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Monday, July 16, 2018


The exchanges in the comments section triggered by Jerry Fresia’s comment and my response raise very interesting questions about what we know and how we know it.  To an extent that most of us do not often reflect upon, our knowledge of the world is socially grounded, not the product of individual observation or the formulation and confirmation and disconfirmation of hypotheses.  Let me offer, as a start, a few trivial examples and then a more serious extended example, all without venturing into politically or ideologically contested territory.

I believe that Jerry Fresia exists, that he holds a doctorate from UMass and is a distinguished and successful artist.   I believe this because I have read it online.  What is more, I believe that there is a single individual who repeatedly over the years has commented on this blog, and that this individual is the very same Jerry Fresia.  But I have never met Jerry Fresia, nor have I observed him writing and posting comments to this blog, and if someone claimed that this blog persona is the creation of a right wing conspiracy designed [somewhat unsuccessfully, to be sure] to sow discord on the left, I would have no sound counterevidence and would be reduced to ineffectual sputtering.

You who read this blog believe, I should imagine, that it is written by an American philosopher in his eighties named Robert Paul Wolff, but with the exception of Tom Cathcart, Charles Parsons, and a few others, including my sister Barbara, none of you has actually met me or talked to me.  For a long time, you could learn quite a bit about this character Robert Paul Wolff by going to Wikipedia, but some while ago one of Google’s internal police force decided the article on me was unsourced and with a keystroke wiped out all of it but the very first sentence.  Should that minatory figure revisit the entry, I may be completely obliterated, thereby, so far as the Cloud is concerned, becoming just one more bot.

I also believe that Pelham, Massachusetts, where I lived for twenty-one years, lies to the northeast of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I moved in 2008.  Why do I believe this?  Because a variety of maps show that it does.  To be sure, I have twice driven between the two cities, following interstate highways for most of the distance, but if I were called on to demonstrate to a sceptic the geographic relationship of the two towns I would be forced to appeal to generally accepted authorities, including the orientation display in the driving mirror of my 2004 Camry.  Someone who doubts such well-known facts is a nut, a kook, a conspiracy junkie, right?

Well, consider this case.  Charles Darwin, as we all know, launched modern evolutionary biology with his theory of natural selection.  But Darwin had no idea of the mechanisms of biological evolution.  It was the work first of Gregor Mendel and then of Thomas Hunt Morgan that located this mechanism in the genes lying on chromosomes in the cells of living things.  [Personal aside:  Hunt worked with fruit flies, specifically Drosophila Melenogaster, because they have unusually large chromosomes that are visible using the microscopes available in the early 20th century.  My sister, Barbara, won the national Westinghouse Science Talent Search in 1948 with research on phenocopies in Drosophila Melenogaster, and as a consequence during much of her senior year in high school, we ate dinner each evening in the Wolff household under a small cloud of fruit flies that had escaped from our basement and come up looking for food.]

The result was something in evolutionary biology known as the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, given dramatic confirmation and specification by Watson and Crick’s demonstration of the double helix structure of the chromosome.  This synthesis dominated evolutionary biology for many, many years, yielding Nobel Prizes and other social recognitions of the brilliant work of several generations of scientists.

There were a few fringe dissenters, of course, as there always are in science, as in life.  One was a woman name Lynn Margulis, best known as the wife of the astronomer and TV superstar Carl Sagan.  Early in  her career as an evolutionary biologist, Margulis put forward the bizarre hypothesis that very early on, maybe two billion years ago or so, at a time when life was extremely primitive and organisms did not even have cellular structures with nuclei, two distinct organisms merged in a process she called symbiosis.  One of the two went on living inside the other, and when the host reproduced, so did the visitor, independently.  According to Margulis, the essential structures in modern cells known as mitochondria are the descendants of that early symbiosis.  What is more, she claimed, such symbiotic mergings continue.

