Notes and Comment Blog

Duty Duty Duty

Mar 1st, 2005 10:38 pm | By

Last month Richard Posner said something similar to what Stanley Fish said, but Posner said it much more clearly.

For as a practical matter, chief executive officers do not enjoy freedom of speech. A CEO is the fiduciary of his organization, and his duty is to speak publicly only in ways that are helpful to the organization. Not that he should lie; but he must avoid discussing matters as to which his honestly stated views would harm the organization. (Judges also lack complete freedom of speech; as I mentioned in our introductory blog posting, I am not permitted to comment publicly on any pending or impending court case.) Summers must think that his remarks did harm the university, as otherwise he would not have apologized—for he apologized not for what he said, but for saying it.

That’s a bit different from what Fish said – especially in the part about ‘As a faculty member you should not give your president high marks because’ etcetera, which seems to assume that faculty members are going to give a university president ‘marks’ on exactly the same basis that a search committee is. But why would they do that? And is there any reason to think they would do that? Posner doesn’t make that bizarre assumption.

A university president might make provocative remarks because he wanted to change his university in some way, for example by encouraging greater intellectual diversity, or because he wanted to signal strength, independence, intransigence, or other qualities that he thought would increase his authority, or even because he wanted to intimidate certain faculty by seeming to be a “wild man.” But that explanation is not available to Summers, because of the apology.

Fish pretty much overlooked that possibility – that the wild man act could have been part of Summers’ perceived ‘job.’ Anyway, the CEO problem remains. It’s quite interesting. It’s similar to that much-repeated truism, that a corporation’s only responsibility is to maximise shareholders’ profits – a truism that has some very worrying implications for everyone other than that corporations’ shareholders (and even for them if they work for the corporation, or consume its products, or breathe the air in its vicinity). I didn’t really know that CEOs were explicitly required to ‘avoid discussing matters as to which his honestly stated views would harm the organization.’ I suppose I’ve always assumed they would be highly likely to avoid doing that, on account of wanting to maximise their own profits and all, but I didn’t think of it as being their duty. Duty. Hmm – I bet it’s not their duty in a sense that Kant would accept. But Posner isn’t Kant. But still – there is some ambiguity or vagueness hovering around all this, isn’t there? Even in Posner’s version. Clearly that avoidance can be seen as the CEO’s duty to certain people – shareholders, for instance. But can it be seen as the CEO’s duty, full stop? I wouldn’t have thought so. The CEO has duties in capacities other than the CEO capacity. As a citizen, for instance – or as a decent human being. Depending on what the organization is up to, the CEO might have a duty precisely to discuss matters on which her honestly stated views would harm the organization. A civic duty, as opposed to a fiduciary duty.

Whereas it’s another matter with the duty of a judge not to comment on pending cases. I have no problem with that (big of me, isn’t it) (never mind that, I’m just trying to figure this stuff out, here). But for one thing that’s a much more limited gag, and for another thing, it lacks the whole profit-motive, conflict of interest aspect. In short, the idea that CEOs have a duty to talk carefully seems to translate the interest of a small group into a general duty. Or to translate ‘duty’ into ‘what your employers want you to do’ – which can be what duty means, to be sure. ‘Here are your duties in this job.’ But it can also mean something much more general, and binding, and morally-based. Deontological doesn’t refer to employer expectations, surely?

Then again I suppose Posner could just be doing his ‘seeing everything from the point of view of an economist’ act. Or I could just be completely clueless. Bringing the organization into disrepute, I am.

Doing What Job?

Mar 1st, 2005 4:25 am | By

Stanley Fish has an interesting take on the Larry Summers matter. (You don’t mind if I call him Larry do you? Everyone else does. I’m not pretending I know him, it’s just that it’s easier than trying to remember whether he spells it Laurence or Lawrence. Plus it sounds so much more friendly, and knowing, and American, and as if I might be important enough to know him, which I’m not.)

It is only if Summers’ performance at the January 14th conference (where he wondered if the underrepresentation of women in the sciences and math might have a genetic basis) was intentional — it is only if he knew what he was doing — that he can be absolved of the most serious of the charges that might be brought against him. And that is not the charge that his views on the matter were uninformed and underresearched (as they certainly were), nor the charge that he has damaged the cause of women in science (which he surely has), but the charge that he wasn’t doing his job and didn’t even seem to know what it was.

Hmm. It’s not absolutely clear why the last charge would or should be more serious than the second, for intance, or who would be bringing these conditional mood charges, or whether different parties bringing these charges might have different ideas of which ones are more important. But anyway –

Larry Summers is no more free to pop off at the mouth about a vexed academic question than George Bush is free to wander around the country dropping off-the-cuff remarks about Social Security or Islam…The constraints on speaking that come along with occupying a position have nothing to do with the First Amendment (there are no free-speech issues here, as there almost never are on college campuses) and everything to do with the legitimate expectations that are part and parcel of the job you have accepted and for which you are (in this case, handsomely) paid

Wait. Yes he is – more free to pop off at the mouth. Of course he is. Larry Summers isn’t elected, he’s not answerable to the populace as a whole, he’s not accountable in the same way. We didn’t hire Larry Summers. Somebody did, but we didn’t. So these ‘legitimate expectations’ – they’re the concern of Summers’ employers, not the populace at large. Sometimes those two groups have sharply differing expectations. Think whistle-blowers, think union organizers, think Mafia underlings who go to the police.

Those expectations (and the requirements they subtend) are not philosophical, but empirical and pragmatic. They, include, first and foremost, the expectation that you will comport yourself in ways that bring credit, not obloquy, to the institution you lead. That doesn’t mean that there are things you can’t say or things you must say. Rather, it means that whatever you say, you have to be aware of the possible effects your utterance might produce, especially if those effects touch the health and reputation of the university.

So…my employer right or wrong? Is that what he’s saying? Well, as a matter of fact, yes. Which is fascinating. Suppose Summers were the CEO of a tobacco company, testifying to a Congressional subcommittee, and he raised his right hand and swore that he did not believe that nicotine was addictive. He’d be doing that, no doubt, because of his awareness of the effects his utterance would produce on the health and reputation of his company. Good for the company – but not so hot from other points of view. ‘I was just doing my job’ is a pretty discredited defense these days. Enron executives were doing their best to do their jobs as they saw them, but sadly that involved shafting large numbers of employees and investors. Golly. Maybe ‘doing your job’ isn’t really the last word in moral responsibility. Walmart managers give their workers more to do than they can finish on their shifts, with the result that they are forced to work unpaid overtime – not occasionally and by accident but systematically and routinely. That seems to be the managers’ job, from the point of view of whatever next-level managers who are telling them to do it. Does that make it a good thing to do?

As a faculty member you should not give your president high marks because he expresses views you approve or low marks because he espouses views you reject. Your evaluation of him or her (now there’s a solution to Harvard’s problem) should be made in the context of the only relevant question — not “Does what he says meet the highest standards of scholarship?” or “Is what he says politically correct or bravely politically incorrect?” (an alternative form of political correctness) or even “Is what he says true?” but “Is he, in saying it (whatever it is) carrying out the duties of his office in a manner that furthers the interests of the enterprise?”

