Friday, November 19, 2010

David Harriman's Blurb-O-Mat

David Harriman has started a blog around his Objectischism-inspiring book "The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics", which is already promising to be as hapless as the book itself. While the posts so far are basically just blurb, two are of interest. Firstly, the latest one where he claims to "face his critics" (no names mentioned). Harriman actually does nothing of the sort, the post being primarily concerned about how awesome he is at "essentializing" compared to the "contemporary academics"(no names mentioned), and with signaling just how deeply individualistic and unconventional he is by disregarding what other historians might say. Commenters thus far agree that this awesomeness is indeed awesome. If this is "facing his critics" I'd hate to see him "facing his fans".

Secondly, there's a post about the "positive reviews" the book allegedly has had thus far. Harriman claims that there have been "more than a dozen", although he fails to mention actual sources for all but two: a very brief, rather lukewarm online-only review from the National Science Teachers Association, and more importantly, a rave review from the respected Physics Today journal by math professor at Ohio State U, Ulrich Gerlach (no link available, sorry). Gerlach describes Harriman's book as "brilliant" and "destined to be the fountainhead of future studies in the philosophy of science".

Wait a minute...did he just say "fountainhead"? Yep, you guessed it. So we google "Ulrich Gerlach Ayn Rand" and here's what we get: among other things, an example of what appears to be his work from 2005, which sources The Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology in footnotes, and comments on an Amazon review of Tara Smith's Objectivist work "Viable Values" which read like standard Ayn Rand Institute catechism. So it's pretty obvious Gerlach is in fact a True Believer of the same stripe as Harriman, which in turn makes the Physics Today review basically worthless.

Funnily enough, Harriman forgot to mention this.

16 comments:

Matt Warren said...

I'm steering clear. Got enough annoying partisanship on my mind. But you let us know if he ever gets around to actually referencing anything.

Anon69 said...

Daniel Barnes wrote:
"Commenters thus far agree that this awesomeness is indeed awesome."

I dunno, the comment by "Anne Moroney" says:
"Dr. Harriman, will this blog be able to include elaborations on some of the more difficult sections? For some passages, further instruction or references for grasping the physics might be quite helpful."

Doesn't Anne realize that them's fighting words?

Robert J said...

I just finished reading Harriman's book. I had no expectations, but what I found was an easy to understand description of Rand's theory of concepts, which clarified quite a few issues for me, and the development of an original theory of induction based on her theory.

The book begins with a description of Rand's theory of concepts, which is then followed by a detailed study of the methods used by many of our most celebrated scientists – e.g., Galileo, Newton - and the facts that Harriman presents about these various methods can be checked by anyone, so the charge that there are no references is misleading. If you question some of Harriman's facts about Newton's method of optics, for example, then you can read Newton’s own lectures on optics. I found Harriman's analysis of these various methods to be extremely interesting. For me, the analysis of their methods alone is worth the price of the book. Whatever you may think of Rand and Objectivism, and whatever you might think of the theory presented in this book, this book will make you think about induction in a way you have never thought about it before.

Daniel Barnes said...

Robert J
>this book will make you think about induction in a way you have never thought about it before.

Can you summarize what is unique about Harriman's argument? It appears to be the same-old same-old, that you might find in HWB Joseph for example.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, why do objectivists do this? Come on and 'review' a book/movie/play/painting etc and just say something like it's fantastic and or it really made things clearer for me. Without telling you why it is fantastic and how is helped them gain a greater understanding...they review things without erm...actually reviewing them.

We are told, by Robert J, that Harrimans analysis is extremely interesting & it the book will make us thing about induction in a way we never have before but not why.

Why review this way?


BTW - if you do read the Amazon reviews of the book there is some debate about how reliable the references actually are. So to claim there is no misleading, by Harriman, is disingenuous.
I too, would love to find out what is so unique about Harrimans approach and why it is a valid approach at that.

- Steven Johnston
UK

Neil Parille said...

Dan,

I sometimes wonder if Objectivists think the rest of us are stupid. We are not going to figure out that the reviewer is a Randroid?

Or take the fact that 100 Voices doesn't contain interviews of people with who Rand (and even Peikoff!) split. Just a coincidence?

Or no one was going to figure out that Rand's posthumous material has been rewritten.

Or no one was going to check Jim Valliant's endnotes?

Etc.

-Neil Parille

gregnyquist said...

"the facts that Harriman presents about these various methods can be checked by anyone, so the charge that there are no references is misleading."

The charge is not that their are no references, but that the historical data contained in the references is misinterpreted and plagued by confirmation bias. And while it is true that "anyone" can check the references, most of us don't have sufficient time to do so (it's a great deal of work.) That's why "peer review" is so important. It is impossible to check the references of all knowledge claims, since many of these claims are made on the basis of a high degree of specialization and require expertise to evaluate. Hence we have no choice but to accept many things on authority. This being the case, how are we supposed to determine whether a particular authority can be trusted?

There is in fact a method: it's called "peer" review. We have other qualified specialists who review the claims of other specialist in their field. If a specific claim achieves a consensus, that suggests it is probably true.

