Friday, June 30, 2006

The Gospel According to Saint Mel

This week saw the 80th birthday of Mel Brooks, possibly the greatest living contributor to the Comedist cause. Even if he had never made a movie, his writing for Sid Caesar, the 2000 year old man, and Get Smart would have been enough to leave a legacy. But he did make films... In honor of the feast day of Saint Mel -- make sure you are not tardy or no fruit cup for you -- I have been meditating on his work. What would be the funniest scene and the funniest line? My nominees:

- Opening dance number to Springtime for Hitler, especially including the pan over the audience
- The bean scene
- Puttin' on the Ritz* (this scene was Gene Wilder's idea and Mel originally fought against it)
- The Inquisition
- The BIG bottle
- The "everything you're seeing now is happening now" scene

- "I see your Schwartz is as big as mine."
- "What knockers!"
- "All pay heed! The Lord, the Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen (crash)...Oy! ten, ten commandments for all to obey!"
- "I got it, I got it, I got it,...I ain't got it."
- "Schwartzas? Lassen gehen!"
- "I'm not a madame, I'm a concierge!"
- "What he did to Shakespeare, we're now doing to Poland."
- "You take the blonde and I'll take the one in the turban."
- "It's good to be the King."
- "Excuse me while I whip this out"


I leave you with this one bit of wisdom: "don't be stupid, be a schmarty, come and join the Nazi party."

Happy birthday, Mel!

--Irreverend Steve

Gay Foster Care, Arkansas, and the "Institution of Marriage"

In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court of Arkansas upheld a lower court's decision to overturn an Arkansas ban on placing foster children, not only in the custody of gay or lesbian couples, but in any household where there is a reasonable expectation that the child may come in contact with a gay man or lesbian. But what is interesting is not only the decision, but the basis for the decision. It was science that the court cited as the primary reason to throw out the Child Welfare Agency Review Board's conclusion. Associate Justice Donald Corbin wrote in the opinion,

"These facts demonstrate that there is no correlation between the health, welfare, and safety of foster children and the blanket exclusion of any individual who is a homosexual or who resides in a household with a homosexual."
Let's say that again, the facts in this case demonstrate that there is no harmful influence on children, including academic or gender identity issues. Again, from the opinion,
"the driving force between adoption of the regulations was not to promote the health, safety, and welfare of foster children but rather based upon the board's views of morality and its bias against homosexuals."
In defending this bias, Arkansas officials made a fascinating move,
Kathy L. Hall, an attorney for the state agency, told justices that the state already bans unmarried couples who live together from becoming foster parents. Because Arkansas banned gay marriage, a homosexual couple is ineligible to have foster children, she said. The health, safety and welfare of foster children is of the utmost concern to the state, Hall said, "and that can't happen in a home where unmarried sex occurs."
It isn't the gay part, it's the unmarried sex part (the part that is in no way related to the actual parenting, of course, but which happens after the children are snug in bed and sound asleep). We need to shield children from the effects of unmarried people in love expressing their care and passion for one another in private and it just happens that, oops, what do you know?... gay couples can't marry.

Why not? That would weaken the "institution of marriage."

I must admit, I have no idea what that phrase really means. My guess is that after being asked how some random lesbians being happily married could in any way negatively affect their own marriage and not being able to answer, the anti-equal rights folks changed tactics and picked a phrase that would avoid mentioning any real marriages. Instead, they would turn to the abstract notion of marriage. If anyone tries this line, the first thing you should do is ask, "What do you mean by the institution of marriage?" and demand a meaningful answer.

Most likely, they are just parroting a phrase they heard that they think sounds smart. But if there is a real meaning, the next question is, "If marriage is a wonderful thing, why would it not be made a stronger institution by having additional mature, caring adults included within the institution?"

Beware, this second question will probably be met with (a) theological dances about how they may seem like good, caring people, but really they can't be, (b) outright bigotry and hate towards people whose sex lives your interlocutor finds yucky, or (c) bogus social scientific evidence that gay and lesbian families are menaces to the community around them. Just as in the foster care case considered by the Arkansas Supreme Court, the real evidence runs to the contrary.

But, again, that evidence is only valid for those families in the reality-based community.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Will the Democrats Have the Will to Play the New Gerrymandering Game?

The Supreme Court upheld virtually all of the redrawn Delay map of Texas, a midterm redistricting plan designed for the sole purpose of giving the Republicans more seats in Congress. In their decision, the robed ones said that states may redraw maps at whim.

This changes the game. When Delay did it, it was slimy; gray, at best. But now it has been written into the rule books. It is as if the owners suddenly declared that steroid use is allowable in baseball. If that were the case and you didn't take steroids, you would be putting your team at a competitive disadvantage and it is your job is to do everything within your power and the rules to help your team win.

So now the rules have officially been changed, yes, changed in a bad, bad way that is more likely to create fewer "up for grabs" seats that represent actual geographical districts and whose representation would require good candidates with thoughtful positions. To the contrary, we will see more seats that have been created with the sole purpose of not being open to real democratic consideration by voters. But that is now officially the game. Will the Dems play or unilaterally disarm and continue to hand the Congress to the Republicans?

Ann Coulter, Deadhead?

O.k., this is weird -- an interview with Ann Coulter in which she claims to have seen 67 Dead shows. Here's the quotation that really scares me,

Somewhat contrary to the image of Deadheads as hippies, the Dead were huge in my hometown of New Canaan, CT, which is a pretty preppie town. We toyed with the idea of making "Truckin'" our prom song with a "Long Strange Trip" theme, but we ended up with some dorky rainbow theme instead. I tend to associate the Dead with lacrosse players and my favorite fraternities, Fiji and Theta Delt.
Alright, I will cop to having been a Deadhead and I will even plead guilty to having been a lacrosse player, but I was never, NEVER in a fraternity. The thought that I am now 67% of the archetype of Ann Coulter's fond image makes me feel dirty...and not in the "haven't showered in a couple days because I slept in the back of Larry's station wagon after catching an incredible show in Hershey in 1985" kind of way.

Hat tip to Helmut

Hanno on Free Speech

Hanno's proposal to amend the flag burning amendment:

LET US BAN the burning of the American flag. It is offensive to the majority of the citizens of this country. It is hateful. People place great importance in symbols of national unity, and the flag is the primary symbol. Let us not forget that people died protecting this country and its symbol, and burning the flag mocks their sacrifice.

LET US BAN anti-American speeches. Such speeches are offensive to the majority of the citizens of this country. We love our country. It hurts us when people associate this country with great evils. The speeches themselves are hateful. Let us protect the love of our country by making sure enemies of America keep their hate to themselves, and do not pass it on to our young.

LET US BAN speeches that mock Christianity. Christianity is woven into the fabric of this great nation. Most people today are still Christians. It is offensive to those people for others to mock their views. Such speeches are inspired by hate, and cause pain.

LET US BAN speeches that mock other deeply held religious views. No matter how few in number, it is painful to the people who deeply hold them to criticize their beliefs. Religious faith should be revered. It is offensive to most of us when others hold their views with contempt.

LET US BAN speeches and teachings contradict religious beliefs in the name of ‘science.’ This is offensive to the people who hold those religious views. It causes them to feel ostracized by their community, and may teach views with which they disagree to their children.

LET US BAN speeches which promote religion. This is offensive to those who do not share those religious views. Promoting religion ostracizes non-believes, making them feel uncomfortable in their own community.

LET US BAN music and movies which promote sex and drugs. It is offensive to the vast majority who do not want their children growing up in an environment which holds that those things are good. As our culture becomes pro-sex and pro-drugs, our people will do these things more often. This will have a terrible effect on our country.

LET US BAN images and music which degrade women. Such images promote harm to women everywhere, and promote the inequality of the sexes. It is offensive to all who believe in sexual equality.

LET US BAN sexually explicit pictures and movies. These are offensive to the vast majority of the country. It is disgusting to watch such things. These things are too disgusting to be allowed.

LET US BAN the teaching of history which portrays the US Civil War as being about slavery. Such is offensive to white southern people, whose ancestors fought in the war. It brings disrepute to people living today by bring disrepute to people dieing long ago.

LET US BAN the teaching of history which portrays the Civil War as being about States Rights. This is offensive to the people who lived under southern slavery, and those who fought and died to end it. By making Federal soldiers invaders, this brings disrepute to anyone who supported the North.

LET US BAN the teaching of any part of American history that brings disrepute to this great nation. It is offensive to those that love this country.

LET US BAN the teaching of any part of American history which white-washes the evils of the past. If we do not know what went wrong, we are doomed to repeat it. It is offensive to pretend that millions of Native Americans didn’t die, or that slavery wasn’t so bad.

LET US BAN the mockery of “philosophers” who disparage our distaste for offensive behavior. It is offensive to us to ridicule our sincere efforts to ban offensive speech.

ON SECOND THOUGHT, let us ban the first amendment. Its only purpose is to protect speech the majority thinks is offensive. Let chuck the whole god-damned thing.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I Still Don't Get The Flag Burning Thing

Since the Senate is now considering the constitutional amendment to ban flag burning thing, yet again, I figure it is time to pull out the question again. Why? I understand that the reason this continues to come up is that it is red meat for the conservative base. I understand that this is a clear-cut appeal to emotion. What I don't understand is why it packs any sort of emotional pop at this point in time.

