Scientific chewing

I am not going to recommend that you read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Once you know that Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard is people, you grasp the idea. At the end of the book, after surviving innumerable horrors and humiliations (the only mercy Sinclair allows him is a stint as a migrant worker), the main character falls in with a group of talkative Socialists. Sinclair is artist enough to make them somewhat silly. He wants us not to agree with their solutions, but to recognize the fact of their caring and trying to do anything at all. He wants us not so much to admire them, as to imagine ourselves as one of them. I forget the rest of the projects, but one, mentioned in passing, stuck in my mind; that of the man who proposes “to double the nutritive value of food through the practice of scientific chewing.”

My mind has an alarm for absurdity in reforms and projects; scientific chewing is the noise it makes. Sometimes I will read of a project, and despite its well-designed site, its clever name and cleverer slogan, and the intent, conscientious faces of its young founders – all I hear is scientific chewing.

All useful ideas have three life stages: an infancy when they seem ridiculous; an adolescence when they seem all-important; and a maturity when they are present and useful, but limited, and possibly invisible. Scientific chewing belongs to the adolescence of the idea of the scientific. Those who have only recently learned the benefits of scientific handwashing are susceptible to the idea that chewing might be similarly progressed.

The projects which recall scientific chewing belong to the analogous adolescence of other ideas. Recent examples are many. Online has finally achieved its maturity; there are no more projects tantamount to online chewing, though their weight once derailed the economy. Social is in the throes of adolescence; most days some variant of social chewing shows up in the news, flush with seed funding. Crowdsourced is just settling down; mobile is just hitting puberty.

These examples are worth enumerating because we are very fortunate in them. The worst their excesses have done is to make fools of us. We have been spared the upheavals and atrocities that accompanied the adolescence of ideas like the people or the nation, like society or central planning. The motion of ideas is circular, but not static; a cycloid, not an orbit; but though it moves forward, its does so with wheels that are heavy and iron, and able to run you down.

My interest is not critical but analytic; I want to know where I stand and when to get out of the way. Given that ideas move in a circle, born boosters and born skeptics will both be right sometimes, like stopped clocks. Scientific chewing is my cue to stand with the skeptics. I have yet to find an equally vivid cue to switch the other way; though I have found my sense that something is pointless and weird to reliably predict its popularity – witness the internet.

I know this essay is a little miscellaneous; so are the rest of the essays where I try to think about ideas as such. I feel something enormous and terrainous loom in darkness; when something lights that bulk I observe it as an explorer, and not knowing which features are most important, I cannot omit any.


In the twentieth century, better a professional and wrong than an amateur and right. A lie in the high tower commanded the respect and attention of the world. It shaped the textbooks and the encyclopedias, it drew the cameras and the microphones. A truth in the street had to recruit and organize, had to keep the heat on and blow the lid off.

In the twenty-first century, better an amateur and wrong than a professional and right. A lie in the street finds friends everywhere. It supplies interests and activities, it bonds a community: the less self-supporting, the more room for supporters. A truth in the high tower must patiently plait its proofs until they hang long and thick enough to climb down.

The distinction between amateur and the professional is not necessary or ancient. It is a conclusion of the philosophy of pragmatism, part of pragmatism’s alternatives to the statics of classical philosophy. Everything used to be much more like cooking, where the difference between professionals and amateurs – the difference between livelihood and pastime – is one of better ingredients, better equipment, and wider experience – one of degree, not one of kind.

The distinction does not divide one scale of practice into the amateur and the professional; it invents professional practice. Success in all practice had been judged against something prior to practice. There were standards. But the professional, having some arduous qualification, defines the profession as what professionals do. Professionalism is not a standard; professionalism is an alternative to standards. Who are you to tell someone trained and tested – to tell a doctor, a lawyer, an artist, a scientist – who are you tell them what to be? They are not told; they show. If you must have a system, describe them; but do not expect them to notice.

We do not recognize this idea as pragmatism because it has left pragmatism behind and become, instead of a conclusion, a postulate – no, more than a postulate, it has become its own form of logic. The necessities of professionalism define reality. Not that professionalism is priestcraft. The professional is not the priest of the god; the professional is the very god, and unanswerable. It is difficult to read Job today except as God the Professional shutting down His critics.

Like nature around technology, amateurism grows up in all the cracks of professionalism, and encloses all of its structures. One of the wonders of the early web was to see, in all its private seriousness, the wider ecosystem of amateurism inside which professionalism lives. Until then professionals, like migrating birds, came from somewhere, somehow, and went somewhere, for something. Now we saw the grave mimicry of the professional manner by which postulants commited themselves; we saw the acerbic and ingenious criticisms by which involved; we saw how the necropolis of obsolete methods, dead-end theories, and abandoned movements was refurbished and inhabited.

