Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes

[Here you are, switters.]

I don't read a lot of American histories, and that's unfortunate right now, because I'd like to say with better authority that Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore is better than any of them.  There's a good case to be made that Australia and the United States are cultural cousins, the English colonies anyway: each remote enough to grow their own satellite cultures; each stuffed full of the mother country's shipped-off hardcases and political misfits; each kicking off as tenuously claimed footholds that within a generation were tragically collapsing the native people as ever more of the Empire's excess white population arrived and pushed inward and along the coasts; and of course as countries go, they are both still historical toddlers, each directly descended from the immigrant government that settled the place, and each still atoning for those original sins.  The differences may well lie in the nature of those early stains, and I think one of Hughes' strengths as a scholar is to approach his own country's story with something like humility, which was always in much larger supply in the antipodes.

Most people were aware that Australia was founded as a penal colony, but this American never gave it much thought beyond that, imagining it as no worse than a forced settlement, a sort of national oubliette--forgetting place (which is a term I believe that Hughes cleverely used)--where the transportees resumed their relocated life much like immigrants did here.  But it's not so.  If there's one overriding theme in the book, it's that Australia was steeped to bitterness in the politics and awful contemporary understanding of class and morals and especially of punishment.  It was a society built on the bloody lash (with hardly enough rum and buggery to go around), of forced humiliation, broken solidarity, and institutional caprice that in reality took generations to breed away.   Even in the twentieth century, we read, this tarnished national character was a social factor, but at least it made for an excellent historical perspective.

Even a guy like Howard Zinn, who is the best local analog I can think of, couldn't keep a certain Americanness out of all of it, a triumphalist paradigm was something that too ingrained here to be left alone.  America is a place punctuated by gigantic bouts of violence, some of them explicitly sparked to consolidate the power structures that grew on these shores, and even a people's history feels required to answer to this.  What Hughes has in common with Zinn is his representation of the significant past as an interplay of individuals and factions of humans from all walks, how they lived and what they lived for. How they governed themselves, but also what their lives were like, and what their concerns were.  And while Australia has had its share of saints and ogres and characters, it does lack the drama of hard-fought shooting wars, and the language of Great Men and Great Events comes less naturally there.  You might argue instead that the figures of early Australian history emerged almost as folk heroes or villains.   Hughes takes conscientious pleasure in fleshing out the prominent figures of the day, but even in those cases, he doesn't elevate them to anything beyond human.

It helps, I will say, that Hughes is really GOOD at this.  It's actually an impressive feat to look at both noble and the base instincts that drive people and drive groups, and see all of those views with understanding and come out with a synthesis that's something like objective.  The illustrative anecdote is a great descriptive vehicle, and Hughes makes use of hundreds of them.   I get the feeling that he's read every extant piece of correspondence and documentation and absorbed every word.   There is an overriding moral compass there (that, in my opinion, is pointed perfectly true), but he's not preaching anything, and when opinion creeps in, it's almost given as a brilliant throwaway, as a statement of the perfectly logical and obvious.  He makes a few points, for example, during one of the gape-jawed tours of the depredations on prison colony's prison colony on Norfolk Island, how sadists are made and not born.  Early in the book, he takes an impressive broad-strokes description of English notions of criminality, both practical and comparative, that (cough) still bear some relevance to modern ones.  He's not shy about pointing out just how backwards the early settlements were without a skilled (or particularly inspired) workforce. 

There are times when the language sneaks in and gets lovely on you too.  Hughes likes to describe the landscape and the ocean, and he can do it almost heartbreakingly.  God help me, I liked best how he throws in the occasional editorial phrases, sometimes humanizing everything with just an adverb.  (People trumpeting causes are tiring; administrators can be malicious; sufferers suffer.)  Well worth reading, and sorry it took so long (and sorry the review isn't better!  The book could use a much longer one) to report.  Thanks for the recommendation. 

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Perspective III

[Edit: Whoa, it's been a while, and I should have a title.  Status of the hiatus?  Who knows, but I'd be pretty happy to get Paul Ryan's mug off the front page one of these days.]

In 2002, Jan Hendrik Schön, a researcher at what was left of Bell Labs, was accused of scientific misconduct by a formal investigative committee. He was caught falsifying data, sometimes drawing curves and pretending they were measured, other times swapping them from other pieces of data, and it was a huge scandal at the time, judged among the worst things you can do in science, or at least in premiere science. He was spotted because other researchers noticed that some of his plots looked exactly the same, even when he was reporting different conditions or phenomena. That is, they did not follow the same predictable shape, as you might hope data will do, but they bounced around their trendline in exactly the same way in both plots. This is what I remember of the scandal back then: one of my coworkers smugly pointing this out to me. See those two graphs, Keith? There's no way they should look exactly the same. (That's not just a fraud, but a lazy one. For the dedicated forger, how hard would it have been to introduce false instrument noise?)

