Leonhard Euler, Denis Diderot, Augustus De Morgan, William Gillis, and the Weaponization of Scientific Knowledge Authority

There is a story, universally known to mathematicians, about Leonhard Euler, Denis Diderot, Catherine the Great, and the epistemological authority of mathematics. It apparently first appeared in English in Augustus De Morgan‘s book A Budget of Paradoxes:

Diderot paid a visit to the Russian Court at the invitation of [Catherine the Great]. He conversed very freely, and gave the younger members of the Court circle a good deal of lively atheism. The Empress was much amused, but some of her councillors suggested that it might be desirable to check these expositions of doctrine. The Empress did not like to put a direct muzzle on her guest’s tongue, so the following plot was contrived. Diderot was informed that a learned mathematician was in possession of an algebraical demonstration of the existence of God, and would give it him before all the Court, if he desired to hear it. Diderot gladly consented: though the name of the mathematician is not given, it was Euler. He advanced towards Diderot, and said gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction: Monsieur, $\frac{(a + b^n)}{n} = x$, donc Dieu existe; repondez!1 Diderot, to whom algebra was Hebrew, was embarrassed and disconcerted; while peals of laughter rose on all sides. He asked permission to return to France at once, which was granted.2

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Anarchism isn’t a fantasy and it’s not a political theory — it’s a collective name for whatever forms of society can exist without murder as a political tool

When people say anarchism is a fantasy I believe they’re thinking of the apparent impossibility of setting up an anarchist government, imposing it on people, voting it into place, getting everyone to agree to its terms. They’re thinking of what would have to precede the first day of anarchism if anarchism were to be somehow instituted somewhere. And of the difficulty of keeping anarchism in place, protecting it against threats, maintaining it. This is a mistake.

Anarchism begins when people stop being coerced whereas political systems rely on coercion both at their beginnings and for their maintenance. Forcing people to stop being coerced is a contradiction in terms. Anarchism can’t be instituted or put in place, it can only coalesce. Anarchism starts when people stop obeying authority. So how do we get to a society without coercion? What’s the path to the anarchist utopia?
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State Violence, The Diamond/Water Paradox, and an Invisible Axiom of Classical Economics

The diamond/water paradox is a name given to the fact that water has infinitely high use value but only minimal exchange value whereas roughly the opposite is true for diamonds. Apparently economists have been trying to untangle this putative problem for centuries, but my thesis is that it’s actually no problem at all. It seems paradoxical only because these economists have completely ignored the role of state violence in creating value and maintaining capitalism. Without state violence there would be no capitalist economy for them to study and prices of things would be very different than they are now.1

People need water, food, and shelter to survive. For a million years of human history people found countless successful ways to meet these needs directly, for themselves, their families, their communities, without being violently forced by zillionaires to cede a share of the value they created. Fundamentally, capitalism is possible only because if you charge money for those needs and kill anyone who tries to meet them without paying you can force masses of people to labor for your benefit.2
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How I’m Grading Now and Why

PDFTeX source


There is a great deal of pedagogical literature concerning the harm done to students by the practice of ranking them with letter grades.1 The authors of these papers, self-styled ungraders, focus on the effects of letter grading on students’ mindsets. Ungraders generally agree that letter grades distract students away from true understanding because, as widely cited ungrader Alfie Kohn puts it, “too many [of them] have been led to believe the primary purpose of schooling is to get As.”2.

That students believe this is universally acknowledged, at least by teachers. But why they believe it, in particular why they believe it so tenaciously even though their teachers have been telling them the opposite since forever, is not so clear. Also, I’m not sure that students “have been led to believe” this by anything other than their own accurate observations, or even that the students are wrong about “the primary purpose of schooling.”

The ungrading community believes that, as Susan Blum puts it, “when we grade, we really convey very little information about what is being assessed”3 and their arguments are convincing. Just for instance, there are too few letter grade options to differentiate between the wide variety of student achievements, even in a single class. My institution only offers ten choices, which isn’t granular enough even to draw a conclusion from the bare fact that two students received the same grade in a given class.4

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