Oswald Spengler got it Wrong

Sometimes the best metrics for public intellectuals are the short articles they write for magazines.  There are page limits, so they have to get to the point.  It isn’t as easy to camouflage vacuous ideas behind a smoke screen of verbiage.  Take, for example, the case of Oswald Spengler.  His “Decline of the West” was hailed as the inspired work of a prophet in the years following its publication in 1918.  Read Spengler’s Wiki entry and you’ll see what I mean.  He should have quit while he was ahead.

Fast forward to 1932, and the Great Depression was at its peak.  The Decline of the West appeared to be a fait accompli.  Spengler would have been well-advised to rest on his laurels.  Instead, he wrote an article for The American Mercury, still edited at the time by the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, with the reassuring title, “Our Backs are to the Wall!”  It was a fine synopsis of the themes Spengler had been harping on for years, and a prophecy of doom worthy of Jeremiah himself.  It was also wrong.

According to Spengler, high technology carried within itself the seeds of its own collapse.  Man had dared to “revolt against nature.”  Now the very machines he had created in the process were revolting against man.  At the time he wrote the article he summed up the existing situation as follows:

A group of nations of Nordic blood under the leadership of British, German, French, and Americans command the situation.  Their political power depends on their wealth, and their wealth consists in their industrial strength.  But this in turn is bound up with the existence of coal.  The Germanic peoples, in particular, are secured by what is almost a monopoly of the known coalfields…

Spengler went on to explain that,

Countries industrially poor are poor all around; they cannot support an army or wage a war; therefore they are politically impotent; and the workers in them, leaders and led alike, are objects in the economic policy of their opponents.

No doubt he would have altered this passage somewhat had he been around to witness the subsequent history of places like Vietnam, Algeria, and Cambodia.  Willpower, ideology, and military genius have trumped political and economic power throughout history.  Spengler simply assumed they would be ineffective against modern technology because the “Nordic” powers had not been seriously challenged in the 50 years before he wrote his book.  It was a rash assumption.  Even more rash were his assumptions about the early demise of modern technology.  He “saw” things happening in his own times that weren’t really happening at all.  For example,

The machine, by its multiplication and its refinement, is in the end defeating its own purpose.  In the great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot.  In Argentina, Java, and elsewhere the simple horse-plough of the small cultivator has shown itself economically superior to the big motor implement, and is driving the latter out.  Already, in many tropical regions, the black or brown man with his primitive ways of working is a dangerous competitor to the modern plantation-technic of the white.

Unfortunately, motor cars and tractors can’t read, so went right on multiplying without paying any attention to Spengler’s book.  At least he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that modern technology would end because of the exhaustion of the coalfields.  He knew that we were quite clever enough to come up with alternatives.  However, in making that very assertion, he stumbled into what was perhaps the most fundamental of all his false predictions; the imminence of the “collapse of the West.”

It is, of course, nonsense to talk, as it was fashionable to do in the Nineteenth Century, of the imminent exhaustion of the coal-fields within a few centuries and of the consequences thereof – here, too, the materialistic age could not but think materially.  Quite apart from the actual saving of coal by the substitution of petroleum and water-power, technical thought would not fail ere long to discover and open up still other and quite different sources of power.  It is not worth while thinking ahead so far in time.  For the west-European-American technology will itself have ended by then.  No stupid trifle like the absence of material would be able to hold up this gigantic evolution.

Alas, “so far in time” came embarrassingly fast, with the discovery of nuclear fission a mere six years later.  Be that as it may, among the reasons that this “gigantic evolution” was unstoppable was what Spengler referred to as “treason to technics.”  As he put it,

Today more or less everywhere – in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa – industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition.  the unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed.

In other words, the “treason” consisted of the white race failing to keep its secrets to itself, but bestowing them on the brown and black races.  They, however, were only interested in using this technology against the original creators of the “Faustian” civilization of the West.  Once the whites were defeated, they would have no further interest in it:

For the colored races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as scaffolding, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose.  This machine-technic will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten – our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon.  The history of this technic is fast drawing to its inevitable close.  It will be eaten up from within.  When, and in what fashion, we so far know not.