Ah. The interests of the enterprise. So – when employees of shipping companies dump oil into the ocean, when employees of chemical plants dump toxic sludge in rivers, when extortionists succeed in extracting large sums of money, when engineers in Detroit build ever larger more inefficient more murderous automobiles, when advertisers persuade gullible fools to buy those immense cars by telling them that otherwise everyone will think their penises are too small, when managers of poultry plants and garment factories hire immigrants and pay them less than the minimum wage because they can get away with it – the only relevant question is whether or not they’re carrying out the duties of the office in a manner that furthers the interests of the enterprise? That’s the only relevant question? Why? Why, exactly? Fish doesn’t say. Why doesn’t he? I don’t know. I find it rather baffling.

Well, [the ability to encourage difficult questions] may be the strength of the academy, but it is not the strength sought by search committees when they interview candidates for senior administrative positions. No search committee asks, “Can we count on you to rile things up? Can we look forward to days of hostile press coverage? Can you give us a list of the constituencies you intend to offend?” Search committees do ask, “What is your experience with budgets?” and “What are your views on the place of intercollegiate athletics?” and “What will be your strategy for recruiting a world-class faculty?” and “How will you create a climate attractive to donors?”

Yeah. So what? Fish is not the search committee, so why is he doing their talking for them? Why is he talking as if their point of view is the only one? Why on earth is he talking as if their point of view is the one we should all have? As if the interests of the people the ‘enterprise’ has an effect on are entirely beside the point – not just to the search committee, but to everyone? That’s the silliest argument I’ve seen in awhile. Morris Zapp would be embarrassed.

I Believe Because They Believe and Vice Versa

Mar 1st, 2005 12:02 am | By

The Fifth Carnival of the Godless is posted. And I’ve been meaning to point out this post at Normblog for days. He points out what seem (from the available evidence, e.g. what the article reports) like rather dubious bits of reasoning in an article about the possible evolutionary basis for religion.

There is one quite convincing comment in the article though. It gestures at something I often think.

Childish belief is one thing, but religious belief is embraced by people of all ages and is by no means the preserve of the uneducated. According to Boyer, the persistence of belief into adulthood is at least in part down to a presumption. “When you’re in a belief system, it’s not that you stop asking questions, it’s that they become irrelevant. Why don’t you ask yourself about the existence of gravity? It’s because a lot of the stuff you do every day presupposes it and it seems to work, so where’s the motivation to question it?” he says. “In belief systems, you tend to enter this strange state where you start thinking there must be something to it because everybody around you is committed to it. The general question of whether it’s true is relegated.”

Exactly. We’re often told some variation on the theme ‘Millions and billions of people have believed this stuff for thousands of years, so there must be something to it.’ But that just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, doesn’t it. Everybody looks around and says to herself, ‘By golly, everybody for miles around believes this crap, so there must be something to it, so I’d better shut up about the fact that I think it’s all fairy tales.’ We don’t have a clue how many people would have believed it without the shoring-up effect of all those millions and millions, so the argument isn’t worth much, is it.

Or to put it another way, if everyone believes because everyone else believes, then it could be that everyone believes only because everyone else believes, and no one believes independently of everyone else. No one believes because she already believes and would believe even if she’d been raised by wolves. So then why should anyone believe? Eh? I mean, what kind of argument is that? ‘Well all those other people believe!’ ‘Yes, but that’s only because people like you have been telling them “All those other people believe,” and pointing in this direction.’ It’s hollow. ‘Isobel believes because you believe.’ ‘Oh dear – but I believe because Isobel believes.’ ‘Err…’


Feb 28th, 2005 6:31 pm | By

No comment department. Speaks for itself department. Christian Voice.

“It was a bad day when they let homosexuals in the Armed Forces. People there do not want to be objects of sexual attention from blokes they are sharing a trench or tent with.” He added: “It was an even worse day when they let women on the front line. They should be in the home. The man should be the leader in the family and the woman should be the daughter or wife under the authority of her father and then her husband.”

Yup. Men like you – they should be the authority. Yup.

“We would like to reach out to Muslims and tell them they cannot find salvation in a dead Prophet.”

Right, because Christians have dibs on finding salvation in dead prophets.

(Okay so I commented a little.)

An Abstract and a Party

Feb 28th, 2005 3:37 am | By

And a little humour. Philip Stott tells us about a seminal new paper on climate change.

Abstract: the much-studied ‘Forest Period’ (Fp) persisted in southern England for only the briefest of geological time, being conservatively-dated to between October 14th, 1926 and October 11th, 1928, although some scholars argue that ‘Forest’ remnants may have survived on, and around, tumuli, or small mounds [see: Margot Mythenmaker, 1958. “The utopia of ‘enchanted places’ revisited.” The Panenic Review, Vol. 56(2), [1958] 1959, pp. 3-9]…

Despite the undoubted geological brevity of the ‘Forest Period’, Kaninchen postulates that it is possible to recognise no fewer than seven (7) different climatic phases (Phases FpI to FpVII) for the ‘Forest Period’ (Fp):

(a) Phase FpI: a cool-temperate phase, when the forest was characterised by bears, small pigs (Porcellus spp.), rabbits (Leporus spp.), and donkeys, and, possibly, by the now extinct, Vusillus spp. During this phase, the weather was breezy and balmy in summer, but noted for light snow falls during the winter months, when Vusillus hunting was a major occupation;

Read on.

And then there was that party at PZ Myers’ house a couple of weeks ago. I wish I’d been there.

At academic parties, one of the common things to do is to check out the books lying around (you don’t have to tell me, I know we’re nerds), and I’d happened to have The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense: A Guide for Edgy People out on the coffee table. Groups of people who ended up sitting on the sofa for a while would find it, chortle over it, and pass it around.

And then, I blush to say, they would find the definition for ‘scientist,’ read it, and leap to the conclusion that it had something to do with the host.

See? Now how could anyone read that at a party at my house and not break into peals of loud and knowing laughter?

So anyway. It’s good fun to make some people you don’t know break into peals of loud and knowing laughter at a party. All the more when they’re in Minnesota.

With But a Single Thought

Feb 28th, 2005 12:22 am | By

And speaking of self-fulfilling prophecies…We were speaking of them the other day in High Tension and ever since I keep bumping into them. You know how that goes, when you mention something or learn a new word and immediately afterward it’s everywhere. It’s been happening to me with that word ‘quotidian’ which I was told is a very rare, peculiar word – I keep hearing and reading it. It doesn’t seem to be all that rare. And self-fulfilling prophecy is everywhere too. There was that Robert Frank article in the NY Times a few days ago (which unfortunately has now gone into the archive and which the link generator never generated a link for, so I can’t quote from it), pointing out that first-year economics students are substantially more likely to believe that people (including economics students) are self-interested than non-economics students are. Actually ‘non-economics students’ is a hand-wave, because I don’t remember who the comparison group was. Than Xs are, it should have said. At any rate, the article was interesting, and persuasive. Many economists do seem to think that way, which makes their writing often a combination of the revelatory and the absurd. One minute one is thinking ‘Oh of course, that’s how that works,’ and the next one is thinking ‘Oh come on, that’s just not the only thing that motivates everyone!’ I’ve had that reaction in reading Frank himself, in fact. The Winner-Take-All Society and Luxury Fever. They’re very explanatory and stimulating, but they also keep leaving out huge aspects of the question, by assuming that everyone wants ‘success’ in the sense of Mo Money. But people want other things too, and sometimes even instead.