Well, established evolutionary biologists scoffed, Margulis had trouble even publishing her papers, and she spent her career in the sticks first teaching at Boston University and then at UMass Amherst, where we overlapped for ten years, although I am sorry to say I never met her.  Margulis championed a number of fringe theories, including the claim that the 9/11 twin towers attack was a false flag operation and that the towers collapsed not as a result of the impact of the airplanes but because of timed detonations of bombs placed strategically in the buildings.

Clearly a nut, right?  Right, except for one inconvenient fact.  Her theory of symbiosis turns out to be correct, and is now regarded in the profession as one of the foundations of modern evolutionary biology, along with the work of Darwin, Hunt, and Watson and Crick.

 I think the specifications in the indictments secured by Mueller are reliable, I genuinely do.  Will it turn out, some months from now, that Trump consciously and deliberately conspired with Putin.  I have no idea, although I strongly suspect he did.  Is the investigation a deep state conspiracy designed to frustrate the legitimate will the American people as expressed in the 2016 election.  Of course.  Does that make the charges false?  Of course not.  I think the charges are true.  I also suspect that if an establishment candidate had engaged in the same behavior, it would have been buried.  Does that mean Trump is no worse than Bush or Obama or Clinton?  Nope.

Is that all perfectly clear now?


Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff,

This is not the first time a leader has been accused of being a KGB captive.

Harold Wilson also had the suspicion cast on him. England did not go to hell.

By having this meeting with Trump in Helsinki, I wonder if Putin is demonstrating Trump is another Urho Kekkonen...

Jerry Fresia said...

First let me say that I hate being a fly in the ointment and, as well, I hate having to take positions that might even bolster Trump's claims of fake news. I will add that the latter part of your post is perfectly reasonable and I am attempted to say, "Yeah, that makes sense. I can accept that." But there's a big BUT that prevents me from doing so.

You haven't addressed two aspects of the situation that just flat out bug me. One has to do with trust, the other with the smearing of leftists. My guess is that you would probably agree that the CIA and FBI have have lied to the American people so many times on so many important issues (including Mueller re the WMD/Iraq debacle) that refusing to trust what the national security state declares as truth is rational. So for me, the issue has less to do with epistemology than it does with heartfelt trauma.

Your work with African Americans and South Africans seems to have had a searing impact on you and your point of view. We all probably have these kinds of searing, gut wrenching experiences that impact whom and what we trust. I was an intelligence officer with the Air Force during the Vietnam War. I never saw combat but I had a very high top secret clearance and I saw not only the reality of the horror of that war, I saw the orders of various barbaric missions days in advance of those order being carried out. It was painful watching all that unfold. But here's the kicker: as these events unfolded, government spokespeople and the media ALWAYS lied about was going on. There was no doubt about this from where sat. I knew various media military analysts knew almost as much as I did. I even tried to be a whistle blower but was rebuffed.

I had volunteered. But I was duped. I felt betrayed. It became clear to me that my life, not to mention the lives of the Vietnamese didn't count for squat. As time went on, I would learn (thanks to academics such as yourself) that the systems of betrayal had no limits. The US military tested bacterial weapons on unsuspecting Americans in San Francisco (MKULTRA), to cite one example of the contempt gov officials can have toward ordinary people. The CIA lied to JFK about the Bay of Pigs, knowing it would fail while telling him it would help oppressed Cubans overthrow the authoritarian Castro (had JFK, by the way, not shown enormous resolve in refusing US air support, revolutionary Cuba would never have survived). I believe that Malcom X, JFK, MLK, RFK, Fred Hampton and many Black Panthers, along with so many young African Americans today have been either murdered or their murders covered up by the national security state. And so what is behind all this mayhem and mendacity? Well, it begins with a simple fact that you have so eloquently explicated time and again: capitalism requires the exploitation of workers. And so it is not surprising that Martin Niemöller's first targeted population (First they came for the communists....") were leftists challenging fascism.