The American flag is a symbol, nothing particularly interesting there. But a symbol for what? The trivial answer is that it represents the country. As a representation of the country, it also represents the values, ideals, and aims of the nation. Among these is freedom, which is why it was a favorite in the 60's amongst the counter-culture -- think of Peter Fonda's character "Captain America" in Easy Rider. The freedom that the hippies sought certainly was not in line with what the conservatives pictured as American, but the use of the flag as a symbol that invoked this freedom was not exclusive, it was not meant to draw lines between us and them. To the contrary, it was meant to say that they were Americans, too -- that they loved the liberty afforded them by their citizenship and showed that they were far from anti-American -- indeed, it was intended to show that they were fully realizing what they thought was the potential of being an American.

But then came Viet Nam. The flag was now adopted as the symbol for the pro-war movement. But, as Hanno pointed out to me a while back, it was at this point that the symbol became exclusive. When an overtly and explicitly political movement adopted the flag as a symbol, it now came to signify that only conservatives were real Americans.

It was in this context that flag burning became a political statement. It was meant not only to express disapproval of the war in Viet Nam, but also outrage about the terms which were now being used to define "American" in a way that kept them out of their own country. The right, by turning the flag from a symbol of unity, representing the whole country and its common shared history and values, into a mere tool of political persuasion desecrated it as a symbol. It was this politically degraded flag that became a target of political speech. Burning the flag was not an anti-American act, an act of attacking a symbol of the nation because the flag's function as a symbol of the nation as a whole had been lost. Destroying a flag, at this point, was no more anti-American than destroying a peace sign. The two were not representations of the nation as a whole, but mere political symbols representing viewpoints and their destruction was a visual representation of opposing the political perspective.

But that was then. This is now. The flag no longer has the same symbolism. No one on the left cringed when the captain of the US Olympic hockey team draped himself in the flag after their stunning victory in 1980. It was a standard part of the stump speech of Howard Dean that the flag belongs to all of us, not just to the right-wing of the Republican party. After the 60's, the flag became the national symbol again. It was largely depoliticized.

This is not to say that the right hasn't been trying to repoliticize and reclaim it. The magnetic flags on the bumpers of cars, trucks, and SUV's is clearly an attempt to redraw that line using OUR flag, the flag of ALL AMERICANS, but no one on the other side is biting (with the exception of ANSWER-type folks who seem eager and more than happy to repeat every mistake the left made in the 60's out of some sort of misplaced sense of romanticism). No one, at least no one inside of the US, is burning flags. It ain't happening. No one opposed to the conservative movement is really interested in burning flags, except to bring a potential legal challenge to what is clearly an unconstitutional abridgment of political speech. But that is not a protest burning, but a technicality necessary to protect the most basic liberties that this country stands for. So I don't see why is it still a rallying cry for the right. What am I missing?

I would say it's a strawman, but even strawmen don't burn flags. (Strawmen, after all, are themselves quite flammable and stay away from fire altogether -- remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz.) So why is it back? Is it a bizarre form of nostalgia on the right just like electing someone named "George Bush" in 2000 would make seem as if Clinton never defeated George Bush I in 1992? Is it a generational thing? Does this guarantee that the 1960's will never happen again, so we can go straight from Ike to Nixon? Do older conservatives support this more than younger ones? With everything else in the world right now, why would this be one of the things the GOP is rolling out as a central plank of their strategy for the upcoming elections? Is it like Hollywood remaking the classics hoping that the new King Kong would capture people like the original when anyone with half a brain could tell that the new version would be so inferior to the original that it would only bring derision? I just don't get the flag burning thing.

Science and Authority: Vioxx, The New England Journal of Medicine, and the Corporate Funding of Research

In the volume released yesterday, The New England Journal of Medicine corrected a report it published in March 2005 concerning a study about the safety of the drug Vioxx, which pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck pulled off the shelves in September 2004 after similar studies linked it to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The correction serves to undermine Merck's defense in many of the lawsuits brought against it because the study appeared to show that the risk of heart disease or stroke was the same in the Vioxx and control groups for the first 18 months of treatment. Because of the correction of a statistical error, the corrected study no longer supports this claim which was used to refute the cases of those who suffered heart ailments after Vioxx use for less than a year and a half.

There are all sorts of interesting questions around this correction and Merck's rejection of it which begins with the horribly ironic sentences,

At Merck, we are committed to rigorous scientific research conducted under high standards of ethical behavior. This is at the heart of who we are and how we do business.
Yes, these allegations attack the heart of Merck. What a stroke of bad luck. Could they not have found worse verbiage to subject the families of victims to?

Merck contends, contrary to the editors of The New England Journal of Medicine, that the correction does not alter the findings. The company argues that the description of a statistical method was, in fact, in error, but that when "a battery of statistical methods" is employed, the original finding still stands.
In the manuscript submitted to NEJM, the methods section referred to the use of the logarithm of time. This description of the method used for the report of the p-value for the test of proportionality of hazards was in error. The reported result (p-value = 0.01) came from a method using linear time, not logarithm of time. Results of diagnostic analyses indicate that a model using linear time is more representative of the data than one using logarithm of time. Thus, the linear time analysis is an appropriate method to assess the changes in relative risk over time. Recent tests show that the result using logarithm of time has a p-value = 0.07. Even this borderline significant result justifies concern regarding changes in relative risk over time. The battery of statistical assessments together indicate that the relative risk was not constant over time.
They didn't do what they said they would do in terms of statistical analysis, and when they did do what they said they'd do, the results changed. But if you selected a battery of other statistical methods, then the results could be maintained. These other methods are perfectly legit. So, should they stay or should they go? This indecision's bugging me.

Over at The Intersection yesterday, Chris Mooney (he of the Republican War on Science) asked an interesting question about a quotation from Ernest Rutherford who weighed in on the old battle between the hypothetico-deductive and inductivist models of scientific reasoning. The question concerns the source of purported laws of nature. The H-D folks contended that you could pull hypotheses out of the air as long as you rigorously test them, whereas the inductivist camp contended that because an infinite number of hypotheses will be consistent with any finite set of data, you need to let the data talk for itself, that is, there is a logical mechanism that will extract the correct rule from the data. Newton, the most famous adherent of the inductivist group, put it this way in his master work, the Principia,
In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur, by which they are made more accurate, or liable to exception.
In other words, the data itself will suggest the rule which holds until more data overturns it.

But this view, when we look at the Vioxx issue turns out to be quaintly naive. Newton's "general induction from the phenomena" is not quite as simple as he thinks. Finding the sort of regularities needed requires using sophisticated statistical tools, but there are always several tools to choose from. That choice, as we see, can make a difference. What to do?

One thing we do is not to choose the tool after the fact. Just as we need a double blind methodology in administering the drugs in order to make sure we don't slant the findings, so too we need to stick to our tools when doing the analysis. This illicit shift, a game of statistical three-card monty, is what Merck is trying to pull.

But couldn't it be right? If they had chosen that battery of tests in the first place -- which would have been a perfectly acceptable choice -- wouldn't the newly corrected study be wrong? Well, wrong is too strong, but the data would be taken to support the contrary hypothesis and thus their central claim in court would have been bolstered instead of undermined. How can science be so squishy? Doesn't this make science an art and not...well, a science? No. The fact that you can find tools to statistically massage your data does not mean that there is no fact of the matter, simply that the data that you have is not sufficient for conclusive evidence.

There are two senses to the word "evidence," there is evidence-for or supporting evidence and evidence-that or conclusive evidence. We are dealing here with evidence-for the claim that Vioxx was safe for use up to 18 months. Where Merck thought they had evidence-for that claim, they don't. Might it be true? Yes, it might; but there is no evidence, no good reason for belief coming from this study. Additional studies or meta-studies that pull in and reanalyze the data from many studies could advance the hypothesis or undermine it. But in this case, because the pre-selected means of data analysis gave evidence for earlier correlation between the drug and the adverse effects, Merck cannot lean on this study as evidence against those who bring suit.

This raises an interesting question concerning the nature of science and the fallacy of questionable authority. On NPR this morning, a scientist commented on another Merck funded study that was found to be shady after being published in The New England Journal of Medicine and said, "Burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me." When is there good reason to be suspicious of scientific findings from research sponsored by an advocate?

Arguments from authority are fine arguments as long as you have a legitimate authority. A legitimate authority needs three things: (1) to exist -- "I read somewhere that" does not constitute an acceptable authority, (2) to be an expert in the field -- when you are sick, listen to your doctor, not your Uncle Murray the dry cleaner, and (3) to be independent -- the expert can't have a stake in getting you to believe one way or the other.

It is (3) that is interesting here. Now, if you are a climate scientist and you see good reason to suspect that global warming is happening and can be prevented, you damn well better advocate for that change (see yesterday's discussion on science and ethics). But does that advocacy immediately make your work suspect? Scientific work may be funded by a corporation with a financial interest, but does that interest affect how we ought to view the results once published?

This is, of course, two different questions: one for the peer reviewers and one for those reading the peer-reviewed article. But they aren't that different since there is only so much that a peer-reviewer can check. They can't oversee the lab work. They can't see if they can duplicate the data. They aren't going to redo the entire analysis. If a study is conducted by a respected researcher from Dartmouth, does the fact that his lab is corporately funded give us reason to be suspicious of his findings? that's a hard question. This case seems to say that the data itself may not be in doubt, but the corporate interpretation of the data is.