Spengler was wise to include the Biblical caveat that, “…about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”  (Matthew 24:36).  However, he had too much the spirit of the “end time” Millennialists who have cropped up like clockwork every few decades for the last 2000 years, predicting the imminent end of the world, to leave it at that.  Like so many other would-be prophets, his predictions were distorted by a grossly exaggerated estimate of the significance of the events of his own time.  Christians, for example, have commonly assumed that reports of war, famine and pestilence in their own time are somehow qualitatively different from the war, famine and pestilence that have been a fixture of our history for that last 2000 years, and conclude that they are witnessing the signs of the end times, when, “…nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matthew 24:7).  In Spengler’s case, the “sign” was the Great Depression, which was at its climax when he wrote the article:

The center of gravity of production is steadily shifting away from them, especially since even the respect of the colored races for the white has been ended by the World War.  This is the real and final basis of the unemployment that prevails in the white countries.  It is no mere crisis, but the beginning of a catastrophe.

Of course, Marxism was in high fashion in 1932 as well.  Spengler tosses it in for good measure, agreeing with Marx on the inevitability of revolution, but not on its outcome:

This world-wide mutiny threatens to put an end to the possibility of technical economic work.  The leaders (bourgeoisie, ed.) may take to flight, but the led (proletariat, ed.) are lost.  Their numbers are their death.

Spengler concludes with some advice, not for us, or our parents, or our grandparents, but our great-grandparents generation:

Only dreamers believe that there is a way out.  Optimism is cowardice… Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him.  That is greatness.  That is what it means to be a thoroughbred.  The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.

One must be grateful that later generations of cowardly optimists donned their rose-colored glasses in spite of Spengler, went right on using cars, tractors, and other mechanical abominations, and created a world in which yet later generations of Jeremiahs could regale us with updated predictions of the end of the world.  And who can blame them?  After all, eventually, at some “day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,” they are bound to get it right, if only because our sun decides to supernova.  When that happens, those who are still around are bound to dust off their ancient history books, smile knowingly, and say, “See, Spengler was right after all!”

Scientists Don’t Really Know it All

As a scientist, I’m gratified by our current high favor in the court of public opinion.  I must admit, though, sometimes our omniscience is overrated.  In the first place, scientists tend to have narrow areas of specialization.  As a result, they are not remarkably superior to other mortals in seeing the big picture.  In the second, we simply lack the knowledge and/or adequate data in some areas to justify positive opinions one way or the other.  Finally, scientists are human beings, subject to human needs.  It is not out of the question that their research results may occasionally be influenced by such mundane considerations as the desire to eat.

To illustrate the potential liabilities of narrow specialization, let us consider the issue of nuclear power, with which I have some passing familiarity.  If it’s a question of solving the neutron transport equation for a particular core design, a scientist is definitely the guy you want to talk to.  However, if it’s a question of deciding whether the nation should prefer nuclear power to the various competing sources of energy, it ain’t necessarily so.  To address such overriding issues, one must be well informed not just in a narrow technical area, but also in a host of environmental, political, economic, other matters of relevance.  I have seen anti-nuclear advocates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) defeat nuclear engineers hands down in debates over the merits of nuclear power, because they were better informed on such matters.  That doesn’t necessarily imply the anti-nukers were right.  Rather, it illustrates the fact that narrow expertise is not adequate for deciding every issue.  I’ve known scientists who were brilliant within their own technical bailiwick, but shockingly ignorant if they ventured outside it.

Then there’s the matter of technical uncertainty.  Here, one might cite global warming as exhibit A.  It happens that my personal opinion on the matter is that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases do inhibit the re-radiation of solar energy back into space, and, as a result, we are likely to see significant increases in global temperature and sea levels over the next century.  However, I have a problem with those who claim they know with certainty exactly what the effects of global warming on our climate will be and how long it will take before it’s “too late” to do anything about it.  They can heap scientific opinion on scientific opinion ad nauseum.  It doesn’t matter.  Given the current state of the art, we cannot predict with certainly what will happen one way or another. 

In order to accurately predict the future behavior of a system, it is necessary to have means of accurately measuring all the data relevant to the response of that system.  In the case of climate modeling, the necessary data, ideally from many billions of data points, is inadequate.  The data we do have is subject to significant measurement uncertainties, or “noise.”  Furthermore, we’re not even sure what data we need, assuming it were even available, to accurately solve the problem.  Finally, even if the necessary data were forthcoming, no perfect mathematical models would be available to use it.  With the biggest and fastest computers that exist now or in the foreseeable future, only dominant or critical climate effects could be modeled.  Such models are prone to leave out “minor” effects that may actually turn out to have a critical effect on the accuracy of the outcome.  Even the effects that are included must be modeled with approximations that are never perfect. 