Nature around technology is not just what remains of nature before technology; it is something different. Prey becomes pest; wild becomes weed. Likewise, amateurism around professionalism is something different than amateurism before professionalism. Separation from money made it resourceful; separation from recognition made it incorrigible; separation from responsibility made it foolish. This change cannot be reversed. To let go of professionalism would no more restore Renaissance men, gentleman scientists, scholar adventurers, or philosopher legislators to mankind, than to remove mankind would restore the mammoth, the aurochs, the thylacine and the dodo to nature. There are lineages in human types as much as in natural species. With these too, extinction is forever. Sometimes backbreeds and hybridization revive the traits; but without a niche to inhabit the result is only a curiosity. It is basic to ecology that if a niche is extant, something else will fill it, and if the niche is gone, some other system has displaced it. Effectual amateurism has been re-opened; but what we get from it may as little resemble what we had before, as the kangaroo resembles the deer.

Professionalism is an evident pathology. Its pomps are too tempting for us. All professionalism decays toward the asymptote of the DSM. But for now, there is no alternative. Professionalism and amateurism have coexisted too long; they require one another for correction. One cannot be right unless the other is wrong; for now, to be right at all, we need them both.


Historians are the natural predators of history. History, like entropy, always increases in a closed system. Without historians to ventilate it, history suffocates. Whole peoples live enthralled by history, peoples for whom the dishonors of a thousand years ago require the murders of today; all because they never had historians to set them free.

History always increases. There are always more artifacts and more events, always more associations surrounding those artifacts and events. The ground state of history is not the absence of history, but absolute history—when commemoration and observance fill every every hour and every path, until any choice is violation or sacrilege, and any novelty is hubris or corruption.

Of course there are other, uglier ways to fight history than the historian's. But besides its low success rate, fighting history with atrocity is perverse. It is only a way of destroying someone else's history; the winner is doomed to have their own history written.

The historian is gentler and more effective. In consolidating and concentrating history, in resolving it with narrative, the historian does to history what the distiller does to grain: reduces so many tons of space-consuming, care-intensive material into something stable, compact, and portable. The historian who puts a name and a meaning to a period gives the categories of thought that allow us to sort and judge the masses of artifacts and events that would otherwise lay total claim to our attention and devotion.

I love to know history. I love to know foundings and flourishings, conquests and collapses. I love to know even the footnotes of history. I love to know how the Sumerians kept their accounts, how the Romans scrawled graffiti; how clockmakers set their gears, how machinists poured their bearings; how the caves were painted at Altamira, how the seas were crossed from Easter Island.

History is not over. History is still happening. History is still flowing from the invisible meanwhile to the obvious retrospect. But just because we are in history, because we must learn from it—so we must not submit to it, we must not inherit our place in it; we must be free enough of it that we can range over it, that we can examine all of it and it can examine us. Let us look at the past and let it look at us; let us invite the dead to judge the living as their most impartial judges. But first we must be free to take the judgment of the best wherever they are found, not only among our fathers and forebears.

Polyps make coral; trees make wood; human beings make history. Freedom from history is not freedom without history, but freedom for history: not that history should be bent to be relevant to us (if history is humanity, those to whom history is irrelevant are irrelevant to humanity); but that we should be equal in history with those who have come before us and those who will come after us, neither the declension of the past, nor the prelude of the future.

Common sense

I respect common sense only because it is inconsistent. Of course consistency is good; certainly inconsistency is bad; but there is a kind of knowledge which is useful, not because it is known to be right, but useful only until it is known to be right.

Beginning with what we cannot deny, consistency brings us to what we cannot support. Surprise is a conserved quantity. We can begin with common-sense principles and end with surprising conclusions; or, if we wish to derive common-sense conclusions, in working backward we will arrive at surprising principles. Consistency always incurs surprise – surprise relative to common sense.

This is why I avoid political systems. They begin with, they have as their attraction, common-sense conclusions I could no more disagree with than fail to think of myself. Of course I see, and seeing condemn, the horrors of exploitation, the grotesqueness of consumption; of course I see, and seeing condemn, the incompetence of government, the farce of bureaucracy. But commitment demands consistency, and what begins in the recognition of common sense ends unrecognizably.

Always use common sense; never trust it. Common sense is not wisdom, it is wisdom made fungible. All of its rings true, but none of it agrees with itself. You can no more think with common sense than you can eat money.