Book Review: The Information

October 26th, 2011

The Information: a history, a theory, a flood – by James Gleick, published 2011

Though the subtitle pinpoints the topic a bit more precisely than just “information”, I began reading this not completely sure of where it would take me, although I hoped it would provide a discussion of the following three points:

1. information theory as a scientific field pioneered by people like Alan Turing and Claude Shannon in the mid-20th century
2. the idea that the universe itself is built on information, known popularly as “it from bit”
3. the exponential increase in our rate of information exchange in the last- take your pick – 20, 50, 150 years

TI does eventually get to all of these, though after a laborious first 200 pages which expend a lot of ink on early English dictionaries, early telegraph systems, and Charles Babbage. What I induced from this, although the themes aren’t stated explicitly, is the murky nature of technological progress which retrospective histories tend to minimize, instead neatly claiming that invention X was made by person P in year Y to solve Z. Through a long discussion of long-forgotten long distance communication attempts and various telegraph encoding schemes, one sort of gets this picture. And we also come to realize how the absence of technology we take for granted must have affected our ancestors’ mental paradigms. For example, when asked to name some possible advantages of the newly invented telegraph, Babbage hesitated, then speculated that it could provide an early warning system for storms. Before the telegraph, there was no long distance communication that could travel faster than a horse, so people’s understanding of weather must have been much different from our own. Any theories that weather could be forecast based on events elsewhere, if spawned at all, would have been practically useless. Even Newton struggled to find the right words for physical concepts he was trying to describe, such as force. The right term simply wasn’t in the language yet, and thus not in society’s consciousness.

But I feel the first half of the book has more to do with the nature of technological change, itself a complex topic, than with real information theory. The first chapter, on the African drum language, was to me the most interesting. It turns out that African villages had a system of long-distance communication long before the telegraph, though it took Europeans a long time to figure it out, since the drums only carried two tones combined with pauses. Nevertheless, they relayed complex messages. The key is that African languages are tonal, so words with the same letters mean very different things depending on the pitch spoken. The drums would simply bang out the tones of a phrase. However, each combination of tones is associated with dozens of words, so the drum messages would be laden with redundant words and phrases, leading the listener to eliminate combinations that don’t make sense. This obviously takes a lot of practice, so it helps immensely if one is born into that language. But come to think of it, we probably have a nontrivial amount of redundancy in our language too; by adding a few words or saying the same thing in multiple ways, we are insuring against having our core message misunderstood.

The best material in TI is found somewhere between pages 200 and 350. Here we delve into Claude Shannon’s scientific definitions of information theory and follow with application to genetics, highlighted by the always fascinating perspectives of Richard Dawkins. Shannon defined information as the minimum number of bits required to transmit a message. Thus, if many messages are possible, the chosen message will contain more information. If there are only two possible weather forecasts (hot or cold), one bit will suffice. If instead there are 2^10 possible forecasts (including variables such as precipitation, temperature, wind, etc.), selecting one will require 10 bits – much more information. Switching to another example, if the set of possible messages included anything that could be written in English, encoding one letter would seemingly require 5 bits (2^4 = 16, 2^5 = 32, 26 possible letters). However, some letters occur more frequently than others, and combinations of letters and words occur more frequently than others, so Shannon estimated that the average information content of each letter was actually closer to one bit. To illustrate this, he selected a random passage from a book and asked his wife to predict each letter as he uncovered them with his thumb – this becomes easier as larger portions of words and phrases are revealed, and the more predictable the next letter is, the less information it contains.

Shannon also equated his concept of information to the thermodynamic concept of entropy (i.e. a measure of the number of states a system can have, also known as the degree of disorder). Since high entropy systems have more possible states, it takes more information to describe them. However, this link between entropy and information is mathematical; it can get confusing if we try to attach semantic meaning to it. For example, suppose we have a pool of water divided into hot and cold partitions. If we remove the divider, there are suddenly many more possible arrangements of water molecules, thus higher entropy, and it takes more information to describe the particular state the system is in at a molecular level. At a macro level, the molecules will probabilistically mix and converge to an equilibrium temperature. To many non-physicists, this would imply a loss of useful information, and thus some of Shannon’s contemporaries negated his formulas and managed to define information as negative entropy. On top of that, it can also be confusing to describe high entropy as “disorder”; since entropy predicts a relatively homogeneous equilibrium, some would call such a state more “orderly” than before. Like Newton’s time, we struggle with these concepts in part because they have not yet been reconciled with common language.

Maybe we could try to think about information in a more abstract sense instead. The universe, in a very general sense, can be thought of as a giant medium of energy exchange, with matter being a special form of energy. We describe the sun, stars, other physical objects, radiation, etc. by what they do with energy. Likewise, all life forms on earth ultimately can be described by how they convert energy. But it might make more sense to think about information exchange instead of energy exchange. That light beam from a star 10,000 light years away is encoding information about a particular area of spacetime. A photograph can be described in a physical sense by the atoms and energy it contains, but it also is information, preserving a particular pattern of information from another point in spacetime. A person, by his very existence, is encoding information in many forms, not the least of which is his genetic code. We tend to think of information as being consciously communicated among people, but a much more general type of information exists in ourselves long before we try to attach meaning to it.

That physical processes can be described in terms of information exchange is I don’t think too much of a philosophical stretch. Some have, however, argued one step further by suggesting that the universe is actually built on information (mathematics or bits) in a physical sense. There’s an old snippet of advice for college freshmen that what you used to know as psychology is really biology, but biology is really chemistry, and chemistry is really physics, and physics is really math. The fundamental laws of the universe govern the behavior of matter and energy, which we call physics. However, because of these laws, matter exhibits very regular forms and properties, and bonds together repeatedly. We find it more useful to describe these phenomena not by the fundamental laws themselves, but by shortcut formulas and descriptives we call chemistry. Likewise, we are familiar with certain stable and self-replicating sets of molecules whose chemical processes we describe as biology.

