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  • Back From Chaos
  • ValuJet 592
  • Californization
    Back From Chaos
    I admire and am in sympathy with Edward O. Wilson's magisterial romp through Western intellectual history ("Back From Chaos," March Atlantic). The only substantial disagreement I have with his position is over the bit of hegemonic forecasting where he writes that "social science will split ... one part folding into ... biology, and the other fusing with the humanities." This scenario is indeed possible, but not the best way for achieving the "consilience" that Wilson advocates.

    Although a closer integration of the social sciences with biology is certainly a good idea, to reduce the former to the latter is not. Human social phenomena need to be understood scientifically for what they are, and not simply in terms of the paradigms that molecular biology or even sociobiology can offer. Political conflicts, religious movements, and even the sexual behavior of teenagers involve processes that are sui generis to the cultural and social contexts that human evolution has created. To understand them in terms of biology or the humanities will leave them forever opaque. We need to keep faith with the Baconian spirit of inquiry and apply it to the systematic study of human behavior -- a course that Wilson seems to suggest would amount to a regrettable loss of nerve.

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

    Edward O. Wilson's faith that a coming consilience in the social sciences and the humanities will mirror the unifying thrust of the natural sciences and rescue us from threatening epistemological chaos is intellectually stimulating. But his dismissal of alternative ideological perspectives as unscientific is puzzling.

    Why should the recorded experiences of our evolving human imagination be less worthy of contemplation than anthills? How persuasive is his own belief in fulfillment by "deciphering the hereditary orderliness that has borne our species through geological time and stamped it with the residues of deep history"? Can he provide empirical evidence that reveals his perspective as scientifically superior to that of, say, mystics claiming to have encountered what he refers to as the "mysterium tremendum abandoned in the seventeenth century by the Enlightenment" (a phrase actually coined by Rudolph Otto in his 1923 book, The Idea of the Holy)? Can genuine unity of science and the humanities be achieved if the testimony of yogis, prophets, mystics, and millions of spiritual seekers over the millennia is excluded a priori from serious study?

    Wilson is persuasive when he insists that the difficulties of learning the natural sciences do not excuse political leaders' ignorance in that regard. But are consilience advocates like him who are innocent of humanity's spiritual traditions to be trusted as surer guides in our quest for some elusive underlying unity?

    Ed Walsh

    As a co-author of a recent article on anti-scientific extremes in the academy (Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh, "The New Creationism," The Nation, June 9, 1997), I was dismayed to see signs of pro-scientific naiveté in Edward O. Wilson's March contribution. Wilson informs us of a great pendulum swing in intellectual history, from Enlightenment optimism (we can know it all) to postmodernist nihilism (we can't know anything). Then he rhetorically yanks the pendulum back to its starting place. But haven't we gained anything from the journey besides an upset stomach? As Ehrenreich and I argue, critics of science have played a vital role in heightening political and epistemological awareness, for scientists need to be alerted to the ways in which their hypotheses, methods, and conclusions are partly shaped by their cultural priorities. Things get unreasonable only when the watchdogs veer into dogmatic denials of reality or of biological contributions to the human condition. But Wilson is so hostile to any signs of dissent that he seems to brand all meta-analysis the "enemy," rather than allowing healthy scrutiny to lead to better and humbler scientific efforts.

    Wilson's vision of the "unity of knowledge" that awaits us in the future is equally exclusionary, because he misses the (partly postmodern, partly commonsensical) point that different subjective interpretations are part of reality, not merely annoyances to be sifted away in the quest for consensus. While science addresses a certain set of ontological questions, our positional differences beget meanings and moralities that can't be scientifically adjudicated. If human beings are to move into a just future where global priorities are democratically discussed, such differences must be accounted for. I am surprised that as a natural scientist Wilson is so indifferent to this kind of diversity within the population. His fellow biologists were the first to make the point that the survival of a species depends on the variation among its members.

    Janet McIntosh

    Thoughtful readers will not find it difficult to agree with Edward O. Wilson's observation that "the ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and the resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship" if they can include in "scholarship" some very unscholarly ideas and conclusions. Support for this view is the fact that missing from Wilson's impressive store of knowledge (evidenced by his other works, not simply this piece) is an understanding of the reasons for the failure of the social sciences, especially sociology.

