By John Taylor; 2006 July 27
My midsummer output has been slowed by having the kids around all day and by the heat wave. We do not have air conditioning and I got into the habit of fleeing to the cool Dunnville Library in the afternoon. For days the heat slowed me down to a crawl and exercising seemed too much of a chore. Gradually, I fell back into my normal sedentary routine. Big mistake. With a change in the weather, I was hit by a major or "grand-mal" migraine attack, the only one for at least six months. I had been starting to feel invulnerable. I recovered with a renewed determination not to relent in this new active lifestyle. My reading suffers, as I spend almost all my time working my body, playing soccer, walking, cutting the lawn, playing table tennis. As a result, my writing suffers too, but everything must come second to health.
In my last mail-out, a review of Jane Jacob's Dark Age Ahead, I wrote:
"Credentialism is the result in education of a fearful society prepared to fund any program, no matter how ambitious or wrongheaded, if it will only bring about more credentials for more jobs..."
Jim my spiritual father, not Jimbo, my old college buddy, wrote: "John - Are you saying courses that are skill-based (are) of limited value?" Not exactly. I have been thinking about this as I run around non-stop, and I think what Jane Jacobs is saying is that anything but science-based credentials are useless, not necessarily skill-based ones. A particular skill may have more or less value on the job marketplace, but a credential is a measure only of how much time you spent in school. Expertise and credentials are not necessarily linked. The latest Scientific American Magazine has a terrific article about this very thing, and it is available free online at:
"The Expert Mind," By Philip E. Ross. The mental processes of chess grandmasters are unlike those of novices, a fact that illuminates the development of expertise in other fields <http://www.sciam.com/issue.cfm>
The article narrows in on chess because it is so easy to measure expertise in that game. My rating, no matter how much or how little I play, is that of a club player, somewhere between 1600 and 1800. Expert level is 2000, I think. I hit a plateau as a teenager and, though I spent prodigious time studying, never went beyond it. The astonishing thing that this article shows is that those who do go on to become grandmasters do not necessarily have more or less natural ability, they are just well taught, they have been given the right amount of challenge over a brief time. They know more about the right patterning that enables you to win. The same is true of any skill, music, mathematics, whatever, properly taught one can go way beyond the average level of skill in a short period of time, which is to say, eight hours a day for ten years. Mozart was so far ahead of his peers, for example, because he started his decade of study so early, around the age of two or three.
But want I call your attention particularly to this paragraph, which points out areas of expertise where credentials mean nothing:
"Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice, there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing credentials. Such, alas, are all too common. Rigorous studies in the past two decades have shown that professional stock pickers invest no more successfully than amateurs, that noted connoisseurs distinguish wines hardly better than yokels, and that highly credentialed psychiatric therapists help patients no more than colleagues with less advanced degrees. And even when expertise undoubtedly exists--as in, say, teaching or business management--it is often hard to measure, let alone explain."
We could point to many other areas where credentials are not the same as expertise. Take religion: the pettiest pastor is better qualified as a Christian than Jesus, the humblest Mullah has better credentials as a Muslim than Muhammad, and so forth. Credentials measure schooling in religion, not the ability to move hearts to love one another, which is what religion is for. Most schooling does not even try to teach love, but it does strive after a good grounding in science. That is the problem, credentials do not necessarily measure scientific capability either. And that is just what worries Jane Jacobs. I therefore want to devote the rest of this mail-out to an excerpt from Dark Age Ahead that shows exactly what she is talking about and as a bonus it explains why they have recently reduced the number of one way streets in the city I drive in most often, Hamilton, Ontario.
The scientific state of mind is a major marvel in its own right. Sometimes it slips up, either in the interest of preserving an unfit paradigm or because it has fallen asleep. These lapses are not as nefarious as betrayals of science that are motivated by greed or pursuit of power, but nevertheless they are dangerous, perhaps the more so because they do not necessarily signal their dishonesty with obviously ugly immorality. The enemy of truth is untruth, whatever its motivation. Even high-minded "scientific" untruth always exacts costs, and often they are large and ramified beyond all preliminary calculation.
