Friday, December 30, 2016

One Last Mention of the CSWA Survey for 2016

[Update: this post deals, in part, with a specific error in an article that was corrected after I pointed it out. The 61% figure has now been corrected to 32%. Sarah Scoles has confirmed that my hunch was right, and the error resulted from a misinterpretation of the CSWA survey. The article, however, still does not provide that source, nor break the 32% down more informatively into "rarely", "sometimes" and "often". Nor is the reader told that the survey remains unpublished and its methods unchecked by peers.]


"Next time someone sends you a press release and you’re thinking of running the story, first contact the organization and ask to see the written report. If they say they don’t have a report, it’s simple: Either don’t run the study, or run a report that is appropriately dripping with skepticism, including the phrase "for which the organization refused to supply a written report" as many times as possible." (Andrew Gelman)

I had actually half expected not to hear any more about the CSWA survey of harassment in astronomy. I've written about its many problems before and explained why I think it should only be invoked with Andrew's "dripping skepticism". It only exists in the public domain as a set of slides from a conference presentation. Indeed, not only has it not yet passed peer-review, I gather from reports on Twitter that it has been rejected by at least one journal.

That has apparently not stopped Sarah Scoles at Wired from taking its results at face value. Indeed, as we shall see, she goes a little further than that in her review of "science's sexual harassment problem" in 2016. She begins by saying that this was the year that the science community finally caught on to the problem of sexual harassment, mostly through high profile cases. But, she tells us, it's not just anecdotes and stories.

The numbers agree: A 2014 study found that 71 percent of female scientists had been sexually harassed while out in the field, and 26 percent had been sexually assaulted.* In a 2015 survey of astronomers, 61 percent of respondents reported experience of verbal harassment in their current job, for gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion or disability status. Around 11 percent reported physical harassment.

Like Andrew Gelman, I think it’s very important to provide a full citation for such studies so that readers can check out the details themselves. Since I’ve been following the #astroSH story myself very closely this year, I was surprised not to recognize the 61% figure. After all, in her piece for The Atlantic in early January, she had written, as others did at the time, that "fifty-seven percent said that they had been verbally harassed because of their gender, while nine percent said they had been physically harassed." The 57% figure turned out to be wrong and has since been corrected to 32%. I.e., still not 61%. I went back to Christina Richey's slides to look for a 61% and couldn't find one. So I had a closer look at slide 5, with the relevant results:

Scoles seems to have simply added up the percentages. This is probably not an accurate interpretation of the data and not one that I have heard or read either Christina Richey or Kate Clancy (two of the study's authors) mention. That's no doubt because the categories overlap in principle. Indeed, most researchers and activists in this area insist that they overlap in practice. If there is anything to “intersectional” feminism, then some of the respondents (and probably most) would have reported harassment in multiple categories. Indeed, "male privilege" would, in theory, be able to protect people who aren't part of the 32% from, say, religious discrimination.

Also, do please note that Scoles, following the author's lead, simply ignores that the vast majority of respondents say that verbal harassment happens only "rarely" or "sometimes". She simply lumps them in with "often" to get the highest possible figure in each category. Then she adds the categories together as though there's no overlap. If she had applied the same procedure to slide 3 she would have found that 429% of respondents reported hearing problematic language of various kinds.

I have to say that "61 percent of respondents reported experience of verbal harassment" is only probably a misinterpretation because Richey and Clancy have provided no write-up of their results yet, and have in fact refused to discuss their methods and analysis with me (or anyone else that I know of). In my opinion, until a detailed written report is made available, the CSWA survey should be passed over in silence or mentioned only, as Andrew puts it, in phrases dripping with skepticism. Certainly, entirely novel results (i.e., results not yet announced publicly by the researchers) should not be concocted simply by adding up percentages on a chart, and then reported without even providing the source!

___________
*This is presumably Kate Clancy's SAFE study, which I've written about here. [Update: I want to add a few words about describing the SAFE survey as "a 2014 study [that] found that 71 percent of female scientists had been sexually harassed while out in the field, and 26 percent had been sexually assaulted." SAFE was not a study of all "scientists", but a study of anthropologists at field work sites all over the world, which are probably some of the more dangerous places for scientists in terms of sexual harassment and assault. Moreover, Scoles makes the study sound representative of all scientists, while the paper that reported the survey makes clear that there was a self-selection bias, so that "these survey data neither allow us to estimate the rate of these experiences among our trainees and colleagues, nor do they allow any estimation of the prevalence of field sites with a hostile work environment and/or systematic abuse." Finally, while Clancy herself has presented the 26% as reported rate of "assault", the relevant survey question uses a rather broad definition, on which even people who did not experience the encounter as an assault might well answer yes: "Have you ever experienced physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which you could not or did not give consent or felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give your consent at an anthropological field site?" In short, think we have to write much more carefully about these studies in the future so as not to give readers the wrong impression about the scope and nature of the problem.]

Basic Rights and Duties

Jacob Sullum's article on California's Bill of Rights for Children and Youth, is a good opportunity to point out how glaring the absence of a basic income is in our conception of human rights. Until a state actually "sorts outs the basic food positions" it is disingenuous for it to assert "rights" to things like healthcare and education. In the case of children, it's worse, because, as libertarians rightly point out, the "right" of a child to healthcare is actually the duty of a parent to have them vaccinated; the "right" of child to education is (for all practical purposes) the duty of the parent to send the child to school. A Bill of Rights in this area does not constrain the power of state, it asserts the power of the state—to interfere in the upbringing of children by their parents.

In all Western democracies, the state should begin by seeing to its own fundamental duties, before assigning further duties to its citizens under the guise of protecting the rights of children. In my view, the most fundamental duty of the state is to create the nation's money. It can do this by distributing the purchasing power needed to buy the products of the economy and collect taxes from the nation's property owners. The owners will thereby be forced to use the land in productive ways, commensurate with their tax burden, and the people will have the means to compensate the owners for their effort and ingenuity. Nature will do most of the work. Indeed, it will do essentially all of it if we include within our conception of "nature" the body of the worker working within its natural limits.

In such a system, every child would have parents with enough money to feed them and enough freedom to raise them with love as autonomous beings. It is not just arrogance on the part of the state to think that it can make better choices for children than their parents can. What we are seeing here is the outright arrogation by the state of the right to raise children. And it asserts this right only after it has designed a fiscal and monetary system to produce a standing threat (and occasional reality) of poverty that humiliates and enervates the entire population. I don't just find it, as Sullum does, absurd. I find it outrageous.

* * *

In the new year, I hope to tie these ideas back into my critique of social science and the sense of "social justice" it informs. I find myself increasingly in agreement with Wyndham Lewis about "the boring and wasteful sham-sciences that have sprung up in support of the great pretences of democracy" and increasingly worried that he was right to think of Fascism as a plausible alternative. At the moment, one does not have much confidence in the prospective dictator, just as Lewis found his counterpart in 1925 somewhat "unfortunate". But I do believe that even back then a truly liberating alternative was also possible, mainly in the visions of Henry George and C.H. Douglas. And it is, sadly, our social sciences that keep us from seeing this utopia clearly.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Hoggers of the Harvest

For Stephanie

"You gentlemen who think you have a mission to purge us of our seven deadly sins, should first sort out the basic food positions…" (Bertolt Brecht)

For at least 10,000 years, famine has been a local and temporary problem. Since the invention of agriculture, there has always been enough food to go around. The world population is the only evidence of this that we need. Even in the face of plague and war, the human species has grown. And we cannot grow without nutrients, calories. Calories, on this planet, have never been a problem in an economic sense: they have never been scarce. Not everywhere, not for long. They have, however, constituted a political problem.

Let us imagine an early agricultural community. Recognizing that 99% of the "labor" of food production happens naturally—the sun shines, the rain falls, the crops grow—the community attributes no particular value to the labor that the farmers put into putting food on the table. After all, the other members of the community are working too. They are raising children and playing music. They are cooking food and they are building homes. They are making the tools the farmers use. If the farmers, at the end of the harvest, were to suddenly demand some particular compensation from the community before handing over its bounty, there would, quite rightly, be outrage.

But a more moderate question can be considered. Should the other labors of the community, from childbirth to philosophy, be somehow measured against the labor of the farmer to determine what share of the bounty each member of the community should get? I want to stress again that much of this question is ridiculously ungrateful to "nature's increase". As Barack Obama might have said to the farmer while pointing at the sun, "You didn't build that!" So let's say that at least half (I'd say 99% percent) of the harvest should simply be split evenly. On what principle should the remainder be divided?

Here we can easily imagine a system of tokens (money) by which members of the community, through their daily labors (not in the field) keep track of what they have done for each other. The farmer, too, needs to participate in this economy, and therefore, after the harvest, collects these tokens in exchange for excess crops (the portion that is not automatically split evenly among all members of the community.) These are also the tokens paid to the day laborers on the farm, etc.