And Todd Gitlin talks about it in his Mother Jones article on David Horowitz’s campaign to get state legislatures to bean-count university faculties and their reading lists.

Academics do flock together and sometimes abuse their power. The even more intractable problem is that conformity, both the faculty’s and the students’, is self-fulfilling, lending itself to the enshrinement of the smug, the snug, and the narrow. Much of the muffling, as always, is the product of peer pressure, which is as real at liberal arts colleges as at military academies. When fundamentals go unquestioned and dissenters are intimidated, those who prevail get lazier and dumber.

Yup. But then – as Gitlin goes on to say, the answer is not to get The State (that is, the local real estate agents moonlighting as legislators) to fix the problem. The answer is to question fundamentals yourself. Not call the cops to ask fundamental questions for you, just shrug your shoulders, eat a handful of nuts or arugula for endurance, take a deep breath, and get in there and disagree with someone. Quit whining; show some backbone.

How deep is the silence? Hard to know. Much cited in conservative columns is a 2002 survey by the student newspaper at Wesleyan University, according to which a full 32 percent of the students felt “uncomfortable speaking their opinion” on the famously liberal campus. Whatever that means exactly, the pop-psych language is telling. Since when is higher education supposed to make you feel comfortable, anyway? In a largely unexamined triumph of marketplace values, college has come to be seen as a consumable product…What follows is grade inflation, epidemic cheating, scorn for a common curriculum, and an all-around supermarket attitude. Consumer choice—embrace whatever turns you on, avoid whatever turns you off—is elevated to a matter of high principle.

Exactly. It’s the ‘comfortable’ thing again. See Dictionary. You’re not supposed to feel comfortable! Plenty of time for that once you’re dead. While you’re alive you’re supposed to feel awake, alert, challenged, on the stretch.

And then there was this article about Summers and research on gender differences – which brings us around in a circle, because that was the subject of the ‘High Tension’ post. So we’re talking about the same thing here. Here:

There is a lot of tension in all this – because there are some rational, non-ostrich-like, non-fingers-in-ears, non-You Can’t Say That reasons for worry about, for instance, saying that a particular identifiable set of people may have, in however small a statistical sense, less of a given ability than another set or sets. One such reason is the self-fulfilling prophesy. The worry is that if you tell people – especially and all the more so if you tell them officially academically scientifically studies have shownically – that they are, or they belong to a group or subset of the population that is, statistically, however slightly and tail end effectly, innately less good at X, there is very often a strong tendency for the people in question to give up on X as a result. To relax their efforts, to decide it’s hopeless, to give themselves permission not to bang their heads against a wall.

And in the article:

Aronson and his colleagues have shown that many of the performance differences between men and women, and also between different races, can be erased with minor adjustments that influence test takers’ confidence. Tell a group of girls before a math exam that the test does not detect gender differences in mathematical ability and their scores increase. Tell white men before a similar exam that their scores are going to be compared to those of Asians and their scores drop simply because they think they won’t measure up. “This suggests there’s something about the testing situation itself,” Aronson says. “If there is a biological difference, then it’s one that’s awfully easy to overcome.”

Self-fulfilling prophecy is both interesting in itself, and a difficult problem for questions about policy, research, and the like. It’s not as if everyone can just shut up about everything because of the self-fulfilling propecy issue. But there may be times when everyone should. Just before math class, for instance.


Feb 23rd, 2005 8:20 pm | By

It’s always interesting, unsettling, and difficult to try to figure out if we can ground our moral and political commitments. I read a sentence about James Fitzjames Stephen’s criticism of Mill’s On the Subjection of Women this morning that caught my attention – ‘His [Stephen’s] own position was that equality was like liberty: it was not an absolute good but sometimes good and sometimes not.’ Not that that’s a startling idea, of course. It’s not a news flash that equality has not always been thought an absolute good or even a good at all, and that for instance the famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence struck most contemporary observers as downright absurd rather than self-evident. And Leslie Stephen’s brother was notoriously a hard guy, fond of saying harshly unsentimental things to dewy-eyed Victorians. No, it’s just that for whatever reason it made me ask myself if I thought it was an absolute good, or a quasi-absolute good, or at any rate a general good, and if so, if I could ground the thought, or if I just thought it because I thought it because I thought it.

Well (you won’t be surprised to hear), I do think it’s a general good, though also one that’s often in tension with other goods. (Can I get away with saying general instead of absolute?) But I would think that – I was born into a time and place in which the thought is taken for granted. So why do I think it apart from that.

Because I think it’s not good for people to think they are by birth somehow globally (not in particular attributes but all over and overall) subordinate, inferior, low. Born to obey, born to serve. Why? I find it hard to go farther than that. Because it’s limiting, narrowing, stunting. It closes off hopes, dreams, possibilities, ambitions. It makes people feel bad, i.e. inferior, and that seems to be a bad thing by definition. Not desirable, not what we want, not what we like. Do people say ‘I’m inferior and that makes me happy, I don’t want to be told that I’m not inferior’? Not that I’m aware of. They change it to ‘different,’ as in ‘Women are not inferior but different’ from anti-feminist women.

The subject links with the ‘What’s so great about nature?’ articles by Paula Bourges Waldegg and Edmund Standing we’ve published lately. Subordination is natural enough, certainly. Many animal species have elaborate hierarchies, enforced with sharp teeth and heavy bodies. Bully for them. We don’t like it. Or rather, those of us on the bottom don’t like it, and after of millions of years some of us have come to the conclusion that the bottom view is the better one, that the happiness and well-being and flourishing and ability to carry out life projects of the people on the bottom, should trump the happiness that the people on top derive from having a pool of born subordinates to use as they like. That the first is worth more than the second, and causes things to go better overall. At least we seem to have; and in some places we have, at least formally and legally; hence the arguments.


Feb 22nd, 2005 11:45 pm | By

And then there’s Nick Cohen on Ken Livingstone and his loyalty to another example of religious wisdom, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

The useful label ‘the pseudo-left’ has been knocking around the internet political blogs since 11 September, and it is high time it was brought into the mainstream media. It’s a shorthand description of the spectacle of left moving to the right, often to the far-right, and embracing obscurantists, theocrats and, in the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and its Baathist ‘insurgents’, classic fascists…All that the left has opposed since the Enlightenment become acceptable, as long as the obscurantists, theocrats and fascists are anti-Americans and as long as their victims aren’t Western liberals.

Which is intensely depressing, because their victims are people like Minna and Fariba, instead.

In June 2003 Qaradawi pondered the question of how a Muslim who decided of his own free will to convert to another religion or become an atheist should be treated. Instead of saying it was none of his business what adults choose to believe, Qaradawi replied: ‘He is no more than a traitor to his religion and his people and thus deserves killing.’ Female genital mutilation was fine by him – ‘whoever finds it serving the interest of his daughters should do it, and I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world.’ A little light wife-beating could also be excused – ‘if the husband senses that feelings of disobedience and rebelliousness are rising against him in his wife, he should try his best to rectify her attitude by kind words, gentle persuasion, and reasoning with her… If this approach fails, it is permissible for him to admonish her lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive areas.’