I am now going to relate a few illustrative instances in which the scientific state of mind has been betrayed and science abandoned, while those carrying out the ugly deeds pretend that nothing of the kind has happened and perhaps do not realize themselves what they have done, since they have probably lost the memory of the state of mind they have lost.
My first example is a lapse in a minor branch of engineering known as traffic engineering or traffic management. It is a lapse of practical importance because it wastes the time of many drivers, contributes to pollution, wastes land and energy, and is the most active single cause of community destruction discussed in Chapter 2.
Engineering has an honorable and long pedigree as a science. Most of the sporadic evidences of a scientific state of mind that go back to time immemorial are revealed by feats of engineering. In part, this is owing to the solidity and durability of such achievements as the Roman aqueducts, the pyramids in Egypt and in what is now Latin America, and the domes, arches, and seawalls of classical construction. Today our safety is constantly in the keeping of structural engineers, aeronautical engineers, electrical engineers, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, hydraulic engineers, and nuclear engineers. We trust the scientific integrity of these people. If we didn't, we'd go crazy. Many branches of civil engineering owe their starts to military engineering in the service of mounting sieges or withstanding them. This military strand in the pedigree has contributed to the profession a proud touch of unstinting, responsible, and even heroic service.
Given this enviable professional background, plus the extreme tendency of North Americans to admire scientific achievement and give it the benefit of the doubt, it is little wonder that traffic engineers have been trusted to do pretty much as they please, and that departments of public works have gratefully accepted and followed their recommendations for design and specifications of streets and roads.
In what traffic engineers have chosen to do and have recommended, they have abandoned and betrayed science as it is understood. "Engineering" also has an opprobrious connotation of manipulation without regard for truth, as in "engineering consensus," or "It looked spontaneous, but it was engineered." It is popularly assumed that when universities give science degrees in traffic engineering, as they do, they are recognizing aboveboard expert knowledge. But they aren't. They are perpetrating a fraud upon students and upon the public when they award credentials in this supposed expertise.
In the mid-1950s, I was one among thousands of New York citizens trying to save Washington Square, the major Greenwich Village community park, from bisection by a limited-access expressway, or reduction to a traffic circle by a circumferential expressway. After staving off both these threats in sequence, our community movement discarded its defensive stance and insisted aggressively that a two-lane carriage road bisecting the square be closed to all but emergency traffic such as ambulances and fire trucks. We now saw that this formerly harmless relic of the horse-and-buggy age was a potential Trojan horse that could be trotted out as a precedent for any kind of road ruination of the park and community.
When a test closing of the carriage road became imminent, the traffic commissioner told us that traffic is like water: if it is dammed up or diverted from its course in one place, it will find other outlets where it meets less resistance. To close off the carriage road without providing a new road would, he predicted, inundate all the narrow streets in the park's vicinity with thwarted traffic and belching fumes, threatening the safety of children to the point that they couldn't even reach the park. He predicted that we would come back to him on our knees, begging for a road.
His dire predictions did not come true. Nowhere did traffic increase. Indeed, traffic counts were slightly down in the park's vicinity. The test closing was so successful that, without more ado, it was made permanent.
Where did the vanished traffic go? This was a new question that emerged unexpectedly. But it was not pursued. It was ignored in favor of a vague notion that some drivers must have chosen less frustrating routes, or else switched to public transit; or maybe some oddballs walked.
More than thirty years later, my Toronto neighborhood was divided over the question of how to frustrate drivers who, to avoid the traffic lights on a main street, used a parallel quiet street as a speedway, zipping unhindered by traffic lights through intersections. Some residents wanted to thwart those drivers by changing the direction of the quiet street (from one-way north to one-way south) on a block partway up the route. Other residents, perhaps a majority, feared that thwarted traffic would inundate their nearby streets. Some wanted nothing done, supposing that any attempted remedies would make matters worse. Still others advocated elaborate and expensive studies of possible traffic mazes throughout the community; others were chastened by the unfortunate experiences of a nearby neighborhood for which an elaborate professional study had been done, leaving everyone dissatisfied. People were getting very angry at one another. Accusatory petitions were bouncing around. Staff members of the city's traffic and public works departments were present at a neighborhood meeting to offer advice. Our local elected council member was present, keeping his ear to the ground.