Since everyone also has a little stash of their share of the harvest, some of which they may not want, a portion of the economic activity after the harvest has been distributed would go auctioning off excess foodstuffs, so that those who like corn get more corn, those who like wheat get more wheat. Of course, someone immediately hits on the idea of distributing tokens instead of corn and wheat to everyone, so that they don't have to redistribute their initial share, but can simply buy what they want directly from the farmer.

This, of course, is the root idea of the basic income. Obviously, it has to come from somewhere, and it seems reasonable to let it come from a tax on the farmer. The farmer distributes a certain amount of tokens for use in the general economy, and collects them when the harvest comes in.

I believe that at some point in our history, someone turned this system of pre-distributed credit into a debt-based economy, where the community ended up owing someone (and I doubt it was the farmer) in order to be able to eat. The injustice, like I say, of this arrangement lies in having someone "take credit" for the labor of the sun and rain and seed. I believe the injustice is 10,000 years deep. The hogging of the harvest is the crime of the millennia.

But it can be corrected, literally, overnight. All it would take is the implementation of universal basic income funded by a single tax on land. All sovereign nations have this within the power to accomplish. That it does not happen actually, in my mind, puts their sovereignty into question.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Universal Basic Income (A Response to Josh Barro)

It was interesting to see Josh Barro let the election of Donald Trump help him make up his mind against universal basic income. In my case, even the prospect of a Trump presidency was making it clear to me how important the UBI is as a policy. So I thought I'd quickly jot down some reactions to Barro's piece.

First, like Barro, I think the strength of the UBI is the way it unites Left and Right. It

has become subject of fascination for policy wonks across the ideological spectrum because of the goals it intends to serve: decoupling subsistence from wage labor (a goal of the left), replacing complex safety-net programs that often create disincentives to work (a goal of the right), and preparing for a future in which automation reduces the demand for labor.

So far, we agree entirely. A UBI would help America heal by transcending its ideological divisions.

But where I think Barro goes wrong is when he begins to think about the importance of work and the associated resentment of those who don't have it. "Work is one of the core institutions that holds our society together," he reminds us. "It serves two purposes: It provides people with the income they need to support themselves and their families, and it provides a sense of purpose in life and society." That is indeed how things are today, more or less. Our culture links employment and dignity very closely, so that to be jobless is a source of shame.

Barro thinks that a UBI would exacerbate the problem. I think it would solve it. Here's how:

First, it would no longer be the case that you needed either a job or a humiliating relationship with a welfare office to survive. Like everyone else, you would simply have enough money in the bank every month to survive if you lived frugally enough. You and your spouse could, working together, probably even raise a family without having to do any paid work at all.

Second, and this is very important, the minimum wage could be abolished. Wages would fall (with no effect on the real income of working people, since the UBI would cover their decline in wage income). It would become possible for employers to offer jobs at whatever rate people would be willing to take them. Keep in mind that their willingness to work would never be outright desperate. So employers would still need to offer a combination of reasonable compensation and reasonable working conditions. The point is just that they'd probably be able to find someone willing to work quite cheaply for at least a few hours every day. And they wouldn't have to offer anyone a full-time job to get ordinary labor done. They could just hire more people.

And that's where UBI would also solve "the immigration problem" as construed by Trump and his voters. It would effectively build a "wall" ... actually, let's call it a "platform". There would be plenty of low paying, part-time jobs in America, and plenty of Americans willing to work at them. (After all, they would now have reasonable comfort, plenty of time, but still not enough cash for that better stereo or road trip to LA.) But, since the UBI would increase purchasing power across the board, the cost of living relative to wages would be quite high. This means that "undocumented" residents, who would not be able to collect the UBI, would no longer find the US a very attractive place to live. The UBI would create a paradise only for legal residents.

I realize that there are people on the Left who would question the humanity of this arrangement for existing non-documented residents. But that political problem already exists and would be solved simply by issuing the necessary papers under whatever agreed upon criteria. The point is that the incentive to take up undocumented residency in the US in the first place would disappear almost overnight. Once you got here, no one would be offering you a job you could survive on.

Let's return to Barro's notion that "Work is one of the core institutions that holds our society together." The point of course is that it has outlived it's usefulness in this regard. The Cult of Work needs to go the way of the Cult of Virginity. We need to stop connecting any shame to loafing. Labor should be exchanged as freely for money as anything else. Let's make love, not work!

That would make America great again, I think.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Post-Truth

Heterodox Academy points us to this piece by Jonathan Gold on the problem of teaching millennials in a "post-truth" era. Though he does precisely pre-empt my criticism of his pretty "standard aspirational progressive teacher daydreaming", I certainly share his concerns. I have one very concrete point of disagreement.

I don't believe that the solution lies in better "media literacy" or even "critical thinking". I think these terms have lost their usefulness, and their misguided pursuit is actually what produced the post-truth era. We certainly do not need more "research on the effects of social media use on teens and the generally understood neuroscience of the teenage brain." What is needed is ordinary literacy: the ability to read and write texts, including the ability to evaluate them as sources. And curiosity. That's what will bring us back into the light.

The metaphor that comes to mind is an elaborate effort to teach young people how to read the labels on processed foods and pharmaceuticals, but not pointing them to the fresh produce aisle and teaching them the benefits of moderate physical exercise. Instead of teaching students how to "navigate in the media landscape" we should just read well-written books with them and ask them to write coherent essays about those books. They don't need a bunch of new principles, they mainly need to practice.

By keeping the books and topics somewhat "outdated", we can confidently help them sort the signal from the noise. We can teach them how to know things by teaching them what we know and how we came to know it. We can't do that if we obsess along with them about the latest Twitterstorm. We have to model a standard that they can hold the tempests in their teapots to.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Transcendental Limits

"The English language is like a broad river on whose bank a few patient anglers are sitting, while, higher up, the stream is being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." (Cyril Connolly)

This was the year I lost my taste for social media. I left Twitter and even stopped blogging for a while. It turns out, however, that I love blogging and I missed writing in this medium. Also, I think the ease of blogging sets an important standard for knowledge communication. There is, in an important sense, no longer any excuse for not being able to read a straightforward statement of the opinion of a prominent figure, whether a scientist or a politician. It's not like such a statement is difficult to publish.

If you've been accused of research fraud or plagiarism, your statement of guilt or innocence should be on your blog immediately. If some new discovery has been made that bears significantly on your research, your interpretation should be forthcoming. If you have made a discovery, a statement of your methods and findings should be neither behind a paywall nor "under review". Just blog it. Anything else only exhibits your ulterior motives.

The good thing about blogging is that there is nothing necessarily anonymous about it. You can correctly identify yourself and keep your blogging otherwise entirely impersonal, i.e., within your area of publicly asserted expertise. There is no particular reason to hide, nor, like I say, to keep your opinions on matters you are (often publicly funded to be) qualified to hold opinions about to yourself. If everyone has access to clear and coherent statements of what you know and how you know we're all better able to do our work.

The best example of a blog that is using the power of the Internet to the fullest is Andrew Gelman's Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. Andrew's posts are written informally and with a clear point of view, usually from within his own expertise or with a clear awareness of the limitations of its application to a particular case. Andrew's commenters are widely regarded as among the best on the planet. The comments are [very lightly]* moderated. I don't know how much work that demands of Andrew, but his judgment (or his bot) seems both pretty open-minded about the range of opinion that is allowed and sure-eyed when it comes to filtering out garbage.

But what about the "trolls"? Well, first of all, we have to qualify that term. One pivotal moment in my distaste for social media came a while back, when a critical discussion of some published research results was shut down by the moderators of OrgTheory, a blog I had been reading and commenting on for years. I had been participating, and many of us thought the discussion was on point and interesting. Still, the explanation for shutting down the comments was the catch-all excuse these day: "the trolls were moving in". That was a very inaccurate way of describing what was going on. Weaknesses were being exposed in a piece of published research, that is really all.

Now, it is absolutely true that trolls do, often, move in and make conversation difficult in less moderated forums. But most platforms have simple, effective and relatively unobtrusive ways of dealing with them. Trolls can often simply be ignored. They can be hidden. And they can be blocked. If you can't makes sense of someone's statement as anything other than an insult, just leave it alone. Assume that no one else is taking it seriously either. If someone you respect brings it up and says, "Why didn't you address [the troll's] point?" you can ask them to restate it in language you can engage with. These aren't sticks and stones. Simple advice like that.

That said, there do seem to be many un-moderated comment sections that are best described as "cesspools". This doesn't mean the posts themselves are worthless, just that getting anything useful out of the comments is too much work to be worth the bother. And contributing something to them is likewise a waste of time. That's why personal blogs with a few hundred readers, all working within a relative narrow range of expertise and writing about subjects from a point of view that is technical enough to discourage attention whores and trouble makers are preferable to the so-called blogs of major media organizations.

I recently had what might be called a "liminal" experience, something that showed me what is wrong with today's media, or what we sometimes still call the Internet. Through channels I'll coyly leave on one side for now, someone told me about a website called Omegle. I'm pretty sure it's entirely safe to use the site as a long as you don't give out any personal information. But proceed at your own risk, I guess.