UPDATE: Mark Chu-Carroll at "Good Math/Bad Math" (doing a wonderful job filling an important niche) discusses this as well.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Why Scientists Shrug Off Ethics

Dr. Free-Ride at Adventures in Science and Ethics has a couple of interesting meditations on a recent piece in Cell by bioethicist from Penn's med school entitled "Reasons Scientists Avoid Thinking about Ethics".

On the one hand, the reasons he cites from fellow scientists are no different from what we hear from non-scientists -- the "mushiness" of ethics, the "it's not my job" line... On the other hand, the costs seem much higher when we hear these lines from scientists. We have been warned since the end of WWI by philosophers like Husserl of the danger of alienating science from the human context within which it exists.

And the temptation only gets worse. With scientific research getting more and more specialized, with the reward structure for science more and more focused on insular criteria, with the voice of science growing fainter and fainter in the public discourse, it is not only easy, but made personally desirable for most working scientists to remain inside their gated intellectual community. Of course, never has it been more imperative that the voice of science be represented in our conversation.

But to do that, there needs to be a conversation in which to place that voice. We need what I call "civil fucking discourse" -- civil in being an open-minded search for truth that allows all views a seat at the table, uncivil in relentlessly purging positions that show themselves to be fallacious. This is far from what we have now where you get high-horse moralizing from one side and who's to say shoulder shrugging from the other. Rational, authentic moral deliberation is missing. Whose fault is that?

It has a long history and many causal factors, but part of the blame has to be put on philosophers. Maybe it's because I teach at an undergraduate, liberal arts teaching college, where some of us take seriously implications of work beyond technical research, but in the division of intellectual labor, helping to set up the process for deliberative ethical democracy seems to fall on our shoulders. And it is somewhere we haven't done very well. The voices you hear out there belong to charlatans and charismatics. Even the New York Times Magazine's "ethicist" is not really an ethicist. You hear folks like Dennett, but he's stirring the pot rather than shaping the discourse.

Carl Sagan was absolutely right when he said,

"We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the
same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all
about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster."
We need scientists in our conversation. The fact that they aren't there does reflect in part on them and the scientific community more broadly. But, at the same time, we need to structure the conversation where we know when to cue them. And for that philosophers need to step up.

Public outreach is too often seen in all academic fields as selling out, as not doing "real work." Scholarship is not our only job. Teaching in the classroom is wonderful, but we are also members of a larger community and too often we claim that what we get paid for is the sum total of our job. If the fundamentalists are winning the Republican war on science, it is because outside of the environmental movement so few of us have not yet entered the battle.

Scientists shrug off ethics because Americans suck at talking about ethics. Their contribution to the conversation is likely to make little difference and they realize it. In many cases, their cynicism is warranted. But that can change. And we need scientists and philosophers to change it.

UPDATE: Bill Hooker, at the always lively Open Reading Frame, also has some intersting thoughts on this topic. Check him out.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Physician, Heal Myself

This week's Comedist meditation is on doctors.

I've been to see physicians several times this week having been diagnosed with Lyme disease. I had all the usual symptoms, fever, chills, a bull's eye rash, and an uncontrollable urge to bathe in Corona beer. But it has me thinking about doctors.

There are many, many jokes about doctors. From this classic:

Patient: Doctor it hurts when I go like this.
Doctor: So, don't go like that.

To their social status:
Christians believe that life begins at conception, Buddhists believe that it begins at quickening, and Taoists at birth. Jews don't believe that one is fully human until graduation from medical school.

There is even the occasional dirty joke about doctors:
A patient goes to see the doctor because he is suffering from them most tremendous migraine headaches. He tells the doctor that he's tried everything, medicine, diet, cold compresses, but nothing seems to work. The doctor says, "You know, I used to have the same thing and it may sound strange, but I found that the one thing that made them go away, and I know this will sound strange, is when I used to go down on my wife. When she would have an orgasm, her legs would tense up and the pressure against my head would clear up the headaches. You might want to try that." The next week the patient comes back and the doctor asks how his headaches are. "The patient says, "Completely cured. It worked perfectly. And may I say what a lovely house you have."

Physicians are easy marks for jokes because they fill so many niches: visits to the doctor are a common experience everyone shares, they are associated with illness and death which we fear and want to make fun of to feel better, they have great power and social standing and can be a wee bit arrogant, making them ripe for the ribbing.

But my favorite doctor jokes come from the one and only Rodney Dangerfield who so recently began playing that big Caesar's in the sky:
I tell you, with my doctor, I don't get no respect. I told him, "I've swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills." He told me to have a few drinks and get some rest.

Last week I saw my psychiatrist. I told him, "Doc, I keep thinking I'm a dog." He told me to get off his couch.

My doctor told me to watch my drinking. Now I drink in front of a mirror. I drink too much. Way too much. My doctor drew blood. He ran a tab.

When I was born the doctor came out to the waiting room and said to my father, "I'm very sorry. We did everything we could...but he pulled through."

I went to see my doctor... Doctor Vidi-boom-ba. Yeah...I told him once, "Doctor, every morning when I get up and look in the mirror I feel like throwing up. What's wrong with me? He said, "I don't know, but your eyesight is perfect."

I told my dentist my teeth are going yellow. He told me to wear a brown necktie.

My psychiatrist told me I'm going crazy. I told him, "If you don't mind, I'd like a second opinion." He said, "All right. You're ugly too!"

When I was born the doctor took one look at my face, turned me over and said, "Look, twins!"

May you all be healthy, happy, and funny.

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, June 22, 2006

What Should I Have Said?

Been to a couple of doctors this week and had the strangest thing happen. Both of them went off on Bush. Today, the doctor called our President "dangerous" for his disregard for science and told me to take 100 mg of doxicycline twice a day and go see Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

But the interesting thing was the other one. After explaining why the war was a mistake and how the administration's foreign policy is a matter of shame based upon ideological nonsense, he told me that he was a Republican, "not because I agree with them, but for the tax breaks." I replied that if he compared any tax advantage with the growth of his investments, since the market does significantly better under Democratic administrations, he would probably find that calculation does not turn out as he thinks. He shrugged.

What could I have said there? It is clear from his reasoning that appeals to justice or morality would be ineffective. How can one appeal to self-interest for someone who is on the fence?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Spanish, Ebonics, and Bushisms: English As Whose National Language?

So we've got another case of conservatives trying to crack down on that creeping menace...the Spanish language. Public libraries in suburban Atlanta will no longer acquire adult fiction in Spanish because immigrants reading John Grisham is a threat to national security, national identity, and national geographic.

I find this curfuffle over language not terribly interesting in itself -- it's just naked racism -- but when it is put in the complete picture of our national struggles over language, it becomes more amusing. After all, the people demanding that English be recognized as an essential part of our culture are the same folks who call some of us elitist for snickering about the fact that our President cannot speak...say it with me...the English language. Somehow when Bush mangles this sacred part of our heritage it is not an insult to America, no, it makes him more authentically American. But when recent immigrants speak English with limited fluency, that is a threat that needs immediate remedy.

Now, it is certainly true that there are two aspects to language. On the one hand, it is a formal thing with a set of rules that govern construction of well-formed sentences and definitions that connect the terms to the world. Sentences may be diagrammed and grammar may need correction. On the other hand, language is a functional aspect of society. It is the medium which we use to communicate and is a living, changing part of our culture. Dictionaries are not the word cops, they do not tell us how we must use a word; dictionaries are social scientific documentation that describes how words are used in the culture. If I tell you that "I am going to peruse this book," did I tell you that I was going to give it a quick scan, as most people would mean, or that I am going to read it carefully, as the dictionary definition of "peruse" would have you believe? If most people think a word means something other than what the dictionary says, then it is the dictionary that must change, because in its actual usage, the word has changed meaning.

So when we say that English is the official national language, which English? The English of your ninth grade grammar teacher or the English of Bush and the folks working down in the local McDonalds? Those of us who use the pronoun "whom" when referring to the unmentioned object of a verb or who only use "quote" as a verb and not a noun, get nasty looks. Not that my grammar is always precise; despite Mrs. Frankel's best efforts, I still get excited over dangling my participles, although I don't do it frequently in public anymore.

But when we hear people hew about making English an official language, they really mean the English they speak, a dialect of English. Of course, recognizing a dialect is not without political contention either. After all, these protectors of the English language are the same folks who ridiculed Ebonics when there was an attempt to designate it as a dialect. The purpose of Ebonics, something that seems utterly lost on so many, was to help promote English. Teachers in Oakland schools with large African American populations were horribly underfunded. They realized that schools with large Spanish speaking populations got extra money to teach English as a second language. It occurred to them that their own students were speaking something other than the Queen's English and that teaching these kids English was much more like teaching ESOL to the children of immigrants than teaching language arts to kids in Mill Valley. So they tried to get Ebonics declared a distinct dialect in order to have more resources to teach...say it with me...the English language.