To my astonishment, as the meeting got under way, I heard from the professional staff the same lecture, almost word for word, that I had heard three decades earlier in New York: that traffic is like water and will find an outlet offering less resistance. If it is diverted or dammed it will inundate other streets.
I thought sadly, "Here they are, another generation of nice, mis-educated young men, about to waste their careers in a fake science that cares nothing about evidence; that doesn't ask a fruitful question in the first place and that, when unexpected evidence turns up anyhow, doesn't pursue it; a science that hasn't been building up a coherent body of knowledge that organizes its own direction by grace of the succession of questions it opens." Fortunately, the public present at the meeting cared about evidence. I described what had happened at Washington Square, and the community agreed to test a change in street direction. The professional staff made it clear they didn't like this decision, but the local councilman picked up the idea of the test and apparently overruled the credentialed professionals.
Much the same thing happened as in New York. I don't know whether total traffic counts dropped. No counts were evidently made, or at least reported. But no other streets were inundated by thwarted traffic, and speeding traffic wonderfully decreased on the rescued street, on which I live. It seemed to decrease throughout the neighborhood. Dammed traffic did not overflow into channels of less resistance; it was successfully confined to its appointed channel. Again, the water hypothesis to explain traffic flow had been discredited by the real world. But once again, reasons why it was wrong were not investigated.
However, at long last, other people in the world noticed that unexpected evidence was turning up. My brother, a retired chemical engineer, sent me a clipping from the February 16, 1998, issue of Chemical & Engineering News about a study reported in The New Scientist. A research team at University College, London, had analyzed-for London Transport and Britain's Department of the Environment, Transport, and the Regions-sixty cases, worldwide, in which roads had been closed or their carrying capacity reduced. The principal finding of the study was forthrightly reported:
Planners' models assume that closing a road causes the traffic using it to move elsewhere .... The study team ... found that computer models used by urban transportation planners yield incorrect answers .... [W]hen a road is closed, an average of 20% of the traffic it carried seems to vanish. In some cases they studied, as much as 60% of the traffic vanished. Most of the cases studied involved urban areas, but the same arguments may apply away from urban areas, New Scientist reports. The report at hand is a logical extension to a 1994 finding that building new roads generates traffic. If that's the case, "then the closure of roads is bound to cause less traffic," according to London-based transport consultant Keith Buchan.
The item added, mentioning no further investigation or evidence, that "traffic vanishes because commuting habits are so variable .... Flexibility helps people cope with road closures .... Experts ... suggest that government should stop worrying about causing vehicular congestion by pedestrianizing sites."
Thwarted drivers again, making choices. How do traffic engineers know that, or think that they do? This incurious profession pulls its conclusions about the meaning of evidence out of thin air-sheer guesswork-even when it does deign to notice evidence. By the time I read this clipping, I had begun to wonder whether missing traffic-meaning cars and their occupants-actually did vanish or if, instead, only some of their traveling on the roads vanished. The repeated phenomenon of vanished traffic suggested that possibly some characteristics common to the closed roads themselves, rather than the drivers on the roads, might account for vanished traffic. Not an answer to the mystery, but perhaps worth investigating.
I am in no position to do traffic research. I don't drive, nor do I own a car. I have no little cables that will register each time a car runs over their piece of roadway. In recent years I have had a disability that prevents me from walking a distance. When I go to a destination in downtown Toronto, I take a taxi. But, as luck would have it, a taxi has turned out to be an admirable tool for helping me indulge my curiosity.
When I travel from the airport to a downtown micro destination, one part of the trip can be along an elevated, limited-access highway on the southern perimeter of downtown, between the city and Lake Ontario. The highway has several on- and off-ramps, feeding from and into the city's grid of streets.
On my way, I watch the taxi meter clicking and counting.