I really like that last bit. Note that the wife hasn’t even done anything, or said anything. She just has some feelings, that the husband ‘senses’ – and if he can’t persuade her out of them (and only he knows if he senses them or not, right? So even if she says she doesn’t have such feelings, if he still senses them – well…) then he needs to start hitting her. What would he be entitled to do if she had actually done something, one wonders. But never mind that. Let’s focus on the main point. The wife is not only not allowed to own her own self (women are not allowed to refuse to marry under many implementations of Islam), she’s not allowed to own her own thoughts and feelings. She’s not only enslaved (if she’s required to marry, she’s enslaved; if it’s not voluntary, it’s slavery), she has this supervisor peering into her thoughts all the time, and ‘sensing’ when she has rebellious or disobedient feelings. Well what the hell other kinds of feelings is she going to have?!? Excuse me for shouting, but really. What a setup. Forced to marry a self-appointed mind-reader who is entitled to hit you whenever you start feeling rebellious. Talk about Catch-22. You might as well chain someone onto a merry-go-round and then hit her for going round and round all the time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that he’s not just a grubby machine politician but is sincere when he declares that he is defending Qaradawi to the hilt because, ‘I have a responsibility to support the rights of all of London’s diverse communities and to maintain a dialogue with their political and religious leaders.’ He doesn’t seem to realise that this bland formulation is cover for a deeply reactionary manoeuvre which is being practised across the Western pseudo-left. First they define ‘communities’ by their religion. Then they assumed that misogynist and anti-democratic practitioners of that religion are the true leaders of their communities. The inevitable consequence is that liberals, socialists and feminists in the poor world are betrayed. They look to the Western homes of liberalism, socialism and feminism and are greeted with indifference or spite.

Exactly. Define ‘communities’ by their religion, then assume that the most misogynist practitioners available are the leaders of said community. Another Catch-22. It’s some kind of multiculti masochism, I think. The idea seems to be that if the cultural practices of the Other are too, you know, acceptable, decent, fair, then we’re not really being multiculti enough, because there’s no internal resistance to overcome. Overcoming the internal resistance has become (in some minds) the end in itself. So (the logic seems to be) if the practice doesn’t make us cringe and squirm, well, we’re getting off too lightly. We have to tolerate really hateful stuff or we’re just wimping out. I’ve heard and seen people make arguments just like that. Disdainful comments about being multicultural as long as it doesn’t bite. But the trouble is, it’s other people – the Other, in fact – who get bitten by those practices, not the uncomfortable but unscathed observers.

When Fariba Met Habib

Feb 22nd, 2005 9:26 pm | By

And speaking of religion and the religiously-inclined and the contortions they can make to save the phenomena…There is this CBC documentary about two Iranian women who survive via prostitution. Homa Arjomand sent me the link. Homa gets busier all the time, with media and speaking engagements. Let’s hope there will soon be more and more women sharing the workload.

For over a year, director Nahid Persson filmed the everyday lives of two young female prostitutes as they eked out a living in a country where the profession is banned. The filmmaker often took great risks to follow Minna and Fariba as they sought out customers-men who would often marry them briefly, so as not to violate the laws of the Koran by having extramarital sex. The two women are good friends and neighbours, who have experienced the widespread mistreatment of women and the double standards that permeate Iranian society today.

That’s nice, isn’t it? Touching. The men marry the women ‘briefly’ (briefly meaning, presumably, for fifteen minutes or so [to allow time for the amenities, and unzipping the fly]) so as not to violate the laws of the Koran against exploiting women. Oh I’m sorry, that’s not what it says, is it. Fancy that.

So is Allah fooled, I wonder? Is he mollified? Does he think this is a good system? Does he sit up there gloating happily, beaming down on darling Iran? ‘Oh look! How pure my beloved Iran is, with no extramarital sex or fooling around. That is so good and heartening and wonderful! No sex outside of marriage! Yay! Of course, the place is full of dirt-poor women being treated like toilets by their hahahaha ‘husbands’ all the same, but who cares about that?! Everybody in Iran who has genital-to-genital contact is spliced! That’s all I give a rat’s ass about!’ Is that what he says? Is that what his submissive subjects think he says? I mean, are they kidding? Or what. Oh who knows. People convince themselves that if they ‘pray’ then God will do what they ask whereas if they don’t he won’t, and at the same time that he is perfect and everywhere and kind and all-knowing, so whatever.

In the ’80s, documentary filmmaker Nahid Persson fled Iran for Sweden. When she returns 17 years later, she finds the divisions between the classes greater than ever, unemployment has skyrocketed…Putting herself at great risk, Persson manages to film Minna and Fariba’s customers…Many of the women’s customers find a way to buy sex and still comply with Muslim law: they marry with the women in what is called ‘sighe’-a temporary marriage legal in Shia Islam. ‘Sighe’ can last from two hours up to 99 years. In the documentary, both Minna and Fariba undergo ‘sighe’ with customers. Habib offers his perspective on temporary marriages: to him, ‘sighe’ is a way of helping miserable women-an act of mercy done in the name of Allah.

Oh, two hours. I was being grossly cynical in thinking they could get away with fifteen minutes. Two hours. Man, that’s some pretty heavy commitment. Pretty good marriages, are they? Do they fit the whole thing into that two hours? Shared housework, visiting the in-laws, sending Ramadan cards, cozy chats over Horlicks at midnight? Doesn’t it sound sweet. But I have a suspicion that’s not how it goes. I’m thinking that actually the guy runs off after fifteen minutes to go hang with his homies, and then comes back when the two hours are up, sticks his head in the door (or the hole in the wall) to say ‘I divorce you I divorce you I divorce you, bye, it was fun!’. I’m just guessing though. Maybe the two lovebirds are really happy together for that two hours. She teases him about always throwing his socks on the floor, he teases her about the way she dresses (you know, like a prostitute and all). Kind of a ‘Mad About You’ scenario but speeded up. Could be cute. Could have legs. Kind of Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn-slash-Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan type thing. Somebody call Hollywood.

Skeptical Canon

Feb 22nd, 2005 8:23 pm | By

Here’s a funny one. Hilarious, in fact.

Even within the Church of England, the idea of possession raises eyebrows. “The number of metaphysical assumptions it makes is quite incredible. It means there are such things as non-human evil spirits that can take possession of a human being and require to be told to go somewhere else by a greater power,” says Canon Michael Perry, who holds a doctorate in deliverance and edits the Christian Parapsychologist.

“Some Christians believe it happens frequently – they see demons under every rug and will perform exorcisms at the drop of a hat. My view is possession is very rare.”