So when is the promotion of the English language important? Not when it means helping out troubled schools, only when it means not helping recent immigrants, most of whom are perfectly legal, law abiding, tax paying citizens. It almost seems as if this isn't about the English language at all, but about not wanting to help others. But that couldn't be it, I mean refusing to be one's brother's keeper, that's not Christian.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Einstein and the Logical Left

Albert Einstein had a problem. He had been working for almost five years to figure out a way to work gravitation into his theory of relativity and he thought he had it. But then there were the holes. He knew he needed a set of field equations and he thought he had them. But there was the problem. Einstein had a core belief that a successful theory would uniquely determine the state of the universe and these field equations almost did, except that he realized that using a mathematical trick, he could take a very, very, very small region of space with nothing in it -- a hole, he thought -- and twist the space inside the hole making it a different universe, albeit only a slightly different universe, still described by the same solution to the equations. But each solution was supposed to completely describe a unique universe. The hole problem.

Then he figured it out. The answer wasn't from the physics or the mathematics, it was philosophical and little did he realize it would also be political.

The answer was that the universe with the twisted space inside the hole was not in fact a different universe, it was just a different way of describing the same universe, a strange description, but just a different way of saying the same thing. The hole problem was just a linguistic problem -- it was a problem in figuring out what the theory meant, in figuring out what the theory said was real. The real elements, the furniture of the universe, would be what is the same in all descriptions.

In his first seminar on the theory at the university of Berlin, was a philosopher named Hans Reichenbach. Reichenbach seized on this notion of reality as invariance and developed a philosophical version for the general notion of truth. A scientific theory gets mapped onto observations, if the mapping is complete then the theory is confirmed. Any two different theories which are confirmed by all the same observations are just different descriptions of the same theory. Reality is what remains the same across all the descriptions.

Reichenbach ultimately came back to teach at Berlin, but it took a lot of work by Einstein, and even then it wasn't in the philosophy department -- he was given a chair in the physics department in the foundations of physics. The philosophy faculty refused to allow it. In part because his new scientific philosophy was not considered real philosophy, but it was also because when Reichenbach had been at Berlin as a student, he was an activist for social democracy, a vocal critic of the conservative, Catholic dominated universities.

Reichenbach's criterion of truth ultimately became part of a philosophical movement called logical empiricism. It was a movement which sought to understand or dissolve all philosophical problems through either logical analysis of language or scientific investigation. It was an attempt to achieve a scientific understanding of the world...and that was political.

At the time, Germany was in a situation where science was politically charged. Scientists were internationalists. Science was not subject to political, hierarchical fiat. The world is as it is whether you wanted it to be that way or not. And with the theory of relativity destroying a couple hundred years of received doctrine, it made the whole universe seem as wide open as the German political world with the old governmental order dissolved. These philosophers saw themselves as creating a logical left in which science was a tool for liberation.

Reichenbach's colleague in Vienna, Otto Neurath, gave up an academic career to develop new sorts of museums. The goal was to be able to teach science without the math, so that working people who didn't have the time or background could learn science -- the key, they thought, to social advancement, to raising up the working class into the middle class.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, they were purged from the universities and most fled. Many came to this country, but their influence on the intellectual left of America was blunted. Especially when compared to that of the members of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school who settled as a group in New York. The two groups had been rivals in pre-war Europe and that animosity found its way to America. The successes of Horkeimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in America coupled with the McCarthy and the Cold War, contributed to the virtual disappearance of the logical left and the dominance of the humanist left.

With the exception of pockets like the environmental movement, it remained dormant. That is until the last couple of years...but that's another story.

Ethics, Authority, and Armando

A couple of very good posts on an interesting ethical questions from two of my favorites in the blogosphere. Janet Stemwedel (aka Dr. Free-Ride) of Adventures in Ethics and Science and Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise have been discussing the exposing of anonymous blogger Armando, who was a real force over at Daily Kos and felt himself compelled for professional reasons to stop blogging when his occupation was exposed as a corporate lawyer with WalMart as a client. (It is one of my proudest blogging moments to have been mixing it up with Armando over ethical subjectivism and to have had him question why I get paid as a philosopher. My response was, "well...I don't get paid much.")

Dr. Free-Ride does a wonderful job disambiguating several of the distinct questions under consideration and I want to examine a thin slice of quite fertile applied ethical grounds here. Specifically, the phrase "conflict of interest" gets thrown around in cases like this and I'm not exactly sure why. Does one's occupation play any role in the cogency of their arguments?

When I teach critical thinking, questions like this come up in two places that I make sure to distinguish: discussions of the fallacies questionable authority and ad hominem.

Arguments from authority are perfectly legitimate means of argumentation. No one, with the exception of the occasional philosophy professor, knows everything. When you need to know something you don't know, you find an authority. If you are sick, you go to the doctor and not your uncle Murray the dry cleaner. The problem comes in when you have an argument from authority without a proper authority. This happens in one of three ways. (1) The argument from authority is made with no authority named. "I read somewhere that..." does not give good grounds for belief. (2) The authority is not actually an expert in the field. "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on tv..." and I should take your advice concerning which medicine to buy because..., and (3) The person is an expert in the field, but not independent, that is, there is reason to think that s/he has an interest in getting you to believe one way or the other that influences his/her methodology and therefore results in the case. Take the President's Council on Bioethics, some big names in the field, but big names representing a very small part of the diversity of professional opinions and selected exactly because of the very small part of that diversity which they represent. Here conflict of interest is a legitimate concern.

On the other hand is the fallacy of ad hominem (which is Latin for ad hominem). This is the fallacy wherein you argue against the person and not argument. It could be called the "you're a loser" fallacy. If someone gives an argument, the response "you're a loser" does not undermine the cogency of the inference because, baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes. Consider the old chestnut "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal." Perfectly good argument. If Abraham Lincoln says it? Fine argument. How about John Wilkes Booth? Same argument; if it was good the first time, it must still be. Pee Wee Herman? Pee Wee Reese? The artist once, then not, then once again referred to as Prince? It doesn't matter whose mouth it comes out of, the argument stands or fall on its own merits. If you have a problem it ought to be with the argument and not the arguer.

But what if the person giving the argument fails to heed the very conclusion he argues for. Doesn't that demonstrate the weakness of the argument? No. The pot may, in fact, be calling the kettle black, but that doesn't mean the kettle is white. Keith Richards may put out a public service announcement telling kids not to use heroin; Michael Moore may urge us to eat a healthy balanced diet; Dick Cheney may strongly suggest we be careful in handling shotguns; Bill Frist may ask that we not go to the SPCA in order to pick up little kittens to kill and cut into pieces. Just because they may not listen to their own advice does not, by itself, make it bad advice. If people tell you to avoid heroin, eat well, don't shoot people in the face, and don't murder pets, listen to them, no matter who they are or what they may have done.

Can we point out their hypocrisy for saying one thing and doing another? Sure. Would it indicate a character flaw on their part? Fine. But does it mean that we can rule out the ethical point he or she is making? Absolutely not. Just because we can point to a less than perfect moral track record in no way means that the argument presented is flawed. Peter Schweizer's book, Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, contains 272 pages of this fallacy, again and again and again.

So the first question is where is the conflict of interest. Armando is a weird case because he was arguing against his interest. In this particular example, I don't think anyone has any fear that Armando, of all people, was pulling his punches. But what about the fake bloggers set up by industry and interest groups to pose as "plain ol' folks"? Don't those cases give us reason to be wary of anonymous bloggers? Yes and no. Facts they cite, yes, arguments they give, no. Digby's work would be no less brilliant if we knew who she/he/it was.

At the same time, this is purely a matter of the actual cogency of the argument which may differ from its rhetorical value. Really bad arguments, when they appear to support something we really want to believe, can be incredibly powerful. At the same time, the appearance of hypocrisyricy is often more powerful rhetorically than a legitimate logical analysis. Is it ok to knowingly use fallacious means to undermine a clearly fallacious argument that supports injustice when appropriateiate means are less effective? If the goal to is protect the discourse, then I would argue that winning the war is more important than losing a battle, as painful as it may be to lose it. We win a fair fight most of the time and it is in the interest of both democracy writ large and pragmatically, our causes, to protect the playing field as a place for good, smart discussion.

But this whole issue raises one more issue that I want to address, the journalist/conservative blogger/liberal blogger triple standard. Journalists use anonymous sources, work for corporations that clearly exert influence on the newsroom, and be paid enough to afford home on Nantucket; conservative bloggers because they are advocating the status quo can profit from its inequities and injustices; but liberal bloggers must be ascetics if they are to have the right to speak at all. Are bloggers journalists? Functionally, some are. There is reporting that goes on and many people do turn to on-line sources for beliefs about the world. Here we are talking about facts and not arguments, so questions of conflict of interest are legit. Here, Dr. Free-Ride's pragmawarningring is a good one. If an anonymous souce has been reliable in the past, there is some good reason to think that source may be in this case. Be skeptical, be careful.

But the more interesting case, as with Armando, is where the person is not a reporter but a pundit, that is providing analysis instead of fact. Here anonymity seems less vital, if relevant at all. Indeed, as in the case of Armando anonymity may be crucial and here's the difference between reporters and bloggers. Reporters/pundits get paid to be reporters/pundits. Bloggers, with few exceptions, need jobs. Those jobs may not allow one to freely divulge his or her identity. I am very fortunate to be a tenured professor. I can say what I damn well please. Others are not so lucky. But what those people have to say may contribute in a significant way to the wider public discourse, a conversation that is crucial to a functioning democracy. If a blogger has good reason to think that anonymity is essential to that contribution, then it is out of respect for the discourse and the democracy it undergirds that the claim to anonymity ought to be protected on moral grounds. If it is simply a matter of embarrassment -- say, the expression of hateful or explicit speech -- then the claim for anonymity certainly becomes much more tenuous.

