Keith Douglas' Web Page

About me Find out who I am and what I do.
My resumé A copy of my resumé and other documentation about my education and work experience for employers and the curious.
Reviews, theses, articles, presentations A collection of papers from my work, categorized and annotated.
Current research projects What I am currently working on, including some non-research material.
Interesting people People professionally "connected" to me in some way.
Interesting organizations Organizations I am "connected" to. (Some rather loosely.)
Intellectual/professional influences Influences on my work, including an organization chart. Here you can also buy many good books on philosophy and other subjects via amazon.com. I have included brief reviews of hundreds of books.
Professional resources Research sources, amazon.com associates programs, etc.
What is the philosophy of computing? A brief introduction to my primary professional interest.
My intellectual heroes A partial list of important people. Limited to the dead.
My educational philosophy As a sometime teacher I've developed one. Includes book resources.

Book Influences - Social Policy

Title
Author
Purchase / Enjoy Cover
Comment
Billions and Billions Sagan Carl Sagan's second to last book. (Published posthumously.)
Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA Lewontin Lewontin has important things to say in this book that should be heeded. Unfortunately, they are buried within a mount of pomo-pronouncements that do not help his case. I also note that his claim that there are no known behavioural effects of genetic conditions is simply false, as Lewontin's own textbook of genetics will tell you.
Bridging the Digital Divide Servon Reports on public technology movements in the United States.
Causation in the Law (2e) Hart and Honoré There seems to be a general consensus that if one is interested in how causation is appealed to in understanding legal evidence, responsbility, etc. in torts, criminal, etc. law, this is this the place to start. A second edition, so some of what is said is a response to previous critics, both legal and philosophical. A challenge following how some cases are illustrating some particular principles, but a worthy one if any of those topics are remotely interesting to you. It is also unclear sometimes whether the enterprise is one of explanation or description and how much "reform" is intended. However, those matters aside, it still is quite the classic.
Collapse: How Choose to Fail or Succeed Diamond This is a sort of sequel to Guns, Germs and Steel with two parts. The first part is a somewhat repetive but detailed discussion of several societies which either avoided collapse or disappeared into history. The second is a discussion of what went wrong and how we in (the relatively new) global society can avoid some of the bad fates of our predecessors.
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man Perkins While it is difficult to know whether Perkins' personal story of his service to the American Empire is accurate, the macrohistory, including that of the supposedly international financial institutions is correct. Therefore it seems plausible in outline; I have a hard time believing that the supposed quotes are accurate simply because some were around 30 years old when he recorded them. However, this detail does not detract from the message of this harrowing and sobering book.
Copyright's Paradox Netanel Written in the context of the US legal system and history, this is a balanced investigation of the foundations and implementation of copyright law. The author carefully determines that the current laws are unjust and proposes some fixes. Alas, a lot of the book feels repetitive and has a very strange "feel" to its writing style because of it.
Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach Nussbaum Philosopher and advocate for justice, Nussbaum's work for many years has centered around the themes in this book. It can be regarded as an introduction to the capabilities approach, defense of specific capabilities, the philosophical roots and origins of the approach, responses to critics and an explanation of why the approach is needed. It is the defense of the specific capabilities and how to adjudicate possible "local conflicts" with them that is the weakest in the book. The approach of using the minimal premisses to argue is a good one; but it cannot tell you thereby which capabilities to look for. Nussbaum's suggestion that life stories and such works to some extent; one can then point out things to people, but does not resolve any disagreements. Nevertheless I agree that a conversation (so to speak) on this matter is of vital importance, no matter how difficult it is as a boot strapping problem. My former colleagues at the SJC might well find this book interesting as another approach to teaching and working on the common materials and critiques of existing social and economic systems.
Developing the Underdeveloped Countries Mountjoy (ed.) This book is about 40 years old at the time of writing this note. Nevertheless it is valuable to see what people thought then, to see what really happened from certain policies, etc. in retrospect. However, it is sad to see that some of the lessons already learned by that point are still not being taken seriously.
Digital Democracy: Discourse and Decision Making in the Information Age Hague and Loader (eds.) A collection of papers about public engagement with the democratic process via information and communication technologies. Published in 1999 so very dated in some respects at the time of writing of this minireview (2012). Worse, some papers are rather uninformed technologically. For example, an otherwise thoughtful paper on USENET is vitiated by the lack of understanding of its functioning, including of group charters as well as news server subscription policies. However, many of the papers have redeeming value as to the questions raised if not the answers offered, so the volume is not without use.
Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Povety, and the Internet Worldwide Norris An investigation into the "civil state of Internet" as of c. 2000. Includes analysis of e-democracy, political affiliations of users, popularity of Internet in various countries, etc.
Environmental Policy in Canada: Managing the Commons into the Twenty-First Century McKenzie A introductory textbook-level overview (complete with study questions) about environmental politcs, largely in the Canadian context. Includes analyses of NGOs, discussions of trade agreements with environmental impact, "green political theory", etc. From the perspective of unique contributions, the most distinctive portion is the all-too-brief chapter on "framing" environmental issues as questions of security or heath. The weakest point of the book is that it takes some claims uncritically. The reader ought to be aware of the quotation marks indicating someone else is asserting (e.g.) a cancer link, but there is little attempt to validate these claims. (It is almost as if an environmental issue is just what someone says is one.) A general case of this is the uncritical acceptance of the notorious "precautionary principle".
Flight from Science and Reason Gross, Levitt and Lewis (eds.) A edited collection of papers from the "science wars". As is to be expected, these range in quality and interest. Since many were delivered orally at a conference, they read that way. Of particular note is Stephen Cole's demolishing of Bruno Latour and Robin Lane Fox explaining why a minimum of falsifiability is necessary for all inquiry.
Galileo in Pittsburgh Glymour Noted philosopher of science and AI researcher Clark Glymour's slim volume of provocative and clearly writen scientific/philosophical memoirs. His humanity - frustrated, angry, caring, inquisitive and much else is here. Also clear is why what "those CMU weirdoes do" is of profound philosophical importance - provided one thinks philosophy should, from time to time, service living. (Disclosure: I got to know the author and some of the other people mentioned in the book, and also heard some parts of the stories previously, while a student at CMU.)
High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them Rischard Written by a World Bank vice-president (at the time, at least) this is nevertheless a sensitive and well analyzed description of many of the world's global problems and sketches of solutions (or mechanisms to create such solutions). While there are quibbles one can make about many of the details, the book's greatest weakness is its depth: there effectively is none. It is also depressing, though no reflection on the book, that very little has been done on many of the topics. Nevertheless, having a summary volume of this sort is handy and shows how far we have to go!
Human Rights and Peace Hudson, ed. N/A A small transcript of a colloquium held in Ottawa in 1984 about the subjects suggested by the title. Present were government, judiciary, academic and NGO participants. It is sobering to see that many of the same issues are alive more than a quarter century later.
Intellectual Impostures Sokal and Bricmont Sokal explains his famous hoax and writes two books in one about the two theses involved in its motivation.
Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Survive Schneier Noted computer security expert Bruce Schneier takes on analyzing trust and the general notions of "cooperate" and "defect". Along the way one finds a fair bit of game theory, largely as a motivator, as the author is well aware of many limitations of this approach. The descriptions of many experiments and classic findings are well worth reading, but unfortunately the recommendations are weaker; there are a few "cause and effect" type checklists and approaches to analysis, but these do not go nearly far enough. I regard the book successful if it can be turned into "part 1" of something. Another way to look at this is the focus is primarily on the sciences of trust, and what we need is a careful discussion of how to implement technologies of trust, including social systems. As mentioned, there's some of that, but rather less. One important matter which must be addressed is how to adjudicate differential views on acceptable risk.
Microelectronics and Society Friedrichs and Schaff I picked up this by now > 23 year old book to see how people were viewing what is now the present many years ago. It is quite interesting to see what has and hasn't come to pass. Example of the first: increased use of "home" computers. Example of the second: wide spread voice recognition systems.
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space Sagan Warning: This is a paperback edition which is seemingly missing some pictures from other editions. Other than that, I have no major complaints about this book, given its age. Sagan died just as the investigation of extrasolar planets really took off, and I think even he would be astonished at the many that have been found. He is right that we must both learn to live elsewhere and to cherish our original home, but I do not know how to get there from here. I did also notice that the book got sort of (slightly) less poetic as it moved on. I have no idea if it was written in the order it reads, but if it was, perhaps by the end the author knew the end of his life was coming. (Listen to the audio book extracts on Youtube - they are both wonderful and sad.)
Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses Stenger An informal discussion of various supernaturalistic claims and their support (or lack their of) by physics. Dated, but still relevant, though with the level of argument (without reading further references) is likely unconvincing. Also commits the perennial mistake of considering mass and matter identical and hence perpetuating a common falsehood about the mass-energy equation. It, however, is also very accessibly written and humourous, two features that a good skeptical volume should have.
Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs Schwarcz Schwarcz is engaging as a writer and tells many wonderful anecdotes but does not do justice (as is also true of many science popularizers) to the "consilience" aspect of science.
Reacting to Social Problems Henshel This book illustrates the sociotechnical nature of what is sometimes called sociology. (It could be called normative sociology, by parallel with normative economics.) Most important in this book is a discussion of how tacit philosophical, psychological and anthropological hypotheses inform decisions about social interventions. There is also a good chapter about unintented consequences. A low point is the skepticism about expertise in the final chapter, though the author does make it almost clear his real target is pretended expertise and inappropriate expertise. (Even if we may disagree on what counts as inappropriate.)
Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace Mueller This is a historico-economic study (based on "institutional economics") of the two main "roots" of Internet: DNS and the IPv4 address space from their inception and prehistory to roughly 2002. Clearly shows that some policy and legal decisions which have been made have been done with poor grasp of the technology. A few minor technical errors do not detract from this clear and interesting book.
Science in a Democratic Society Kitcher A sequel to Science, Truth and Democracy (STaD - see below). While there is a lot that is sensible in this book, joining Kitcher's own "well ordered science" with the notion of a deliberative poll, some key points center around an idealized agent. I agree that such an agent will choose the scientifically correct way in various politically controversial areas, but I'm not sure that Kitcher can claim that in the framework presented without begging the question. Moreover, the deliberative poll idea is great when it comes to decide which way (if any) to apply Bunge's "rule based on law" principle, but the problem of STaD about who will be affected by basic research is still open. Once again, however, Kitcher is pretty close to pioneering a field, so the objections I have, while crucial, are also in a way forgivable. May someone else (a future me?) advance the state of the art.
Science, Truth, and Democracy Kitcher See my amazon.com review.
Science Literacy for the Twenty-First Century Marshall, Scheppler and Palmisano (eds.) This book is actually a festschrift for Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman's 80th birthday. With 29 papers, an introduction and Lederman's own response (all in not even 330 pages) it is not surprising that the contributions are quite short. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that science education (in the United States at least) needs a shake up. In particular, education of science teachers themselves has to improve by being much more hands on and closer to the practice of actual science. This approach then can be communicated and taught to children.
Social Science Under Debate: a Philosophical Perspective Bunge The companion volume to Finding Philosophy in Social Science. The single most important aspect of the book is the distinction between normative and positive economics. In my view this distinction should be extended to political science and likely also to sociology. (Normative history, on the other hand, is nonsensical, since it would involve changing the past.)
Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and our Last Chance to Save Humanity Hansen Hansen's title will strike many as alarmist, which it is if "alarmist" is meant that he pulls no punches telling the reader his well justified opinions. It isn't alarmist if "alarmist" means has as consequence "unjustified". Hansen, who has done research on climate for decades, has finally written a book. Unlike the "contrarians" who poopoo the IPCC consensus because of mythical energy sources or what not, Hansen is pretty clear that perhaps still more should be done beyond the IPCC, and, to further alienate folks, comes in on the side of having to propose the use of nuclear (fission) power. Nevertheless, despite all these heterodox views, all is well documented and argued. However, one thing which I would like to hear him discuss is where we get petroleum for other products (pharmaceuticals, plastics, etc., all of which are indispensible parts of modern life) once we, per his recommendation, start leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
Surviving as Indians Boldt A book on the current political situation and future of same of the natives of Canada.
The Best Democracy Money Can By: Revised American Edition Palast A mudraking journalist demostrates corruption, evilness and just plain stupidity on the part of those in power. Primarily about the US, since Palast is American. UK comes up sometimes, as he works out of there. I am also sad to say he has to blast us Canadians (or at least our mining companies ...) too, however. Sometimes I feel as if the articles need more detail; but then again, a newspaper's role is to present outlines, not treatises.
