Scientific chewing

I am not going to tell you to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Once you know that Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard is people, you grasp the idea. But 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 not to make them saints. In fact, he makes them almost silly. He wants us not to agree with their solutions, but to respond to the fact of their caring, to respond to their trying to do anything at all. He wants us not to admire them, but to imagine ourselves as one of them. I forget the rest of the projects, but one, mentioned in passing, stuck in my mind. One man 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 read about 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 also advance.

The projects that make me think of scientific chewing belong to the same stage, 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 sank 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 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, it moves with wheels that are heavy and iron, with wheels that are able to run you down.

My interest is not critical but analytic. I want to know where I stand; I want to know when to get out of the way. If ideas really 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 no equally vivid cue to switch the other way; though I have found that my sense that something is pointless and weird reliably predicts 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 the 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 directed 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 support the perilous climb down.

The distinction between amateur and the professional is not necessary or ancient. It is a conclusion of the philosophy of pragmatism, one of pragmatism’s dynamic 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 – a difference not of kind but of degree.

The distinction does not divide one scale of practice into the amateur and the professional; it removes professional practice from amateur judgment. Success in all practice had been judged against something prior to practice. There were judges then because 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. Now there are standards because there are judges. Who are you to tell someone instructed and trained, tested and proven – 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. Apes do not care about primatology; scientists do not care about philosophy of science.

We do not recognize this division 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. Professions do not serve purposes; purposes serve professions. 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.

Professionalism won; but professionalism is not self-sustaining. 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 ingenious criticisms by which they kept themselves involved; we saw how the necropolis of obsolete methods, dead-end theories, and abandoned movements was refurbished and inhabited.

But nature around technology is not just what remains of nature before technology; it is something different. Prey becomes pest; wild becomes weed. 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 reckless. These changes 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 to nature the mammoth, the aurochs, or the thylacine. There are lines of descent 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. In an ecology, if a niche is extant, something will fill it, and if the niche is gone, some other ecology 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 privileges 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 control it, history would suffocate us. Whole peoples live today enthralled by history, peoples for whom the dishonors of a thousand years ago require the murders of today – and all because they never had historians to set them free.

History always increases. There are always more artifacts and more events, always more memories binding those artifacts and those events. The natural condition of history is not the absence of history, but absolute history – when commemoration and observance fill every every hour and block 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 still 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 meaning to a period gives us categories of thought that allow us to sort and assess the masses of artifacts and memories that would otherwise lay total claim to our attention and devotion.

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: the freedom that makes us equal in history with those who have come before us and those who will come after us: not the wreck of the past, not the redeemers of the past, not the seed of the future, not the betrayers of the future, but what we are: the inescapable present.

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.