    Wilson asserts, "Most of the issues that vex humanity ... can be solved only by integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that from the social sciences and the humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is.... Yet the vast majority of our political leaders are trained primarily or exclusively in the social sciences and the humanities, and have little or no knowledge of the natural sciences." This view permits -- nay, demands -- that we believe that by acquiring knowledge in the physical sciences, political leaders will become qualified to lead.

    However, just what those trained in the social sciences and the humanities will gain from "consilience" with the physical sciences is not made clear. If Wilson is suggesting that it is application of the scientific method, he should be aware that August Comte (1798 - 1857), who both founded and named sociology (he wanted to call it "social physics," but another had pre-empted the label), persuaded sociologists to pursue that course. Thousands of very intelligent, diligent, dedicated, and well-paid sociologists have, to the best of their abilities, applied the methods of the physical scientists in their research. In the sharpest of contrasts with the successes of the physical scientists, the sociologists' century-long research has not produced a single discovery or invention that has significantly influenced American society.

    Richard Dewey

    Edward O. Wilson's erudite essay brilliantly disposes of postmodernism, and indeed all anthropocentric, ideology-driven anti-science. His presentation of "consilience," however, is dangerously misleading. Wilson defines it as "the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation," and regards it as the Enlightenment's most promising contribution to human understanding. Au contraire. The promise of science is its unity of method and its community of discipline -- not any convenient unity of principles across domains of natural reality. The entomologist reasons in the same disciplined way, and submits her data and conclusions to the same collegial scrutiny, as the etymologist. So do the astrophysicist, the botanist, and the geologist. However, the conceit that their work should converge upon common truths and common processes -- God's grand natural design -- is precisely what has led so many of those who think they already know those truths to find them confirmed in nature. Too many flimsy theories are buttressed by logically fallacious, selective analogizing across disciplines.

    One reason for "all the bewildering varieties of deconstructionism and New Age holism swirling round about" academia is that consilience makes every man or woman a scholar without portfolio, without the requirements of actually having to study anything rigorously or to build new knowledge on a foundation of old. Hence the paradox of a society in which more people have had more "education" than at any time or place in human history, yet stupidity flourishes. Our young people are so ignorant of mathematics, science, the classics of Western literature, and human history that they aren't even aware how ignorant they are.

    Kenneth Kaye

    What an insightful, compassionate description of Western intellectual history Edward O. Wilson gives us in his article. His assertion that the spiritual and political crises we face are a direct result of the fragmentation that has occurred between science, religion, and the humanities may have been said before, but never with such acuity. Instead of dismissing postmodernist deconstructionism as an intellectual sideshow, he makes a compelling argument that scientists should meet the challenge that it represents as a means of revitalizing the Enlightenment and fulfilling its promise of a unity of learning. This is a profound piece of reasoning.

    George Tyler


    Edward O. Wilson's intellectual history was enlightening. It was, however, odd that Wilson failed to mention the Sophists, particularly when discussing postmodernism. To muse over Jacques Derrida's "There is nothing outside the text" and not mention, say, Protagoras' "Man is the measure of all things" is akin to discussing gravitation without mentioning Newton.

    Philosophical postmodernists, Wilson says, "challenge the very foundations of science and traditional philosophy." The very same accusation was leveled at the Sophists by Socrates. Wilson writes that in the postmodernist view, "reality ... is a state constructed by the mind." What does old Protagoras say? "Now he who knows perceives what he knows and, as far as I can see at present, knowledge is perception." Ethics in postmodernist works, according to Wilson, cannot "be firmly grounded, given that each society creates its own codes." And Protagoras? Moral judgment is relative, and "all things are in motion ... to every individual and state what appears, is."

    Betty Daror




    I understand why some readers might see in "Back From Chaos" an attempt to downgrade the social sciences and the humanities, but my intention is the opposite.

    The recent growth of knowledge has largely erased the traditional boundary between the two cultures as roughly defined -- that is, the line between the natural sciences on one side, and the social sciences and the humanities on the other. What was once thought an impassable barrier is now seen to be a broad domain of mostly unexplored phenomena inviting cooperative entry from both sides. Disciplines of the natural sciences that are beginning to bridge this borderland include cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary biology. Those from the social sciences include cognitive psychology and biological anthropology. The combination -- alliance, if you wish -- holds the prospect of linking brain to mind to culture by cause-and-effect explanation.