You have to admit. That’s not bad. ‘The number of metaphysical assumptions it makes is quite incredible.’ Well, yeah. That’s fair to say. The idea of possession does make quite a few metaphysical assumptions. Well done for pointing that out – er, Canon. Wait. Who? ‘Canon Michael Perry, who holds a doctorate in deliverance and edits the Christian Parapsychologist.’ Canon? Well but if you’re a canon don’t you make some metaphysical assumptions yourself? Is it just that you don’t hold quite as many? Is that why your eyebrows are up because other people make more? So what’s the right number then? And another question – what’s a doctorate in deliverance when it’s at home? And an even more penetrating question – what the hell is Christian parapsychology? Let me rephrase that. What is parapsychology? Now – what is Christian parapsychology? Don’t the, um, sets of ideas indicated by both of those words imply a good few metaphysical assumptions? Correct me if I’m wrong.

‘It means there are such things as non-human evil spirits that can take possession of a human being and require to be told to go somewhere else by a greater power.’ Ooooh – yes, it does. A pretty outlandish thing to believe, isn’t it! And if you see such things under every rug – well, that’s more outlandish still. Or is it. Is it really a question of quantity? Is it soft-headed to think there are 14,286 in the room but quite sane and rational to think there is 1? Is that how it works? On one side of the stage, rugs and hats and loonies who think non-human evil spirits are as common as dust mites. On the other side of the stage, dignified scholarly chaps with advanced degrees who think they are scarcer than that – much scarcer than that – really, very scarce – as scarce as, oh, say, a parking space in Chelsea. You hardly ever ever ever encounter them. But then one day…

The Long Arm of Coincidence

Feb 21st, 2005 10:07 pm | By

Well that was a coincidence. Maybe there is an Intelligent Designer after all, plotting all our every moves.

I had just read, coded, and posted Julian’s latest Bad Moves, which is about getting your facts wrong, and not noticing or considering that you may be getting your facts wrong, and not pausing to consider that other people may be getting their facts wrong. So the next thing I did was go to Normblog to see what was new there. And what’s the first item on the page? A post about the BBC’s apologising for a story told on ‘Thought for the Day’ that turned out to lack evidence. That turned out to be a case of the speaker’s perhaps having his facts wrong. Made me come over all giddy for a moment, that did. Was the Oh So Smartyboots Designer guiding my mouse-hand? Hell – that means I don’t have free will then. But perhaps I do have an immortal soul. Hmm – which would I rather – free will, or an immortal soul. Hmm, that’s a tough one. Tell you what, I’ll trade you both if I get to keep mind and qualia. Okay? Fair deal?

Old Red

Feb 20th, 2005 8:32 pm | By

The promised more on Janet Browne’s Darwin biography. A couple of sentences down on the same page (page 141, to be exact):

And when Sedgwick arrived he tried to entertain him in an appropriately geological fashion by telling him of the gravel pits near Shrewsbury. But Darwin’s story of the labourer who found a tropical shell in the gravel brought only a peal of laughter and the remark that this could not be true. If the shell were genuinely embedded there, said Sedgwick, it would overthrow everything that was known about the superficial deposits of the Midland counties…Recounting the story later, Darwin remembered being astonished that Sedgwick was not more delighted by his strange fact. ‘Nothing before had ever made me thoroughly realise, though I had read various scientific books, that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.’ What Sedgwick went on to explain to him was that there must be a great deal of mutually supportive material for scientific theories of all denominations. Once such theories were established, it took more than an isolated shell to change them.

A simple point, but interesting, I think. Interesting partly that he hadn’t realized it before, and that one incident made it so clear to him. ‘And from the way Darwin continued to hold this salutory episode in mind,’ Browne goes on to say, ‘it evidently had a marked effect on his scientific practice.’ One shell, one story, one peal of laughter. So learning takes place.

And 142-143. They are on the field trip. According to Greenough’s map, there should be Old Red Sandstone underlying an escarpment where Sedgwick saw no sign of it. He sent Darwin to search for signs on one side while he searched on the other.

On his own for the first time since leaving Shrewsbury, Darwin could not find any trace of the desired rock. He was more than a little anxious by the time he returned to Sedgwick, because it was easy to miss details in the field and hard to contradict an acknowledged authority like Greenough. He had scoured the countryside for elusive corroborative signs. Yet Sedgwick was very pleased with him…explaining how his researches would require the revision of a major portion of the national map. Sedgwick too had not seen ‘a particle’ of Old Red…[F]ew professors would have accepted a major negative claim like Darwin’s without backtracking to check on the data.

I like that because it’s the black swan thing, and because it made Darwin anxious. The black swan makes for instance UN weapons inspectors anxious, too, because however hard they look they can’t know, and they know they can’t know, that they have searched everywhere. In fact in that case they know perfectly well they haven’t.

His chagrin at Sedgwick’s brusque response to the tropical shell in the gravel pit was transformed into a fleeting but thoroughly practical awareness of the philosophical structure of science. He went on his way to Barmouth with his wits sharpened and with a good deal more intellectual purpose…

Interesting, don’t you think?


Feb 19th, 2005 10:07 pm | By

Time to say a few words in praise of lateral reading. I’m a great fan of lateral reading – not just via links but also in books. You know how that goes – you read an essay which sends you to a book which sends you to two more books and you find connections you didn’t know about. This is why (at last it can be revealed) I know absolutely nothing about anything in any depth: because I read laterally rather than vertically. I’ve never read an entire book from beginning to end in my life, but I’ve read two pages of a million or so. But never mind – I comfort myself with Johnson’s retort when Elphinston said ‘What, have you not read it through?’ – to wit: ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’ Also with Bacon’s ‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.’ Mind you, I skip the chewed and digested part, but I’m a great taster.

So. I read an essay of Philip Kitcher’s the other day, ‘A Plea for Science Studies.’ It said some interesting things about Martin Rudwick’s The Great Devonian Controversy and it also mentioned and quoted from a review of same by Stephen Jay Gould in An Urchin in the Storm – a book I happen to have an old copy of, with a hedgehog (is an urchin a hedgehog?) in front of a tornado on the cover. So I read the review, and that confirmed the impression Kitcher had already given me that I really ought to read this Rudwick book without delay. It was this comment that did it:

After a superficial first glance, most readers of good will and broad knowledge might dismiss The Great Devonian Controversy as being too much about too little. They would be making one of the biggest mistakes of their intellectual lives.

Well that’s the sort of admonition I can never ignore, so I got The Great Devonian Controversy out of the library along with Philip Kitcher’s Science, Truth and Democracy (and a few other items, but that needn’t concern us here – just a few more books to read two pages of). Read parts of the Kitcher book – Chapter One, Chapter Eight, Chapter Eleven, more or less simultaneously as opposed to sequentially. Laterally, you see. The book has three bookmarks poking out of it now. Chapter Eleven caused me to read another Gould essay, this one in Ever Since Darwin, which I have in a nice old Pelican with a whimsical moose on the cover – ‘Biological Potentiality v Biological Determinism.’ It’s interesting stuff – and The Great Devonian Controversy is, just as everyone said, highly interesting. It’s about a disagreement over geology in the 1830s…so of course as one reads one keeps thinking ‘Darwin. He must have known about all this…’ So (being lateral) I put down The Great Devonian Controversy and picked up the first volume of Janet Browne’s brilliant biography of Darwin. Read it? Not that I have, but I’ve read quite a lot of it, at various times. I remembered from previous incomplete readings that Darwin had been interested in Lyell, and I’d been intrigued by something Rudwick says about Lyell’s having created the myth of a split between catastrophists and uniformitarians. I knew I’d read about that in Browne’s book so wanted to refresh my memory – so found Lyell in the Index and started with him, but then kept getting pushed back earlier and earlier to find the beginning, with Henslow and Sedgwick.