And it is here that the triple standard raises its head. Because liberals are arguing for structural change in the society we live, it is held up that one must be the change they argue for. This, of course, is entirely unfair. We live in a cultural and historical context. We all have paths we are following. The fact that one's life path has led one away from where one thinks one ought to be in no way obviates the value of their arguments on how one ought to restructure society. To argue that one must always walk the walk in order to have anyone hear their talk is nothing but ad hominem. Again, can we say that it is a signal of some sort of character flaw? Sure. But the idea that one need be a saint to argue for changes in the name of justice is simply nonsense.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Conservatives Look at "Who" and Liberals Look at "What"

I drive to work everyday past a home that has on its lawn an old army transport vehicle with a sign on the side that says, "Jane Fonda Traitor Bitch." What fascinates me about the truck is not only the holding of a 35 year old grudge -- that in itself is more than a bit odd -- but that after the Pentagon Papers, such a grudge would seem meaningful. To examine it will help illuminate one of the central differences in basic worldview between the left and the right.

George Lakoff contends that political discussion is not merely about policy differences, but about superiority of the lens through which we make sense of the world around us. This is in line with a long tradition in philosophy, including most notably the work of Kant, that contends that there is a necessary contribution by the mind to create the ordered world we experience out of the unordered jumble of perceptions that come in through our eyes and ears. We need organizing principles, an operating system running underneath the programs to make sure everything comes together coherently. Conservatives and liberals, the argument goes, do not merely have different goals or values, but different ways of constructing the world from the facts.

This difference was on display this weekend when TheWife was chatting with some distant older cousins who were defending the practice of forced integration of Native American and Australian Aboriginal communities, especially the children, in the breath immediately after they criticized the Soviets for doing it in their homeland of Lithuania. Angered and exasperated, she later asked how they could be oblivious to their hypocrisy.

The answer is that they are not at all hypocrites, her FoxNews watching relatives simply do not share a foundational presupposition with my liberal wife. She argued that in all of the cases, you have cocksure elites, unquestioningly secure in their belief that they have the one and only true proper way to live, and who contend that those who do not live that way need to be converted and that they will thank us later for the shocks to the testicles it took to show them the light. This is ignorant and wrong. It is rule by the bullies and it is immoral. If they can see when it was wrong when it was done to them, why can't they see it is wrong when it is done by them? The difference, I responded is in where you two are looking -- you are looking at the "what," they are looking at the "who" -- and therein lies one of the major differences between liberals and conservatives.

For conservatives, the game is never in questions; it is only a matter of who is going to win. On the line is absolute power. Control is the goal and in a dog eat dog world, it is either us or them. If you are not for us having all the power, then you are for them. You are with us or with the terrorists. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The game is invariant, it is simply a question of having the combination of the power and the will to win. We have the power, without question, and thus it simply becomes a question of will.

Liberals, on the other hand, see the game itself as that which needs changing. They see conservatives from all sides locked in the international relations equivalent of stupid frat boy games of punching each other more and more viciously to see who will flinch first and they think the whole thing stupid, childish and counterproductive to the real lives of real people, people who are needlessly suffering. It is not a question of winning or losing the game, it is a question of stopping the game and playing something else, something cooperative, a game that will not convey absolute power to any side.

Indeed, the terms conservatives and liberals are the wrong terms to use here. They indicate political left and right, but that's not what is at issue here. What we are really talking about here is authoritarianism vs. anti-authoritarianism. There have been horrible authoritarians on the left and the right. We can point to the same sort of play for absolute power by American neo-conservatives, British colonialists, Augusto Pinochet,... as by those who espouse far left ideologies like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. In the same way, you can hear anti-authoritarian views on the left and the right (Karl Popper is an example from the right). It just so happens that at this place and at this time, contemporary views line up so that nationalism and the justification of authoritarian actions by it are coming from the American political right.

The anti-authoritarian left does something that the authoritarian right cannot make sense of, they broaden the scope of discussion. The left acknowledges that the system is a human construct which we can -- by considerable political effort and at considerable financial cost -- radically overhaul. We can change the sociological factors that help create the society we live in. The right ignores sociology, instead positing only a very naive atomistic psychology of freedom to individuals. This is what is behind the conservative rhetoric of "personal responsibility," it is all about making sure that the focus remains on the individual and that consideration is never given to changing the structure within which the individuals are embedded.

The motivation for this is in part protection of privilege. Those who benefit most from the system surely don't want it changed by those damn do-gooders. But it is most vociferously supported by those who are the most oppressed by the system. Level of education is correlated not only with political affiliation, but also with income. Those who are getting the short end of the stick are the ones defending it. The "Jane Fonda Traitor Bitch" truck is clearly owned by someone of fairly modest means. A small house. An old car in front. Someone who got the shaft from the Bush tax cuts, but thinks that they need to be made permanent. What is up wih that? But it's no different from rooting for a winning sports team. How often do you hear fans say, "We won!" as if they had ever set foot on a playing field much less a weight room. By identifying yourself with the winner, you yourself can consider yourself to be a winner. By identifying yourself with the powerful, you can consider yourself powerful, even though you don't actually have any power.

And this is why certain men LOVE the game of absolute power. They have no power, but by portraying it as a fight of good against evil for control of the planet and by putting fish and ribbon shaped stickers on their cars, they can convince themselves that they do, in fact, have the power they lack. To be anti-authoritarian and to try to change the game signals that you are a wimp who doesn't think we can win the game and so wants to pander to the other side instead of giving them what they deserve. It isn't a move of maturity in their eyes, but one of weakness and weakness is the ultimate sin.

Jane Fonda was not trying to get Americans killed, she was not trying to cost us the war-- she was trying to stop the war. But if the only options you consider possible are us winning or them winning and she isn't helping us win, she must therefore be trying to cause us to lose. It isn't the same thing when the we did it and the Soviets did it, because in the one case we did it and in the other case they did it. And if the only cases you allow are for someone to do it, it must be us or them.

The game for them is one of competing gangs of schoolyard bullies. We want to rescind the act of bullying, an option they won't even put on the table. Look at the way we set up our discourse. Conservatives have Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter -- bullies one and all. Their minions love to be the little yippie dog at their heels thinking they are now pit bulls. Liberals on the other hand prefer NPR and the NewsHour with their balance, if not center right lean, having to endure Cokie Roberts' interminable drivel makes us feel as if we have been fair in hearing every side as we hold on to our views.

The question is not liberal versus conservative. To do that we would need to be playing the same game. We first need to answer the authoritarian versus anti-authoritarian question.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Comedist Fathers' Day

This weekend's Comedist sermon is in honor of Fathers' Day. A wonderful tradition whereby we take time to thank our dads.

As a father now myself, I only hope that I can live up to the comedic examples of my father and grandfather.

It is my father who showed me my first Marx Brother's movie, and my second, and my third,... My father who taught me how to tell a joke. He gave me his sense of timing that and playfulness with words. When my Dad pulled the car off the road, it wasn't to yell at us, it was because we were on our way home from seeing the largely unknown film "Young Doctors In Love" and we were laughing so hard at a sight gag I no longer recall that he couldn't see the road through the tears.

I'll never forget the time as a child, when my mother was out for a while, we ran out of laundry detergent, so he put a little bit of dishwashing soap in the washing machine. The bubbles filled the kitchen up to my waist. They kept coming and coming and coming... It was like the pudding scene in Sleeper. There was the time he, my brother, and I were playing golf and he left the handcart in front of us. He hit a beautiful shot, right off his golf bag, it ricocheted straight up in the air and landed eight feet behind us.

His loud, infectious laugh with his glasses in one hand, wiping his eyes with the other, is the image I have of a joyful life.

He comes by it honestly, his father is the Comedic patriarch of the family. Four sons, all funny. Some of my funniest memories are from the table in their dining room. Pop always has a good one for you. He'll look to see if the kids are out of earshot, and then pull you aside. At my father's retirement party, Pop killed the room, absolutely killed. And he worked clean...well, mostly. He's a funny, funny man.

In his honor we'll end with a classic I learned from him.

It was Murray Rosenblatt's ninetieth birthday and as a joke his friends sent a hooker to his room in the nursing home. She walked in and took off her coat to show her shapely, barely clad figured. In a low seductive voice, she said, "I'm here to give you super sex." "What?" asked Murray. Realizing that his hearing was going, she spoke a little louder, "I'm here to give you super sex." Murray, a little confused, said "You're here to give me what?" Loudly, she screamed, "Super sex." Murray looks up from his bed and says, "If it's alright with you, I'll take the soup."

Dad, Pop, thanks for the laughs. I hope I can give my kids one tenth the joy you've given me.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

There Are Metaphors and There Are Metaphors

Zbigniew Brzezinski from Wednesday evening's NewsHour,

"The notion that a new plan is being put in to enhance security in Baghdad makes me think of a person in the midst of a huge fire in a house who all of a sudden announces that he has a new plan for the installation of air conditioning."

