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Ineffective Theory

Links for November 2020

Andrew Gelman argues that (in thus-and-such narrow context) experience is overrated. The point of that post isn’t that experience is overrated, though. At least, the meta-level point (the reason you should read it, maybe not the reason Gelman wrote it) is an extraordinary demonstration of humility.

Robin Hanson interprets prestige as mob-enforced dominance (whereas usually, dominance is enforced by the person doing the dominating).

“America’s laziest and dumbest judge” has passed away. RIP Judge Richard Neely.

Some claims that the Great Stagnation is coming to an end. I can’t claim to be impressed. The first tweet cited focuses largely on technologies that were invented during the supposed Great Stagnation!

To Petition the Government

Congress shall make no law respecting … the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The petition clause is probably the least-referenced part of the first amendment. Nowadays, petitions aren’t taken so seriously, since “signing” an online petition (on the White House website, for instance) takes just a few seconds. It’s hard to imagine an individual petitioning Congress and being paid any real attention. ‘Twas not always so.

You can search old congressional documents here. If there are too many results, it just says “over 100”, so I can’t get statistics, other than to say “there sure were a lot of petitions”. These things were read in Congress. There usually wasn’t a long discussion, but they were often referred to committees for further discussion (and committee records are harder to find).

It’s a weird feeling, reading those petitions. I started researching for my last post because I was so taken aback by Morse’s audacity in requesting aid directly from Congress. It clearly wasn’t unusual at the time. Reading those petitions, one gets a sense of a very different relationship between government and the governed.

To give you a feel for this (but you really should search yourself), I’ve clicked around to read a few at random. I have reproduced the first few below: I swear I have done no selection.

(January 2, 1810) Mr. Meigs presented the petition of Daniel Boone, an inhabitant of the territory of Louisiana, stating that he has spent a long life in exploring the wilds of North America; and that he hath, by his own personal exertions, been greatly instrumental in opening the road to civilization in the immense territories now attached to the United States, and in some instances matured into independent states; and praying a grant of some reasonable portion of land, within the territory of Louisiana, as a compensation for his services; and the petition was read.

Seriously, I swear that was the first thing I clicked on. Daniel Boone: “I’m pretty important, can I have money?”

The next day, we read:

(January 3, 1810) Resolved, That the petition of Daniel Boone, presented yesterday, be referred to a select committee

The committee reported back on the first of February, and we can read Boone’s entire petition.

Scanned image of the petition of Daniel Boone

Of course, some things never change. The next reference to Daniel Boone in the congressional journal is:

(January 17, 1812) Ordered, That the petition of Daniel Boone, presented the second of December, one thousand eight hundred and seven, be referred to the Committee on the Public Lands.

Yikes! Two more years later, Congress finally acted. The original petition can be seen (but perhaps not read) here.

The next reference to “petition” on which I randomly clicked (from just a few days later) concerned one “Daniel Boon”. Skipping ahead a few months, on December 18, 1810, the Senate considered a petition by Philadelphia merchants concerned about how recent legislation may affect their property interests (in South Africa). On the same day, a petition from “the President and Directors of the Bank of the United States”. Clearly, on this day, the Senate was entertaining the wishes of the high and mighty.

Next random click.

(January 25, 1811) Mr. Gregg presented the petition of Thomas Campbell, stating that he served as a captain in the Revolutionary army; that during the service he received several wounds; and praying relief, for reasons mentioned in the petition; which was read.

This is a common sort of petition; you’ll note the broad similarities with Daniel Boone’s.

Next I skipped ahead to 1818.

(January 15, 1818) Mr. Sanford presented the petition of Michael Hogan, of the city of New York, representing that early in the month of February, 1813, a valuable house belonging to him in the village of Utica, was taken possession of by a detachment of United States’ troops … praying redress for damages sustained…

Skipping back a few decades:

(November 13, 1792) The petition of Mary Kent, for the renewal of a loan office certificate, destroyed by accident, Was presented and read.