So there’s a very long preamble – to lead up to the fact that I wanted to mention one or two items from the Browne biography, simply because I think they’re interesting, and I wanted to explain how I got there. Now you know. It’s spring 1831, Darwin is a student at Cambridge, his friend Henslow the professor of botany at Cambridge has got his friend Adam Sedgwick, the professor of geology at Cambridge, to take Darwin along on a geology field trip.

Darwin was hardly complacent either. He secretly practised his geology in the fields around home before Sedgwick got there, hoping to impress him before they took to the hills together, and was chastened to find it a great deal harder than he expected.

I find that interesting in various ways. The fact that he was chastened, the fact that he hadn’t expected it to be so hard, the fact that it was (and is) hard. And it resonates interestingly with something Rudwick says that snagged my attention. (This is where the lateral reading comes in. The comment was fresh in my mind because I’d just read it, whereas it wouldn’t have been if I’d read the whole book before picking up the Browne. That, I think, is why I like reading laterally. It seems to make it easier to see such connections.) What Rudwick says (on page 10) is in a section titled ‘Research as Skilled Craftsmanship’ (see? it connects already – young Darwin was trying to improve and practice his craftsmanship, and finding it not easy). He talks about Michael Polyani’s emphasis on the communal framework of tacit knowledge –

like the skills of the craftsman, they are learned not from textbooks but by working alongside a more experienced practitioner within a living communal tradition. This picture of scientific work as skilled craftsmanship…jarred…against the fiercely held convictions of many philosophers…Even now, its validity would be more widely appreciated if those who analyze scientific work were not generally such narrow bookish people, and if they had firsthand experience not only of scientific reserach itself but also of skilled manual crafts outside the intellectual or academic sphere altogether.

There. I like the way those two things resonate with each other – and with further things, like the low status scientific subjects had in British education for years and years. There’s a scene in ‘Breaking the Code’ in which the adolescent Turing says that one of the masters at his school still refers to science as ‘stinks’. Science had low status, I read somewhere once, don’t ask me where, precisely because it was manual work, because it did involve getting the hands dirty. It was all too much like just plain labour. (Although geology was also, confusingly and complicatingly, like Good Clean Sport, and just the thing for gentlemen; Rudwick’s book is all about the gentlemen aspect. But there are complications. Some gentlemen geologists got mistaken for laborers at times, breaking rocks with their hammers. Then there’s the fact that Robert Darwin was a doctor – which was not a high-status profession at the time. Keats and his pills, Dr Johnny, you know. But that’s by the way.)

Another thing it resonates with is this lovely post at Pharyngula yesterday.

I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but the root of it has to lie in teaching kids to enjoy figuring things out. One geeky personal example: I got introduced to model rocketry when I was in fifth grade, and I was a member of the model rocket club at my school up through junior high. I think, though, that I built precisely two rockets and launched them just once. The first time I’d watched these things, the instructor had handed me some gadget that I looked through and measured the angle to the rocket at the top of its flight, and showed me how to calculate how far it went. That was it for me. Who cared about balsa wood and cardboard when there was geometry and trigonometry to do? I thought Calvin’s problem was the fun part!

There’s more. There’s the shell in the quarry and how Sedgwick laughed, and what an impression his laughter made on young Darwin. But this is long enough for now, and I have to rush away.

Circling Skeptics

Feb 17th, 2005 6:17 pm | By

The second meeting of the Skeptics’ Circle has taken place at Orac’s site. The first, at St. Nates’, was two weeks ago. And the archive site with schedule of future meetings is here. As St. Nate said –

But we are not content to rest on our laurels! I want this Circle to endure and to keep getting better and more popular. I want to expand our membership! The blogosphere still remains a cesspool of the paranormal, pseudoscience, and quackery! We’ve had one success–a good start–but we must not let up now!

Go, Skeptics! (Also skeptics – you go too.)

The New Big Twenty

Feb 17th, 2005 4:09 am | By

So, they’re making up a new Ten or rather Twenty Commandments, eh. Without the participation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Well you can’t blame him, can you. Much as his job’s worth, probably, trying that on. Would be kind of like Charles suddenly up and throwing out all the ermine and gold carriages and sceptres and whatnot and drawing up a new plan of action. All these huge houses bursting with Rembrandts and Rollses and gewgaws to be turned into community centres. All Royals to get jobs as maintenance workers in housing estates or driving buses. Parliament henceforth to be opened by Sandra ‘Doc’ Tudge of 47 Ribena Lane, Kidderminster. Factories, hospitals, bridges and suchlike to be opened by the cast of The Archers on a rotating schedule. Well it wouldn’t fly, would it. The Queen would just tell him ‘I don’t think so’ and send him on a peace mission to that little island about seventy kilometres from that other little island that you can just barely see with a powerful telescope from that uninhabited island off Tierra del Fuego. Same with the Archbish. His boss wouldn’t be particularly pleased and flattered to have him re-writing the rules, would he. Kind of implies he didn’t do a good job the first time. Which of course he didn’t – Alabama judges to the contrary notwithstanding – but he doesn’t expect his own servants to tell him that, does he.

Whatever. That’s his problem. Nothing to do with us.

Thou shalt not own or drive or buy or covet or admire an SUV.

Neither shalt thou talk on thy cell phone [mobile] whilst driving thy small automobile.

Thou shalt not put pineapple on pizza.

Thou shalt not talk loudly, caper, squeal, grimace or argue whilst walking about in public.

Thou shalt not wear thy hair in the manner of Donald Trump.

Thou shalt not wear purple and yellow together, nay, not even if thou art a ‘Husky fan.’

Thou shalt not wear lycra spandex undergarments outside thine own house unless they are augmented with a seemly outer garment. Thou shalt not make a display of thy buttocks, whether on a bicycle, or running, or standing in a supermarket checkout lane.

Thou shalt not expectorate on the public right of way.

Thou shalt not make unseemly gestures with thy hands whilst at the wheel of thy small unobtrusive automobile.

Thou shalt not call women female dogs, nay, not even if thou art flushed with rage, or beside thy wits, or singing a rhythmic tuneless song, or pretending to be a ‘homey.’.

Thou shalt not turn up the volume and bass on thy small car’s sound system such that it causes passers-by to totter and bump into walls.

Thou shalt not serve sushi to guests who are not expecting it.

Neither shalt thou serve calimari, nor oysters, nor peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder bread.

Thou shalt not go on a low-carb diet.

Thou shalt not talk about carbs and carb-counting.

Neither shalt thou serve thy guests low-carb meals that leave them hungrier after eating than they were before. Thou shalt provide pasta or rice or bread (not of the Wonder clan) or potatoes as I have laid it down for thee.

Thou shalt not tell stories about thy children, neither about thy dog. Thou shalt talk about interesting subjects, or be silent.