Let's Get Clinical: Why Lefty Profs Get Scientific When They Talk About, You Know, Inserting Anatomical Tab A Into Potentially Reproductive Slot B

My dear friend Aspazia at Mad Melancholic Feminista, as she so often does, asked a very interesting question,

"when lefties talk about sex with students, even the administrators, they tend to design that conversation around sharing statistical or biological information, but shy away from the more complicated questions about how to make sense of their quite powerful urges to delight in sexual activity with others. Most of these conversations seem rather clinical. Why?"
She then goes on to propose two possible explanations: (1) These lefty male profs are products of a society that is uneasy about sex and being well-educated and liberal does not necessarily undo the deeply entrenched social baggage connected to sexuality, and (2) By couching questions of sexuality in non-scientific terms, the discussion will appear unscholarly, that is to say, these lefty men want sexuality studies to be firmly based on the bedrock of hard science, not squishy, touchy-feely humanistic approaches.

But I think there is one other piece to the puzzle that gets left out of her story -- the uneasiness of pro-feminist male profs to talk in more human, personal terms about the development of healthy attitudes about sexuality comes in part from the successes of late second wave feminists.

We learn much of what we know about fields other than our own in grad school and even then, we usually get just the highlight footage. When scholars from other disciplines find out that I am a philosopher of science, they begin to converse with me about Thomas Kuhn. Yes, plenty of wonderful, insightful, ground-breaking works have been written in the field since 1952, but not being in the field, of course they haven't read them. In terms of sexuality studies for the last couple of generations of Ph.D.'s that became nominally equivalent to folks like Dworkin and MacKinnon. They made powerful arguments and lefty male profs-to-be came to understand that they were privileged members of a patriarchal society and accepted whole-heartedly that the benefits conferred upon them by this accidental placement in the social power dynamic are not only unfair, but have unintended consequences in the bedroom. Dworkin did not assert, as she is so often lampooned as having said, that all heterosexual intercourse is morally equivalent to rape, but she did clearly assert that in an unequal power structure, relations between those in different social strata would be infected with the inequality and that such relations would help ossify the injustice. And being lefties, i.e., having a predisposition to placing things in this sort of sociological frame, we bought it.

Being a sympathetic member of the oppressive class means that you need to do something. But what? We have granted that the standard male view of sexuality is tainted, but what to replace it with? Like political-economists who could buy into Marx's critiques of capitalism, but were not inclined to follow him down the Hegelian road synthesizing the paths less and more traveled, so too many of these lefty pro-feminist profs would mouth the position espoused by care theorists like Sarah Ruddick, but without really buying in. It was more complicated than that, but they weren't exactly sure in what ways.

But at the same time, they didn't feel that they could strenuously object either because that conversation was one that had to exclude them in parts to avoid potentially abuse of their undeserved patriarchally-derived social powers. They completely understood Mary Daly's need to have female-only upper-level seminars and defended it. But that meant that they weren't up on the part of the conversation that they knew was going on wherein smart, young feminist scholars were no doubt challenging the standing doctrine in interesting, novel ways -- just as happens in every other field, including the ones where these lefty profs are working their tails off to try to get tenure.

So then how would someone who knows they don't know the whole conversation, but realizes that they have a duty to contribute to the conversation, yet is afraid of tripping over a landmine that they don't know is there because they aren't part of the conversation try to contribute to the conversation in such a case? (Five bucks if you can diagram the structure of that sentence.) The safest place to go is to fall back on science where you are so firmly grounded that there is little fear putting your foot in your mouth. Male lefty profs are conflicted. We buy into the existence of male privilege and we want to be supportive of the efforts to move to a fair, just world, but academia is a game that runs on subjecting ideas to harsh scrutiny and refining them accordingly. We want to help, but that help would put us in a position that seems untenable by that view that we are trying to support, so the easiest move to make is to get clinical, the move that Aspazia points out.

She is exactly right that the convesation has to move beyond "safe scientific speak" and I'm glad folks like Aspazia are there because while her male lefty counterparts are necessarily part of it and even a few, like Alan Johnson and Michael Kimmel, are taking prominent roles, much of the leadership will have to be filled by folks with slot B and not tab A. They are the ones who have been on the inside.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

But I Don't Want Tofurky and I'm Not The One On The Atkins Diet

Here's one to follow up on the question of tolerance that we've been batting around. It's a question that my aunt asked last weekend. "Why is it that when someone with a dietary restriction comes to your house you are expected to cater to them, but when you visit their home there doesn't seem to be the same courtesy expected or very often extended to you?"

The initial example was that vegetarians don't often provide meat for non-vegetarian guests and TheWife argued that in this case it is a moral question of not participating in the meat industry as an economic consumer, regardless of whether one is actually the gastronomic consumer.

But the question was enlarged beyond cases of moral objection to people who opt to not eat sugar or choose to be on the Atkins diet. If they expect to have their menu choices respected, doesn't this entail an obligation to also respect the dietary decisions of their guests? And isn't this violated by restricting their visitors' choices when they host them?

My brother pointed out that there is an asymmetry because the those on non-restricted diets can still eat the food that is on the restricted list whereas the converse is not the case. And this difference, he contended, made a difference in the etiquette if not the morality of the situation.

I think there is something to this point, but I think there is one more step that gets added. Surely, one has the responsibility when hosting to try one's best to do well by your guests. Why not have normal foods next to the "weird" ones? I think there are five possible explanations for the decision to only have only foods meeting the host's own voluntary restrictions:

(1) Obliviousness. When you host, you think through your recipes to find a good one. If you aren't used to cooking outside some set of restrictions, it might not occur to you to try or you might not want to experiment on your guests.

(2) Temptation. When you are on a restrictive diet, you often are staying away from things that you enjoy or perhaps even crave. If you are keeping yourself off of something, the last thing you want is to have it there on the table mocking you and leftovers lying around pounding like Poe's telltale heart from the fridge. Add to that the fact that the person would be putting in significant effort preparing the dish. To ask someone to go through all of that trouble and then deny themselves the fruit (or dessert) of their labors may seem like too much. And the fear is often there that one little bit could lead to the undermining of the whole regimen. It is hard in a country of McDonalds where you were brought up on Fruit Loops to keep yourself on a different kind of diet.

(3) Inclusion. Having all of the food reside within the restrictions puts everyone on equal footing. People on restricted diets are always reminded of that fact, especially when they have to hunt amongst the offerings for something to put on their plates. The thought of having a whole spread where they can sample everything is exciting and so they set out a meal where they feel normal and the guests are the ones who have to hunt for what they are willing to put on their plates for a change.

(4) Illustration. Folks on a restricted diet often feel alienated, they frequently have to deal with awkward questions and snide comments about "that thing your eating." As such, when it is their turn to have people over, they frequently want to prove to the world that you can eat like us and enjoy it. So instead of giving standard options that would get gobbled up in an attempt to avoid the new food, they give you options that they believe will leave you saying, "You know, I wouldn't have thought it at first, but this is really good. I could see eating this way." It is an attempt to normalize their choices in the eyes of friends of family.

(5) Self-righteousness. There is still a deep Puritanical strain in our culture. To deny yourself pleasure is seen -- especially by the self-deprived -- as a mark of moral superiority. this is even more the case when it can be justified by demonstrable negative effects from that which has been sworn off. "You won't see that sort of thing at my table, it contributes to heart disease." There is a sense that even providing the option to eat those foods is to be part of the unhealthiness that infects our culture's approach to eating and that by sharing the pain, you are helping your guests by making them, if just for that small period, better people and maybe showing them the light.

At the same time, giving in and providing the alternative can have undesired consequences. When one of my uncles was getting married, a cousin was keeping Kosher. So between the non-Kosher entrees and the desserts were some cold cuts so he would have something to eat. I saw some guy at the buffet take a roll, put on some meat, lettuce and tomato, and then dip a knife into the vat of white goo and the dark yellow goo and spread them on top. As he took his first bite, his eyes got big. Turns out it wasn't mayo and mustard he put on his sandwich, but vanilla and butterscotch pudding.

The moral of the story is that if you are going to cater to other people's dietary choices -- label clearly.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Reading Lieberman's Mind

With all of the rumors spiraling around Joe Lieberman and the possibility of his making an independent run for the Senate should he lose the Democratic primary -- rumors he has clearly not gone out of his way to quell -- I'm wondering if part of the motivation here is a vision inside his head of an American Kadima with Lieberman as Shimon Peres and, say, McCain as Sharon. Maybe that seemingly odd Broder column regarding a Unity party was not entirely motivated by watching the West Wing.

Monday, June 12, 2006

If You Grew Up in the Manson Family, It Doesn't Matter That You Were Brought Up That Way

Since we're on a roll of what ethics isn't. Might as well pull out cultural relativism, as well. Where ethical subjectivism contends that an act x is morally right for person P if and only if P thinks it is right, cultural relativism holds an act x to be morally right for society S if and only if it is socially acceptable in S. These are different positions, but you will frequently hear people slide between them as if they were the same.