Going the other way, one could postulate that the fundamental laws are all that really “exist”, and are really a specific mathematical pattern that we experience as matter, energy, and spacetime. Everything else – physics, chemistry, biology – is a substructure of the pattern, which we find useful to label as ‘atoms’, ‘electromagnetic waves’, and ‘chemical bonds’ because they occur regularly within the pattern. As a much simplified analogy, consider how the digit 0 appears regularly in the sequence of integers (0, 10, 20,…100, 101, 102,…). If it seems farfetched that matter itself could somehow be a (rather complicated) pattern of bits, consider that human minds have great difficulty comprehending large numbers and patterns, and the complexity that can arise from them. Before modern times, I don’t think anyone could have fathomed that the program that describes himself was comprised of a four-letter genetic alphabet. A pattern of a few billion of those letters arranged into 30,000 words called genes is what builds us. The evidence is now plainly in front of us, but I don’t think we really understand what happens when 30,000 genes are all interacting among themselves plus an external environment influenced by still more genes. A few years ago, the mapping of our genome came with great hope for genetic-based therapies in medicine. It still might happen, but we’ve only made progress on a few very specific cases and our most successful model (for intervening in our own genetics or any such complicated system) is still trial and error – lots of trial, lots of error. We find shortcuts to describe the system here and there, we see its ultimate progress, but we’re not close to understanding how all the little parts work together. We cannot reliably predict what changing a bit of the genome will do, not without lots of trial and error. So I don’t dismiss the idea that something as simple as information could turn out to drive systems we observe in the universe at many levels, including those of fundamental physical units.

The biggest mystery of the universe to me is not its enormity, but why, inside an observable universe 10^26 times larger than us, and comprised of atoms on the order of 10^11 times smaller than us, we experience a singular consciousness. How does this consciousness come about? Why do I wake up every day feeling that I am the same entity, instead of something else? It cannot be something in the atoms themselves; the atoms within a human body are recycled about once every seven years. It has to be the pattern those atoms make. Once again, the pattern which defines us is ironically more complex than we can comprehend – billions of neurons connected in trillions of possible ways. The best I can speculate is that consciousness is closely related to memory. What makes a singular individual is that he can recall many past experiences all linked by his own participation in them, thus forming a sense of being. These memories are stored as neural patterns, which encode information. The brain must develop this ability and build an identity by having many memories, which explains why I have no recollection of being conscious as an infant. Thus there must be degrees of consciousness; full consciousness does not come about at once. One of the features of a conscious being, far away on a spectrum from say, a collection of organic molecules, is the ability to alter behavior based on past experience, in other words, to behave based on large amounts of stored information in addition to what can be immediately sensed. Even if I cannot see ‘Dad’ now, I have the concept of ‘Dad’ stored as a particular neural pattern, and through memory, can learn from repeated past occurrences that ‘Dad’ will be present late in the day after ‘Dad’ finishes ‘Work’, and can make decisions accordingly now.

And why should I expect ‘Dad’ to give me attention later? Well, because Dad and I share a lot of genetic code, and successful genes have evolved that prompt an organism which they control to also promote the survival and well-being of other organisms that have copies of the same genes. Dawkins famously pointed out that the evolutionary idea that genes are the means by which organisms replicate is backwards – we are the means by which genes replicate. All the machinery that comprises us – from a nuclear membrane to a cell membrane to organs and brains – is scaffolding that genes built around themselves to increase their own chances of survival. It’s the genes – the genetic code, the information – that’s evolving and trying to spread. We are hosts for propagating the information that is our genetic code.

And that’s not all we’re propagating. Dawkins also came up with the idea of a ‘meme’ – an idea, catchphrase, tune, image, cliche – which survives and spreads by leaping from brain to brain. (Recursively, ‘meme’ as a concept is itself a meme.) Memes don’t have to be logically true to survive; they must be memorable and make us want to pass them on. As Nicholas Humphrey wrote, “When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking – the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.” If you find any of the ideas in this article worth remembering and passing on, our brains will have served as replicators for the ideas themselves.

Here’s an idea I find worth remembering (and I’m paraphrasing Dawkins): that the process of evolution in a biological sense is really a special instance of a more general type of evolution – the evolution of information. For information to be passed on it needs a replicator, like a gene or meme. For information to evolve, the replication process must introduce mutations that differentially affect the survival of the replicators. The surviving memes are those which are successful at implanting themselves in our brains and getting us to pass them on.

Move the Deer Crossing to where there’s less traffic

September 18th, 2011

“A lot of  deer get hit by cars west of Crown Point on US 231. There are too many cars to have the deer crossing here. The deer crossing sign needs to be moved to a road with less traffic.”

Letter to the Editor
(HT Jay Leno)


September 18th, 2011

“People feel physically better, and often emotionally better, if they have at least one satisfying bowel movement every day.”

Medical book

Book review: I Am John Galt

August 30th, 2011

Donald Luskin and Andrew Greta’s nonfiction book takes it’s title from the central character in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. John Galt was an idealized representation of the core values of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. The book applies that philosophy to a nine contemporary businessmen and political statesmen, to separate the ones who most embody Galt’s qualities from the anti-Galts.

Fans of Rand will probably love the book, modern liberals will hate it, and those who aren’t familiar with Rand will be given a taste of her philosophy. Prior reading of Rand is not required to follow Luskin and Greta’s book, although it does contain some spoilers as it tries to link real people to Rand’s characters.  The foreword presents a quick introduction to Rand, and I’ll highlight a few points here, a summary of the summary.

Ayn Rand grew up in Russia in the years immediately before and after the communist revolution, and emigrated to the United States in the 1920s. She published many essays and four novels, the semi-autobiographical We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943), and her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957). Atlas is one of the most widely read and important works of literature from the 20th century, although it is rarely taught at universities. Modern liberal elites reserve their most vituperative criticism and smears for people, like Rand, who are fundamentally opposed to the core of modern liberal philosophy (e.g. most of the tea party), instead of merely wanting power for it’s own sake (e.g. Norm Coleman, Mitt Romney and most Republicans in the last generation, including to a large extent both Bush administrations).

Although the many themes in Atlas do not warrant a succinct summary, it is largely about the clash between makers (led by Galt) and takers. Galt and modern day makers like Bill Gates create wealth through productive work and creative innovation. Jokes aside, if MS Windows sells for $100, it sells because individual consumers think it is worth more than $100 to have. In a free-market transaction, both parties gain, otherwise the transaction would never take place. Calls for Gates and other wealthy innovators to “give back” part of their fortune are as silly as calls for consumers to “give back” productivity gains they accrued from using Windows. Gates can certainly be freely generous with his fortune and be commended for his philanthropy, but if he never “took” anything in the first place, how can he possibly give it back?!

Takers, on the other hand, are politicians, bureaucrats, and crony businessmen who twist the law to forcibly extract wealth and take what others have created for themselves or give it to their friends. Inevitably, such legislation is usually framed as “protecting workers” or “protecting consumers.” Almost always, however, it means “protecting companies and friends who donate to my campaign and who could be hurt by free-market competition.”

