“The Founding Principles Have Been Lost”

(p. B1) The president has some bones to pick with the American media: about our “bias,” our obsession with racism, our views on terrorism, our reluctance to express solidarity, even for a moment, with his embattled republic.

So President Emmanuel Macron of France called me on Thursday afternoon from his gilded office in the Élysée Palace to drive home a complaint. He argued that the Anglo-American press, as it’s often referred to in his country, has blamed France instead of those who committed a spate of murderous terrorist attacks that began with the beheading on Oct. 16 of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who, in a lesson on free speech, had shown his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” President Macron said, recalling Nov. 13, 2015, when 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks at a concert hall, outside a soccer stadium and in cafes in and around Paris.

“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values — journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — when I see them legitimizing this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”

For the full commentary, see:

Ben Smith. “(French) President Faults The (American) Press.” The New York Times (Monday, November 16, 2020): B1 & B4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 15, 2020, and has the title “The President vs. the American Media.”)

Mathematical Disciplines Need the “Re-injection” of “Empirical Ideas”

(p. C4) Mathematicians have faced a similar choice between pure and applied work for millennia. In his 1940 book “A Mathematician’s Apology,” G.H. Hardy made a hard-core case for purity: “But is not the position of an ordinary applied mathematician in some ways a little pathetic?…‘Imaginary’ universes are so much more beautiful than this stupidly constructed ‘real’ one.”

On the other hand, John von Neumann rebuked purity in his 1947 essay “The Mathematician”: “As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source…it is beset with very grave dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticizing,…whenever this stage is reached, the only remedy seems to me to be the rejuvenating return to the source: the re-injection of more or less directly empirical ideas.”

I think von Neumann has the better of this argument. In his own career, he used his mathematical talents to pioneer fields like game theory and computer science, leaving a titanic legacy, practical as well as intellectual.

For the full commentary, see:

Frank Wilczek. “WILCZEK’S UNIVERSE; Beautiful, Impractical Physics.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020): C4.

(Note: ellipses in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date October 29, 2020, and has the same title as the online version.)

The John von Neumann essay mentioned above is:

Neumann, John von. “The Mathematician.” In Works of the Mind, edited by Robert B. Heywood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947, pp. 180-96.

Costs and Difficulties of Clinical Trials Delay “Most Promising Experimental Drugs”

(p. A6) As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc in the United States and treatments are needed more than ever, clinical trials for some of the most promising experimental drugs are taking longer than expected.

Researchers at a dozen clinical trial sites said that testing delays, staffing shortages, space constraints and reluctant patients were complicating their efforts to test monoclonal antibodies, man-made drugs that mimic the molecular soldiers made by the human immune system.

As a result, once-ambitious deadlines are slipping. The drug maker Regeneron, which previously said it could have emergency doses of its antibody cocktail ready by the end of summer, has shifted to talking about how “initial data” could be available by the end of September [2020].

And Eli Lilly’s chief scientific officer said in June that its antibody treatment might be ready in September, but in an interview this week, he said he now hopes for something before the end of the year.

“Of course, I wish we could go faster — there’s no question about that,” said the Eli Lilly executive, Dr. Daniel Skovronsky. “I guess in my hopes and dreams, we enroll the patients in a week or two, but it’s taking longer than that.”

For the full story, see:

Katie Thomas. “Clinical Trials of Drugs For Virus Are Delayed By a Swamped System.” The New York Times (Saturday, August 15, 2020): A6.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 14, 2020, and has the title “Clinical Trials of Coronavirus Drugs Are Taking Longer Than Expected.”)

Bayesian Updating, Not Clinical Trials, Is Key to Advancing Medical Knowledge

(p. D8) In the early pandemic era, for instance, airborne transmission of Covid-19 was not considered likely, but in early July the World Health Organization, with mounting scientific evidence, conceded that it is a factor, especially indoors. The W.H.O. updated its priors, and changed its advice.

This is the heart of Bayesian analysis, named after Thomas Bayes, an 18th-century Presbyterian minister who did math on the side. It captures uncertainty in terms of probability: Bayes’s theorem, or rule, is a device for rationally updating your prior beliefs and uncertainties based on observed evidence.

. . .

As Marc Lipsitch, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard, noted on Twitter, Bayesian reasoning comes awfully close to his working definition of rationality. “As we learn more, our beliefs should change,” Dr. Lipsitch said in an interview.

. . .