The similarity is obvious and the problems from one find analogies in the second case. There is the problem of infallibility. Societies can, by definition, never consider a widely accepted act to be immoral. Consider a hypothetical antebellum Southern abolitionist. By holding that slavery in the South before the Civil War is immoral, the cultural relativist must hold that she is not only wrong, but a complete idiot. Consider the sentence, "It is raining, but I believe it isn't." The person who would assert the truth of a sentence and then deny it's truth is a moron or a liar. But if cultural relativism were true, then saying, "Slavery is socially accepted, but I think it is wrong" is the same thing as saying, "Slavery is moral, but I think it is immoral" because an act is moral in the society to which she belongs exactly if it is socially accepted. People who object on moral grounds to widely practiced behaviors on moral grounds may be right or wrong, but they are not idiots. Cultural relativism must be false.

But there is another problem that ethical subjectivism does not fall prey to. At least with subjectivism we knew what it was that we were relativizing to -- with the possible exception of moral disagreement between Siamese twins. What constitutes a society? Is there one ethic for all of the US or a different one for New England and the Deep South? For whites and blacks in Mobile, Alabama? How large does a group have to be? Is there a culturally defined set of norms for Lithuanians in Chicago, but not Albuquerque -- until they get enough to retire there to form a "Little Vilnius?"

Again, the view is a desire to be tolerant. It comes from the mature understanding that we have something to learn from other cultures, that there are other ways to do things that have worth, and most importantly to avoid cultural imperialism. We have a very bad track record in humanity generally, but in the West especially to charge in to someplace and demand that the folks there instantly adopt our way of doing everything even if it makes no sense for their historical, geographical, or material context. Not only that, but we insist that they ought to thank us for the electrodes on their testicles that make this point clear.

But the problem is that cultural relativism does not undermine cultural imperialism. To oppose cultural imperialism is to make a universal, extra-societal moral claim that it is always wrong to interfere in the ways of another culture, but notice that the very definition of cultural relativism rules out the possibility of moral claims that extend beyond cultures. If moral truths are culturally relative, then there is no way to rule out cross-cultural intervention if one culture finds it acceptable.

While there have been many cases of horribly immoral interference, surely if we take "never again" seriously, there are cases in which intervention is imperative -- Darfur, for example. Stopping genocide is obvious, but where is the line? Female circumcision? Wearing a hijab? Wearing a burkha? Suppose the oppressed group has a desire to continue the tradition? Is it an affront to autonomy to even make the moral argument against it? Is there a false consciousness so that by opposing it, we are in fact, restoring autonomy, that is to say, if they weren't weighed down by that cultural baggage, they wouldn't want it? How do we draw that line?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sins of the Left: The Moral Poverty of Ethical Subjectivism

Since my discussion of libertarianism has been getting some attention from the folks who have ventured over from Pharyngula, here's the companion piece about the problems with ethical subjectivism. There is also a nice post on a similar issue at Philosophy, et cetera.

When I teach ethics, the most common view in the room is Ethical Subjectivism, that moral judgments are purely a matter of personal decision. Everyone has his or her own ethical system and the fact that you consider an act morally right means that, for you, the act is morally right. While it comes from a good place, the desire to be tolerant, it is in fact, fatally flawed. Turning tolerance from a virtue into the only virtue undermines all meaningful ethical deliberation and handcuffs those who really think tolerance is important.

Two technical points about ethical subjectivsm: (1) the relativity of moral rightness - on this view, there is no sense of moral rightness apart from what someone believes; (2) the personal infallibility of moral judgment – it is impossible on this view for anyone to be wrong when they make a moral claim because rightness for them is just what they think it is.

Because of these two, reasoning about ethics now becomes akin to choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream. No matter how strong of a rational argument I formulate, I could never get you to assert that, “While I thought that chocolate tasted better, I was wrong; and for rational reasons I now assert that vanilla actually tastes better.” If you came upon two people in a violent argument about their favorite ice cream flavors, you'd do well to think the two are idiots. He screams, she screams, but we need not all scream for ice cream because there is nothing that the two disagree about. His favorite is chocolate and her favorite is vanilla. There is no point of contention to debate.

The ethical subjectivist reduces morality to this same level. A radical pro-lifer and a radical pro-choicer have nothing to discuss; they don’t really disagree about anything. It may be that I can’t understand why you don’t find certain things to be yucky like I do, but, hey, some people are turned on by grown people dressed in diapers, some people like Brussels sprouts, and somebody’s buying those Britney Spears albums. There is no accounting for taste.

But that's nothing like ethics. When we disagree about the moral acceptability of an action, we are disagreeing about something. Consider moments of moral doubt. We all find ourselves unsure about the right thing to do from time to time. That horrible knot in the pit of your stomach wouldn’t be there if the choice was just another version of Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, ribbed or French tickler. In cases of deep moral doubt, we don’t just feel, we think. Sometimes (and sometimes is all we need to see the problem with ethical subjectivism), we find an ethical argument convincing and we then have a good, rational reason for our choices. But if ethical subjectivism were right, because of the infallibility of moral judgment, moral doubt and good reasons could not exist because which ever way you decided would instantly become morally right.

But while it is fatally flawed, there is a good reason why ethical subjectivism is so ubiquitous, especially on the left. It is a reaction to people we all know who assert that there are two sides to every moral question: their side and the wrong side; people for whom everything is absolute and clear-cut. The technical philosophical term for such people is “asshole,” and ethical subjectivism is often an attempt by good, caring, rational, people to not be assholes.

But while the move to ethical subjectivism is motivated by good intentions, it fails on several counts. First, ethical subjectivism fails to make room for competing views about ethical issues because under ethical subjectivism there are no competing views! Everyone is right. If we were all ethical subjectivists, we would not be living in harmony with people who disagree with us, rather we would each be sequestered in our own little ethical bubble where it doesn’t matter how reasonable or wacko the folks in the surrounding bubbles are. If the idea was to create open-minded ethical discourse this ain’t it.

Secondly, the assholes have figured out that beating ethical subjectivists in moral conversation is easier than finding a white guy at the Republican National Convention. In reaction to the assholes’ lack of tolerance, the ethical subjectivist has elevated tolerance from its rightful place as a virtue and set it up on a pedestal as the virtue. There is no doubt that, all other things being equal, we ought to be tolerant. But all other things are not always equal and this slavish devotion to tolerance has allowed the assholes to sneak in hateful, discriminatory, oppressive views into mainstream public discourse. All they have to say is that by considering their horrendously morally objectionable view to be horrendously morally objectionable you are being intolerant, and, since you say that we always have to be tolerant, you must therefore tolerate the intolerance and injustice that they are advocating. The goodhearted folks who make the move to ethical subjectivism get their asses kicked every single time. Yes, it is good to be tolerant, but in some particular cases other virtues have to come first. Sometimes justice, fairness, and even promotion of tolerance itself require taking actions that do not place tolerance at the forefront. Tolerance is an important thing, but not the only important thing.

Zoloft Aloft

Today's idea: Avoid hurricane damage by using meterological Prozac to cure tropical depressions.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

My Favorite Martyr

For an introduction to Comedism, the new religion; passages from our holy skriptures, The Comedist Manifesto; Comedist support for evolution and gay marriage; how Comedism was founded; and a note on the War on Comedy, see these links.

This weekend's homily:

A Comedic Argument for the Existence of God:

So this week, a man in the Ukraine climbs into the lion cage in the Kiev zoo saying, "God will save me, if he exists." The man is then killed by one of the lions. Contrary to his hypothesis, this does not prove that God doesn't exist -- just that God has a very, very dark sense of humor.

Fortunately for this Ukrainian gentleman, there is one part of Comedy heaven for those we laugh with and another part for those we laugh at. He shall sit at the right hand of God, of course, that's the hand with the joy buzzer and the seat with the whoopee cushion... Worse yet, he will have to endure seeing it replayed on the Divine high definition big screen every Thursday night on the re-runs of "Humanity's Greatest Home Videos". For all of eternity, he now has to put up with, "No, no, no, here's where the lion goes for his spleen! Boy, I love that part. Hey, Yuri, what's say we go to the zoo tomorrow?"

I leave you, my friends, with this:

An out of work mime was trying everything to find a gig. Finally, he asked the town's zookeeper if there was anything he could do there. The zookeeper said that their gorilla had just died and he asked the mime if he would be willing to dress up in a gorilla suit and work in the cage until they could get a new one. Needing a job, the mime said, "Ok."

The next morning the mime went to work. He could lay around all he wanted, take naps when he felt like it, make fun of the people looking, in fact, the more fun he had, the more people came to watch. But, eventually the crowds died down in favor of the lion in the next cage.

In an effort to recapture attention, he climbed out of his cage and over to the lion's cage where he dangled down from the bars on top. This angered the lion who started to roar at the mime. The crowd loved it. So much so that the zoo keeper gave the mime a raise.

The next day he not only hung from the cage, but started throwing nuts at the lion. The lion was furious. The day after that he started dropping banana peels in front of the lion. The lion growled and clawed up at the mime who stayed just out of reach. Each day the taunting advanced. Each day the lion grew more and more enraged. Each day the crowds grew. Each day the mime got yet another raise.

But one day, the mime slipped and fell into the cage right in front of the lion. The mine tried to run away, but the lion pounced on him and held him down as he showed his large, sharp teeth. The mime started screaming "Help! Please, someone help me!" as loudly as he could. The lion slapped him and whispered in his ear, "Shut up, you moron! Are you trying to get us both fired?"


Time Times Two

Philosophy of physics geek day at the Playground!

