Galileo in PittsburghHarvard University Press, Massachusetts: 2010
Like most of us, I have forgotten many of the things I learned at university. Some theories were overtaken by new developments and relegated to the archives of my mind; others buckled under the stresses of the real world and were put out to pasture with other interesting but ultimately untenable models.
Some lessons have been strikingly durable though. I still recall, from undergraduate Philosophy, René Descartes' idea that we must shine the "natural light" of Reason onto the analysis of problems, and the idea from various British empiricists that philosophy should help clear the thickets and brambles cluttering our minds.
Clark Glymour's collection of essays offers exactly the illumination and intellectual robustness envisaged for the best philosophy, directing it at thorny policy problems facing governments today in education, the environment and science.
Glymour unsentimentally and dispassionately examines his chosen issues. Exploring the rationale and performance of the "Teach for America" programme, he eschews political posturing (and correctness), delving instead into "four reasons" why students' ethnic and economic backgrounds are correlated with school performance, and "five things we can do about it". In the book's title essay, which deals with Harvard Professor Herbert Needleman's work on the effects of low-level lead exposure on children's intelligence, Glymour explores the nature of correlation, causation, step-wise econometric regressions and Bayesian probabilism with the clinical efficiency of a university professor in front of an awed lecture theatre, all with remarkable linguistic economy and elegance. Glymour describes the handling of the Needleman case with balanced, parallel-structured sentences —"one of the best-documented modern examples we have of misguided canons of scientific ethics based on misconceptions about sound scientific method" — other examples of which are found in abundance throughout the book. There are also numerous instances of what I like to think of as the intellectual equivalent of the ☺emoticon — deeply thought-through answers to complex questions, expressed with a hint of grinning mischief and bathetic deflation. Two of the best examples: "World food shortages have a lot of causes, but the principal causes are four: oil, weather, population and thuggery", as well as "If there is a moral imperative to use agriculture to feed people, then surely other crops take precedence over the making of wine. So there is one solution (to the problem of world hunger): rip out some of the vineyards. There are others."
Like the best philosophy, Glymour's essays glow not just with the light of abstract logic, but with an abiding concern for improving the human condition. He notes, for instance, that
"while official scientific methodology in applied science is sometimes silly, real practice is often more sensible. There is something deeply troubling about the fact that applied science sustains the difference between rhetoric and practice"
"Those who eat too much keep others from eating enough, the logical inverse of my mother's illogical injunction to eat everything offered because of the starving Armenians. The economics of that argument seems a bit shaky, but even I, a lackluster slob if ever there was one, look with some disapproval on wanton waste…".
That last quote is a superb example of how Glymour blends personal anecdote with practical, professional philosophy — a technique that he applies most fully in Bert's Buick: A Conversation on Climate Change, a modern-day Socratic dialogue between Glymour and his "late, consummately American father-in-law… a smart man who admired Ronald Reagan and loved his family and big Buicks". Bert's conservative, free-market instincts might leave the more liberal among us slightly discomfited — he opposes open immigration policies on the grounds that "We would equilibrate to overpopulated misery" — but create a useful counterpoint to Glymour's more left-leaning, Millennium-Development-Goals-supporting predilections.
If there is a fault in these essays, it occurs when their clinical efficiency and philosophical parsimony overextend. They could delve deeper; while the best explore their subject matter trenchantly and with sophisticated ease, the shorter ones tease and tantalise without extending the light of Reason into the more distant, cobwebbed corners of the issues. On finishing The Computer in the Classroom, for instance, I wondered whether some of the ramifications could have been teased out further, particularly in a day and age when the opportunities (and risks) of Web 2.0, with its overlapping strands of social networking sites, blogs and ever more powerful search engines, are squarely in the media glare. Even the dialogue with Bert lacks the sense of philosophical completeness in Plato's best work, touching on a range of issues that are contiguous with climate change — immigration, trade, energy use and security, inter alia — but providing little, even partial, denouement or resolution.
As far as they do go, however, the pieces in this collection illuminate key issues of our time with unflinching clarity. Regardless of how much we recall from our college classroom days, they are a shot in the arm for all who believe in the value of ideas, their disciplined examination and the language with which they are expressed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aaron Maniam is Deputy Director of the Strategic Policy Office and Head, Centre for Strategic Futures, Public Service Division, Prime Minister's Office. The views expressed in this article are his own.