But there is little point in trying to establish fixed numbers, said Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida.

“We should be less focused on finding the single ‘truth’ and more focused on establishing a reasonable range, recognizing that the true value may vary across populations,” Dr. Dean said. “Bayesian analyses allow us to include this variability in a clear way, and then propagate this uncertainty through the model.”

. . .

Joseph Blitzstein, a statistician at Harvard, delves into the utility of Bayesian analysis in his popular course “Statistics 110: Probability.” For a primer, in lecture one, he says: “Math is the logic of certainty, and statistics is the logic of uncertainty. Everyone has uncertainty. If you have 100 percent certainty about everything, there is something wrong with you.”

By the end of lecture four, he arrives at Bayes’s theorem — his favorite theorem because it is mathematically simple yet conceptually powerful.

“Literally, the proof is just one line of algebra,” Dr. Blitzstein said. The theorem essentially reduces to a fraction; it expresses the probability P of some event A happening given the occurrence of another event B.

“Naïvely, you would think, How much could you get from that?” Dr. Blitzstein said. “It turns out to have incredibly deep consequences and to be applicable to just about every field of inquiry” — from finance and genetics to political science and historical studies. The Bayesian approach is applied in analyzing racial disparities in policing (in the assessment of officer decisions to search drivers during a traffic stop) and search-and-rescue operations (the search area narrows as new data is added). Cognitive scientists ask, ‘Is the brain Bayesian?’ Philosophers of science posit that science as a whole is a Bayesian process — as is common sense.

. . .

Even with evidence, revising beliefs isn’t easy. The scientific community struggled to update its priors about the asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19, even when evidence emerged that it is a factor and that masks are a helpful preventive measure. This arguably contributed to the world’s sluggish response to the virus.

. . .

In 1650, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, wrote in a letter to the Church of Scotland: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

In the Bayesian world, Cromwell’s law means you should always “keep a bit back — with a little bit of probability, a little tiny bit — for the fact that you may be wrong,” Dr. Spiegelhalter said. “Then if new evidence comes along that totally contradicts your main prior belief, you can quickly ditch what you thought before and lurch over to that new way of thinking.”

“In other words, keep an open mind,” said Dr. Spiegelhalter. “That’s a very powerful idea. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be done technically or formally; it can just be in the back of your mind as an idea. Call it ‘modeling humility.’ You may be wrong.”

For the full story, see:

Siobhan Roberts. “Thinking Like an Epidemiologist.” The New York Times (Tuesday, August 4, 2020): D8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “How to Think Like an Epidemiologist.”)

New York Times’s “Inexcusable” Reporting Ignored Sophia Farrar, Whose Actions Belied the Kitty Genovese Narrative

(p. A24) The story of Kitty Genovese, coupled with the number 38, became a parable for urban indifference after Ms. Genovese was stalked, raped and stabbed to death in her tranquil Queens neighborhood.

Two weeks after the murder, The New York Times reported in a front-page article that 37 apathetic neighbors who witnessed the murder failed to call the police, and another called only after she was dead.

It would take decades for a more complicated truth to unravel, including the fact that one neighbor actually raced from her apartment to rescue Ms. Genovese, knowing she was in distress but unaware whether her assailant was still on the scene.

That woman, Sophia Farrar, the unsung heroine who cradled the body of Ms. Genovese and whispered “Help is on the way” as she lay bleeding, died on Friday [Aug. 28, 2020] at her home in Manchester, N.J.

. . .

The murder was reported in a modest four-paragraph article in The Times. Two weeks later, its interest piqued by a tip from the city’s police commissioner, The Times produced a front-page account of the killing that transformed the murder into a global allegory for callous egocentrism in the urban jungle and undermined the innocent-bystander alibi.

. . .

That account — epitomized by one neighbor’s stated excuse that “I didn’t want to get involved” — galvanized outrage, became the accepted narrative for decades and even spawned a subject of study in psychology: how bystanders react to tragedy. Except that with the benefit of hindsight, the number of eyewitnesses turned out to have been exaggerated; none actually saw the attack completely; some who heard it thought it was a drunken brawl or a lovers’ quarrel; and several people said they did call the police.

. . .

In several retrospectives decades after the murder, The Times reassessed the original account, concluding that more neighbors might have heard Ms. Genovese’s screams than actually witnessed the attack. But only one Times article, during Mr. Moseley’s trial, even mentioned Mrs. Farrar’s name, reporting that she and Ms. Zielonko found the victim in the vestibule.