It is endearingly simple. You have no account or profile, and are therefore fully anonymous. When you go on the site, you get paired with another equally anonymous user for a one-on-one chat. (There is a completely random mode, and a function that lets you declare an interest in a particular subject to be paired with accordingly.) You (or they) can end the chat at any time and instantly start another one. The site claims that there are tens of thousands of people online at any given time.

In principle, one would think that such a site would serve a purpose. Why shouldn't a brief conversation with a total stranger anywhere in the world (someone who has nothing to lose except the time involved) be intermittently interesting? Well, you can try it. I spent almost fifteen minutes trying to talk to someone interesting, constantly running into, not trolls but (I think) bots. The conversations went like this:

[CHAT BEGINS]
Me: Hello
Stranger: girl here. im really bored. i'm from Illinois.
Me: I'm bored too. At work.
Stranger: i got pics, u should kik me if u wanna see ;)
Me [if I type fast enough]: No thanks.
Stranger: [a Kik user name]
[END OF CHAT]

You can have literally hundreds of these exchanges, I imagine, and never run into someone who is actually a bored girl (or boy or man or dog) in any real place. Obviously, there is something about a completely free platform for communication that immediately gets descended on, not by trolls looking to infuriate people, but advertisers hawking their wares. (For obvious reasons, the site is seen as a market for pornography.)

And yet, I would think a filter could be made to keep bots and merchants out. It would, however, probably require that at some end of the site anonymity doesn't exist. That is, you would need to have an account that you couldn't really just "burn" to break the rules. Unless something like a spam filter or anti-virus software could be designed to essentially "Turing test" all the interactions and block the relevant IP addresses, you'd have to put your real self "at stake" somehow. Otherwise, it seems, there is just no reason for advertisers not to abuse the medium and crowd out the very attention that supposedly makes it a market. As far I can tell, Omegle at this point must just be thousands of bots telling each other they're "bored in Illinois" and promoting their Kik accounts.

I'll leave it there. Internet communication appears to depend on some sort of transcendental limit that is able to filter spam without incurring too great a cost to the communicator. There are many models for this. A blog like Andrew's is one of them; a place like Wikipedia is another. It is sad (but entirely understandable) that a place like Omegle can't actually exist. Somehow it shows us the practical limitation of entirely free speech. It's a sort of worst case scenario after the collapse of decorum.

__________
*Andrew has clarified the way comments are managed: "the comments on our blog are not moderated. There's a spam filter which occasionally catches non-spam by accident (and then I can never find them unless someone specifically emails me that this has happened) and some comments are held in a cache which I check once or more per day and sort as spam or real. But I think that in all these years there have only been three or four non-spam comments that I've actually deleted because of offensive comment.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Students Against Decorum

Robby Soave is doing some very necessary work covering campus activism for Reason. Recently, he has written about the disruption of a Q&A following a screening of Kim Peirce's film Boys Don't Cry. Jack Halberstam offers his own account of what happened, along with an in my opinion completely unnecessary show of understanding for the issues (what he calls "interesting critiques and queries", "worthy of conversation") raised by the activists. To his credit, his understanding is articulated mainly as a demonstration of their ignorance and stupidity, which can perhaps be forgiven in students at a $50,000/year college. (Perhaps "worthy of conversation" is a nice way of saying "in need of education".) What cannot be forgiven is their unkindness, their cruelty.

I don't agree with Halberstam that the three facts about the film cited by the activists are legitimately "objectionable" and worth talking about. (To his credit, again, Halberstam is clear that the activists simply don't understand "the film’s visual grammar and representational strategies" and that "it is not ... a worthy activist goal to try to suppress the film.") The three "facts" are these: (1) Peirce is not trans and made money from a film about trans life, (2) Hilary Swank is not trans and played the role of a trans person in the film, (3) a trans person was brutally raped in the film. That is, literally, it. For this Peirce was denounced as a transphobic "scared", "fucking bitch" and her participation in the screening disrupted to the point of her having to leave the room.

I don't want to spend too much time defending the autonomy of art against political correctness. Peirce made a movie she was inspired to make about a subject that interested her. She happens to be, as Halberstam points out, "a queer, butch film maker" but that shouldn't even factor into it. I should be able to make such a film if I wanted to. To make the film, in any case, she cast an actor that won a goddam Oscar for her performance, suggesting a degree of competence that is rare among all actors, let alone the tiny proportion who identify as trans. The movie was about violence against trans people and that violence was depicted graphically. The issue here is the perennial one of violence in movies, not about violence against trans people. There are certainly both ethical and aesthetic concerns worth talking about. (At the very least we can talk about the relevance of ethics to aesthetics.) But the political question of who gets to make this movie depicting violence against whom, and to propose to dictate how to depict it, is a brutalization of the autonomy of art.

The activists are obviously demanding to decide what movies Peirce should make and how those movies should be made. They are not "critiquing" and "queriing" the film. They are trying to censor it. It is absolutely shameful and Dean of Faculty Nigel Nicholson was, appropriately, ashamed of his students. "I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed of our conduct," he said, "and I hope that as a community we can reflect on what happened and make a determination not to repeat it."* I find this encouraging and I have some advice to help the community avoid future embarrassment.

I've suggested this before. Perhaps speakers can help by making "maintenance of decorum" a condition of attending any speaking event on campus.** Though I'm rarely invited to speak anywhere, much less on controversial topics, I think I'm going to make this demand on principle from now on. The condition is simply this: if speakers at any point find themselves unable to continue speaking, the disrupters shall be required to identify themselves as either students of the university or guests of students of the university. In either case, student IDs will be required to move forward. Already at this point, the incident will be recorded and some disciplinary action will be taken (perhaps just a warning). The disrupter will be allowed to remain as long as they don't cause any further disturbance. If they do not identify themselves, they will be removed by police and charged with trespassing. If they are thereafter identified (by police) as a student, they will be expelled. If they do identify themselves but continue to disrupt, they also risk expulsion [i.e., from college, not just the lecture], especially if the event is ultimately prevented from going forward.

These rules should be made crystal clear to students on the first day of classes. Observing decorum is an essential part of participating in an academic community. Dean Nicholson is basically asking for determination among the faculty and students to actually be an academic community. If, as a student, you find yourself unable to tolerate an invited speaker to your campus with civility, you don't belong on that campus. The appropriate act of "defiance" is to find another school. Or perhaps recognize that you're not really suited for intellectual work.

_______
*As Thomas Presskorn points out in the comments, Dean Nicholson's full statement can be read on page 2 of the Reed College Quest (December 2). I think it's an excellent statement of values. Though I understand the difficulty of his position, I would have included a warning about disciplinary actions. Indeed, I would probably have issued formal warnings to the implicated students if their names are indeed known. That would send the necessary message to students and, more importantly, to future guests.
**This sentence wasn't as clear as I would have liked. What I mean is that it might help event organizers if invited speakers "demanded" that decorum be enforced as condition of their accepting the invitation. That way the organizers have an agreement (to which the university is a party) to refer to when demanding that disruptions cease.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

How to Imagine Utopia

First, understand that we can afford it. The per capita Gross Domestic Product of the United States of America is about $60,000. The annual minimum wage is around $15,000. That is, per person, the nation earns about four times what someone working year-round at a minimum wage job earns. The national debt is about $20 trillion, but its wealth is around $60 trillion. A similar balance sheet can be drawn up for most Western nations. Poverty is not a state of nature; it is a policy of the State.

Second, imagine an individual state stipend of $1000 paid out monthly to every citizen, regardless of current income or employment status. Obviously, this would let us do away with all minimum wage laws as people seek work merely to supplement an income that allows them to satisfy their basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) while consuming none of their time. It would immediately make the majority of all welfare programs unnecessary and, as people learn to use their time to keep themselves happy and healthy and helpful to each other, would lower the costs of education and healthcare. A great deal of worry about retirement would, likewise, be a thing of the past.

Next, imagine the abolition of all taxes (except one, to which we will return). Every dollar you earn, by work or by wit, is yours to do with as you please, supplementing the $12,000 basic income provided by the state. Businesses would bear no administrative burden on behalf of the State to collect taxes of any kind. If they want to replace their accountant with a cigar box and the honor system, that's entirely their business.

At this point, pause to reflect. Is this the paradise of the worker or the entrepreneur? The answer is that it is paradise for both. Consumers would have the purchasing power to buy what they need; and entrepreneurs would, therefore, have the market to sell what they produce. The economist (and perhaps The Economist), however, will rightly point out that if you print and distribute $1000 to every citizen every month the result will be runaway inflation. We come now to the single tax that would be needed to center the wheel of circulation.

