Friday, April 17, 2009

a toast to all amateurs

In the real world, where I go quietly about my business, I sometimes discover that, to my astonishment, I have a reputation as an ultra-leftist. A communist or something. This is not the label I’d put on myself. I think of myself as an amateur.

In the end, I suppose, that is why I love Marx. The early writings, with the lovely vision of a man doing literary criticism in the morning and fishing in the evening in a society that has slipped the bonds of the division of labor, is a society of amateurs.

I am an amateur in all things sacred and profane. And I stick up for amateurs. Thus, when some fact or theory in science is defended on the basis of authority, I get antsy. While I am convinced, for instance, that the global warming theory is true, I am not convinced it is true because we find a consensus among scientists. Science is amateur heaven because the consensi of the scientists are continually being shifted, modified or broken. No, it seems true because the pieces fit, such as the melting of the tundra, the move of species from warmer climates into more northern climates, the changes in the migrations of birds, etc. And because we can look back and see how the addition of matter to the atmosphere can cause severe short term climate changes – we have volcanic activity to guide us.

There is a distressing tendency, on the part of the liberal side to which I generally incline, to believe something if a committee puts it out. But the liberal heroes, like John K. Galbraith or Rachel Carson, were precisely the type to suspect all committee truths. Carson in particular was unbowed by the weight of the scientific community, which had a professional interest in spraying DDT, damn the consequences. That this community existed in disjunction with another community of scientists, those who study evolution, brought it about that DDT use to put down malaria carrying mosquitoes badly overshot, as resistant mosquitoes returned – which any amateur could predict. But it would take a sociologist to understand the difference between the engineering mentality of the spraying/public health crowd and the adaptive notions of the evo crowd.

A distrust of institutional science in the U.S. is amply justified. Take, for example, the shameful history of the AEC. While AEC staff members were writing each other secret memos about ‘disposeable populations”, AEC publicly affirmed, over and over, that the fallout from the above ground bomb tests in Nevada was harmless. We now know, from one study of a single isotope of iodine, that the bomb tests caused, at a minimum, 250 thousand thyroid cancers. Other isotopes have not been studied, and will not be as long as the last surviving member of the decision elite who callously sacrificed civilian lives is alive enough to pull strings in D.C.

So, a toast to amateurs! It is to the amateurs, and not to the economists, that I turn for ways through the zona maze.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I'd like to share a toast with the amateurs of the world as well. And curse the experts, the authoritarians and their would be progeny, and those who in opposing them just want the same, coveted chairs and pulpits, etc.
Amateurs are wanderers, they just don't seem to fit into a place or a profession, whether they be scientists or singers or any other label, but they have love in their heart and on their lips.
You know of course that amateur is related to love.

Litttré etymology:
Aimer ; provenç. amaire, amador ; espagn. amador ; ital. amatore. Le vieux français amere et le provençal amaire sont le nominatif, de amator ; ameor et amador, le cas du régime, de amatorem. Le français actuel a été directement calqué sur le latin à une époque plus récente.

Though Littré also adds:

Il y a une différence entre aimer et être amateur. Aimer est un terme général : j'aime les roses exprime que je les aime, sans ajouter à cette idée rien de particulier. Être amateur indique toujours une préférence particulière et devenue, en quelque sorte, une étude : je suis amateur de roses signifie que je les recherche, que j'en fais collection.

And Littré has this quote from Bousset: Ô le soin inutile, diront les fols amateurs du siècle...


P.M.Lawrence said...

"consensi"? J'ai perdu mon Latin, but shouldn't that be "consensua"?

Roger Gathmann said...

Oh Mr.Lawrence, you remind me of this!

P.M.Lawrence said...

Sorry, you'll have to describe it. I don't have the resources to view youtube.

Brian said...

The only problem is too many of our "amateurs" who don't trust them thar scientists and experts and stuff have killed vaccination programs in some districts (go Jenny Mcarthy!) and carry around signs advertising "Morans" to get a job and complaining about our "Kenyan" president. And, I'm not merely repeating sniggering internet "liberal" talking points...the office next door is full of amateur sleuths a la Tom Tomorrow proving how Obama is a secret fascist terrorist and they better buy more guns right now.

So...let's not go too far here. For every amateur scientist there are 5 Wannabe Klan members who honestly have PROOF that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are the TRUTH and that Aztlan is coming for 'em.

Roger Gathmann said...

Brian, mr. level headed!
I think the best is for there to be amateurs out there who have the same relationship to experts as birdwatchers do to ornithologists. Mutual respect and dependence.
There. Does that make you happier?