Not surprisingly, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are featured prominently as visionaries who revolutionized entire industries by doing what they loved and selling their creations to millions of others around the world, in the process creating more jobs, increasing shareholder value, and pleasing consumers more than any government program ever has, without all the negative externalities. The careers of Gates and Jobs have been extensively chronicled, so it was in a sense more interesting to read about lesser-known CEOs such as T.J. Rodgers (Cypress Semiconductor) and John Allison (BB&T Bank). Both ran their companies according to Randian values, and Allison’s corporate philosophy and employee training were based directly on Rand’s works. Allison was CEO for 20 years during a period of expansion for BB&T throughout the southeastern US, and did not follow the crowd in making risky loans as so many other banks did. Rodgers fired back at critics who would have him choose his board and employees not on merit but on race and gender, and quit the board of another company because it lobbied for and received government subsidies for solar energy research.

In some sense, the authors’ praise of these leaders is perhaps a bit too clean; they obviously have human faults and have made some imperfect decisions. Rand’s fictional characters likewise are idealistic, but literature is a means for exploring interactions and outcomes among embellished fictional personalities and environments, allowing important themes to be explored minus the excess noise of reality. Despite this, it’s telling that the world Rand described over 50 years ago is appearing to be more and more like the one in which we now live, as bureaucrats demand more power and control over the economy to ostensibly fix problems they themselves have created. Linking her theories to living examples is the greatest strength of Luskin and Greta’s book.

But the book does devote a chapter to a flawed hero, retired Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. Greenspan was a close friend of Rand and a member of her inner intellectual circle, so it is ironic that a disciple of the laissez-faire loving Rand became the nation’s most powerful regulator. Widely praised for his policies during the 1990s, he was just as widely blamed as one of the culprits of the financial crisis that began in 2007-2008, due to the Fed’s low interest rates earlier in the decade that helped fuel the housing bubble. The authors can’t quite decide how to evaluate Greenspan; in the end they call him a “tragic hero”.

Chapter 2 is all Paul Krugman, an excellent choice for primary villain. Krugman is a Princeton economist who earned respect in academia for his work on international trade and finance, then used his reputation to become a prominent New York Times op-ed columnist, using specious arguments and dubious “facts” to push a collectivist agenda and an irrational hatred of the Bush administration. When I started reading the chapter (written by Luskin), I got the feeling that the author was perhaps being too harsh on Krugman, finding quotes and incorrect predictions that made him look particularly bad but never really making a reasoned rebuttal to his ideology. But since reading that chapter, I’ve read Krugman’s column on last month’s debt-ceiling deal. Now, with debt above $14 trillion, a 40% increase in federal spending in the last four years, and a looming explosion in entitlement costs, some members of Congress finally, finally took the position that maybe we shouldn’t make a “deal” to raise the borrowing limit at all, maybe we should just balance the budget, like, now. For this, Krugman called them “ruthless”, “extortionists”, and that “what Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question.” Never mind that the “cuts” only made the next decade’s projected budget (which was originally slated to increase government spending on the order of 50% compared to the previous decade) less than it would have been (but still a large increase in absolute terms) and will add at least $7 trillion to the debt over 10 years. But Krugman outdid himself a few weeks later when he suggested that our economic ills could be cured if only we faced a space alien invasion!! So I apologize to Luskin; it would be impossible to write that Krugman is anything but bonkers.

The chapter gets more interesting when we find out that Luskin headed a committee called the Krugman Truth Squad, which uncovered not only illogical opinions in Krugman’s columns but also incorrect facts. His persistence eventually was instrumental in changing the NYT’s policy for issuing corrections in op-ed pieces.

There are still two questions left unanswered, however. One can find writing that fits almost every imaginable ideology with a quick search of the Internet. The real question is why did Krugman become the premier columnist for the nation’s most powerful newspaper and attract the following he did, and as a corollary, why did the NYT allow Krugman to employ his own facts for so long? The second major question is why did Krugman abandon his earlier line of careful economic reasoning? For an intellectual parlor game, one can refute Krugman’s contemporary columns with passages he wrote back when he was respected among economists.

Rand’s philosophy extols not only the economic benefits of freedom and capitalism, but also their morality and virtue. Allison, who in retirement is now promoting the inclusion of Atlas Shrugged in university curricula, says that proponents of laissez-faire capitalism must win the battle of ideologies in moral terms (the big-picture economic questions are pretty much settled with a intellectual tradition that began with Adam Smith, although politicians and pundits like Krugman keep inventing psuedo-science to suit their preferences). One of Rand’s themes is that money is the opposite of evil, and is instead a measure of value produced by work and ultimately human reason. Allison and Rodgers, like Rand’s fictional heroes, ran their companies foremost to increase shareholder value and did so unapologetically, but to keep generating profits, their companies had to also benefit their employees, customers, and communities. Many who hold the view that money is evil and cannot buy happiness nevertheless support a large welfare state, which takes capital from the most productive members of society and gives it to the least productive. But if money is evil or cannot buy happiness, then welfare recipients should be more than blessed without it. This is one of many contradictions inherent in modern liberalism. But Rand is not content to put forth the virtues of capitalism and let others conclude that, yeah, that’s a reasonable perspective that we should keep in mind. Instead, she repeats the same themes over and over to make sure the reader gets it (her longest novels are around 1000 pages), and in the process shows that the ultimate, aggregate effects of collectivism produce, as Abraham Lincoln would say, a house divided against itself.

One of the knocks against free-market policies is that they are not “compassionate” enough. But let’s look at a supposedly compassionate government policy – increasing minority homeownership. This goal started in a bureaucratic sense with the Community Reinvestment Act during the Carter administration, and subsequent administrations and Congresses amped up minority lending quotas for banks. We now know where that led. I Am John Galt discusses the housing bubble in three separate chapters, and points out that far from being caused solely by “Wall Street greed”, it was a mix of the unintended consequences of regulation and crony capitalism, with government sponsored enterprises Fannie and Freddie front and center. (Thomas Sowell’s The Housing Boom and Bust is a thorough analysis along the same vein devoted solely to that topic.) One of the villains is surely Congressman Barney Frank, former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who infamously remarked in 2003 before the height of the boom that “I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing.

Far from being uncompassionate, the featured capitalists donate substantially to charity; BB&T for instance reasons that a healthy bank needs healthy communities in which to do business. But there’s a difference between freely given charity and forced charity mandated by the state. In the former case, money can be withheld if the recipients do not put it to productive use. Such accountability is very difficult with the clumsy democratic process, since the overseers of these programs are spending not their own money but that of taxpayers, who find it difficult to police the myriad of government bureaucracies by voting every few years on a candidate’s policies in aggregate. T.J. Rodgers said, “When good works cease to be voluntary and become compulsory, charity becomes confiscation and freedom becomes servitude.”