Imagine a single tax on the unimproved rental value of land. This tax would be completely uncomplicated to administer and would encourage owners to develop the economic potential of their property in a sustainable way, distributing its value to the consumers who have the money to compensate them for it. At bottom, the currency, issued as basic income, would be underwritten by its being the only legal means of paying the property tax. If you want a big house and an estate to yourself, you had better manage an efficient factory to produce things of value for customers who are willing to spend their money on them. If you merely want a quiet life in the suburbs, and couple of exotic vacations every year, you need only contribute your labor or leadership to such a factory.

Again, ask yourself: is this the fantasy world of the so-called Left or the so-called Right? It is neither. It is the realistic image of a world in which 99% of the population of any sovereign country would lead happier more fulfilling lives. It is Utopia. It is Nowhere from the point of view of a very small group of very wealthy people, whose wealth depends on keeping this world unimaginable. Poverty, I say again, is not a state of nature. It is the policy of the State.

(I needed to get that off my chest this morning. Everyone should have a vision of the better world towards which their energies are directed. It is not just a manifesto for political action, but the image of perfection against which all value judgments are made. I'm not going to write much about this utopia here, but I will be updating a page on my website continuously as I refine my views, sharpen my image. As the picture develops, I will add pages there. Every now and then I will inform readers of this blog about updates.)

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Homage to Margaret E. Knight

If you're wondering how seriously to take "everyday sexism" and the various "gender gaps", I recommend reading Laura Bates' column in the Guardian this week, promoted on Twitter by none other than Mark Ruffalo, in which we are informed that "the gamechanging inventor Margaret E Knight is summed up in only 500 words on the site, where men make up 83% of notable profiles – and most of the editors too."

"It is often said that women have been written out of history," begins Bates. "We have all heard of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, but few are familiar with their contemporary, Margaret E Knight, a prolific American inventor who held over 20 patents and was decorated by Queen Victoria." Her most notable lasting invention appears to be "a machine that created the flat-bottomed paper bags still used in grocery stores today."

For this, and 25 other patented inventions, she has been described as a "woman Edison". And despite this, Bates notes, "Her Wikipedia profile is just under 500 words long; Edison’s is more than 8,500." It is a strikingly odd comparison, isn't it? A person I had never heard of before, but who was apparently a capable inventor, has a Wikipedia article that is only about 5% as long as that of the most famous inventor ever. Bates seems to grant that it's not an apples-to-apples situation, but, again, in a very odd way:

Of course, Edison’s contribution to the development of the electric light warrants a significant write-up, and his legacy deserves a lengthy profile. But his Wikipedia page also contains minute detail about his early life, diets and views on religion. By contrast, information on Knight’s page is scant, though she too invented an item still widely used today.

If I'm reading that right, she thinks that the stuff about Edison's contribution to electric lighting is perfectly legitimate, and presumably warrants more coverage that Knight's contribution to grocery bagging. What she thinks is unfair is that Edison's article is informative also about his early life and views unrelated to the invention that made him famous, while Knight's article is "scant" on such biographical facts.

The hypothesis that Bates puts forward is that this is history repeating itself, as "the sexist bias that prevented many historic female figures from being rightly commemorated and celebrated" rears its ugly head again. Indeed, she proposes that the same forces that have kept her article to under 500 words have ensured that only 17% of the people profiled on Wikipedia are women. "Perhaps the disparity is unsurprising given that only around 15% of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors are female," she says. And predictably reports that "Reasons suggested for the gender gap have ranged from the elitist nature of the 'hard-driving hacker crowd' to the overt harassment and misogyny faced by female editors on the site," not that women just don't enjoy the sort of work that Wikipedia offers. (As an aside: I left Wikipedia many years ago because I didn't like the mood of the collaborative environment. I suppose I could spin it as having been "bullied" off the site, but it certainly wasn't my gender that set people off.)

Bates thinks that Wikipedia should promote women like Knight because it is a commonly used source of information. "For such a popular source to present millions of students, researchers and journalists with a hugely gender-biased roster of articles could have a real impact on everything, from young people’s career aspirations to which high-profile figures are invited to speak at conferences and events." But Bates simply doesn't understand that Wikipedia's mission isn't to promote agendas, publicize ideas, or foment social change. It's just there to make knowledge available.

It is, in principle, also a synopsis of everything that has ever been known to have been believed. It's both global and historical in scope. To be disappointed that only almost 20% of the most notable people ever are women is just weird. Nonetheless, Bates thinks that Wikipedia should be embarrassed about the lack of detail in the article on Knight because those details "are available elsewhere online". But Wikipedia isn't an aggregator of internet factoids. It is, or at least tries to be, an encyclopedia, a synopsis of what is known. And by "known" it means things that can be reliably sourced.

So I did a simple test. I looked up "Thomas Edison" in the catalog of the Royal Library of Denmark. I restricted my search to subject terms and to the book collection. I found 60 titles. Then I did the same search for "Margaret E Knight" (and "Margaret Knight" for good measure.) There are exactly 0 books about Knight in the catalog. Now, Wikipedia is an international encyclopedia, global in scope. It seems legitimate to me that a person about whom the the Danish National Library has 60 books has a Wikipedia article that is 17 times longer that a person about whom that same library has no books at all.

Nonetheless, it would seem you simply can't prevent some feminists from using any observable "disparity", no matter how easy it may be to explain without invoking gender bias, as yet another sign of the pervasive misogyny and harassment of women that our culture promotes. I think it does the memory of Margaret Knight a disservice to use her name in this way. She successfully fought to be recognized as the inventor of the flat-bottomed paper bag. Intellectually, Bates couldn't fight her way out of a wet one, I suspect.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Temerity and Taboo

"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." (Steven Pinker)

I've been reviewing the peer-reviewed literature on gender differences as Mary Bryson suggested at the University of Toronto forum. I'll probably have a little more to say about it later, but there's just something I wanted to get down in a blog post before I forget. I obviously can't generalize from a single book review, but the misreading that I came across the other day strikes me as somehow typical. That is, in my experience, this sort of misunderstanding, whether willful or not, is what makes discussion in this area so difficult.

It can be found in a review of Rebecca Jordan-Young's Brain Storm by Jane Callaghan in Feminism & Psychology from 2011. In it, Callaghan brings up a 2005 piece in The New Republic, in which Steven Pinker reflects on the Larry Summers controversy and the science of gender differences. In that piece, says Callaghan, Pinker makes the

somewhat scathing claim that anyone who doesn’t accept the premises of the brain sex view is ‘on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry’ (Pinker, 2005: 15). In one fell swoop, Pinker dismisses all critique of the dominant view of sex, gender, and sexuality, and all dissenters to this view are relegated to the position of ‘political ideologues’ – a position which makes all scientific critique rather difficult!

I found the comment remarkable because what had led me to this review was Bryson's suggestion that Jordan-Young could be consulted for a "current review of the literature on sex, gender and gender differences". But Jordan-Young's book is clearly a challenge to the current or "dominant" view (as of 2010, it should be noted; I've not yet found a more recent review article by Jordan-Young). As Callaghan puts it,

Jordan-Young suggests that brain organisation research is itself perhaps not particularly scientifically robust. Rather, it encourages an approach to the field of gender, sex, and sexuality that presupposes a particular kind of causality, with the answer to research questions already laid out in the terms of the approach itself.

So, in disagreeing with Bryson (who agrees with Jordan-Young), it would seem Jordan Peterson is merely taking "the dominant view" on a subject. I don't see how he can be simply dismissed for not accepting the conclusions of a critical review of the literature, a minority report, if you will. Peterson may be wrong and Jordan-Young may be right, of course, but surely there is nothing immediately amiss here from a scientific or scholarly point view. Indeed, it's Bryson who suggests Peterson is on some sort of collision course with science, not the other way round. In one fell swoop, if you will.

But that's not the temerity that I'm really after in this post. I was a taken aback when I checked the original context of the Pinker quote. It appears in the final paragraph, which reads, in full:

At some point in the history of the modern women's movement, the belief that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable became sacred. The reasons are understandable: Women really had been held back by bogus claims of essential differences. Now anyone who so much as raises the question of innate sex differences is seen as "not getting it" when it comes to equality between the sexes. 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.

Pinker is clearly not "dismiss[ing in one fell swoop] all critique of the dominant view," as Callaghan had claimed. He isn't dismissing anyone at all. He's merely himself critiquing what is becoming an increasingly dominant "mentality", which we might also call an ideology, i.e., a limit to the range of expressible ideas in a discourse. Pinker quite rightly describes this limit as a "taboo" and its observance as a hindrance to science.

Finally, Callaghan's quotation marks notwithstanding, Pinker doesn't use the words "political ideologues" anywhere in his piece. It's true that he's talking about such creatures. But he apparently lacked the temerity to call them such names. The temerity of the Callaghans and Brysons of this world is noted, however.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

To Lift Up Their Eyes

"I’ve been asking my friends on the academic left what rights conservative students have, in an era of a university culture obsessed with trauma." (Freddie deBoer)

The motto of my alma matter, the University of Calgary, is taken from Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes.” It evokes the widening of horizons that has traditionally been associated with a university education. We sometimes forget, it seems to me, that “academic” knowledge is precisely the sort of thing that, when presented to young men and women, typically between the ages of 17 and 23, will raise their sights and broaden their vistas. It is important to notice what this implies: before arriving at university their minds are somewhat narrower, their view of the world somewhat more parochial. The university experience is fundamentally that of having your pet ideas challenged by a wider view.