I once believed it all. I seriously drank the kool-aid. But those days are long gone. Mueller et al may be right. But I won't grant him that validation, not until he is shown to be correct in a court of law or in some process that permits his case to be challenged publicly on the evidence. I'm like the wife, I suppose, who has been cheated on many times. Trust the bastard? Never again.

Anonymous said...

"she spent her career in the sticks first teaching at Boston University and then at UMass Amherst,"

So do I get this right: knowledge claims are validated at least in part by the place the knowledge claimer holds in the socio-economic educational hierarchy? So those who want their children to "graduate" from the right kindergarten, prep school, ... university, etc. have it right?

David Palmeter said...

Jerry Fresia

I know where you’re coming from. Government has repeated lied to us, particular over major issues like Viet Nam. Generally, though, the lies have been in the service of trying to cover up an earlier mistake. That clearly was what was behind the lies about Viet Nam. We never should have gone in there to begin with, but once we did, and it began to go sour, attempts were made to add more troops, bomb this, bomb that, in the hope that the action would finally result in military victory. No one--particularly no Democrat--wanted to be the one who “lost” Viet Nam. The Democrats of that time remember what happened to them politically when they “lost” China.

There is no incentive of this kind for Mueller. He hasn’t recommended anything. He simply has to back up his claims, which he has no reason to make if he doesn’t believe they can be backed up. He has to provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the charges he has made in his indictments. He has no incentive to make the charge if he doesn’t believe he has the proof.

Anonymous said...

"He has to provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the charges he has made in his indictments. He has no incentive to make the charge if he doesn’t believe he has the proof. "

Sure there is incentive. In today's culture of instant blame and the 24 hour news cycle, a properly timed charge (or even hint of a charge) can be just as politically useful as a proof and conviction. We need only look back at the Comey - Clinton debacle to see that at work.

David Palmeter said...

Politically useful to whom? Certainly not to Mueller personally. As you note, Comey is Exhibit A for that. If Mueller makes charges that he can't make stick, he'll be in professional disgrace. He appears to be someone who wouldn't welcome that.

Anonymous said...

...that's the nature of the job. Comey, Mueller, no matter what they do in the present environment will be in professional disgrace with at least one half of the country.

LFC said...

Re Vietnam: I think it shd be noted that there were some journalists, incl some for establishment outlets like NYT and CBS News, who did not accept uncritically the US govt line on what was going on and who engaged in some good, critical reporting that contributed to gradually turning a sizable fraction of the U.S. pop. vs. the war. Not to take anything away from J. Fresia's personal experience, but this particular fact re the role of journalists in Vietnam -- perhaps a minority of them, but still -- is quite well known. In fact some of their names are still known today (e.g., Sheehan, Halberstam, Browne, Herr, Safer, and others, incl photojournalists) to those w some familiarity w the history of the period.

Anonymous said...

For a long time, you could learn quite a bit about this character Robert Paul Wolff by going to Wikipedia, but some while ago one of Google’s internal police force decided the article on me was unsourced and with a keystroke wiped out all of it but the very first sentence. Should that minatory figure revisit the entry, I may be completely obliterated, thereby, so far as the Cloud is concerned, becoming just one more bot.

Prof. Wolff,

I gave your Wikipedia entry a good look. It seems one editor identifying him/herself as Czar decided its content was unsourced. It seems on 2 October 2017 Czar deleted most of it.

I can understand your discomfort with that. I suppose you could edit that back yourself or ask someone trustworthy to do it for you. My personal experience with Wikipedia, however limited, is negative. Its inner workings can be Kafkian. So I'm not sure whether that is as straightforward as it may seem.

It may be worth a try. At any rate, that would be up to you.

An alternative would be for you to add a link in your download page to your curriculum vitae. However, I am not sure how satisfactory that solution would be to you.


It's disappointing but, with Wikipedia, it's true what they say: with it you get what you paid for.