Searching for “petition” in these records alternates between triffling concerns and true affairs of state. The next three I saw were: a request for some land at a reasonable price (from nobody in particular), the State of Indiana requesting a land grant to allow them to improve a road from Chicago to Vincennes, and this:

(March 20, 1834) Mr. Silsbee presented the petition of Zachariah Jellison, praying for a remission of the duty on a quantity of tobacco imported by him in 1832, from Cuba…

Some things never change.

But something did change. Tanner Greer frets that Americans today are more likely to complain to management than to try to fix something themselves. That could be true, but it seems that even complaining to management is a bit too much to handle these days. The picture I get from reading through the Congressional Record is of a relatively flat society, in which the distance between Congress and the average citizen is small, even in those pre-telegraph days of slow communication. Much flatter than society today.

I don’t have any grand conclusion. Perhaps most of these petitioners (requesting duty-free cuban cigars) simply had an overblown sense of their own importance; after all, today there are plenty of cranks emailing everyone they can to announce that they’ve discovered why “Einstein was wrong” (it’s always Einstein). It certainly isn’t the case that Congress responded to these petitions particularly dilligently; both Boone and Morse had to wait nearly a decade.

Maybe this is just one more sign that American life has become too bureaucratized. Projects like Emergent Ventures seek to counter that trend, and we need more of that.

Or this could be the result of a failure to imagine: a lost ability to look at the world, imagine it slightly better, and then try to make it so. If that’s true, these stories aren’t a rebuttal to Greer’s concerns. They’re both part of a larger pattern. If you were to start a committee to fix something, what would the committee fix? If you were to petition Congress, what would you ask for? Mr. Silsbee wanted Cuban tobacco; Boone wanted post-hoc payment for services rendered to the nation; Churchman wanted to explore the world; Morse wanted to connect it.

Magnetism and Congress

I.

In 1842, Morse pressed Congress into allowing him to demonstrate his telegraph by sending a message from one congressional conference room to another. As a result, he was given about a million dollars (inflation-adjusted):

(March 3, 1843) Be it enacted… That the sum of thirty thousand dollars be… appropriated… for testing the capacity and usefulness of the system of electro-magnetic telegraphs invented by Samuel F. B. Morse… The Secretary of the Treasury [is] authorized to pay… Morse, and the persons employed under him, such sums of money as he may deem to be a fair compensation…

Today, this seems like an astonishingly implausible story — a single person pesters Congress for a massive sum of money, and gets it.

This was not Morse’s first demonstration to Congress, though. It took him five years to secure funding.

In 1837, the Secretary of the Treasury (Levi Woodbury) was instructed by the House to investigate the feasibility of constructing a system of telegraphs for the United States. At the time, “telegraph” generally meant “optical telegraph”; the relays in such a system were humans, who watched one signal and then passed it on. When Woodbury called for proposals, though, Morse replied with his electromagnetic telegraph. This was the beginning of his engagement with Congress.

In 1838 and 1839, both the House and the Senate considered bills to support the development of Morse’s magnetic telegraph. In the Senate, the issue was whether to allow duty-free importation of construction materials; the House considered a bill for testing the practicality of constructing such a system (presumably with an eye towards directly financing it). Morse demonstrated the system, in 1838, to Congress and the President. Nevertheless, neither bill was ever voted on.

In 1842, Morse convinced Congress to allow him to demonstrate again. I can’t find any claim that Morse’s second demonstration was noticeably more impressive, but in 1843, Congress finally passed an appropriate for Morse and his colleagues.

Morse reported in 1844 that the line from the District to Baltimore was complete. Side note: “What hath God wrought” was not, in fact, Morse’s first transmission. The first public transmission, according to wikipedia, was “A patient waiter is no loser”. The famous “What hath God wrought” was the opening line for the D.C.-Baltimore line.

The Congressional Journal over the next decade is filled with references to petitions and bills for funding expansion of the telegraph system across the country. Congress wasn’t just pleased with the telegraph, though. Morse’s demonstration — and the fact that he delivered on his promises — had made him personally popular. In 1845, the House Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds was instructed to ask Morse

if, in his opinion, he can invent or adopt a more expeditious plan of taking the yeas and nays in this hall…

He seems to have declined, as the House didn’t vote electronically until 1973.