To put this in its perhaps starkest terms, imagine a freshman, 18 years old, who believes that homosexuality is immoral—bad for the soul. It is not difficult to imagine where a young man might get such an idea. His parents and his pastor, let’s say, have been quite clear that homosexuality is contrary to the will of God, not conducive to "human flourishing", as Tim Keller puts it. Let us assume, further, that he is a congenial, curious and compassionate human being, intelligent and understanding in his interactions with others. As a Christian, he is committed to loving the sinner, even where he hates the sin, and he is used to being around people whose lifestyle he disapproves of, while remaining courteous and helpful to them. He comes from a good home, never having doubted the love of his family.

In order to make this interesting, however, let us suppose that he is destined, over the next four years, to change his mind about homosexuality, and therefore to a certain extent about Christianity. Like I say, he is naturally curious, and once removed from the direct influence of his parents and pastor, he will “lift his eyes” and consider novel points of view. Indeed, while at university, he will discover that he is himself gay, and, like so many other college students, before he graduates he will meet the man he will marry. Applying his intelligence, he will find a way to reconcile his love of Jesus with this unexpected love of a man. He will go from following the ministry of someone like John “Desiring God” Piper, perhaps, to something more like that of Rob “Love Wins!” Bell.

Needless to say, this will be a major life crisis for him. He will have to find a way to come out with his parents, who will in turn have to decide whether to accept his new lifestyle. He may have siblings who have not yet lifted up their own eyes. It’s a difficult situation for him, and all of it will be happening at a time when he is also earning his first university degree. Given his intelligence and interests, let us say he is destined to earn a bachelor’s degree in history, to graduate with honors, and to enter the law school of his choice. Once there, he should once again do very well, eventually becoming a very successful civil rights lawyer. It will not be an easy life, perhaps, but it will be a rich one.

I have said he is “destined” for one or another outcome a couple of times now. What I mean is that these things are “in his nature”, part of his developing set of dispositions. By the time he gets to university his personality and character have been shaped in a certain way, with some moveable and some immovable parts. He has a certain intellectual aptitude and a certain set of interests. He is emotionally predisposed to fall in love with a particular man who happens to be attending the same university at the same time. If left to his natural inclinations, I am saying, this is what we would expect to happen.

But what actually happens—whether he “fulfills his destiny”—will of course depend on all manner of happenstance and circumstance. A beautiful (or tragic) accident will (or will not) bring him together with the man of his dreams. And favorable (or unfavorable) institutions will (or will not) allow him to pursue his happiness. We have already touched on his family and his church as institutions that will either help or hinder his development toward his future identity. But what about his university? This is the question I want to raise. Given his destiny, what should it be like for our young hero to attend four years of university? What sort of experience do we wish on him?

He’s a history major, let’s remember. So let us suppose he takes a course called “Civil Rights in the 20th Century.” He might have expected it to cover mainly the struggle of African Americans for equality since the 1960s, but is quickly enlightened about the struggle for women’s and LGBTQ rights during roughly the same period. While he has long taken the philosophy of Martin Luther King as gospel, as a freshman his traditional Christian values are still less amenable to expansive freedoms for women and gays. Moreover, he is somewhat shocked at the fervor with which these ideas are presented, somewhat confused by the “appropriation” of the “We shall overcome!” rhetoric. But he’s here to learn and he will do what he can to understand the course material.

What about his personal views about the immorality of homosexuality? While his destiny is to abandon these views, he has not yet begun the transformation. How should he feel about expressing them and discussing them? If he did, should his words be denounced as “hate speech” or opposed with arguments like any other opinion? Should he be browbeaten into silence in the name of a “social justice” it is his destiny to one day represent in the courts? Where, and how, should he be able to express his vision of “human flourishing”? How, and when, should it be challenged? Should he be exposed to speakers that help him to articulate it more clearly, thereby opening it to the criticism of others who can help him carefully dismantle it? Should speakers on both sides of the issue be brought together before him, engaged in vigorous, enlightened debate?

These are rhetorical questions on my part of course. While you may not agree with my answers, I hope we can agree that the questions are timely. We need to talk about what it should be like for our young hero to attend four years of college. There are some who would make it hell for him. Some of them, ignorant of his destiny, would do this quite deliberately. Others would perhaps excuse his treatment as the necessary cost of “progress”. While they might regret the inconvenience done to this particular young man, whose heart is in the right place, if at the wrong time, they don’t want to risk according even a modicum of respect to the true, “ingrained”, incorrigible "homophobe". I would encourage these people to lift up their eyes a little too and take a wider view.* All I am proposing is, indeed, a modicum of respect. It is, I would argue, what the university is all about.

_________
*A YouTuber who goes by the name of Noel Plum has made this point very well with a little story from his own experience. Worth a listen.

On Justice, Truth and Beauty

"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is the first virtue of systems of thought." (John Rawls)

In this age, obsessed with justice, it is worth asking whether it is the only virtue. Let's simplify Rawls's statement a little and say that, as justice is the virtue of our institutions, truth is the virtue of our intuitions, and beauty, of imagination. We have politics to improve (i.e., make more virtuous) our institutions; we have science to improve our intuitions; and we have art to improve imagination.

It is no doubt possible to pursue any one of these aims to the detriment of others. There are politicians who have no respect for scientists, and scientists who do not respect politicians. There are those who would subordinate truth to justice, and others who would sacrifice justice for the truth. The mind reels, the heart breaks, to imagine what all this clamor is doing to the arts.

Somewhere in the back of this is the highest virtue of all: happiness. And somewhere in that vicinity is the perhaps basest drive: the drive for pleasure. I can easily imagine social progress that makes advances towards "justice" (in the Rawlsian sense of "fairness") while undermining our conditions for pleasure, and therefore minimizes happiness. After all, one way to make the world a fairer place is to make exceptionally happy people as miserable as everyone else. Likewise, it is possible to imagine social change that improves our capacity for pleasure wherever possible, without worrying too much whether it is equally distributed. Such change might make everyone a little happier.

I am against the fixation on justice. I am also against the fixation on truth. I think we need to find a balance between science and politics. Instead of making a wasteland of the imagination between them, we must negotiate a peace that allows the arts to flourish. We must cultivate the ground of beauty. We must find again the pleasure of experience. We must learn, first, to experience pleasure.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Secret Order of the White Knights

I agree with Michael Brown that "less secrecy" on the subject of sexual harassment in astronomy would be a good idea. But perhaps not quite in the sense that he intends.

Near the end of the ABC Background Briefing on the allegations of harassment at CSIRO, Bryan Gaensler makes some remarks which I find rather disturbing. Hagar Cohen reports that "after three high profile astronomers in the US and the UK were exposed as serial sexual harassers ... Gaensler decided to stop his students working with two of the professors in question." Cohen doesn't say who the astronomers were, but my guess is that at least one of them was Geoff Marcy. Gaensler explained his reaction as follows:

That was an incredible shock. I'd heard rumours about these people, and I knew that they were people that I needed to keep an eye out on around young students, but when you actually hear names, and see the details, and hear about the things they did, it's really confronting that someone who's a very distinguished profound brilliant scientist would actually do these things. [...] I felt that I had no choice but to remove them from the project in both cases. So I wasn't punishing anybody, I wasn't taking the law into my own hands, but knowing that the activities that we were going to be pursuing was going to involve people at the very beginning of their research career, who are enthusiastic and excited and for whom there is a whole range of possibilities, I cannot take the chance of them having a negative experience that could really sour their whole career.

But is it really true that he wasn't "taking the law into his own hands"? It sounds like he made the call. It does not sound like he offered the students the choice of taking the risk. And if the professor in question was in fact Geoff Marcy I think this is a very important question. While some women might have experienced his attention to be inappropriate, as Sarah Ballard did, it's not at all likely that all women would. And even Ballard appears to have mostly benefited career-wise from the association.

In any case, Gaensler appears to have made this call on behalf of at least two women. And it's part of a larger practice of making such decisions for women. Cohen tells us that "Gaensler thinks there's much more to be revealed. In fact he's got a black list." And Gaensler says he's not the only one who is protecting unsuspecting women from sexual harassers. (Do please note the double sense of "unsuspecting" here: these women don't suspect that their future supervisor or collaborator is a harasser, nor do they suspect that their current supervisor is making the decision about whether to take the risk.)

There's many of us who have these informal lists of people to watch out for, either because of rumours or because of things we know first-hand. There's a long list of people who've had investigations against them, or findings against them, or people that you simply do not want your students to be around. [...] I personally know of about 20 senior tenured male astronomers who've had some accusations against them. Whether the accusations are substantiated or not, I can't say, because I haven't participated in the investigations, but I know of about 20 people.