Richard over at Philosophy, et cetera had an interesting post the other day on time travel. While I'm not so interested here in the questions of causation that are raised, he did touch on an issue that I've been interested in since it was raised by my general relativity prof in grad school, the question of multiple times.

In his 1916 paper, "Foundations of the General Theory of Relativity," Einstein sets out what has come to be called the "point-coincidence argument" wherein he argues that there are certain properties that change with one's reference frame and others that do not. Those which have the same value in the reference frames of all possible observers are to be considered objectively real. (This notion of invariance and its ontological weight finds its way into the epistemology of the Logical Empiricists and the psychology of the Gestalt theorists, but that's another post.) In general relativity, one such real quantity is called the space-time interval between events (in fact, Minkowski first points this out for the Special Theory). It is a combination of spatial distance and the time between two events, say, the snapping of two sets of fingers, such that,

S= x^2 + y^2 + z^2 - ct^2,

where S is the space-time interval, x, y, and z are the distances in three perpendicular directions from some reference frame, c is the speed of light, and t is the time measured between the snaps by the same observer. While the measured quantities x, y, z, and t will all change with observers in different states of motion relative to the snapping fingers, the combination above won't. Everyone who measures x, y, z, and t will get the same value for the space-time interval.

Notice that the only difference between space and time in this formalism is the minus sign (and the c, but this is a constant and if you pick your units right, it goes to 1 and disappears for calculation and really only serves to make the units come out right). It would be a perfectly straightforward mathematical exercise to work through the usual exercises for a space-time in which we just happen to flip the second plus into a minus, giving us as an invariant interval,
S = x^2 + y^2 - cz^2 - ct^2.

Notice what we did in flipping that one sign, we went from a world with three spatial dimensions and one time to a flat two dimensional world with two times. Perfectly trivial in terms of the math.

But the question my grad school prof asked (and he actually asked it in a letter to Richard Feynman!) is what would it be like to live in such a world. (Feynman wrote back that he and his son puzzled over it during a weekend at the beach and they have no clue.) The times would be perpendicular, that is, completely independent. You could be early in one direction and late in another. You would be simultaneously aging in two different ways. Your birthday in one direction could last an infinite amount of time in the other direction. We can think of space having a fourth dimension with little problem, but why is two spatial dimensions so darn strange? Space and time seem to play very similar roles in the formalism, why would it be so hard to think about life in a four dimensional world with a second temporal dimension? (If you want the fifth dimension, of course, you need to wait for the dawning of the age of Aquarius.)

Turns out it isn't only hard to imagine, it also makes the physics really, really weird. Things that are just quantities like energy, suddenly become vectors, that is directional quantities and this makes certain little things like the stability of matter go away. There is an interesting paper, On the Dimensionality of Spacetime, on this by MIT physicist Max Tegmark where he argues that the only stable dimensional set up is one in which there are three spatial and one temporal dimension.

It is a wonderful paper. But, be careful, Tegmark does have a philosophical ax to grind here. He is one who has a soft spot for the Anthropic Principle, the cosmological version of Intelligent Design. The idea is that the universe and its constants are so perfectly picked that the universe as a stable enough place to support matter, much less life, is evidence of Divine Creation. If any of the universal constants had been slightly different, the argument goes, a stable universe with us in it would have been impossible, so its existence stands as good reason to believe that their is a Cosmic Fine Tuner.

If one were to take this work as evidence for the Anthropic Principle (note: Tegmark does not make this move or suggest it anywhere in this paper, although you could see his interest in the work being related), one would have to assume that while the number and arrangement of dimensions may change, the foundational laws governing matter is to be held constant. The argument is that if P are our best current physical laws and Gn is some geometry n of the universe (with G0 being the geometry of our universe with its dimensionality), P + G0 is the only stable combination. (This, of course, is modeled on Einstein's explanation of Poincare's conventionalism from Experience and Geometry) The conclusion, therefore, at best shows that if our current physical laws or ones very close to them are necessarily true, then space must have three spatial and one temporal dimension. Far weaker than the complete anthropic result, but completely fascinating in its own right.

Help, Help, I'm Being Oppressed

An interesting post to pull out of Buridan's Ass on the definition of oppression. Buridan argues that being an oppressed group requires (a) being a group and (b) being oppressed and neither of these notions is well-defined, indeed, both are self-defined (or claimed by some to be) by the supposed group that is supposedly oppressed. As such, there is real fear that the entire notion becomes a triviality which is a harm to those legitimately concerned with fighting real oppression in the real world.

To play Goodman to Buridan's Hume, I think that even if his problem were to be solved, another one exists beneath. Is oppression a utilitarian concept or an intentional concept? Suppose we can identify a group and we have good empirical data to suggest a very real social disadvantage to a random member of that group vis-a-vis the general population. We now have a group and we have harm associated with being a member of that group. Does that disadvantage necessarily confer "oppressed group" status? If a policy affects African Americans in a disproportionate and statistically significant fashion, would that by itself make the policy racist or does the claim of racism require malintent in the formulation of the policy? Of course, determining the desires of the framers of the motion requires evidence that we will almost never have.

The proof of intent, of course, is not always in the sociological pudding. The disadvantage may be the result of (1) a common cause correlation that is group neutral or (2) the result of good intentions, but poor insight. An example of the first situation might be smoking bans which, say, turn out to have a more significant affect on the working class than the upper class because of a correlation between socio-economic factors and likelihood of smoking. There was no intention to inconvenience any group more than any other, but it, in fact, does. Would such bans be classist? An example of the unintended consequence variety would be title seven of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bars using race as a criterion for employment. It was designed to end discrimination, but its wording is now being used to put a stop to affirmative action and other programs designed to help overcome the legacy of racism. Does this make the Civil rights Act racist?

If well-intentioned ignorance is an acceptable excuse, what about once the results are made known? If we are given good data by social scientists that demonstrate that women are disproportionately negatively affected by some policy that was not intended to harm women's interests, does the policy become sexist once we are informed of disadvantage or does the lack of intent give it a permanent pass?

In the shadow of Jim Crow, these questions were easy enough. The intentions were out there for all to see. But now that this is no longer the case and claims of racism and sexism are viewed with skepticism, if not derision and dismissiveness from some powerful quarters that have used white guilt exhaustion to fuel their agenda -- even though, in some case, they are real. How ought we define oppression?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Meditation on the Middle Class

In his writings on society and education in first decades of the 20th century, Hans Reichenbach argued that structural change would most likely have to be led by the emerging German middle class. The upper class had too much invested in the status quo and the lower class was too much under its thumb in terms of a lack of education and social capital and mobility. Only the middle class youth would have the incentive and freedom to reweave sections of the social fabric.

But this requires an activist middle class. Reichenbach was writing at a curious period. A baby boom combined with rapid industrialization had given rise to a significantly enlarged middle class in the first decade of the century and the First World War then undermined the old social order and all confidence in the formerly powerful to govern wisely, and this gave them a fairly blank social canvas to contemplate.

Of course, it did not turn out well in that case; but the central insight to be gleaned is that Reichenbach's axiom here is right and that the zeitgeist of the middle class is an important barometer.

My reading of that zeitgeist may be skewed by the fact that I teach at an institution where most of my contact is with a very thin slice from the upper reaches of the middle class, students with a very particular profile. But before landing where I am, I adjuncted ( a sad, sad verb that I am glad is in the past tense) at nine different institutions and saw roughly the same thing at those places.

Our institution paid advertising consultants a large amount of money to come up with the lame, branding slogan, "Do great work." The middle class mantra that is tattooed on the brains of today's young seems similar in form, but opposite in content: "Don't fuck up." The perception of the social reward structure seems to be that as long as you follow the path into and through a decent college and don't get busted (or if you do make it a small quantity so that we can get you the treatment option), you'll be set. It is not an urging to challenge themselves, but quite the opposite, the imperative is to not rock the boat. Risk-aversion is the default position. And it isn't "make sure there's a safety net beneath you before you try aerial tricks" -- it's "cling on tightly to the rope for dear life." There seems to be both a sense that a comfortable life is available without overcoming great obstacles, combined with an underlying sense that this comfort is not an entitlement -- you can still fall if you screw up or overplay your hand. Don't shoot too high or too low.

This is not to generalize and say there aren't fantastic young folks in the middle class who are doing great things, who are working their butts off, who have dreams and hopes and are overcoming hurdles to actualize their potentiality. Of course, there are. But the question is about the general sense of the time. Would things be different with this generation if they weren't staring down the barrel of huge student loan debts to just get to square one? Would it be different if their parents weren't petrified of the thought that these kids need to be not only employable, but employed from day one after college because they can't put them back on their health insurance policy? Or is it from the other side, a sense that there is nothing there to be reached for? A feeling that one is doomed to a life of middle management no matter how much sweat one exerts, so why bother? Or perhaps is it a result of the entertainment culture where one can be passively amused at all times, so development of creativity and personal skills (beyond those required to work a joystick) has simply become obsolete?

I think back to an old Chomsky quotation where he argues that as long as you meet the basic convenience needs of the middle class, they will not question the structure or the actions of the powerful because having had one's needs met gives the illusion of having power. Has the power that Reichenbach attributed to the middle class become the mere illusion of Chomsky -- an illusion that the contemporary middle class only half buys?