Jon Katz, Pseudoscience and Memes

Even when he’s right, somehow Jon Katz manages to be wrong. This time around he reviews Walter Gratzer’s Undergrowth of Science. Gratzer’s book has receive a lot of positive reviews and although I haven’t read his book I’ve read a lot of other things he’s written and Undergrowth of Science is probably well worth checking out. One of the major problems today is that Gratzer’s message isn’t self-evidence — most people seem to have a very unrealistic image of how science operates, which makes them gullible recipients of often distorted media messages about science.

This is why I suspect so many Internet-spread myths work so well — the Internet tales mimic closely mainstream sensationalistic reporting.

Anyway, while Katz goes on about how horrible it is that people buy into Pseudoscience, he slips in a bit of his own, writing,

In the media page, these scientific stumbles are particularly dangerous, as they become powerful memes that are rapidly and virally transmitted to the general population by information technologies like TV and the Net.

Memes? Yuck. I agree with Martin Gardner’s assessment that memes are simply not scientifically useful concepts, but rather represent an extremist sociobiological position that is untenable. Gardner notes that in The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore goes so far as to say that the self is an illusion.

Sometimes, for example, I am unsure what to think about some new phenomena. So I find every article on the topic I can on the Internet, print out the most promising looking ones, read the articles and then try to make up my mind. According to Blackmore I am living a lie. What is really going on is a competition between different memes in my brain which gives me the illusion of free choice, but in fact what I finally decide about the matter is dictated completely by the memes,

The self is not the initiator of actions, it
does not ‘have’ consciousness and it does not ‘do’ the deliberating. There is no truth in the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls the body and is conscious. Because this is false, so is the idea of my conscious self having free will.

While I tend to agree with the sociobiological position a great deal, it is this sort of extreme and clearly false claim that makes people reject sociobiology altogether as inherently unscientific and absurd. I assume that Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others would object as superstitious the claim that a person was literally motivated to perform a given action because a demon inhabited his or her body, and yet the claim that memes and genes are responsible for all human actions is simply this demonic claim wrapped up in scientific finery.

Bizarre Jon Katz article

In reviewing Margaret Wertheim’s bizarre new book, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Jon Katz provides a classic Katz-ism for the ages,

My own sense is that they are witnessing and participating in the birth of a different sort of nation, seeking not so much spiritual as moral and ethical renewal. We have the sense of being present at the revolution, even if it’s not clear what kind of revolution. People are hungry not only for spirituality, but for a sense of purpose, and they don’t see one advanced in the election.

Nobody makes more profound statements about absolutely nothing than Katz.

Jon Katz Watch: Should Corporations Try to Do Good?

    Katz has an article at Slashdot focusing on a recent Business Week poll showing most Americans think corporations have too much power. At the end of his article, Katz notes with glee that 95 percent of the people in the survey agreed with the following statement,

U.S. corporations should have more than one purpose. They also owe something to their workers and the communities in which they operate, and they should sometimes sacrifice some profit for the sake of making things better for their workers and communities.

    I am in the 5% minority who thinks it is a very bad idea to expect businesses to do things for the community. Corporations used to want to do a lot of things for their community, resulting in company towns where they controlled everything. More recently when corporations decide to do the “ethical” thing it usually involves caving in to predominant community standards.

    When Wal-Mart and K-Mart announced they would stop selling violent video games to children under 17, they were sacrificing profits for a greater good. I’d personally prefer not to be subjected to that sort of corporate paternalism.

    As usual Katz misses the really big issue which is whether or not we really need big corporations anymore. On the one hand, a lot of people seem to dislike working for large corporations. Plus it’s hard to tell whether or not the underlying economic basis for corporations will hold. Corporations have typically had an advantage due to economies of scale both in producing goods as well as contracting for labor. One of the main advantages of a corporation, for example, is reducing the transaction costs of managing thousands of employees.

    But the Internet may undercut both of those since it undercuts the transaction cost advantage and allows very small businesses to compete on a relatively equal playing field with large corporations. We’re even beginning to see the first serious hints of the so-called virtual corporation, with some products quickly coming to market today that are designed by one firm, manufactured by a second firm, and then marketed and sold by several other firms under different brand names.

    I don’t think we’re going to see the corporation disappear, but I do think we’ll see a gradual winnowing of very large corporations and are likely to end up with an economy dominated by even more small business and medium sized companies than today.