In 1845, Congress approved an expansion of the telegraph system to New York, and began referring to “Professor Morse” instead of “Samuel F. B. Morse”. In the subsequent years, telegraph lines were often built alongside railroads, funded by Congress in the same bill. By 1870 the magnetic telegraph reached California.

An astonishing journey, beginning with the audacity of an ordinary man to write to Congress for money.

II.

Or not. To start with, Morse was no ordinary man. He was a consumate self-promoter, intensely concerned with his own reputation, and quite politically active.

Wikipedia discusses his political activites at some length. He published a political tract (explaining how the Catholics were conspiring to take over the country) in 1835. He ran for mayor of New York (to fight the “deep Catholic state”, I assume) in 1836. Note the timeline: neither a prelude nor an afterthought, these activites were essentially contemporary with his creation of the telegraph.

After the telegraph was well established, in the 1850s, Morse turned his attention to the question of slavery, comparing it favorably to employment, parenting, and government.

In 1871, H.R. 285 was passed, allowing a statue of Morse to be erected on government land. Morse died in 1872, and a memorial service was held in Congress. I’m assuming this service primarily focused on the telegraph, rather than his paintings (not bad, actually) or his support for slavey (none too popular with Congress during reconstruction, I guess).

III.

Henry Hall Sherwood was a physician in New York. In the 1830s, the electromagnetic nature of the nervous system was still a relatively new discovery, and Sherwood seems to have gotten a bit over-excited. His books include case studies; for the most part, he seems to have waved magnets near his patients. He claims this cured them of various ailments. I’d laugh, but there’s an accupuncture clinic a couple blocks from my office. I’m afraid to find out whether this was classified an “essential service” during the lockdown.

Electromagnetism (or as it was often known then, “magnetism” — even when referring to phenomena we would call electric) was all the rage. A major challenge of the age was to understand the structure of the magnetic field of the Earth, although that’s slightly modern terminology — it was often referred to as “the variation of the compass”. This would be helpful, among other things, for navigation at sea: you can easily imagine that a precise model might allow the measurement of longitude. Sherwood, being an expert on the magnetic nature of the nervous system, decided to lend a hand to this closely related problem. Overall, this went about as well as you’d expect.

Like his better-known contemporary, Sherwood was bold enough to make requests directly of Congress. He petitioned the House, claiming to have invented an instrument (the geometer) for navigation purely from magnetic observations, and

praying the aid of the Government of the United States in the publication of a work to explain the discoveries…

among other things. It was proposed that he give the House a demonstration of his techniques, in June of 1838. This was voted down, and the matter dropped entirely.

That same month, Sherwood also petitioned the Senate; his petition was presented by Nathaniel Tallmadge of New York. Like the House, on June 21st, the Senate considered and declined the possiblity of a demonstration. Sherwood’s petition was referred to the Committee on Naval Affairs, which submitted a report, presented again by Tallmadge, to the Senate on July 3rd.

Here it gets interesting. That report caused something of a stir in the scientific community. No less than Joseph Henry, soon to become the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, published a denunciation of the report. You can read his article here, which was written in protest

against the plan of discussing such subjects in Congress before proper means have been taken to determine their true character.

In other words, against Congressional meddling and speculation. Most of Henry’s complaint is taken up by a somewhat detailed critique (occasionally, mockery) of Sherwood’s theories. The above quote somewhat masks Henry’s true opinion. A few paragraphs later he writes:

we do not believe that there is a person of any scientific reputation in our country, who has paid attention to this subject, who will not immediately say that the whole affair is perfectly peurile…

Despite his earlier words, I don’t get the impression the Henry would object to Congressional support for a speculative endeavor: just not an entirely futile endeavor. After Henry’s rebuttal was published, the Senate seems to have forgotten about Sherwood’s petition for a while.