Thou shalt not floss thy teeth in the living room whilst guests are present, nor yet when they are absent. Thou shalt never floss thy teeth in the living room.

Thou shalt not vote for any present or former motion picture thespian for any political office whatsoever, nay, not even if it be country assessor in a rural county in South Dakota.

Thou shalt not take it upon thyself to invent new deities. Thou hast more than enough to deal with already.

Squeaky Wheels

Feb 15th, 2005 11:57 pm | By

This is good. Now if lots of people start saying the same thing, maybe one of these days it will begin to sink in.

In case it isn’t already obvious, competition has broken out between the religious elements of our society for the label of ‘Most Sensitive’. Every time someone gets offended, it has become standard policy to complain that followers of other faiths are treated with more respect…[B]roadcasters, production companies and even theatre houses can fall into a trap of trying to keep the ‘representatives’ happy. In an environment where they’re evidently competing with each other, this is a dangerous policy because there is no way back. With Behzti for example, it gave the impression to those being consulted that they had editorial control over the final product. For news organisations it can mean bias in reporting. For young British Asians who want to tell their own stories through theatre, it can mean facing an environment where censorship is imposed on them by their own community…The worry is that in the desire to be politically correct, British institutions end up listening only to highly vocal and organised religious groups. There is a tendency to assume they represent everyone in their respective communities.

Yup, there is. In fact – that bit about ‘young British Asians who want to tell their own stories through theatre, it can mean facing an environment where censorship is imposed on them by their own community’ – that reminds me of something – gosh, what is it – it’s hovering right there – oh yes! I remember now. Just change the word ‘theatre’ to ‘literature’ or ‘fiction’ and you have the situation Salman Rushdie found himself in. And still does, since the fatwa was touchingly renewed the other day. Gives communitarianism a whole new meaning, that kind of thing.

Harry has a post on the subject at his Place.

Why Are You so Silent?

Feb 14th, 2005 10:35 pm | By

Hmm. There’s an odd statement in here – in the AAUP’s statement on the Ward Churchill fuss. Well, that’s not surprising, I guess. Pretty much whenever people start talking about freedom of speech and academic freedom, odd statements get made. It seems to be a subject that inspires odd statements – no doubt because there are so many competing goods at issue, and because people don’t always notice the competitive aspect, so they’ll cheerfully make contradictory statements from one sentence to the next.

Needless to say, the AAUP thinks Churchill should not be fired for writing the ‘little Eichmanns’ article, no matter how livid the right-wing pundits get. Needless to say, I agree with them, however much I may mock Churchill’s Billy Jack routine. But there are some oddities, all the same.

One of them is utterly routine and predictable, but it’s one that always makes me wonder a good deal.

Freedom of faculty members to express views, however unpopular or distasteful, is an essential condition of an institution of higher learning that is truly free. We deplore threats of violence heaped upon Professor Churchill, and we reject the notion that some viewpoints are so offensive or disturbing that the academic community should not allow them to be heard and debated.

The thing that always bothers me about statements like that is that it leaves out a real problem – thus making the free speech position seem a lot easier than it really is. Because there are views and viewpoints that are not just unpopular or distasteful or offensive or disturbing – they are dangerous or harmful. That’s where a lot of the disagreement takes place, obviously. That’s the issue that’s central to the disagreement over the incitement to religious hatred law in the UK – whether such a law can, in principle and in fact, distinguish between speech that is unpopular or distasteful or offensive or disturbing, and speech that is dangerous – or (more complicated still) potentially dangerous. And surely the idea of danger is behind laws against incitement to racial hatred. The point is not that such speech is offensive, it’s that it has the potential to get people killed. And yet – free speech statements so seldom talk about the subject in those terms. That seems to me to be an evasive way of proceeding. I think I think the religious hatred law is a bad idea, but I also think that it’s quite true that it is possible to incite hatred and violence by means of speech about religion. Competing goods, you see. I think there are competing goods here (as there usually are, after all), as opposed to all good versus all bad. Statements endorsing free speech that pretend the worst speech can do is offend or disturb people are stacking the deck. (Which is not, just in case it’s not clear, to say that I think Churchill’s article is dangerous; I don’t; the point is a general one. I’m not making a ‘don’t you know there’s a war on?’ argument against Churchill.)

In fact the tension is visible right inside the statement. ‘We deplore threats of violence heaped upon Professor Churchill.’ Yup. But threats of violence are speech too. But they go beyond unpopular or distasteful or offensive or disturbing. I think that should have been mentioned somewhere in that statement, if only as a parenthetical stipulation. ‘Freedom of faculty members to express views, however unpopular or distasteful (provided they fall short of threats or incitement),’ perhaps. There’s a large snake-swallowing-tail element in all this, because people often use their freedom of speech to make threats against other people in order to shut them up. As we saw in Birmingham a few weeks ago. Well that’s how free speech is, isn’t it – there’s a huge de facto element. The powerful have more free speech than the powerless; those who own newspapers and radio stations have more free speech than those who don’t; the rich who can buy advertising and bribe politicians have more than the poor who can’t; and so on. ‘Sure, honey, you have a constitutional right to say whatever you like, and if you say it I’m going to punch you in the face. Go ahead.’

High Tension

Feb 11th, 2005 8:50 pm | By

A couple of further thoughts on the Taboo question. There is a lot of tension in all this – because there are some rational, non-ostrich-like, non-fingers-in-ears, non-You Can’t Say That reasons for worry about, for instance, saying that a particular identifiable set of people may have, in however small a statistical sense, less of a given ability than another set or sets. One such reason is the self-fulfilling prophesy. The worry is that if you tell people – especially and all the more so if you tell them officially academically scientifically studies have shownically – that they are, or they belong to a group or subset of the population that is, statistically, however slightly and tail end effectly, innately less good at X, there is very often a strong tendency for the people in question to give up on X as a result. To relax their efforts, to decide it’s hopeless, to give themselves permission not to bang their heads against a wall.

A book on US education, The Learning Gap, by Harold Stevenson and James Stigler, discusses one aspect of this problem in chapter 5, Effort and Ability. They argue that Americans put more emphasis on innate ability while Chinese and Japanese people put more on persistent effort. ‘In sum, the relative importance people assign to factors beyond their control, like ability, compared to factors that they can control, like effort, can strongly influence the way they approach learning. Ability models subvert learning…’ I have a friend who teaches high school math, and she is apt to go off like a bomb when anyone says maybe girls and women find math more difficult than boys and men. She spends much of her working life trying to counter that idea in her girl students: she says they believe it, and the result is that they don’t try. I find that highly plausible, since that was my own attitude to math when I was in school – I decided very early that I hated it and was no good at it, so I never tried hard enough.

So you can see where such ideas can be disastrous. Group X is good at A. B, and C. I belong to group X: I’m good at A-C, less good at D-W. What follows is not only ‘I’ll do better at A-C, I might fail at D-W, A-C will be easier,’ and the like. There is also the even more insidious thought that ‘I won’t be an authentic X if I try to do D-W. Xs don’t do D-W, it’s not their scene, it’s a Y thing, a Z thing, not an X thing. I’m proud to be an X, I don’t want to imitate Ys or Zs – even or especially if Ys and Zs are above Xs in the social hierarchy. That’s all the more reason to be a loyal X, an authentic X. Ys and Zs are successful, rich, important, powerful, sure, but-therefore, they are wicked, heartless, selfish, materialistic, phony, money-mad, alienated, too clever by half. I will never desert my people – I will do X things.’