The Canadian Legal System (2e) Gall A brief discussion of the way the Canadian legal system is constituted, both by statue and by tradition as well as both for common law and civil law traditions. Includes many references to relevant cases.
The Demon Haunted World: Science as Candle in the Dark Sagan Sagan quotes Einstein about science being fallible and human, but the most precious thing we have. My precious things are at the moment only partially ordered, but science is still a most precious thing to me. Sagan will explain to you why that is so better than I can. Ubi dubium, Ibi libertas. Also remarkable is that the book includes a discussion of Frederick Douglass: no direct biological relation known to me except our shared humanity, but a very important person to share my family name. (My father tells me that there is no difference between Douglass and Douglas; the difference reflects the lack of standardized spelling until relatively recently.)
The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World Lessig Now over a decade old, this warning about how overzealous intellectual property law was in danger of ruining Internet for all but a few, I dare say that much of what Lessig mentions as potentially down the road is still there, and there is much indication we have slipped further beyond what is healthy. However, much of this book is a keen historical-technological analysis which, modulo a few historical inaccuracies of minor significance, is also well worth reading. We've seen it all before, and sometimes we got it right - eventually - it is useful to see that, and also be sobered by the fact we didn't always. Note: Lessig is a legal scholar working in a US context (though does briefly mention other countries in passing sometimes) and as such some details are inapplicable strictu sensu elsewhere. Yet, one of his warnings is about what might be called "juristicion creep" policy wonks and public alike the world over can benefit directly even if they do not care directly about other country's mishaps and folly.
The Future of Naturalism Shook and Kurtz (eds.) Naturalism is the philosophical position that all occurrences and events in nature (etc.) can be explained in terms of natural causes (in the broad sense) and laws. In this volume are short papers defending this viewpoint, expanding upon it, and applying it to philosophy and policy. A mixed bag, and many papers did not seem to say very much. A general consensus is that the social sciences are the area of the next engagement, though I would add that the neuroscience of will and related matters is also of pressing concern. This latter consideration is alluded to but not addressed much. Warning: at least one paper makes a rather severe scientific error: once again, the HUP has nothing to do with interactions produced by "measurement".
The New Politics of Science Dickson A decent, though not great, introduction to the underdeveloped field of the politology of science. My highschool classmate, Matt Poll, might want to read this, as it deals with issues of "brain drain", though from the perspective of the United States.
Therapeutic Touch Scheiber and Selby (eds.) A collection of critical and historical papers about this famous pseudotreatment.
Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial Singh & Ernst A critical review of 4 main areas of so-called alternative medicine, plus an introduction to understanding clinical trials, why the truth matters and a brief discussion of two or so dozen other related techniques and supposed treatments. The main part of the book - the longer chapters - is fairly well done. I have only two slight complaints. First, in the section on herbal medicine, the authors should have discussed one of the biggest dangers (both physiologically/biochemically and, in a way, economically) of herbs is that the amount of active ingredient can vary tremendously from plant to plant. Even standardizing in the plant into a pill, tincture, etc. does not remove the variable starting point. This can change drastically the efficacy - for good and for ill. Second, while they do an excellent job discussing the placebo effect, they neglect its dual, the nocebo effect. The "birds" in my life have both said there should be more research into enhancing the placebo effect, understanding it, etc. But what if the nocebo effect is enhanced with it? What then? Similarly, Singh and Ernst do not address the possibility of "placebo-esque" bad effects in their discussions. It seems as if the nocebo effect is weaker, but that's as far as I know never been seriously investigated.
Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West Saul This funny but depressing book also suffers from the unwillingness of the author to distinguish between rationality and claimed rationality, even if just as an analytical distinction.
Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud Park A journalistic book written by a physicist about his various encounters with scientifically dubious proposals, machines, etc. He goes after a few "sacred cows", notably the manned space program, and is certainly not a stranger to controversy. Alas, other than his explanation of the conservation of energy (which still could use a bit more history), some of the discussions are all too cursory. References could work, at least in a classroom setting, but most crucially, a better discussion of what E. O. Wilson calls consilience would do wonders. This is, admittedly, a weakness that almost all science popularizers share, and there is no easy answer to it.

 

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