Since Mrs. Farrar was interviewed on camera in “The Witness,” though, among those who criticized The Times’s failure to report her presence in earlier accounts of the crime was Joseph Lelyveld, who was the executive editor of The Times in the 1990s. He has called the omission “inexcusable.”

For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts. “Sophia Farrar Dies at 92; Belied Indifference to Kitty Genovese Attack.” The New York Times (Friday, September 4, 2020): A24.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Sept. 2, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

“Pessimism of the Intellect and Optimism of the Will”

(p. C4) Advertisers may have been peddling baubles or junk food, but their cash funded serious journalism — the kind that could afford to send a reporter to, say, every municipal board meeting. “People knew that,” the former editor of the once mighty Youngstown Vindicator told Sullivan, “and they behaved.” This watchdog function had tangible benefits for subscribers and nonsubscribers alike. “When local reporting waned,” Sullivan writes, “municipal borrowing costs went up.” Local news outlets provide the due diligence that bondholders often count on. Without the specter of a public shaming, corruption is freer to flourish.

. . .

“Ghosting the News” concludes with a soaring quote from the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci about “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will,” but the local reporter in Sullivan follows it up with a more immediate analogy: Even if no one seems to be coming to the rescue while your house is on fire, you still have to “get out your garden hose and bucket, and keep acting as if the fire trucks are on the way.”

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “Books of the Times; Another Endangered Species.” The New York Times (Thursday, July 30, 2020): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 26, 2020, and has the title “Books of the Times; Yes, Fake News Is a Problem. But There’s a Real News Problem, Too.”)

The book under review is:

Sullivan, Margaret. Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2020.

Universities Are No Longer Bastions of Free Speech

(p. C2) The problem of free speech takes different forms in different settings. Speech controversies on college campuses affect relatively few Americans, but they receive a great deal of attention, since colleges have traditionally been centers of open debate. Students once jealously guarded their speech rights. The Free Speech Movement, the first great student protest of the 1960s, erupted at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964, when a former student was arrested by a campus police officer for leafleting on behalf of the civil rights organization CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. At the height of the protest, up to 4,000 students demonstrated in favor of free speech on campus, and 800 went to jail.

To see how much things have changed, look at the case of Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, which the Supreme Court recently agreed to take up. The case deals with a 2016 incident in which a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public college in Lawrenceville, Ga., was disciplined for making a public speech testifying to his Christian faith. Ironically, Chike Uzuegbunam was standing in one of the school’s designated “free speech zones” when a campus police officer told him that the school had received complaints and he had to stop speaking.

In a 2017 brief arguing for dismissal of the case, Georgia’s attorney general argued that the officer was justified because Mr. Uzuegbunam “used contentious religious language that, when directed to a crowd, has a tendency to incite hostility.”

. . .

. . ., when people are told that they can’t say what they think, rather than being presented with an argument for why it’s wrong, they may comply, but they won’t change their minds. As the philosopher Benedict Spinoza wrote in the 17th century, when religious opinions were the ones being censored, people “are most prone to resent the branding as criminal of opinions which they believe to be true…In a democracy, everyone submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason.”

For the full commentary, see:

Adam Kirsch. “Land of Free (and Fettered) Speech.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 5, 2020): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses between, and at the start of, paragraphs added; ellipsis internal to the last paragraph in original added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sep. 4, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

Modern Physics Puts Elegance and Beauty Over Practical Value

(p. C9) Fundamental physics, says David Lindley, has lost its way. “I am ready to declare that research in this area, no matter its intellectual pedigree and exacting demands, is better thought of not as science but as philosophy.” His book aims to show how physics emerged out of airy speculation in the 17th century and, in recent years, has sunk back into it. “The Dream Universe” is not a book that will please philosophers, nor indeed historians, though physicists will find the argument a familiar one.

The problem, says its author, has been an excessive reliance on “mathematical elegance and beauty and whatnot” in fields such as “particle physics, the unification of gravity with quantum mechanics, and cosmology.” . . .

“The Higgs mechanism is no one’s idea of beautiful mathematics,” Mr. Lindley writes. “There’s nothing natural or inevitable about it, certainly nothing elegant. But it does its job.” The same applies, it appears, to one of the biggest breakthroughs in astronomy of recent decades, the confirmed reality of a previously theorized quantity driving universal expansion at an accelerating rate. “The beauty or otherwise of the cosmological constant is a non-issue,” the author writes. “It has practical value, and that’s what matters.”