So…one can see why people would want everyone to just shut up about the possibility of a statistical tail end effect in women’s math ability, even if it is or may be true. But at the same time one can also see that that wanting everyone to shut up about something is generally incompatible with scholarship and inquiry. So there’s a tension. It makes my head hurt. Kind of the way algebra used to.

Taboo U

Feb 9th, 2005 8:04 pm | By

There is a lot of discussion of the Taboo mentality going on right now – which is good, in the sense that the dangers of the taboo mentality are being pointed out, but it’s bad, in the sense that there is also a lot of Taboo mentality around right now. Is it worth it to have some people thinking badly to give an occasion for other people to explain what’s wrong with bad thinking? Wouldn’t it be better and simpler just to have everyone thinking clearly to begin with? Yes, probably, but since that’s not going to happen, it’s a good thing there are people around to do some nudging.

Salman Rushdie at Open Democracy, for example.

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

There’s a lot of disagreement over that thought, but it seems right to me. Declaring a set of ideas immune from criticism or satire does seem like the one thing you don’t want to do with a set of ideas. You could say that that’s what the word ‘God’ is for – a kind of imaginary rubber stamp or strongbox or chastity belt serving to render a particular set of ideas undiscussable, unchangeable, non-negotiable. Given what human ideas can be and what they can do, that seems like a very risky approach.

Steven Pinker in The New Republic is talking about the same general idea, though in a different instantiation.

To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa. History tells us that how much we want to believe a proposition is not a reliable guide as to whether it is true…

And not only history. An easy thought-experiment can show us the same thing. Let’s see…I want it to be true that there is a steaming-hot pizza with feta, pesto and artichokes on the table. But there isn’t, and it isn’t. I guess my wanting isn’t all that powerful, then.

What are we to make of the breakdown of standards of intellectual discourse in this affair–the statistical innumeracy, the confusion of fairness with sameness, the refusal to glance at the scientific literature? It is not a disease of tenured radicals; comparable lapses can be found among the political right (just look at its treatment of evolution). Instead, we may be seeing the operation of a fascinating bit of human psychology. The psychologist Philip Tetlock has argued that the mentality of taboo–the belief that certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think them–is not a quirk of Polynesian culture or religious superstition but is ingrained into our moral sense.

As a matter of fact, it was reading Pinker on Tetlock and others on taboo that inspired my colleague to create the ‘Taboo’ game. Of course, some ideas are ‘so dangerous’ – the ideas that swirl around ethnic cleansing, genocide, purity, eugenics, generally cleaning up humanity by thinning it out radically, are an obvious example. But as Pinker puts it –

Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong…The tragedy is that this mentality of taboo needlessly puts a laudable cause on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry.

Yes. Books published by Taboo University Press are not the ones that promise a searching look at which ideas are wrong for what reasons. I’ll order mine from Free Inquiry Press, thanks.

How Do I Look in This Beret?

Feb 7th, 2005 11:21 pm | By

Norman Levitt has some very pointed things to say about Harvard.

Harvard University, the oldest in the USA and the wealthiest in the world, thinks very well of itself…It is an open secret that [Summers] was handed the helm at Harvard out of a growing sense that the place had grown stale, complacent, and narcissistic. Too many Harvard professors had settled into the habit of assuming that any old doctrine, opinion, or casual observation they chanced to utter was, ipso facto, profound and epochal merely because it issued from the great faux-Georgian citadel on the Charles. In truth, the place had grown somewhat dowdy, intellectually speaking, and, even worse, had proved itself susceptible to the vagaries of academic fashion…In some areas, Harvard had not only tolerated trendy mediocrity, but actively embraced it. Summers’ task, then, was to shake things up and to restore a relentlessly meritocratic ethic to the process of hiring and rewarding faculty where mere piety and sentimentality had previously been permitted to call the shots.

It’s funny how exactly like the New York Times that description sounds – at least to me. Thinks very well of itself; stale, complacent, and narcissistic; profound merely because it is itself; intellectually dowdy; medicrity; piety. The Times has a dreadful habit of announcing that it’s the best newspaper in the world – which apart from anything else simply can’t be true, can it? Surely in the entire world there are better newspapers than the Times – aren’t there? If not I think I’ll have to join the French Foreign Legion.

But that’s a digression – except it’s not entirely: because the phenomenon of the complacently mediocre top of the heap is interesting, and it’s part of what Levitt is talking about. His account sounds plausible to me because I’ve seen the same sort of smugness in other institutions with excessively solid reputations. Or in people with the same things. Remember the Cornel West fuss?

Summers lost no time in taking up the challenge. Early in his regime, he notoriously confronted Black Studies eminence Cornel West, essentially accusing him of goofing off with flashy and trivial projects (like voice-overs on hip-hop CDs) rather than turning out scholarly work of real substance. The touchy West promptly picked up his marbles and headed for Princeton, where a certain soft-heartedness still reigns. Many Harvard students, bred on the platitudes of ‘diversity’ and greatly susceptible to West’s showmanship, were outraged…But though some still blame Summers for ‘losing’ West, the prevailing opinion – most often stated anonymously, of course – is that Summers did the university a favour by cleverly easing out a dubious academic ‘superstar.’

Showmanship. Just so. That’s a serious occupational hazard for academics, you know. It comes of spending much of one’s waking time telling callow ignorant young people what’s what. (We have a joke about it in the Dictionary. ‘Socratic deformation or elenchusitis.’) Men are especially prone to it. Yes they are; don’t argue. Come on, you know they are. It’s the sex thing. They know their students are going to get crushes on them – how can they help strutting a little? Whereas women mostly know their students are not going to get crushes on them, and are mostly not all that flattered if they do. (Why? Because young men are repellent, while young women are attractive. Next question.) Then add some flashy ‘radical’ politics and ‘Indian’ credentials (however bogus), and you’ve got yourself a first-class Che-wannabe. Tweak the ingredients and you’ve got Cornel West. Tweak again and you’ve got Judith Butler (I said men are especially prone, not exclusively). Particularly at a time when there are a lot of people around inexplicably willing to call some academics ‘superstars’ – the temptation is clearly almost overpowering. But how nice it would be if the dears would resist. They kind of discredit the whole enterprise when they preen themselves in public. They feed into the suspicion of people like Fox News anchors that universities are nothing but theatrical settings for people who like to dress up as wevowutionawies and frighten the bourgeoisie.

I was actually going to talk about the substance of Levitt’s article but I got sidetracked by the style question. But that’s just it: in a lot of cases I think the style is the substance. Looking at and reading Ward Churchill, I find myself convinced that he doesn’t really mean any of it, that he just says the most ‘radical’ thing he can manage to think of, for the sake of saying it. To show off, basically. I knew people like that when I was at university – boy, did I. They were so much more into posing than they were into really thinking about what they were talking about. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity, saith the preacher. Well he was a showoff too.