I divide modern liberals into two types – most at least start out as well-meaning but fail to grasp the unintended consequences of interventionist policies. A minority overall but unfortunately a majority of office-holders use benign-sounding terms like “equality”, “consumer safety”, “green investment”, “free insurance”, and “creating jobs” as cover for using the force of the law to enrich themselves and their allies, although they still may delude themselves into thinking that calling a thing a diamond gives it the properties of a diamond. Instead of theft, cronyism, and servitude, John Galt embodies a philosophy of individual responsibility, that no one asks more of a neighbor than he or she gives in return, and that social contracts are entered freely using reasoned judgment. Government exists to prevent people from using force or fraud to achieve their ends, to ensure freedom, not take it away.

Galt’s is very much a virtuous and compassionate philosophy.

Photo quote

August 21st, 2011


Book review: Lies My Teacher Told Me, Part 3

August 4th, 2011

I actually waited to review Chapter 7 until I read Chapter 11, whose title, “Progress is Our Most Important Product,” suggested it might counterbalance the class warfare tone of Chapter 7. To my great astonishment and disappointment, Chapter 11 actually takes a cynical view of progress. It begins by taking to task the textbooks’ standard closing theme, such as this one in Land of Promise:

“Most Americans remained optimistic about the nation’s future. They were convinced that their free institutions, their great natural wealth, and the genius of the American people would enable the U.S. to continue to be – as it always has been – the LAND OF PROMISE.”

Loewen is not optimistic about the future. He prefers to quote others who scold Americans and offer Mathusian predictions of doom. Here are a few:

  • “In terms of spoiling the environment and using world resources, we are the world’s most irresponsible and dangerous citizens.” – Donella Meadows
  • “Robert Nisbet, who thinks that the idea of progress ‘has done more good over a 2500-year period…than any other single idea in Western history,’ nonetheless agrees that the idea is in twilight.”
  • “Anyone having the slightest familiarity with the physics of heat, energy, and matter,’ wrote E.J. Mishan in 1977, ‘will realize that, in terms of historical time, the end of economic growth, as we currently experience it, cannot be that far off.”

The above could be regarded as vague predictions or opinions, but other claims are objectively false.

“Cancer rates climb and we don’t know why.”
Incorrect. Most age-adjusted cancer incidence rates are steady or declining. Any increases are mostly due to advances in technology that detect cancers earlier, when they are more easily treated, again with newfound advances. Thus, mortality rates are declining – one example is that over 90% of breast cancer patients are now alive 5 years after their diagnosis. The percentage of deaths attributable to cancer is increasing, probably because people are living long enough to die of cancer instead of succumbing to other diseases that we’ve learned to combat.

“The average sperm count in healthy human males around the world has dropped by nearly 50 percent over the past fifty years.”
Simply not true.

“The energy crises of 1973 and 1979 pointed to the difficulty that capitalism, a marvelous system of production, was never designed to accommodate shortage.”
Of course capitalism accommodates shortage! With prices! Absent silly government price controls and market-suffocating regulations, whenever free-market goods become scarce, their price rises, signaling consumers to consume less of them, and producers to find new ways of producing them (or substitutes) to take advantage of higher prices.

What’s more, the real price of most resources have declined over time, owing to innovative methods (progress!) that make bringing them to consumers more practical. In 1980, economist Julian Simon made a now infamous bet with Paul Ehrlich that the total inflation-adjusted price of five commodities chosen by Ehrlich would decrease over the next 10 years. In fact, they all decreased. (Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb in 1968 which predicted impending human population collapse.)

Loewen obviously knows about the bet; he writes about it on p. 290. It’s in the middle of a counterargument, or more accurately, a description of a counterargument Loewen made in an earlier version of Lies which advocated something like giving equal time to optimistic and pessimistic visions. However, he continues, “No longer do I suggest this evenhanded approach. Even though Simon is right and capitalism is supple, in at least two ways our current crisis is new and cannot be solved be capitalism alone.”

“First, we face a permanent energy shortage, only beginning with an oil shortage.”
But, he – Simon – you just said, resource prices – aaargh! The real price of gasoline is about the same as it was in 1980. We’re not even close to running out of oil – we keep finding new ways to get at oil we didn’t think we could use (profitably) before. If environmental activists would get out of the way, we’d have access to a lot more nuclear power and natural gas fracking. And should all of those become scarce, their price would rise, making other alternative energy sources a profitable option, without massive government subsidies.

“Second, our use of oil (and all other fossil fuels) has a serious worldwide impact: global warming.” Well, you just said we were going to have an energy shortage – which is it? The “crisis” is certainly not being argued as an either-or scenario.

Anyway…global warming. I’ve written at length about this before, but let’s suppose that at least some of the predictions are true. Superfreakonomics devotes a chapter to the topic, and begins by pointing out that a huge public health problem in urban areas around 1900 was the buildup of manure from horses pulling carriages. This was solved not by a major policy intervention but by the invention and mass production of the automobile. Likewise, some engineers have proposed a relatively cheap solution to global warming that involves infusing the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to mimic a large volcanic eruption, the likes of which have historically cooled the planet for several years.

I’m not going to argue whether this proposal will work or not in a technical sense, only point out that “progress” is indeed often the solution to the problems Loewen thinks it creates. Second, the response to the Superfreakonomics chapter was one of outright derision from the Al Gore camp. Now, if one really believes in impending environmental armageddon, any and all potential solutions should be on the table. All should be regarded with utmost hope and scoured to see if even a small part or variation would be helpful. But the geoengineering proposal does not require major political or social change, and therefore reveals the true motives of many environmentalists: to use global warming as a cover for reorganizing society as they would like it to be.

If you don’t like the sulfur dioxide proposal, Stephen Davies, the historian in the New Deal myth video linked in Part 2, believes that the end of agriculture as we know it is not far off. Synthetically engineered produce and even meat will be mass-produced in labs, using far less land and energy than our agricultural methods do now, allowing nature to reclaim much of our farmland.

Ironically, many of Lies’ earlier chapters criticize an overly rosy view of the past, and it’s those kind of myths that cause us to inflate the current side-effects of progress and make us wonder if it was really worth it. Was it worth it? Does anyone seriously want to go back to living 100 years ago? Since the question doesn’t seem to be rhetorical to some people, I’ll be explicit: life expectancy under 50, frequent disease, crude medicine and surgery, no electricity for the common household, and therefore no electrical appliances – no washing machines, stoves, refrigerators, or vacuum cleaners, but exploding boilers, fires, little communication or travel outside one’s home neighborhood, overt racism including lynchings, and dirty and polluted cities. Being a housewife was a full-time job: dawn to dusk cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes by hand. But, hey, it was a simpler, gentler time, and people had fewer plastic bags to throw away.