When the Lucent committee looked more closely at his work, they found the bullshitting to be pervasive. No wonder he was able to publish a paper every week! Since this stuff was getting cranked through Science and Nature--relatively groundbreaking results in what was a sexy field at the time--Schön was ridden out of the scientific community on a rail. His awards and even his doctorate were rescinded (but the latter was re-awarded; evidently the guy's been fighting for his degree as recently as three years ago). The journal editorials tend along reputation-preserving retrospectives to the tune of how the hell did this happen, and let's never allow physics to be besmirched this way again.

I'll add that Schön is roughly my age, and even though I was a total academic nobody, there's still only a degree or two of separation between us. We worked in a similar field I am sure I read some of his papers late in my grad school days (which isn't to say I remember them specifically). My advisor had done his post-doc at Bell Labs, and some of his remaining friends there, to whom I'd been introduced, would become Schön's occasional co-authors. In defense of that community, the fact that Schön's data were hard to replicate isn't a total indictment by itself. Studies of organic electronics were notoriously difficult to reproduce in those days (and probably are now too), even for the same people, doing the same experiments.  This was much more a matter of trying to force soft, quasi-pure, and reluctantly ordered systems to behave like near-perfect semiconductor crystals than it was a matter of dishonesty. Electrical behavior that was extremely sensitive to barely-tangible properties of an interface was hardly a rare thing. And in defense of Schön's co-authors, it's actually really easy to get listed as a middle contributor in a bustling, incestuous place like Bell Labs. That place (in that field at least, and in the 1990s) was more liberal than anywhere when it came to spreading names across the mastheads. You might get listed as an author for having prepped one or two samples, for overseeing one of the instruments, or contributing a paragraph of text from one of your publications.  Take that nice piece of resume fluff, and move on, it's not terribly necessary to know what the lead was ever really up to. And more than that, Bell Labs was in its sad death spiral in the late 90s. It's got to be hard to care about what the guy down the hall is doing when you're investing all your free minutes in an effort to get yourself out from under the headsman's axe. Schön was dishonest as fuck-all, but he was in a niche where he could ramp it up a little higher than usual before getting caught.

So.  It's months old now, but the economics world was rocked--no, better to say that it should have been rocked--by two researchers who published a report explaining that national debt levels above 90% of GDP cross a drastic threshold that's correlated with low or negative growth.  Now, this was published in a conference proceedings (they give you big grains of salt at the door to these things, along with the pens and other swag--you publish in proceedings when you don't want to go through all the work of satisfying reviewers), so it's not, I sure hope, premiere economics, except that it became a leading-edge study because it got swiped up as a wand of legitimacy by pro-austerity policymakers and pundits, and we have all had to keep hearing about this crap.  But when Reinhart and Rogoff's analyses were put under any kind of scrutiny at all, it was, well, not good: bizarre weighting procedures and cherry-picked data ranges, along with spreadsheet manipulation (is it really cool with Harvard that its researchers chuck numbers into Excel and call it research?), later claimed as a mistake, that was painfully obviously designed to produce the foregone conclusion.  And even if they've claimed only correlation, causation has been implicit when the work is reported by their supporters. 

(I'll add too, that I don't think national debt is awesome myself.  I see it as a trick that clears itself up so long as there's GDP growth, but there's no good reason to monkey with the accounting like that, well, other than to be obfuscatory about imbalances.  The solution isn't to starve the lower orders; it is support them while showing the books properly.  That debt doesn't correlate with growth, or that it correlates much more weakly than they claimed, is supportive of the "black box" theory.)

Anyway, my argument isn't so much what happened.  You get academic tendentiousness for all sorts of reasons, and even thinking people are still hierarchical herd animals in lots of ways.  Their rise went farther than it should have too.  I've said before that since it's fundamentally based in the logic of agreements, economics is more like law than it is like science, which is to say that it's a matter of both rationality and, to a much higher degree than physics is, advocacy.  Reinhart and Rogoff were probably not as dishonest as Jan Schön was--it was more likely they were just caught being lazy--but on the other hand, it doesn't seem to have hurt their careers, but for a few necessary defensive letters.  Their work appears to remain influential. 

I mean, fucking seriously.  Here's Larry Goddamn Summers defending it, doing the opposite of protecting his own intellectual reputation and that of the field.  They are friends, Summers says, and he openly admits that their work supports his agenda.  Why does this guy, in the face of bad data, and his own awful history of being wrong policy-wise--not to mention occupying the smug embodiment of shitty low-empathy ethics of austerity--retain so much pull?  Why was he a chief economic advisor, and why is that slimy piece of crap on the short list to run the Fed?  I mean we know why, but still. 

Economics is far from useless, but it's also farther from hard science than it pretends.  In more ways than one.