That is, if you're one of Bryan Gaensler's students—"particularly [his] female students," as he makes clear—there are about twenty astronomers in the world that, whether you'd like to work with them or not, he will secretly prevent you from dealing with. In some cases, he will do this on the basis of rumors and without knowing "whether the accusations are substantiated or not". Notice that if you're a male student he might let you take the risk. Notice that this gives male students a much greater range of career options and research trajectories. The women will have to make do with whatever path professor Gaensler thinks is safe enough for them to tread.

It's this conception of female agency that I'm always so surprised to see soi-disant feminists promoting. If I were a woman I don't know what I would find more objectionable: the lone harasser or this Secret Order of White Knights, conspiring behind my back to keep me safe from the "inappropriate attentions" of my male professors. I wonder how many women could have discovered an exoplanet under Geoff Marcy's tutelage but were prevented from learning the technique from the master because their supervisor had heard a rumor.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Two Petitions

It is instructive to compare the petition in support of Mary Bryson with the petition in support of Jordan Peterson. By signing the latter, you are petitioning the University of Toronto not to punish Peterson for expressing his views, nor restrict his ability to do so. By signing the former, you are petitioning the University of British Columbia to "to express their clear and unequivocal support for Dr. Bryson" and "to condemn the intentional and malicious attacks that have been directed at Dr. Bryson in public and in private." Notice the very important difference. While UBC is being asked to "express support" and "condemn attacks", UofT is merely being asked not to punish someone for exercising their academic freedom.

The most telling part of the Bryson petition addresses Christine Blatchford's column in the National Post. Blatchford, the petition tells us,

intentionally refused to use Dr. Bryson’s pronoun ‘they/them’ in the article, referring to Dr. Bryson instead as ‘she’, thus self-consciously violating the terms of the Ontario Human Rights Code. The extent of expressed hate in the National Post article Comments sections provides extensive evidence of the efficacy of incitement of hate towards LGBT people.

To me, this reads as an indictment of Blatchford's column as hate speech. UBC's administrators are presumably being petitioned to "condemn" this column as well, and to do so with reference to the Ontario Human Rights Code. I think this makes it starkly clear that Jordan Peterson was onto something when he worried that refusing to use preferred pronouns was indeed implicitly covered by C-16, and that those who support it do, in fact, intend to use it to compel compliance in this regard.

The worry here for me is that if Blatchford can be accused of "inciting" the "hate" expressed in the comments to her articles, then surely Peterson can be similarly accused. The Tim Hunt case made it very clear to me that the universities have an obligation to the scholars they employ to protect them from mobs stirred to action by hurt feelings. What we're trying to do here is maintain a sense of decency. That means that when a reasoned, principled refusal to use particular words, or, for that matter, a reasoned and principled request to use such words, elicits angry responses and even hateful rhetoric, we cannot hold the person who was, indeed, reasoned and principled responsible for the least thoughtful members of their audience.

One last thing. I had never heard of Mary Bryson before the U of T forum. Bryson, I soon found out, is "not 'gay' as in happy but 'queer' as in fuck you." This was in a video profile on YouTube that has since become inaccessible, no doubt because it was discovered by trolls [update: it's back up]. Now, while I wouldn't ordinarily use such language myself, I'm happy to let public discourse include strong language. But I don't quite understand why someone who does talk this way would find it particularly distressing (or even surprising) to be called, say, a "dyke bitch". That seems to be merely an equal and opposite reaction. "Queer as in fuck you?" the trolls might well have been thinking. "Well, fuck her!"

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Maintaining the Value Proposition of the University

For quite a long while, American higher education has been adrift in a devolving eddy of self-pity, whining about overregulation while obsessing about bracket placements and rankings, pandering to political and philanthropic overlords while remaining largely silent on the great social issues of our times. We have lost the great narrative of American higher education as the counterweight to government excess, as the bastion of free thought and speech, as the public intellectual voice of the society.

Patricia McGuire seems to think that, since Trump owes his victory to non-college-educated Americans*, the disaster (if that's what it is) could have been avoided by getting more Americans through college. I think that misunderstands what the true "value proposition" of the university is.

In so far as it has anything to do with politics, the university should teach people what Hillary Clinton forgot: how to govern people, not deplore them. Those who hold university degrees, especially from elite colleges, are likely to enter the governing class, whether in business or politics. Their job will not be, as many progressives assume, to transform society, but, rather, to maintain civilization. The skill set that is needed for this is quite traditional. Indeed, it's pretty conservative.

Higher education is almost by definition elite education. It should be reserved for the most intelligent and curious people among us. But if your education only works with other educated people it's not much of one. Imagine an engineer who knows how to build bridges that only other engineers can safely cross. Or a doctor that can only explain a healthy lifestyle to another doctor. Or an architect who can only design buildings that are livable and workable for other architects. Indeed, imagine a nation's poetry that can only be enjoyed by other poets, or novels that only novelists can appreciate. (I'll leave it to you to decide how far along we are.)

In a civilized society, there should be no shame in not having a university education, nor should not having one make life particularly difficult. A university education certainly shouldn't be a prerequisite for meaningful participation in civic life. And it is the responsibility of our educated elites to maintain a public sphere that it doesn't take an elite education to participate in. If you ask me, it was their failure to provide such a sphere that gave Trump his victory, not the failure to provide the masses with a college education.

I realized where McGuire went wrong when I read this sentence: "We need more focus on students and less on institutions." That is exactly backwards. Universities have been chasing after students for way too long. (as McGuire actually implies when she says they "obsess" about "rankings"). They need to reassert themselves, precisely, as institutions. "Too many institutions, particularly wealthy private and flagship state institutions," McGuire says, "claim a desire to welcome more low-income students of color yet fail to change the interior circumstances of costs, culture, educational programs and pathways that would enlarge the pipeline and ensure success for those students." That's not how it looks it to me. My sense of the unrest on college campuses is that the institutions have been bending over backwards to "ensure success" for students that might otherwise struggle.

The problem is that the struggle university students are being spared is the very "value proposition" of the university. It is supposed to be providing an environment in which that struggle can go on and where the skills to overcome it can therefore be developed. To use McGuire's propositions, it is the struggle to exercise "free thought and speech" and, ultimately, become a "public intellectual voice" in society.

It's interesting to note that McGuire doesn't say that it's the students who should be these voices. She believes that the university, in the person of the university president, should be "the public intellectual voice of society". That's an interestingly authoritarian sentiment, and implies that higher education is the process by which one comes to respect an intellectual authority, understand what the master's voice is saying. Indeed, what was most notable, at least to me, about the reaction to Trump's victory on college campuses was how inarticulate it was. The reaction was, for lack of a better word, uneducated. It was unformed. The students lacked voices of their own, and so they joined various mobs.**

What is needed is for the universities to reassert themselves as institutions of free speech and thought. This does not mean that they should "enlarge the pipeline" of academic success. On the contrary, it means that they need to insist on "interior circumstances" that require a great deal of discipline to master. It's true that some students—those who come from already elite segments of society—will find those disciplines somewhat more natural than others. But the universities are supposed to be precisely the place where their natural advantage is redistributed a little, where those who aren't born with it can gain some of it. The value proposition of the university is most certainly not to subject all 17-23-year-olds to such coddling that they are unable to deal articulately with a populist president and will then have to look to their college president to speak for them.

University should be a place where you learn to make up your own mind and speak with your own voice. It should make you a better interpreter of the vox populi, not deaf to it or, worse, afraid of it. (After four years of "safe spaces" is it any wonder that so many young people can't stand to hear Trump speak?) The existence of a cadre of highly educated people should enrich the public sphere for all. It should not require the indoctrination of the same "value proposition" into every citizen.

____________
*There is good reason to think this is true.
**We see here the important sense in which so-called "elitism" is actually a form of anti-authoritarianism. But I'll save that for another post.

The Foundations of Society, part 2

Jordan Peterson has explicitly argued that [in order to maintain our civilization] we have to be free to make up our minds and to tell others what we've come up with. For him, the real threat to "the very foundations of our society" is the restriction of free thought and speech. But Peterson also seems concerned about another possible "foundation", namely, the mechanisms, both social and biological, by which we keep the species going. In a word: sex. And here gender, of course, plays a crucial role.

Some progressives seem intent on undermining our intuitions about gender differences. These intuitions, however, are at the core of our mating rituals. We try to choose a mate across a pretty radical distinction, namely, sex. [In order to navigate this "ultimate gap, as between two people, that not even a penis can bridge," as Rosmarie Waldrop aptly puts it, we have (socially) constructed the category of gender.] Peterson is concerned to keep this distinction [, this construct,] sharp and the selection processes it manages precise.