    Within the natural sciences such consilience runs vertically across ascending levels of self-assembled complexity and organization, from physics to biology. The linkage is based on both reduction and synthesis, analysis and holism. The question before us is whether similar connections can be solidly built on across the borderland to the social sciences and the humanities. If the answer is yes, as I and an increasing number of other scholars of otherwise disparate interests believe, the result will deepen and strengthen the social sciences and the humanities. It will not devalue them.

    ValuJet 592
    I don't disagree with the analysis by William Langewiesche of the ValuJet crash ("The Lessons of ValuJet 592," March Atlantic), but another viewpoint has gotten little attention: Flight 592 should not have been carrying oxygen generators, but neither should the MD-80s or any other airplanes.

    In the interest of passenger safety, some administrator at the FAA issued a rule requiring all high-flying airliners to carry supplemental oxygen supplied by the familiar drop-down mask, in case of cabin depressurization at high altitude. The true cost of any safety measure must span the entire duty cycle of the product -- manufacture, use, and disposal.

    I am unaware of the saving of any life by a drop-down oxygen mask. People can tolerate hypoxia for short periods, generally depending on their cardiovascular status. Some people have climbed Mount Everest (29,028 feet) without supplemental oxygen; however, it is probable that very few would survive prolonged flight at the usual cruising altitude of 35,000 to 40,000 feet. Other FAA regulations applicable to general aviation require oxygen availability to all occupants if the altitude exceeds 15,000 feet. Regardless of the availability of supplemental oxygen, the usual maneuver in the event of cabin depressurization is immediate descent at the maximum safe rate. The length of time that passengers will be exposed to hypoxia depends on how far the airplane must descend and how quickly it can descend. If 15,000 feet is the maximum safe altitude, then the descent must be about 20,000 feet. (Of course, the pilot would not level off at 15,000 feet; he would probably continue to descend to between 5,000 and 10,000 feet.) I don't know the maximum rate of descent, but if their power is reduced, airliners come down fast: 5,000 feet a minute does not seem outrageous, in which case the passengers would be exposed to hypoxia for four minutes. What fraction of the passengers would be harmed by four minutes of hypoxia? On the other hand, would every mask drop? How long would inexperienced people take to get their masks on? What percent would fail to get their masks on before passing out? The mere presence of the mask is not a guarantee that every passenger would survive.

    I agree that Flight 592 should not have been carrying oxygen generators, but in reality that fact is an unforeseen consequence of requiring some type of supplemental-oxygen system -- an unknown cost of an effort to improve safety. Although I don't know if anyone has survived because of drop-down masks, all the occupants of Flight 592 died because of them. It seems to me that they have not been a net success.

    Gerald Wedemeyer


    William Langewiesche's article makes it very plain that Third World labor practices, especially when combined with high technology, engender Third World safety results.

    As a licensed pilot who has made his own share of mistakes (fortunately all of minor consequence), suffered from those of others, and encountered other unpleasant surprises in flight, I am afraid that the spirit of inquiring professionalism and integrity which is so utterly vital in aviation is too often the first victim when sharp economic practice becomes the primary focus.

    George Haeh


    William Langewiesche rightly concludes that "system accidents" are more likely to occur as we impose more complexity in the area of procedures and chains of command. Although it is true that "the one thing that always gets done is the required paperwork," I would take exception to the idea that pencil-whipping, or rebellion against exasperating paperwork, is only in the domain of the individual -- "in the privacy of a hangar or a cockpit."

    Currently airlines are required by the FAA annually to test ground employees who are loosely categorized as those potentially coming in contact with a wide range of hazardous materials (thousands of commodities that have varying degrees of dangerous inherent characteristics as well as reactive qualities when shipped with other commodities). Because the employee categorization is so expansive, a great number of people must be tested -- most of whom never have any decision-making involvement with such shipments.

    By FAA edict, however, all must be tested, and over the years the "passing grade" has been raised to the point where a perfect score is now required of every last employee if the airline is to maintain its authorization to transport this material. One of the ways airlines abide this incursive FAA requirement is to take groups of employees into a training room and "walk them through" the long and demanding test, making sure that they answer each question in unison, striking the correct keys on their computer keyboards, on command from their instructor. Most of those completing the test leave the room with at best only a cursory understanding of the handling of hazardous materials, even though they have just recorded a perfect score!

    The unrealistic demands by the FAA in overseeing the handling of hazardous materials make it look good on paper while in fact actually undermining flight safety and contributing to an eventual "system accident."

