Saturday, July 24, 2021

With good humor, but without god

It was reported in the news:

Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, a professor of physics and astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin, has died. He was 88.

Weinberg and Freeman Dyson were two of my favorites when it came to understanding the world through a scientific-humanistic perspective.  Dyson is gone, and now so is Weinberg.

Weinberg knew how to get his ideas across to people like me who lack the intellectual training to understand the complex math and physics.  He also considered that his responsibility:

“When we talk about science as part of the culture of our times, we’d better make it part of that culture by explaining what we’re doing,” Weinberg explained in a 2015 interview published by Third Way. “I think it’s very important not to write down to the public. You have to keep in mind that you’re writing for people who are not mathematically trained but are just as smart as you are.”

Weinberg provided me with ways to think about life without a god: "science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible to not believe in God."  Even better was this:

Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation—that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking—with good humor, but without God.


Thursday, July 22, 2021

Complain to Joe if you have a problem with this

Way back, when I lived in California and was regularly contributing to the local newspaper, I wrote a piece that was not published.  It was about the bizarre practice in the US to address people by their political job titles even when they were no longer on the job.  Like "Ambassador so-and-so" or "Senator so-and-so," as if those titles were lifelong.

I argued in that unpublished essay that in a democracy we should be able to address them by their first names, especially if they did not respond with Ms. so-and-so or Dr. so-and so.  It always pissed me off when the reporters were addressed by the first names by those big chiefs!

Did I tell you already that the essay was not published?

As a university professor (the days are numbered!) I always gave students the option to address me by my first name.  The logic was simple: In most work places, the supervisor is addressed by the first name.  

Two professors have tacked this very topic in different ways.  "Professor" Dan Drezner offers this thesis in arguing why an honorific is needed--because "the academy is a hierarchy":

in academia, as in many other social systems, of course there is hierarchy and an imbalance of power. My role is to educate and mentor students, to make them intellectually (but not personally) uncomfortable at times, and then to grade them based on their intellectual growth. No amount of “keeping it casual” eliminates that fundamental bargain. Power imbalances are inherent in the system.

Pretending hierarchy does not exist does not erase it; it merely obscures it for the uninitiated. One advantage of formality is that it makes the rules of the game more explicit for those who might otherwise have difficulty parsing everything out

As if hierarchy and power imbalance exists only between a professor and the student, and that there isn't any such structure in the vast world of employment outside higher education!  Despite the power difference of the hierarchy in the office, even an intern addresses the boss by the first name.  Why then the deferential "Professor" or "Doctor"?

"Professor" Tyler Cowen takes a position more like the one that I presented in the unpublished essay from more than two decades ago: "I don’t for instance think we should address senators as “Senator.” Just choose “Ben” or “Mr. Sasse,” depending on which is appropriate."

In the example that Cowen provides, I would rather refer to that senator as a spineless pontificater!