Out of Africa

In his review of Thomas Sowell's The Quest for Cosmic Justice (Book World, Oct. 10), Frank H. Wu quotes a passage that is both astonishing and revealing. Sowell advances that "Seldom is the claim made that black Americans alive at this moment are worse off than if their ancestors had been left in Africa." Why should Sowell expect anyone to make such a claim? Who could possibly have knowledge of all the permutations of fate? The vast majority of African Americans have some non-African ancestors, yet Sowell's musings seem to presume that but for the slave trade they would all be in Africa. Perhaps Sowell has some knowledge of how body and soul come together that he is not sharing.

More likely, Sowell is trying to provide some absolution for those who have endeavored to subjugate people with African antecedents. He implies that if the slavery of the past provides any benefit to present-day African Americans, then these beneficiaries have no claim to social recompense. This also presumes that African Americans seek recompense on that basis. In reality, African Americans seek some measure of social justice on the basis that all of the social conventions that have been erected to sustain black subjugation persist and cause damage. Wu might have more strongly questioned Sowell's premise that the unachievability of cosmic justice condemns all of government's attempts to folly.

The second part of the passage, "It may be worth noting that the number of contemporary black Americans who have immigrated to Africa does not begin to approach the number of contemporary Africans who have immigrated to the United States," was not true before government introduced interventions benefiting the interests of blacks. Yet these interventions upset Sowell greatly.


Silver Spring

I was pleased that Frank H. Wu, in reviewing The Quest for Cosmic Justice, started out by recognizing Thomas Sowell as a distinguished polemicist and finally concluded that he deserves respect for his "intellectual commitments" and "should be read." But he does Sowell and Book World's readers a disservice by characterizing Sowell's viewpoints as "conservative" on the basis that those viewpoints mount "a comprehensive attack on liberal idealism." One does not have to be a conservative to question liberal idealism any more than one has to be a liberal to question conservative idealism. It is too easy to fall prey to the national penchant for the notion that every person and every viewpoint must be labeled as either conservative or liberal. In fact, I suspect that Sowell would subscribe to the wonderful maxim, "Beware of all `isms'!"

When I first started reading Sowell's The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation As a Basis for Social Policy, I too thought of him as a conservative, but I came to understand that, if labels must be applied, first might come "pragmatist" and then perhaps "libertarian." Far from the simple stance that nothing government does ever works, his hammered-home point is the same one that myriad management articles, books and expensive guru seminars make -- that government (and even private industry) endeavors should start out by clearly outlining the results those endeavors are to achieve and how the results will be measured. Then those programs should be maintained, modified or abandoned accordingly. It's just that simple. While Sowell may intellectually decimate many "liberal" programs for not achieving what the "anointed" who created them said they would, in government (as in everything else), there are always at least two choices -- to do something or to do nothing. While one wonders just how some people come to believe they are "anointed" to do something to bring about social justice, one also has to wonder how some people come to believe that they are anointed to insist that nothing be attempted. If to be liberal is to try to "do something" and to be conservative is to "`let things as they are," I do not see that Sowell subscribes to either. The sin, in any case, is not in trying something but in continuing that same something without evidence that it is working, or even worse with evidence that says it is not. That's what really seems to gall Sowell, and it certainly galls me.


Old Souls

The October 17 Book World discussed several books under the heading of "Spirituality" and left me wondering "why?," at least in two of the three cases. Maybe not in Claire Douglas's review of Old Souls, Tom Shroder's marshaling of the evidence for reincarnation (are the Hindus right after all?). But her two colleagues are a different story!

David Guy is very put off by the religious tone of Jane Goodall's Reason For Hope: A Spiritual Journey. He "stands in awe" of her scientific work and crusade for humane treatment of animals but is really offended when she "mentions the spiritual convictions behind her work, or -- God help us all -- renders them in verse." And how dare "so important a scientist" recount "a Pollyanna-ish childhood the likes of which we haven't seen since Booth Tarkington"? Maybe Goodall is a bad poet and lacked properly modern early traumas; but perhaps her spiritual life and happy childhood have something to do with the good work (scientific and humanitarian) that she has accomplished.

In the third case, John Crowley seems more in tune with Wendy Kaminer, the author of Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety. He finds it clever of her to "toss all religious or spiritualist phenomena into the same basket" and then debunk them all. Crowley is identified as "the author of many novels and stories about fairies, magic and aliens," and it may please him to reduce serious religious beliefs to the level of his fantasies. But the crude village-atheist blasphemies ("hair of the God that bit us") are not really very witty. And many believers could assure him that a "personal experience with God's love" isn't such a bad thing after all.


Glenn Dale

In her review of Tom Shroder's Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Reincarnation (Oct. 17), Claire Douglas implies that science will reject claims for reincarnation because science has "always" ignored or summarily dismissed new paradigms that threaten an accepted understanding of the world. This is simply wrong. The history of science is full of episodes in which an accepted explanatory theory was supplanted or substantially supplemented by a theory with greater explanatory power and deeper evidential support. In fact, Douglas alludes to just such an episode with her opening anecdote about the replacement of Ptolemaic geocentrism by the heliocentrism of the Copernican system.

What science demands is not blind adherence to dogma but rather convincing evidence. This is something that stories or reincarnation have notably lacked. In a detailed examination of one of Ian Stevenson's "strongest causes" for reincarnation, published as a chapter of his book Enlightenment East and West, Leonard Angel has demonstrated multiple weaknesses in Stevenson's recording and interpretation of the data. Under examination, the case turns out to be marked by substantial internal inconsistencies and doubtful interpretive leaps. But is by virtue of these leaps that Stevenson tries to justify the claim that the purported evidence corroborates his subject's supposed past-life memories. In addition, Stevenson shows a tendency to rely on versions of supposed past-life memories as reported by the subjects' parents or other family members rather than the original reports of the subjects themselves, which raises the possibility that the primary data themselves are distorted and therefore unreliable.

In short, it isn't blindness or dogmatism that causes scientists (and indeed many others) to reject claims for the truth of reincarnation, but those claims' characteristic lack of convincing evidence and interpretive rigor.


Claire Douglas responds:

Daniel Barbiero takes my "always" out of context but makes me aware that I should have hedged against such an eventuality. That's why scholarly work is full of "tends to," "may be," "almost" and "perhaps." What interested me and what I was addressing was a concern Tom Shroder also voiced: why Stevenson's voluminous and painstakingly detailed evidence had been ignored. One explanation is through the idea of a Kuhnian paradigm shift (I refer Barbiero to Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). It is a view of science very different from Barbiero's concept of old ideas rationally and politely giving way to their supplanters. The history of science is full of dramatic stories of the struggles between old science and new. A common tactic in this war of competing paradigms is to call a perhaps uncomfortable new paradigm bad science then scorn and oversimplify its methodology as Barbiero does and as Tom Shroder goes to great lengths to dispute.

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