If you want to see for yourself, watch this British series about a family living a 1900 Victorian lifestyle for three months. Even common toiletries such as modern toothpaste or safety razors were not available. Or, for a more recent comparison, economist Donald Boudreaux did a slideshow comparing the cost of many common household items in 1975 and 2010.

I suppose that we will never all agree on one history curriculum because everyone adopts his own history to suit his particular worldview. As George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the present controls the past.” Loewen thinks that “conservative think tanks and policymakers” who influence textbook standards in important states like Texas are partly to blame, while I think parts of his worldview are upside-down wrong. How can one curriculum accommodate both? Herein lies another problem.

Most K-12 American students are subject to what is in essence a government monopoly of education. State education boards write uniform standards to which the major textbooks conform, usually following the lead of states with the most potential sales like Texas and California. Individual families have little choice over what their children learn about history, or any other subject for that matter. If you’re not sure what effect a school choice voucher system would have on grade school education, ask yourself if our university system would be better or worse if everyone who wanted to attend college were forced to attend the one college in his or her “district”. The documentary Waiting for Superman poignantly illustrates this, although due to its criticism of government-run schools and teachers’ unions, it received barely a peep of attention from Hollywood and the mainstream media, which nevertheless lavished praise on producer Davis Guggenheim’s other well-known documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

But back to history, the fact that the government controls grade school education allows it to inculcate students with a history curriculum that is decidedly pro-government and to make them loyal citizens of the state. Indeed, many of Lies’ criticisms are about the lack of truth regarding government failures – Jim Crow and Vietnam, for example.

In Fair Play, Steve Landsburg writes (p. 31) that “Professor John Lott of the University of Pennsylvania has presented evidence that across countries, expenditures on public schooling (as well as expenditures on public broadcasting) are positively correlated with levels of totalitarianism. By contrast, expenditures on public health, and other services with no obvious propaganda value, are not positively correlated with totalitarianism. This suggests that public schooling serves a rather unsavory agenda.”

Lies backs up that statement by saying that “Socialist leaders such as Fidel Castro and Mao Tse-tung vastly extended schooling in Cuba and China in part because they knew that an educated people is a socialized populace and a bulwark of allegiance.” (p. 351)

High school American history is not a representative history of Americans but a history of American government. The most discussed events are wars. Beyond wars, it’s about presidents, other political statesmen, and the Constitution. As Stephen Davies said, there’s an old truth that the more people you kill, the more books you will have written about you. Later in the same talk, he says

“One of the purposes of the process of education is to inculcate a particular vision of the past in the minds of high school students and others, the aim of which is to make them loyal subjects of the state. History is one of the most important ways in which ruling groups around the world build a mindset in the minds of many of their subjects that leads them to identify their own interests with the interests of the state that rules over them.”

In that talk, Davies’s opening gambit is to display a list of dates in political history that people commonly know, like 1776, 1865, and 1914. He contrasts this to another list of dates that hardly anybody knows: the first transatlantic telegraph, the Model-T, the opening of the World Wide Web, and Malcom McLean’s first commercial container shipment in 1956, which reduced the cost of loading and unloading commercial ships by a factor of 34, ushering in a new era of global trade. Davies argues that the second list of dates is even more important than the first because they had a much greater impact on the lives of ordinary people, an impact that does much to explain why life is as it is today. Now that’s a history worth learning.

Book review: Lies My Teacher Told Me, Part 2

August 4th, 2011

In part 1 of my Lies review, I focused on the Columbus story. My reaction to most of the other chapters was similar; a poorly taught topic is identified, although a few of the counterpoints I bothered to look up turned out to be embellished, making me suspicious of the remaining content. I was going to therefore summarize Lies as a good starting point for discussion and leave it at that. But a couple chapters are far enough off the mark that they require a thorough response.

Before I get to that, I’ll point out one topic Lies gets right – calling out and thoroughly discrediting the Woodrow Wilson administration. Wilson was an interventionist at home and abroad, making his presidency the most significant in a paradigm shift of that office into its powerful modern state. In addition to fighting World War I, Wilson sent troops to “Mexico in 1914, Haiti in 1915, the Dominican Republic in 1916, Mexico again in 1916 (and nine more times before the end of his presidency), Cuba in 1917, and Panama in 1918,” and maintained forces in Nicaragua throughout his administration. Even more notoriously, he sent two expeditionary forces to fight on the White side in the Russian Revolution between 1918 and 1920. The Russian adventure is rarely taught in American classrooms, but was well known in Soviet Russia and was a continuing sore point during the Cold War.

At home, Wilson was an unapologetic racist, and segregated federal agencies that had employed blacks since Reconstruction. He actively promoted anti-German propaganda, opposed the women’s suffrage movement, and supported the Espionage and Sedition Acts which gave the government broad censoring and police powers. He was not enamored with the Constitution, writing “It is, therefore, manifestly a radical defect in our federal system that it parcels out power and confuses responsibility as it does. The main purpose of the Convention of 1787 seems to have been to accomplish this grievous mistake.” The income tax and Federal Reserve also began on his watch, although they are referenced by Loewen as “progressive legislative accomplishments”.

It was Wilson’s presidency more than any other that transformed the U.S. government from its 19th century laissez-faire state into the omnipresent apparatus it is today. Besides pointing that out, Lies also calls attention to our incessant military adventures that followed for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. But it is silent on the other great historical myth of that era, that of the New Deal.

The version that is generally believed is that the Great Depression started with the stock market crash in late 1929, and was exacerbated by Herbert Hoover’s do-nothing policies until Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933. FDR’s New Deal programs primed the economy, leading to recovery through massive spending on public works projects and other policies. Other than the dates, the truth is almost the opposite.

Far from doing nothing, Hoover increased federal spending by 30% in 1931 in an effort to restore employment. Many of FDR’s programs were actually borrowed from Hoover’s initiatives but were repackaged with catchy names and marketed with uplifting propaganda (sound familiar?). But multiple New Deal programs were unconstitutional; when they were overturned by the courts, FDR attempted to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices who were favorable to his interpretation. Moreover, unemployment remained in the double digits throughout the 1930s. A substantial proportion of economists and historians (maybe a majority?) now think that the New Deal prolonged the Depression, causing a later recovery in the US compared to other parts of the world.

