not at a plastic bag whirling in the wind.
In short, I see no evidence that the filmmakers wanted to endorse Ricky's nihilistic detachment. As a matter of fact, his eerie self-possession is depicted as a tragic dislocation from life itself, a pitiable response to his father's brutality. Edelstein, a critic of unusual sensitivity and sophistication, simply fails to realize that the makers of "American Beauty" show an appreciation of moral and ethical complexity that equals his own.
I hope he will reconsider his harsh conclusion.
ARTICLE: Everyday Economics: Too True To Be Good
SUBJECT: Medical Science v. the Dismal Science
FROM: Robert Cook-Deegan
DATE: Fri Sept 17
There is a huge difference between a fast-moving experimental science and a more theoretical field. In molecular biology, which I know best, the editorial process is nothing like that described for economics. An article cannot take more than several months to transit from first writing until publication or it will be completely out of date, as there are a half dozen groups working on closely related experiments who will have reported *their* results. Moreover, new information is new; it does not have to knock over a theoretical predisposition to be "news" and thus publishable.
In the clinical literature, this kind of examination of "hypothesis confirmation" is fairly common, and there is certainly some wobble. A series of clinical trials can reach different conclusions, and a meta-analysis that pools information from multiple trials can lead to a conclusion different from a large "definitive" clinical trial. But that's a signal for further empiricism, not a theoretical point that there is no way to get better evidence or improve certainty that one is "right." There is certainly publication bias in that the probability of publication is higher for positive results (improved clinical outcome, for example) than no results.
But what has this got to do with Alan Sokal? I can't make the leap from a largely rhetorical field of analysis to experimental fields that report new data. The line of argument seems to be that since hypotheses in academic economics have not been confirmed means that the same would be true for all fields whether theoretical or experimental, and therefore fields that rest on empirical evidence must be castles in the sky. The analogies are not strong enough to allow leaps of faith that long.
ARTICLE: Everyday Economics: Too True To Be Good
SUBJECT: "Reporting" Science
FROM: Edward Stein
DATE: Thu Sept 16
An interesting phenomenon related to that discussed in Steven Landsburg's article concerns the truth of hypotheses published in scientific journals that are then reported in daily newspapers, weekly news magazines, and discussed on television news shows. Although I don't have any systematic data on this, I suspect that the trend that Landsburg describes would be amplified in the following way: if you read in the newspaper about a theory that has been published in a prestigious scientific journal, it is even more likely to be wrong than an article that is published in a prestigious scientific journal that is not widely reported. Reporters and editors decide what hypotheses are newsworthy and likely to evoke interest in their readers and, for the same reasons discussed in Landsburg's article, this selection criteria are not especially effective at selecting the true scientific hypothesis.
An example of this can be seen in the scientific research program that I discuss in my book The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory and Ethics of Sexual Orientation (Oxford University Press, 1999). Three studies concerning the origins of male homosexuality done in the last decade garnered a great deal of attention in the media (LeVay's neuroanatomical study, Hamer's genetic study and Bailey and Pillard's twin studies). Together the three have been widely understood as establishing that sexual orientation is genetically determined. However, LeVay's study was done on a small and perhaps atypical sample and it has not be replicated, Hamer's study has been disconfirmed by other labs, and Bailey's latest and more systematic twin study undermines his early ones. Although the original studies received a great deal of attention and are widely accepted, the serious problems with them have not been discussed in the media.
Although it is easier to disconfirm a hypothesis than to establish one, disconfirmations are much less likely to be deemed newsworthy. Readers of media reports of scientific hypotheses need to read with especially critical and skeptical eyes.
ARTICLE: The Week/The Spin: Miss America
SUBJECT: "Miss Hip"?
DATE: Tue Sept 21
You'll all have to forgive me but I just don't seem to understand what is so "hip" about some white woman with a name like "Heather Renee French," who comes from Kentucky and works for charities based on a concern for her father. Kind probably, average definitely, attractive moderately, but hip? I've been living in South Korea for a few years now, so perhaps I'm not as on the ball when it comes to such matters but if this woman is "hip" in the USA then I may seriously consider citizenship right here where I am.