Sherwood again requested financial aid from Congress in mid-February, 1839. Another report was delivered by Tallmadge from his committee, but I can find no details on what it said. It must not have been positive: the last reference to H. H. Sherwood in the papers of Congress is on March 2, 1839, when the Committee on Naval Affairs was given permission, by the Senate, to drop the matter.

IV.

It is sometimes argued that Congress’s support of Morse’s telegraph was not the really the first case in which the new government funded science: for a sufficiently broad definition of “science”, that honor belongs to the Lewis and Clark expedition nearly 40 years prior. But just as Morse’s was not the first time the government considered funding science, the 1803 expedition was not the first time the U.S. government considered funding an expedition.

John Churchman was a surveyor and mapmaker, who in the 1780s became preoccupied with the task of measuring the longitude of a ship at sea via magnetic observations (much like Sherwood!). Churchman, however, was not a complete crank. Like Morse, he was no stranger to make requests of governments, having (for instance) written to Thomas Jefferson in 1787 to request that a paper of his be presented to the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris. (That puts things in perspective. There’s no excuse for not sending cold emails!)

In 1791, Churchman made a request of Congress: “praying the patronage of Government to enable him to undertake a voyage” to investigate the magnetic fields near the geomagnetic north pole. Of course, his motivation for this voyage was to confirm a theory of the behavior of magnetic field lines which is now known to be incorrect. In brief, the behavior of magnetic field lines is not as predictable as he assumed, and therefore not as useful for navigation beyond distinguishing north from south.

Nevertheless, exploratory voyages based on incorrect assumptions were commonplace and often productive, and Congress considered the matter serious — more seriously, in fact, than the Sherwood business. The House held a lengthy discussion on 6 Jan 1792 to consider the petition.

The representatives (at least those who participate in the debate) come across as reasonably knowledgable about the subject. Halley’s (yes, that Halley) theory of a hollow Earth is mentioned and mocked, as a way of raising Churchman’s relative status.

[N]o theory, except Mr. C[hurchman]’s, has been offered to the world, which solves so many phenomena of the variation of the needle… The United States need not be ashamed to encourage [Churchman]; the British Parliament encouraged voyages to ascertain the truth of Halley’s theory…

Murray had the last word:

This was a question on which he was incompetent to decide, but he [felt it was in] the great interest of science… to commit the matter to a committee… Let those gentlemen who wish to have an opportunity of gratifying a laudable curiosity be indulged. When a man of science comes here with supposed discoveries… we owe it to the subject, to ourselves, and to human nature, to give his propositions fair play and mature consideration.

I suspect this is the first defense of “pure” science, “science for science’s sake”, or “basic research” as it would later be known, in the U.S. government. Murray continues

We… ought to take warning from the disgrace of other nations whom history has held up for their premature rejection of enterprises and schemes of science. Columbus himself… a philosophical vagabond…

This positive view was not unanimous. Early in the discussion it was pointed out that, if the treasury “was full and flowing”, there were surely “other expeditions” more worthy. This is a timeless objection: there’s a bit of physics folklore that the superconducting supercollider was sunk when a physicists objected that other subfields were more deserving of the funding. According to the lore, those subfields didn’t receive any funding either. Another representative pointed out that this was an old topic, extensively studied in Europe, and it was unreasonable to be hopeful of success after all those failures “by the ablest navigators and philosophers”.

The matter was referred to a select committee, which reported favorably, finding

That the said Churchman … has found a number of observations, made in different parts of the world, the confirm his hypothesis … and [has been] applauded for his ingenuity by several learned societies in Europe…

The House was interested exclusively in the practical consequences of discoveries concerning “the laws of magnetism”, which included (according the same committee)

adjusting and preventing disputes respecting … boundaries … of land, and of correcting many inaccuracies in geographical charts…

This effort was a near miss: Churchman’s petition never made it out of the House. Later in the year, Churchman wrote to none less than George Washington (really — there’s no excuse for not sending cold emails), declaring his intention to seek support in Europe, and requesting that Washington furnish him with introductions to appropriate officials. It seems Churchman met with no success there, either. Today he is not considered noteworthy.