Somewhat more astute observers have suggested that the Depression didn’t really end until the World War II “stimulus” got people working again. But as several economists have pointed out, work does not equal prosperity. If everyone in the country produced military equipment, there would be plenty of work, but we’d starve. World War II was marked by domestic rationing and shortages of many common goods – hardly prosperity. It wasn’t until 1946-1947 that the Depression really ended, when federal spending was slashed 55% and 10 million servicemen were simultaneously reintegrated into the civilian workforce, starting the postwar boom.

Chapter 7, “The Land of Opportunity”, begins by lamenting the lack of content about class structure, social position, and labor history. It’s really about class “inequality”. I could give Loewen the benefit of a doubt and suppose he merely wants the topic discussed more intelligently. Fine, I agree. But many of his subsequent assertions sound like talking points from the DNC:

  • “The policies of the Reagan and first Bush administration, which openly favored the rich, abetted a secular trend already in motion, causing inequality to increase measurably between 1981 and 1992.”
  • “Surely high school students would be interested to learn that in 1950 physicians made two and a half times what unionized industrial workers made but now make five times as much.”
  • “The Reagan-Bush administrations accelerated this shrinkage of the middle class…”
  • “The stress on upward mobility is striking. There is almost nothing in any of these textbooks about class inequalities or barriers of any kind to social mobility.”
  • “Rich babies come out healthier and weighing more than poor babies…Poor babies are more likely to have high levels of poisonous lead in their environments and their bodies.”
  • “Affluent children are advantaged [for SATs] because their background is similar to that of the test makers, so they are comfortable with the vocabulary and subtle subcultural assumptions of the test.”
  • “Poor people are more likely to watch TV.”

I suppose it’s American to compare your social standing to your neighbor’s. But I think Loewen’s (and many others’) focus on inequality is misplaced. The reason is that many people intuitively perceive economic transactions as zero-sum. If the doctor is making more money relative to the laborer than he was 50 years ago, it must be because he’s better off at the worker’s expense.

But free market transactions are not zero-sum. Both parties gain in value. Consider businessmen who sold the first electric washing machines in the early 1900s. Money was transferred from consumers to producers, increasing income inequality, but consumers wound up saving hours of time each week instead of doing laundry by hand. The extra time could be spent as leisure time or be devoted to income-producing activities. A substantial factor in the increase of women in the workforce during the 20th century was the mass adoption of electrical home appliances which reduced the amount of time spent on house chores on the order of 60-80%. In fact, many inventions that have made their creators wealthy have done so because the product makes people more productive, like Apple, Microsoft, Google, and a bevy of other less-sexy brands today.

Here’s how I would summarize the social class section of my history book: Until the Industrial Revolution, all but a tiny percentage comprising royals and elites lived their entire lives in a state of absolute poverty by modern standards, just like their parents, grandparents, and children. Everyone was equal, but equally poor. Then, around 1800, incomes began to rise in some parts of the world. Living standards rose noticeably within each generation in those places. Nowhere was this jump in prosperity more pronounced than in the United States, evidenced by the waves of poverty-stricken immigrants who left everything in their home country behind, beckoned by freedom and the chance of a better life. With prosperity came inequality; nearly everyone was better off than they were before, but some people became much, much wealthier. Happily, many other countries now share in that prosperity, but the United States is still a favored destination for immigrants, especially Latin Americans and Asians seeking to live, work, and study at our universities.

Freedom means that people will choose different occupations, differing amounts and styles of education, and different places to live. It is therefore expected that they would have different incomes, but also differing amounts of leisure time, family sizes, and community involvement to name a few. Moreover, inequality is usually measured by comparing various percentiles of the overall wealth distribution. But the same people who were in the top or bottom 10% twenty years ago are not necessarily in the same bracket today. In addition, immigration and mortality change the composition of the sample, and individuals move about within the distribution, especially transitioning from young workers to old workers to retirees.

Attempts to drastically reduce inequality via the state inevitably end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Redistributionist policies fail because they cannot eradicate inequality without damaging the incentive to innovate that drives prosperity and raises living standards. Again I quote Milton Friedman: “the only cases in which the masses have escaped from poverty, the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade.” For some natural experiments of this concept, see USSR/USA, China/Hong Kong, and North/South Korea. It’s counterintuitive to many people that planned, top-down policies that purport to help the middle and lower classes do not achieve anything close to optimal results, but it’s also true.

There is one set of policy changes that could reduce inequality without stifling innovation; in fact, they would probably promote innovation. This involves ending so-called crony capitalism, unholy alliances between business and government that take the form of protectionism, occupational licenses, competition-thwarting regulation, and subsidies and tax loopholes for politically connected industries. But it’s a mistake to associate these features with true, free-market capitalism; they’re the sort of corruption that is prominent in large, powerful, totalitarian regimes.

Loewen also wants more discussion of the labor movement, acknowledging that textbooks give it some ink but not enough. OK, fine. Let’s talk about the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which requires that all federal contracts pay prevailing union wages and is still in effect. Many proponents of the law when it was written wanted to ensure that cheap colored labor would not compete with white unionized workers. AFL president William Green lobbied for the law by claiming that “colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.”

How about Cesar Chavez, whose name now identifies boulevards in numerous American cities? Chavez led efforts to unionize farm workers in the southern US and headed the United Farm Workers union. But he and the UFW favored strict immigration policies to keep wages high for workers already in the country. That’s an odd moral position – to favor helping workers, in particular those who were born on one side of an imaginary line, but only at the expense of workers who were also born on the same side of that imaginary line but had not yet crossed it. Chavez’s policies increased inequality between farm workers in the United States and Mexico, and resulted in higher prices for consumers.

Loewen clearly has read about the benefits of free enterprise and gives them a token paragraph near the end of the chapter. But it’s one half of one page, compared to thirteen and a half pages about “social injustice”. My guess is that the ratio would be about the same if Loewen were to write a textbook on the topic.

And a quote…

August 1st, 2011

Referring to the tortuous negotiations, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said: “Sausage making is not pretty. But the sausage we have, I think, is a very different sausage from when we started.”

One Pill, Two Pills, Red Pills Blue Pills

July 26th, 2011

Why do the same drugs look different? Pills, trade dress, and public health is the title of a paper by Jeremy Greene and Aaron Kesselheim published earlier this month in the New England Journal of Medicine (subscription required). It discusses the legal concept of trade dress as applied to pharmaceuticals. Trade dress, as much as I can understand, is not the same as a trademark, though the two are highly related. Trade dress refers to the branding of a product, and prevents competitors from copying the look and feel of a product to confuse consumers or piggyback on an existing product’s reputation.