Now while peer review does not work in all venues, it does produce pretty good results in any discipline, such as experimental physics or historical scholarship, in which rigorous empirical testing is possible. The historical issues raised in Harriman's book are best settled through peer review. It would be irrational to take them on faith, or to declare that their analysis "is worth the price of the book." How can the worth of Harriman's analysis possibly be known when questions remain concerning the quality of the evidence that Harriman subjects to analysis? This issue becomes particularly significant in light of the fact that Harriman's and Peikoff's behavior toward McCaskey amounted to stifling the process of peer review within the confines of Objectivism. McCaskey is precisely the sort of scholar best fitted, within Objectivism, to review Harriman's claims. And if McCaskey cannot raise claims without being forced off ARI's board, how much credibility can Harriman possibly have?

Anonymous said...

I love a comment on his first post that starts "I unfortunately haven’t yet read either your book or any of the criticisms..." and then carries on to bash those that dare attack the book. They must be in the wrong and gives reasons for that which amount to know more than the usual straw man attacks on critics of Rand & objectivism. Why bother to read what the critics have said or what they've said about it? They are automatically wrong. Talk about a closed mind.

- Steven Johnston
UK

Anonymous said...

Neil said: "I sometimes wonder if Objectivists think the rest of us are stupid."

They must, because that is what Atlas Shrugged, once they've identified themselves with the Galts and Reardens, insists that they do! ;)

Seriously though, the refusal of, and repulsion to, peer review simply demonstrates what a closed system Objectivism is. I also wonder if it shows that they subconsciously realize how fragile and problematic their worldview is.

To take an even more extreme example than Harriman's book, look at Thomas Bowden's Enemies of Christopher Columbus, and imagine this going through a peer review of historians. Would even three pages remain after all the errors, confirmation bias, and wishful thinking had been crossed out?

- Chris

Xtra Laj said...

The book begins with a description of Rand's theory of concepts, which is then followed by a detailed study of the methods used by many of our most celebrated scientists – e.g., Galileo, Newton - and the facts that Harriman presents about these various methods can be checked by anyone, so the charge that there are no references is misleading.

I learned the hard way that references are important because 1) you want to know what sources the author relied on and 2) not all sources see the same issue the same way. It's no different from reading how the pro-Republican press reports Supreme Court decisions and contrasting it with what happens for the pro-Democrat press. I often read the original decisions and decide for myself if the views are being fairly represented or not. I read a court case on an issue in a newspaper where 8 justices voted one way, 1 voted another. The article agreed with the eight justices, but I read the original Supreme Court ruling and agreed with the 1. Yes, rulings have an element of subjectivity, but my bigger point is that without the reference, I was stuck with just accepting the newspaper's view of the issue.

While I have plenty of reason to think that Harriman is especially untrustworthy (his editing job on the Ayn Rand Journals has been brought to light by some, most prominently professional historian, Jennifer Burns), I would still likely read a couple of his references if this issue was of interest to me to check the quality of scholarship. After reading a book I like, I often surf the net for opposing reviews to see what might have been left out and to see if there are any good arguments being dodged. I would also see if his views mainstream or fringe. Such things, while they may not settle the issue conclusively, are very important within the practical limits of my interests.

John McCaskey, a PhD in a field of great relevance to Harriman's book, did not agree with Harriman's historical accounts, and McCaskey considered the views he was presenting to represent the mainstream. That's the kind of thing a layman like myself might decide to wade into if both provide sources. But the idea that one should just rely on the fact that there are some publicly accessible facts about Newton and Galileo is a very naive way of studying history. Or any complex field where one has no strong expertise for that matter.

Xtra Laj said...
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Xtra Laj said...
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Xtra Laj said...
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Xtra Laj said...

The book begins with a description of Rand's theory of concepts, which is then followed by a detailed study of the methods used by many of our most celebrated scientists – e.g., Galileo, Newton - and the facts that Harriman presents about these various methods can be checked by anyone, so the charge that there are no references is misleading.

The above is from Harriman's blogpost here.

http://www.thelogicalleap.com/archives/102

Of course, people are not just accusing Harriman of simplification, but simplification while omitting inconvenient but important details. For a project as important as Harriman's, the work of comparing at least one scholar he doesn't agree with with his main source and explaining why he picked one view over another would be great practice. We are free to figure out for ourselves why Harriman doesn't do this given the rest of his post.

Xtra Laj said...

In every case, my selection criterion was the same: Is a particular point or experiment absolutely necessary to arrive at the generalization I am trying to reach? My selection criterion was not: What do most other historians usually say?

From Harriman.

A modern scientist would respond to his first question with another question: how seriously did you consider the experiments (or the accounts of them) that do not support the generalization you are trying to reach?

The second question is what makes Popper so great.

Anonymous said...

Damn...I posted a comment on the 2nd post of his blog asking for links to the, at least, eleven other positive reveiws but he deleted it.

These objectivists, they don't like it up 'em.

- Steven Johnston
UK