    Joel W. Jenkins

    William Langewiesche is quite convincing in showing how the accident happened and attributing it to system breakdown. I can't agree, however, with his conclusion that our need for "virtual corporations," exemplified in the extreme by ValuJet, means that we can't fix the problem. ValuJet created a system almost totally devoid of career personnel. Career employees challenge the small day-to-day screw-ups to which Langewiesche attributes this accident. Even more important, they pay to receive the training necessary to avoid the kind of mistake that happened when the oxygen generators were not capped. They do this not because they are better people but because they have a stake in the long-term survival of the company. Few at either ValuJet or SabreTech were foolish enough to believe that they had a stake in anything beyond their next paycheck.

    The company was interested only in the desired result at the lowest cost -- no questions asked. This fosters a climate of short-term reward that any probation officer will tell you is at the root of the most seemingly stupid crime. If the only hope of a next paycheck is to meet the schedule and the budget for the current job, then falsifying the shipping documents is bound to happen. Combine this with supervisors whose only loyalty is to the terms of their contract and you have guaranteed two more pieces of the ValuJet 592 puzzle: work instructions written for the courtroom rather than the shop floor, and lack of training. Langewiesche demonstrates that companies like ValuJet are inherently incapable of the accountability necessary to manage a hazardous activity -- yet he insists that they are here to stay. So the only logical conclusion is that we will have more such accidents.

    Harry E. Beemer




    Gerald Wedemeyer may find upon further examination that supplemental oxygen is a necessary complement to high-altitude flight: people sitting in airplanes process oxygen differently from those climbing mountains; the airlines carry passengers of all ages and physical conditions; and in the event of depressurization pilots may be unable (because of traffic, terrain, or range) to descend immediately to safe altitudes. There are nonetheless choices to be made -- safer and less-safe ways of providing emergency oxygen. And Mr. Wedemeyer's larger point is correct. The involvement of oxygen generators in the crash of ValuJet 592 should serve to remind us that mandating layer upon layer of safety devices may ultimately not be the solution to the dangers of flight. Complication comes at a cost.

    Joel Jenkins's story of employee testing is probably familiar in some way to all of us: such shams are widespread, and they form an important part of the "pretend realities" that I mentioned in the piece. Mr. Jenkins is right that "pencil-whipping" takes place on the largest organizational level as well as in the privacy of the individual workplace -- which is why I find it incomplete simply to blame the sloppy mechanics, or to look no further than the two corporations involved in this accident.

    Harry Beemer may have misunderstood one element of my description, and if so, it is my fault as a writer. It was others in the press who used the term "virtual airline" to mean that ValuJet ran a loose operation -- as if an "actual" (old-style) airline would have run a tighter one. This assertion poses interesting questions about the drift of recent history, but it lies beyond my expertise. I don't want to justify any particular economic order, only to recognize that for better or worse the airlines have become an integral part of American society, and by necessity a reflection of it as well. Ultimately it is the complexity of the entire airline system -- the users as well as the providers of flight -- that brought down ValuJet 592. The accident could have happened to any airline. And yes, similar accidents are certain to happen again.

    Californization
    In response to Peter Schrag's dire warnings about the initiative process ("California, Here We Come," March Atlantic): Hey, it's not all bad! I live in Seattle, a city where traffic and the sprawl it creates are decimating our salmon runs and rapidly diminishing our region's quality of life while government makes only vague gestures at these problems with useless pork projects like surface light rail. Dick Falkenbury and I wrote a citizens' initiative to address the transit needs of our region, starting with Seattle. As political outsiders, we were able to see the solution literally in front of our faces -- a transit option relying on neither expensive tunneling nor the unreliable cooperation of surface traffic: the one-mile monorail built for the 1962 World's Fair. Our proposal mandated a public development authority charged with building a forty-mile monorail system using a hierarchy of funding sources, with private investment coming first.

    When they weren't ignoring us, the press and the politicians with few exceptions mocked our idea. As insurance, our initiative stated that members of the city council would lose their salaries if the monorail didn't happen. With $2,000, a beater van, and self-service signature booths, we gathered 25,000 signatures, and in November of 1997, to the shock of the Seattle establishment, Proposition One was passed into law. The hostile dogs guarding city hall were soon licking our hands, and we were on the front page of The New York Times. Since our victory the dialogue over transportation in this region has been energized and transformed completely.