Climate modeling today is not and cannot be based on any deterministic model.  Significant uncertainty is built in to the current ensemble and Monte Carlo forecasting models.  Scientists know they can’t even be sure they have accurate knowledge of the starting conditions to plug into their models.  As a result, they often just come up with an “ensemble” of plausible ones, and run them all through the model.  Then they use interpolation and approximation methods based on all the outcomes to decide which one is “best.”  In other words, while it would certainly behoove us to take what effective steps we can to avoid potentially harmful climate changes, we have no way of knowing “for sure” what those climate changes will be.  Our mathematical models are even less capable of predicting exactly what the impact will be of the steps we might take to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  It is inadvisable to mandate extremely expensive but highly visible measures to limit global warming if they are unlikely to have any significant impact on the problem one way or another.

A third weakness of “scientific expertise” is the human tendency of scientists to tell customers what they want to hear.  There is intense competition for research grants and awards.  There is also a wide and probably accurate perception among scientists that the sponsors of the limited available research funds are more interested in positive and striking findings than in null results, and are, therefore, more likely to reward those who produce positive results with more funding.  I leave the effects this might have on the result, for example, of studies of global climate change to the imagination of the reader.

We scientists can be proud of our contributions to the welfare of society.  However, we have our limitations, and we need to keep them in mind.  Do not even the lawyers the same?

GM and Profitability in the Emerald City

I suspect GM will need to do something more drastic than change its logo to return to profitability. They might start by seeking to recover the lost art of making head gaskets and intake manifold gaskets that don’t leak. My Mom just had to fork over $700 to fix a leaky gasket on the lemon they sold her. The mileage, you ask? 30,000!

All the evidence I can gather on this issue seems to indicate that the ancients actually found a solution to this problem, but the knowledge was lost during the ensuing decades. I recommend an archeological expedition to recover it. New generations of highly sensitive metal detectors could be used to find ancient dump sites. If an intact fossil of a Model T could be found, the key to the gasket riddle might be rediscovered via reverse engineering. GM would truly have taken a giant step back on the road to economic recovery.

Dynamic Detroit: The Decline and Fall of the US Automotive Industry

Diego Rivera Detroit Mural
Diego Rivera Detroit Mural

Detroit hasn’t always been on the ropes. Back in 1935, when we still hadn’t completely recovered from the Great Depression, an article appeared in “The American Mercury” entitled “Detroit the Dynamic.” In those days, morale in Motown was high. The workers were the best in the country and knew it. America was leaving the hard times behind, and Detroit was leading the way. Optimism prevailed, and “Detroit the Dynamic” reflected it. Some excerpts:

“This life, to be known and appreciated, must be experienced as Detroit commoners live it, and witnessed with their vision. Then it appears as the best that America has to offer.”

“Detroit calls up the most intelligent and energetic laborers of the land, even as California lures the bums. Candidates for jobs are rigorously culled in the great shops. The survivors are, beyond question, the pick of plain Americans.”

“…Detroit was agitated by the Dionne quintuplets to a degree reached by the folk of no other region. The appeal was simply to Detroit’s ruling spirit – mass production.”

“This is the Detroit of the Detroiters: first, of course, the automobile capital of the world; then, the city of champions – Joe Louis, the Tigers, the Redwings; …the patriotic community that put on the most monstrous of American Legion parades; the music capital that presents Gargantuan outdoor festivals of song; the financial center that produced the most prodigious banking crash of the Depression;… the scene of the colossal spectacle and the nations’s hugest crowds; the city that calls itself Detroit the Dynamic.”

You can read the whole article here. It makes you think. Times change. The changes aren’t always in the direction of “progress.” If what’s happened to Detroit is what Greenspan refers to as “creative destruction,” then the destruction part has spun out of control. The last time I was driving through the area, I heard a radio announcer scornfully proclaim there was no one left in Detroit now but the mice. May the day never come when a radio announcer can say that about America.