Now, one thing I've noticed about the people who have been arguing (some of them explicitly with Jordan Peterson) that gender is not a natural kind but a social construct—strangely, some of them have even argued that there's no biological basis for distinguishing between the sexes—is that the "science" isn't settled. Or, more precisely, they have argued that it's been recently unsettled by, say, comparative studies of male and female brains—or, if you think that begs the question, the brains of people who were "assigned" male and female at birth.

I'll detail this criticism of gender studies in later posts. (I've seen it come up in enough discussions to be confident in asserting that the argument does exist.) My point here is that if we're going to say that our society is "science based" we get into the problem that science hasn't yet understood everything. And on the points where science doesn't yet have anything very clear to say, we seem then to be in the unhappy position of having to declare our social practices "baseless".

So, suppose it's true that a brain scan can't distinguish "male brains" from "female brains". Does this mean that we have to abandon all our intuitions about how men and women think differently? (Notice that this also supposes that the only "scientific" basis for psychology is biological, i.e., neurological.) I'm not saying those intuitions aren't due for some adjustments (just as I won't suggest that men will be men, and women, women, unchanged for as long as human beings roam the Earth), but I am very skeptical about letting "science" set the agenda for the coming changes to our perceptions of ourselves and each other.

I don't think that people who distinguish between men and women every day are doing so on the basis of "science". And I'm not going to give science the authority to undo that distinction. I'm certainly not going to let scientific ignorance (i.e., the incompleteness of biology and psychology) undermine my confidence when trying to mate. Just because science can't tell men from women (and I'm only granting for the sake of argument that it has any difficulty doing so) doesn't mean I can't. And it certainly doesn't mean that I have no legitimate basis to make that distinction.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Foundations of Society, part 1

Here are two statements that are worth bringing together:

"The anti-knowledge and anti-science sentiments expressed repeatedly during the U.S. presidential election threaten the very foundations of our society."

"The pronoun discussion is not simply about grammar or gender – it's about re-examining the very beliefs upon which our society is based."

The first is from "An open letter from women of science", which, according to Jessica Kirkpatrick at the Women in Astronomy blog, was written by "a group of women scientists who have been working in Washington as AAAS science fellows". It's sort of a vague affiliation, but I take it seriously because it is being promoted by the CSWA. The second is from an opinion piece for the CBC by Julian Paquette weighing in on the Jordan Peterson controversy.

I will presume that Paquette and the "500 Women" are natural allies in the current iteration of the culture wars. But the ideological contradiction is here quite glaring and very common on the Left. Depending on the issue, the ideologues are prepared to declare either that "the very foundations of our society" are threatened or that "the very beliefs upon which our society is based" must be questioned. I think it's fair to say that this ambivalence is itself foundational for "progressive" politics.

One way to resolve the contradiction is to assume that they are talking about the foundations, not of our society, but their society. That is, they are talking about the basis of the ongoing progress towards the utopia they imagine. And that utopia is indeed "science based", if you will. As the "Open Letter" put it: "Science is foundational in a progressive society, fuels innovation, and touches the lives of every person on this planet." What about a "conservative" society? we might ask. Perhaps innovation is there fueled by something like human ingenuity and initiative, and perhaps the state is there constitutionally restrained from building institutions that, somewhat creepily, propose to "touch the lives of every person on the planet".

These foundations need, precisely, to be conserved, not implemented after traditional beliefs about what people are and how they can most happily live together have been "re-examined"—a word that is almost certainly a euphemism for "overturned". I have to say that, given the state of science (and the science of the state, if you will) these days, I understand the anti-science sentiment. Many pro-science people seem to the think that science is simply epistemic authority: an institution that has the power to tell you what to think and to believe. I like to think of science as a protected space of free thought and inquiry—not a place where I'm forced to examine my beliefs, but where I'm allowed to.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fear of Fear

Dictionary.com has declared "xenophobia" to be the Word of the Year. I think it's a good choice. If we take the two big spikes in look-ups that Dictionary.com cites to explain the choice, we can see that both came at a time when a populist backlash against the elites needed to be reinterpreted as a pathology in the population. There wasn't anything wrong with the elites, it had to be made clear, there was something wrong with the people. Ordinary people, it was said, are irrationally afraid of "people with backgrounds different from their own".

And this fear, it is usually implied, makes them bad people. It makes them less compassionate of others. At bottom, then, the rise of the word "xenophobia" marks a doubled othering: first "foreigners" are othered by ordinary people, and then ordinary people are othered by the elites. In fact, the fear of others marks a fault line (let's play the pun: a "line of blame") within the "common people" themselves. "We" are turned against each other on the question of whether or not we fear "them".

I've always found the political "phobias" puzzling. We don't vilify people for their fear of flying or fear of spiders. We don't even hold agoraphobia against people, even though we might, as members of the "public", take a little offense at their anxieties about us. But xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia are a different matter. Here we confidently denounce the person who harbors the relevant fear. We do not grant them the right to be afraid, we might say.

In my view, we should take seriously the idea that xenophobia is an exaggerated fear of foreigners. In an important sense, it is "irrational" (just as flying is actually perfectly safe and spiders are perfectly harmless), since most xenophobes have perfectly safe encounters with the relevant "other" every day. But, in another sense, there really is something to worry about. (When I was a young man, I, too, took a wrong turn in an American city.) Certainly, if the xenophobe is worried about the pace of cultural change, then it is rational to worry about the rate of immigration. This worry becomes a fear once one comes to believe, as many xenophobes do, that the elites don't care about the effect of immigration on local neighborhoods. Or when, in a more paranoid variant, they come to think that the elites are actively trying to destroy local culture.

The best way to cure oneself of fear is to face it. This does not, however, mean that it is always a good policy to force people to face their fears. If you put an arachnophobe in a closed room with a spider you're probably just going to turn them into a claustrophobe as well. (I have no idea if that statement is psychologically valid, but you get the point.) The important thing here is compassion. We have to understand that we really are talking about something that is rooted in fear. Too often, I think, we think it is rooted merely in hate. But that's only a consequence of mismanaging fear. We often come to hate the things we fear.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin D. Roosevelt. (You were already thinking it, I'm sure.) We seem at the moment to be very afraid of the fear of others—indeed, we are afraid, sometimes pathologically, of other people's fear of other people. This fear makes us hate the "xenophobe", who, ironically, is really just another Other. Maybe we need a word like phobophobia, the fear of fear. And then, maybe, we need to face that fear courageously. Perhaps we need to be as accepting of the existence of people who fear strangers as we are of the strangers themselves. Perhaps we need to face our fear of phobia.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Notes on Identity, Ideology and Ontology

The debate about gender pronouns is framed as both a political and a scientific issue. It raises questions of practice and theory that go well beyond the niceties of grammar. I think everyone agrees on this point, even if they disagree about how the questions should be answered and the issue resolved.

As I pointed out in my last post, however, it seems to me that the parties to this dispute sometimes talk past each other because they haven't distinguished as rigorously between sense and reference as Frege suggested we do. Of course, they can be forgiven for not observing a late-nineteenth-century analytical distinction that isn't even much used by professional philosophers today. In this post I want to get even more technical, so let me apologize in advance. It's a bit "inside Basbøll", if you will.

In his "Notes on the Theory Reference" (From a Logical Point of View, p. 131ff), the American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine said that "the notion of ontological commitment belongs to the theory of reference." A theory, he explained, presupposes the existence of certain kinds of objects and these presuppositions just are its "ontological commitments." He also proposed to "give a good sense to a bad word" by defining "ideology" as a constraint on the ideas that can be expressed in a theory. Importantly, he pointed out that "the ontology of a theory stands in no simple correspondence to its ideology." Just because we know what sorts of things a theory is about, we don't necessarily know what knowledge claims it is able to express about them.

In my view, sense is to "ideological commitment" what Quine says reference is to "ontological commitment". While Quine used rather abstract theories of mathematics as examples, we can easily imagine how this insight could be applied to theories in the social sciences, which are certainly often ideologically "committed". There are many different social theories, many of which share the same ontology while affording the theorist resources to express very different ideas. In fact, at a very general level we could argue that all social theories are "about" the same "things", namely: people. But what they believe can (and should) be meaningfully said about those people is very different.

I put "things" in quotation marks because, in my view, we should, properly speaking, say that the human or social sciences are about people in the same sense that the natural sciences are about things. People and things are, in my opinion, ontologically distinct. In fact, as we will soon see, they are radically distinct from the point of view of ontology and reference. But bear with me just a little longer.

Social theories can differ ontologically depending on what they mean by "people", "person", "human being", etc. This actually maps neatly onto the distinctly political question of what "inalienable rights" people (and not other things or creatures) are supposed to have. We can imagine two theories that both claim to be about "people" (and not other things) but, on closer examination, we might discover that they construe the essential "being" of people different. There would then be talk of different "social ontologies". The ideal "charter of human rights" implied by these theories would, presumably, protect "the people" from the violence of the state in different ways.