One requirement for trade dress is that it must be non-functional. It also must be distinctive in the sense that it identifies the source of the product as a well-known brand. Apple’s sleek aluminum appearance on its computers seems to (sort of) fit that definition. It’s non-functional in the sense that one could produce a product with similar quality and durability with other colors or materials, and customers are associating the style with the Apple brand more and more. I’m not sure if the degree is enough to qualify for trade dress protection, but it’s going in that direction.

Here’s a more clear cut example: if I wanted to start a new fast-food restaurant called Wally’s, I couldn’t flip McDonald’s golden arch upside down to make a ‘W’ and use the same color scheme or fonts. Such a move would confuse customers who might think my restaurant is an offshoot of McDonald’s.

Similarly, pharmaceuticals attempt to create brand association by making their pills a certain color or shape. AstraZeneca advertises Nexium as the “purple pill” while Pfizer’s Viagra is recognized as a blue diamond. These attributes are non-functional and help to distinguish the product from generic competitors.

But are they really non-functional? The placebo effect is well-known; patients often feel better when given a pill that contains no active agent. The placebo effect is, not surprisingly, stronger for conditions with a large psychological component, such as depression, anxiety, pain, or impotence, and it has also been demonstrated in arthroscopic knee surgery. However, for a given condition, there is no one empirical placebo effect; the placebo’s effectiveness can vary by the color and smell of the pill, or by how much a physician talks up the benefits of treatment.

In a couple of famous studies from the 1970s, Italian researchers showed that the color of the placebo was significant for improving sleep quality and duration. In fact, the color effect differed between males and females; women thought the blue placebo was about as good as an actual blue pill, but an orange placebo was inferior to the actual treatment. Men did not observe much difference between the blue and orange placebos, although they did slightly better with active drugs than either placebo.

(It’s often difficult in clinical trials to create a placebo that exactly matches the active drug in size, shape, and smell. Some inquisitive patients like to break capsules apart to attempt to figure out which arm of the trial they are on. But not all clinical trials use placebos – in some cases it’s impractical or unethical, and other times it makes more sense to compare an experimental treatment to a standard existing treatment.)

Brand name pharmaceuticals have used trade dress as a way of distinguishing their products from generic competitors. Courts have upheld this especially when the generic is not chemically equivalent. However, in one case (Adderall), the drug was marketed with a color scheme for distinguishing between different doses. The color scheme was ruled to be functional, and thus not protected under trade dress.

In addition to the placebo effect, having different colored generics can increase prescription error and decrease medication adherence, especially for people on multiple drug regimens who use appearance as one way of identifying them. Is there a definitive policy that would be appropriate for everyone? I don’t know, but it’s a clever interplay of the law, medicine, and business.



Greene J & Kesselheim A. Why Do the Same Drugs Look Different? Pills, Trade Dress, and Public Health. NEJM 7 Jul 2011.

Lucchelli PE, Cattaneo AD, & Zattoni J. Effect of Capsule Colour and Order of Administration of Hypnotic Treatments. European Journal of clinical Pharmacology 1978.

Cattaneo AD, Lucchelli PE, & Filippucci G. Sedative Effects of Placebo Treatment. European Journal of clinical Pharmacology 1970.

Moerman D. Meaningful Placebos – Controlling the Uncontrollable. NEJM 14 Jul 2011.

Enserink M. Can the Placebo be the Cure? Science 9 Apr 1999.

Book review: Lies My Teacher Told Me, Part 1

July 23rd, 2011

Authored by sociologist James Loewen, first written in 1995 and revised in 2007.

The title is provocative, but the book itself is not so much an attack on teachers but on the consortium of American high school history textbook publishers. Loewen’s regret is that the massive textbooks have too much quantity and not enough quality; students muddle through their history curriculum by memorizing and soon forgetting a litany of dates, places, and names, without ever connecting bigger themes or appreciating them.

An even bigger problem is that the textbooks tell an incomplete history, or sometimes the wrong one. If one could summarize their main theme in a single sentence, it would have to do with a neat and clean founding myth, that the United States from the beginning was destined to be a beacon for the world. This hubris shies away from messy details and controversy, and presents history as engraved truth rather than acknowledging continuing arguments among historians. In doing so, the textbooks miss an opportunity to engage students in debate over what really happened, boring them with detail after detail instead of allowing them to explore human behavior for themselves, through primary and secondary historical documents that represent multiple perspectives.

The state-sponsored high school history curriculum naturally puts the United States and its government in the best possible light. The major exception is slavery, which is so obvious and ingrained that it cannot possibly be ignored. But negative topics such as American Indian relations, interventions in Latin America and elsewhere, and some of the U.S. government’s own destructive domestic policies are glossed over or ignored. Students are left with a portrayal of historical figures that is too neat and clean, robbing them of the chance to understand the human faults of the people whose names they are supposed to remember.

I’ll proceed with a detailed reflection on the second chapter, since it epitomizes much of the rest of the book and focuses on a familiar figure, Christopher Columbus.

Here is the Columbus story more or less told by the history textbooks:

Christopher Columbus came from humble beginnings in Genoa, Italy, (doesn’t everything come from humble beginnings these days?) and ventured as far as Iceland and West Africa. He became convinced that the Earth was round and thus he could reach the East faster by sailing west. He lobbied monarchs across Europe for funding for an expedition. Finally, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain agreed to underwrite a modest expedition, which Isabella paid for in part by pawning crown jewels. With three small ships and a motley crew, Columbus departed in the late summer of 1492. He kept a separate log of distance traveled so the crew wouldn’t know they were really farther from home than they thought, but nevertheless, the crew nearly mutinied. After a storm-filled voyage, they landed in the West Indies on October 12, whereupon Columbus glorified God and claimed the land for the King of Spain. He returned home and eventually made three more voyages in search of gold and a passage to Asia, but his monumental discoveries were never fully appreciated in his lifetime. Columbus died in obscurity, never convinced that he had found a New World.