Along the expressway stretch, the trip seems economical. I am getting quite a bit of distance for my money. Then I hit a choke point at an exit ramp, and from then on everything changes. The rest of my trip is very expensive. Considering what it is costing me, I am getting very little distance. I am not complaining about this. As research, it is economical. What worries me, rather, is the expensive burden on the city, and the planet, of the air pollution and urban road congestion that the expensive part of my trip is registering.
The driver must weave circuitously around a block, then around another block, and so on, to reach the correct side of the correct block of the correct street on which to deposit me. All the way to my micro-destination, from the moment we enter the street grid from the ramp, we are surrounded by delivery vans, other taxis, and private cars whose drivers are also circuitously attempting to reach their micro-destinations. Drivers who must park their cars while they attend a meeting, get a tooth filled, call on a customer, or attend to other downtown business go through an extra crawl to reach a garage or parking spot; so much the worse for them. Our joint circuitous congestion hampers all the others attempting to make use of the streets: public transit vehicles, pedestrians, bicycle couriers.
In vain, I long to leave the taxi and walk directly to my destination. The taxi can travel only indirectly. I mollify myself with the knowledge that my situation informs me of the identical situation of drivers with packages or couriered mail to deliver or cars to stash. Everyone in a vehicle has become a prisoner of the grid and the limited and indirect access to it in this exasperating system. How different it is from the free and convenient downtown grid I experienced when I could walk and could get unlimited access into it at every corner, not merely at arbitrary choke points.
It dawned upon me at length that two separate, major n1.isconceptions were buried in this mess.
Misconception One is expressed in the elevated limited-access highway and its ramps, whose designers should have asked themselves, "How can we help this great diversity of users reach their great diversity of micro-destinations most .. directly?" Instead, they apparently asked themselves, "How can people reach a macro-destination, downtown, most speedily?"
When my taxi enters the downtown grid from the north or west, which are not furnished with limited-access expressways, my trip within the downtown is so much more economical than when I enter the grid from the expressway at the south that the entire trip is more economical despite my avoidance of the small expressway stretch. How ironic that the ambitious, elevated behemoth of an expressway and its land-wasting ramps are counterproductive for drivers using the downtown. It would be a wonder if closing a road designed to express Misconception One didn't result in at least a 20 percent reduction in vehicular travel without a single vehicle actually vanishing.
Misconception Two is expressed in the NO LEFT TURN, NO STANDING (during busy hours), and ONE WAY, ONE WAY, and ONE WAY signs, the impediments forcing my driver all around Robin Hood's barn to reach a micro-destination. These impediments were contrived to keep vehicles out of one another's way and thus carry out the theme of a speedy trip. What a dream world! It would be a wonder if reducing these impediments didn't reduce congestion further after Misconception One's error was eliminated. One American mayor, John Norquist of Milwaukee, has made a start with such an experiment by eliminating one-way streets; he calls his city's popular program friendly driving.
The chief impediment in the double-barreled mess is obviously a cherished paradigm. In effect, somebody told traffic engineers and road designers that the journey matters more than the destination-an inappropriate analogy about a philosophical approach to life-and they believed it. In the background of this paradigm I see little boys with toy cars happily murmuring "Zoom, Zooom, Zooooom!"
The fact that university students in this so-called discipline are not informed of evidence that has long been available tells us that such evidence is uncongenial to their teachers. The cherished but deformed paradigm is poison that harms everything it touches-damaging community life; wasting time, energy, and land; polluting air; and vitiating the independence of countries with large oil reserves. This is also a "perfect" example of anti-science masquerading as the science it has betrayed: first it went wrong with a fruitless question based on misconception of purpose; a wrong hypothesis followed; next came ignored evidence; when the evidence could no longer be ignored, it was not seen as opening up further questions, and that failure killed off the traffic enterprise as a coherent, expanding body of knowledge.
In the meantime, each year students have poured forth from universities, a clear, harmful case of education surrendered to credentialism. One wonders at the docility of the students who evidently must be satisfied enough with the credentials to be uncaring about the lack of education. The credentials may indeed be a good investment for them but are not a good investment for society. That anxious parent at the forum (pAS) was well advised to worry about change in university education.