    Grant Cogswell


    As Peter Schrag points out, direct democracy may not be such a great idea. There is no fundamental ethical difference between an act of injustice committed by a single person and a similar action committed by a political majority, or a mob. There are periods in the history of our country in which the majority would gladly have marched to the polls and voted the rights of minorities into oblivion. This is a palpable danger, even today. How many people would vote to prohibit legal marriage between homosexuals if it had not been outlawed by legislative fiat?

    Unfortunately, the solution Schrag proposes implicitly assumes the existence of a dichotomy that is simply not there. Direct democracy and representative democracy are not opposites -- they are of a kind. Both systems are designed so that citizens may exercise power over other citizens; they differ only in execution. Schrag would address the tyranny of the majority by a return to a reliance on "great leaders, and the visionary statecraft with which they are sometimes associated." This, of course, is the same visionary statecraft that brought us Vietnam, the Holocaust, Jim Crow, Tiananmen Square, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the aforementioned Defense of Marriage Act. It is quite true that government action by direct democracy would be likely to yield similar (or even more disastrous) results, but to advocate an increased reliance on the currently installed oligarchy belies an anti-democratic sentiment of the worst kind: the pernicious idea that a select group of intellectuals has been invested with a mandate from heaven to govern the ignorant, heathen masses for their own good.

    W. Knox Carey


    Apparently Peter Schrag lives in a parallel universe that only vaguely resembles mine. In his California a wise, capable legislature consistently improves education, provides excellent social services, and protects minorities. Our leaders paint a clear map of the future with wide brushstrokes, and they should be allowed to proceed. Instead the anti-minority, incapable, mainly white middle class insists on meddling and frequently approves ill-conceived, poorly drafted voter initiatives.

    In my California our elected representatives have one overriding concern: to retain their power. They surround themselves with a swarm of fawning lobbyists whose pockets bulge with bribe money, which they call "campaign contributions." Our taxes are used to pay off ever increasing "contributions." Long-tenured representatives prospered within this system. They were brazenly corrupt beyond shame, and were offended when confronted with their misdeeds. Since the legislature would not reform itself, the voters needed to reform it.

    Grassroots efforts by citizens' groups such as the League of Women Voters and Common Cause succeeded in passing voter initiatives that imposed term limits and reformed campaign-finance laws. This legislation did not do everything intended but was far superior to what was proposed by the legislature -- which was nothing.

    It is true that the voters are not always wise, that they lack consensus, make mistakes, and are occasionally deceived, but the voters I know are good people -- and they don't take "contributions." The voters I know personally want every citizen to have a piece of the American dream. No matter how they vote, they think they are voting for the common good and would be mortified to have someone like Peter Schrag call their decisions anti-minority. In my universe I usually trust their decisions more than the decisions of those who represent us. Long live the plebiscite.

    Michael Greenwald




    The Seattle initiative got a lot of attention because it was so exceptional, defying the odds both for initiatives and for representative government. In a large jurisdiction such as California, where the initiative is now a favored campaign tool among the very politicians it was supposed to thwart, qualifying any measure without paid signature gatherers -- and thus without considerable sums of money -- is virtually impossible. Although it would be nice to make paid signature gathering illegal, the Supreme Court has struck down such efforts as a violation of the First Amendment. And let's remember that the Seattle monorail solution hasn't yet been constructed. In California, time and again, after reformers thought they saw the solution literally in front of their faces, the state's voters ultimately discovered that the vision didn't turn out anything like what they had expected.

    Ditto for the political reforms that Michael Greenwald alludes to. So far the most perceptible effect of the state's term-limits law, which also required severe cuts in the state's legislative budget, has been a severe reduction in legislative experience and in the professionalism of legislative staff, combined with endemic instability in leadership and an erosion in legislative accountability and institutional loyalty. As to campaign-finance reform, the voters have passed three initiatives in the past dozen years, all of which ran afoul of either the state or the U.S. Constitution and were struck down by various courts.

    On W. Knox Carey's point, the correction of Jim Crow laws and practices has come largely through the conventional institutions of government -- the courts, Congress, and the large administrative structure that was erected in the past forty years to abolish them. The most recent plebiscitary measures on such issues -- California's Proposition 209, abolishing affirmative action (1996), and Proposition 187 (1994), which sought to deny schooling to the children of illegal immigrants -- have gone in a very different direction. As to the Holocaust and Tiananmen Square, I can't imagine anyone's suggesting that they were products of a representative democracy.


    The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; Letters; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 8-17.



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