Now the version told in Lies:

Columbus claimed to have been born in Genoa, but there is some evidence that he might not be from there. He also claimed to have visited Iceland in 1477; if so, he surely would have heard the Norse sagas about settlements on Greenland and Newfoundland. Whether he intended to sail to Asia or discover new lands will probably never be known. That the world was round had been known at least since the Greeks; few learned people in Europe and probably elsewhere would have believed in a flat earth in 1492. Columbus did petition numerous monarchs to fund an expedition, and received it from Queen Isabella, although the selling of the crown jewels appears to be a myth. The trip lasted two months (five weeks across the ocean following a stopover at the Canary Islands), had good weather and no mutiny, only some sailors getting on each others’ nerves after spending weeks together. Columbus did keep a separate log but his motive was to keep his route to the Indies secret. When they returned to Spain, news of the discovery was well received and Columbus was approved for a second, larger voyage. His subsequent voyages resulted in murder, mutilation, and enslavement of inhabitants of present-day Haiti and other Caribbean islands, although a gold discovery in 1499 did make Columbus very well off and he left a considerable fortune to his heirs.

The Lies version appears a lot closer to the consensus truth, at least with regard to the details above. But Lies goes further in suggesting there were numerous pre-Columbian contacts, and puts itself on shaky archaeological ground. For example, there’s this sentence on p. 39: “Ancient Roman and Carthaginian coins keep turning up all over the Americas, causing some archaeologists to conclude that Roman seafarers visited the Americas more than once.”

To quote Pat Kessler, that’s misleading. “Some archaeologists” means a stubborn minority. In fact, the referenced journal article, from Current Anthropology, is an attempt by Jeremiah Epstein to disprove the authenticity of all of the alleged coin discoveries. None of the finds were made at archaeological sites where the material could be accurately dated; instead, they mostly turned up in people’s gardens after Europeans began migrating en masse to the North American interior in the 19th century.

Similar problems apply also to another example put forth – some statues found in Mayan lands supposedly resemble negroid, or African faces. Lies claims there is a possibility that Phoenician sailors reached America in the first millennium B.C.E. (The Phoenicians were based in modern day Lebanon and ran a successful trade empire throughout the Mediterranean for several centuries.) Again, many of the statues were purchased in modern times, not found among ruins, and the faces could easily be Mayan or, as some have suggested, jaguars. Lies at least acknowledges this much, concluding “Most archaeologists think they were Mayan, so including the Afro-Phoenicians [in history texts] must be done as a mere possibility – an ongoing controversy.” Lies also suggests that West Africans were voyaging to Brazil during the 1400s.

The thing is, there will always be archaeologists and authors who espouse farfetched hypotheses to get attention. Like the media, the mundane and true is rarely news. Perhaps Loewen is simply advocating inclusion of these claims as a way of making history more interesting to students. But a lot of people are susceptible to conspiracy theories, and giving them equal time sounds an awful lot like the intelligent design argument. (One of the reasons I think people still fail to accept that the Theory of Evolution is the only general natural history theory that belongs in the science curriculum is because most non-scientists think theory is a synonym for hypothesis. But the Theory of Evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, and is no more hypothesis than is Newton’s “Theory” of Gravity.)

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond takes a different approach: he acknowledges competing claims but then goes on to refute the more ridiculous ones. Ironcially, Lies references Guns multiple times but Loewen seems to forget about it whenever it refutes a claim for which he advocates inclusion. I think Guns would be an excellent alternative to many world history textbooks, and contains many of the sorts of perspectives Loewen finds lacking in standard textbooks.

A table on p. 40 lists 15 or so possible pre-Columbian contacts. Of these, I would bet on only three. One, a Norse settlement on Greenland (which lasted over 400 years but never had more than a few thousand inhabitants) and its repeated contact with the North American mainland. Two, repeated contact across the Bering Strait between Siberians and Inuits. Three, Polynesian contact with South America. From modern-day Indonesia, the Polynesians colonized islands as remote as Hawaii, Madagascar, and Easter Island, a tiny speck hundreds of miles from any other inhabited island and only 2,200 miles west of South America. In fact, ancestors of those Polynesians were the first to settle Australia, between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. Such a voyage would have required crossing a channel at least 50 miles wide, even during an Ice Age, making this the first known use of oceangoing watercraft in human history.

The other fault I see in Lies is that while it is critical of standard textbooks for portraying a clean, rosy founding myth, it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction by embracing too much political correctness and white guilt. This is why Loewen brings up the supposed pre-Columbian contact by Phoenicians and Africans; he wants to find non-European centered themes to talk about. And while the American Indian genocide certainly deserves a lot of attention, its perpetrators, white Europeans, are by no means the lone guilty party in history. In every world region, including Africa, Asia, pre-Columbian America, and Polynesia, whenever two technologically-mismatched civilizations have clashed, the lesser one has usually been subjected to enslavement, torture, and/or genocide. This is a significant attribute of human nature, and one that deserves careful study.

In Chapter 4, Loewen does a nice job of highlighting the influence of American Indians on white culture well into the 19th century, helping make white American culture distinct from British or broader European culture. However, their contributions and the successful societies they themselves had became marginalized from a history standpoint when whites realized they needed a way to explain theft of Indian land, which was easier if Indians were remembered as “primitive”. The influence of the Spanish, French, and Dutch was also largely brushed aside. We likewise saw this revisionist history a few posts ago in the Evolution of God.

However, it’s far too easy to portray the Indians as noble, peaceful tribes who did nothing but care for the earth. War, treachery, and violence were prevalent within and between Indian societies, just as many white individuals sought to help, co-exist, and trade with Indians. But Loewen asserts that Indian warfare only increased after contact with Europeans, when they acquired guns and learned of new military techniques. Oh.

Another theme now frequently put forth by politically correct types is that the West grew rich by “exploiting” native civilizations in other parts of the world. Again, this is very much worth discussing, but while we’re in the spirit of including multiple viewpoints, let’s include Milton Friedman. Friedman asserts in this video that the administration of colonies always cost the mother country more than it received from the arrangement. He also points out that for the native inhabitants who survived the initial wars and disease, quality of life improved through contact and trade. One of my friends recently visited Alaska and met a local Inuit, who told him that “before whites arrived, we spent our entire lives attending to basic survival needs.” As Friedman says in the video, ”The wheel had not yet been invented in parts of Africa by the end of the 19th century.” I don’t know who is right, Friedman or his politically correct counterparts. But Friedman and his colleagues spent decades empirically researching issues like these and were right about a lot of other things; I would at least entertain the possibility that they are right on the colonization claim.

In a nice coincidence, John Stossel’s show this week was entitled ‘politically incorrect history,’ which presented a wide range of myths that are perpetuated in American history classes. I especially liked authors of One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies, and their Lovers changed the course of American History, which I’ll have to add to my reading list. Also Ben Franklin’s treatise on selecting an older mistress. No wonder Franklin never finished his autobiography!