. . .

The modern rot set in, he maintains, with theoreticians such as Hermann Weyl and Paul Dirac, who spoke of beauty as well as truth in physics. “Galileo would have been aghast,” Mr. Lindley writes. “He had no patience with mystical blather.”

. . .

Mr. Lindley complains that “the more physics pushes into the subatomic world, the more arcane the mathematical tools it draws upon.”

For the full review, see:

Andrew Crumey. “Pulling on a String.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 13, 2020): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 12, 2020, and has the title “‘The Dream Universe’ Review: Pulling on a String.”)

The book under review, is:

Lindley, David. The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way. New York: Doubleday, 2020.

A Map as Large as the Territory It Represents

(p. A4) As more reliable data comes in, said Dr. Spiegelhalter, “the Covid-19 pandemic is rapidly becoming a constrained problem.”

. . .

Statistical science, he said, “is a machine, in a sense, to turn the variability that we see in the world — the unpredictability, the enormous amount of scatter and randomness that we see around us — into a tool that can quantify our uncertainty about facts and numbers and science.”

But as he acknowledged in his book, “The Art of Statistics,” models “are simplifications of the real world — they are the maps not the territory.” (This is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “On Exactitude in Science,” about a map growing as large as the territory it was meant to represent.)

For the full review, see:

Siobhan Roberts. “Embracing the Uncertainties of the Pandemic.” The New York Times (Wednesday, April 8, 2020): A4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 7, and has the title “Embracing the Uncertainties.”)

The Spiegelhalter book mentioned above, is:

Spiegelhalter, David. The Art of Statistics: How to Learn from Data. New York: Basic Books, 2019.

If You Value Your Life, Do Not Cut in Line for a Popeyes Chicken Sandwich

(p. A18) The authorities are searching for an unidentified man who they say fatally stabbed another man in an altercation while waiting for the new Popeyes chicken sandwich in Maryland on Monday night [November 4, 2019].

. . .

Kevin Tyrell Davis, 28, who had cut a line designated specifically for customers ordering the sandwich, was confronted by another customer once he reached the counter, . . .

An argument broke out, and seconds later Mr. Davis was stabbed once in the upper body, the police said, adding that they found a knife at the scene.

. . .

The two men were not associated with each other before the crime, the police said.

. . .

Mr. Davis was rushed to a hospital, where he died from his injuries, Ms. Donelan said.

For the full story, see:

Derrick Bryson Taylor. “Man Is Fatally Stabbed Moments After Cutting Line for Popeyes Chicken Sandwich.” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 6, 2019): A18.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 5, 2019, and has the title “Man Is Fatally Stabbed Over Popeyes Chicken Sandwich.”)

Lacking Absolute Certainty, Evidence Can Get Us to “True Enough”

(p. A17) As in his earlier books, Mr. Blackburn displays a rare combination of erudite precision and an ability to make complex ideas clear in unfussy prose.

If truth has seemed unattainable, he argues, it is because in the hands of philosophers such as Plato and Descartes it became so purified, rarefied and abstract that it eluded human comprehension. Mr. Blackburn colorfully describes their presentation of truth as a “picture of an entirely self-enclosed world of thought, spinning frictionless in the void.”

The alternative is inspired by more grounded philosophers, like David Hume and especially the American pragmatists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Mr. Blackburn repeatedly returns to a quote from Peirce that serves as one of the book’s epigraphs: “We must not begin by talking of pure ideas—vagabond thoughts that tramp the public highways without any human habitation—but must begin with men and their conversation.” The best way to think about truth is not in the abstract but in media res, as it is found in the warp and weft of human life.

Put crudely, for the pragmatists “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” We take to be true what works. Newton’s laws got us to the moon, so it would be perverse to deny that they are true. It doesn’t matter if they are not the final laws of physics; they are true enough. “We must remember that a tentative judgment of truth is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty,” says Mr. Blackburn, a sentence that glib deniers of the possibility of truth should be made to copy out a hundred times. Skepticism about truth only gets off the ground if we demand that true enough is not good enough—that truth be beyond all possible doubt and not just the reasonable kind.

For the full review, see:

Julian Baggini. “BOOKSHELF; Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, July 25, 2018): A17.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 24, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘On Truth’ Review: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.”)

The book under review is:

Blackburn, Simon. On Truth. Reprint ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.