The clash between people like Jordan Peterson and people like Mary Bryson is a great example. Both are, indeed, people, and, though we will see that this is worth not taking for granted, I think both would grant the other's "humanity" or "personhood" in an everyday sense. Interestingly, however, both feel that their very essence is being threatened by the other's rhetoric, and this rhetoric, I want to say, implies a "theory". We can say, then, that they don't recognize themselves in the ontology that the other seems to propose.

But do notice the different ways in which this plays out. Bryson thinks Peterson's "cisnormative" view of gender "erases" the possibility of non-binary persons. There is no room for the non-binary person in Peterson's ontology, Bryson thinks. Peterson, meanwhile, thinks that Bryson's theory fails to recognize the necessity of free expression. Bryson thinks people are essentially identities we might say, and the "right to be human" is therefore the right to be who you are. Peterson, on the other hand, thinks that people become who they are; they are not pregiven identities. He is therefore concerned to defend the right to express yourself as you choose, not the right to choose what others say about you. Bryson is worried about the threat of other people's expressions to your identity, who you are. Peterson is worried about the threat of not being able to express yourself, and therefore not being able to become yourself. It's a fundamental difference of temperament.

And, if I'm right, it's an ontological disagreement. Bryson seems to think we are who we are and need to be left alone to be that. Peterson (perhaps unsurprisingly as a clinical psychologist) thinks we've all still got a lot of work to do to become what we're capable of being. It would be interesting to see them debate the issue at that level. But that, of course, assumes that the parties could agree even to this way of describing their differences, which I don't think they could. I think Peterson would say that Bryson's position is ontologically incoherent and ideologically regressive. Bryson, thinks Peterson, doesn't care what Peterson is talking about but is concerned to prevent him from expressing his ideas.

In my opinion the problem cannot be solved as long as it is framed in terms of ontology, i.e., "the ontology of the social", "the nature of the self", psychological essentialism (my characterization of Bryson's position) vs. existential psychology (my characterisation of Peterson's position). The problem is this: the very idea of social ontology is nonsense. The social is not grounded in being but in becoming. The material world puts constraints on what we can become and this constraint is what we call "nature". Our theories about nature do have an ontology, but our social practices do not.

What about "people"? Didn't I say that people are the "things" of our social theories? Yes, and that's precisely why we shouldn't have social theories. The very idea is incoherent. We do not need to understand social ontologies but, as I have slowly come to understand, social "ethnopathies"*, which are not "what we think we are" but "what we feel ourselves becoming". Ontology, remember, is part of our theory of reference; indeed, it determines the proper referents of a theory and the theory of reference is a meta-theory in that sense. If there is not such thing as social ontology there is also no way of constructing social theory because there can be no system of social reference.

The strong view of this is that we can't actually, properly speaking, refer to people. This no doubt sounds very mystical. I don't think we should refer to people at all. I don't think we can. We can only refer to the bodies that people live through, their "natural avatar" if you will. What we can do with people is to defer to them. We can, in that sense, respect them. In fact, I would say that we demonstrate our own humanity towards another human being, not by identifying them as human, but by deferring to their own humanity.

This idea of deference might seem to throw in with Bryson. Isn't using someone's preferred pronoun simply an act of deference? Yes and no. I agree with Peterson that such deference is rendered impossible when it is mandated by law. We cannot be compelled to defer. That's just not how it works. If I use "they" to refer to you in the third person out of respect for the law (or fear of the consequences of breaking it) then I'm not, at the end of the day, showing you any respect at all. I have to feel my deference as a deference to your fundamental humanity, not as one more thing to fear the state for.

Let me conclude with what Kierkegaard might call an "unscientifc postscript" or "poetical experiment":

The meta-theory (the theory beyond the theory) of reference and ontology is, as Quine attests, a philosophical one. I would argue that the infra-practice (the practice beneath the practice) of deference and ethnopathy is a poetical one. Just as we cannot settle philosophical questions by invoking science, we shouldn't settle poetical questions with politics. (I'll return to this point: the pronoun activists are trying to accomplish with a policy what needs to be done with a poem. The only way to coin new words legitimately is with poetry.) A few years ago, I tried to transpose Quine's ideas to this end. I can now be even more precise.

Taking any practice, one poetically interesting handle we can get on its governance is its ethnopathy* [i.e., who is involved in the practice?]. But we can also govern through its realisability (to give a good sense to a vague word): what realities can be contained by it? The ethnopathy of a practice stands in no simple correspondence to its realisability.

The sentiment of ethnopathic commitment belongs to the practice of deference. For to say that a given essential qualification applies to subjects [people] of a given ilk is to say simply that the open sentence which follows the qualifier is just of all subjects of that ilk and none not of that ilk.

I realise that this might at first seem to be utter nonsense. But trust me when I say it is just very, very precise. And I think we're entering an age where this sort of precision may become very, very important.

_________
*The notion of "ethnopathy" is not my coinage. I've heard it used both on the left and the right, both in a neutral descriptive sense ("the feelings of a group") and in a pejorative diagnostic sense (the constitutive malevolence, or ill-feeling, or antipathy, or even pathology of one group towards another). I have previously contrasted ontology simply with ethnicity. But I think this is too narrow, as the gender identity discussion shows. Ethnopathy is the feeling that individuals have for a group that is constitutive of that group. Ethnicity, on this view, is just one kind of ethnopathy. I recently noticed (see the footnote to this post) the word in the work of Daniel Bar-Tal on "intractable conflicts". I think that's very fitting.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Sex and Gender, Sense and Reference

"The idea of social constructionism is fine, but I don't think people have noticed that you cannot turn around and then claim that those constructs are sacred essences that you cannot question. This has always been a tension in feminism and gay / lesbian studies, and is going to be even more intense in trans- studies. If gender and even sex are socially constructed, then what makes my own private socially constructed identity so sacrosanct, so essential?" (Jonathan Mayhew)

The new legislators of pronoun usage seem to think that the things words refer to determine their meaning. Indeed, they seem to think that the people that words refer to should determine what the words mean.

Consider the case of Mary Bryson, who prefers to be referred to in the third person as "they". Bryson sees themself (is that correct?) as being of non-binary gender. That is, their gender identity is neither male nor female. They are neither a man nor a woman. The pronoun "they", they think, accurately refers to this non-binary gender identity.

But that's actually not what I usually mean by "they". In other words, in the above paragraph, where I have somewhat hamfistedly "respected" (as it's called) Bryson's pronouns, I'm using the word with a special meaning, peculiar to Bryson themself (note, again, this peculiar word, as my spell checker dutifully suggests). It's only when I'm talking about Bryson that "they" indicates a person of non-binary gender. In all other cases, when I say "they" I am using it as a plural personal or impersonal pronoun, to indicate more than one person or thing, or as a "generic" or non-gendered singular personal pronoun, to indicate a person whose sex I don't know.

Let me say that again. When I use the singular "they" I am not referring to the person's gender but their sex. Actually, that's of course not true either; I am unable to refer to their sex because I don't know what it is. In fact, a personal pronoun actually just refers to the person (specified by context) and carries information (or, in the case of "they", leaves this information out) about their sex. So "he" and "she", for example, indicates a person and tells us what sex they are.

[Update: A pronoun tells you what sex the speaker thinks someone is, not who that person thinks they are.]

Riffing on Frege's famous distinction, I think much of the confusion here has to do with the difference between sense and reference. As I've argued before, what is sometimes called "postmodernism" can be understood as a reduction of the problem of sense to the problem of reference. I remain sympathetic to this approach. And I've just realised something important that answers Jonathan's question in my epigraph.

When I say, "Jamie is an athlete. He competed in the Olympics," you learn something about him in the second sentence that wasn't in the first. You find out he's a male athlete, not a female one. There are two ways to interpret this. We could say, as Frege might, that the pronoun points to Jamie but says something about him too. It means more than its reference; it also has a sense. But that sense could, actually, also be considered a secondary reference, which is the sense (!) in which I consider myself a postmodernist. The so-called "sense" of the pronoun is really just another reference: a reference to, to put it bluntly, Jamie's penis or, more generally, if not quite generically, his sex. (Transsexualism in sports is very interesting, of course. And it may require a redefinition of sex, not gender, in terms of certain hormonal processes that determine athletic performance. However that conversation goes, it will continue to be a reference to biological or, rather, physiological sex, and the reason for this in sports is obvious.)

What Mary Bryson gets wrong is to think that the gender of the pronoun refers to her gender identity. Actually, that's not how identity works, as Frege showed. The gender of the pronoun could be understood as its "sense", but it doesn't mean (at least when I use it, or when most people do) what Bryson thinks it means. Bryson wants her pronouns to do way too much identity work. The pronoun simply doesn't invoke Bryson's (and certainly not Mary's) essence when I use it. She may think I'm misgendering her (just now), but she is simply wrong about what I mean. I am correctly (as I understand her story) identifying her sex, not assigning her a complete and immutable identity. The way I use "they" would imply (to people who understand me) that I don't know that Bryson is female.

This explains the "theoretical incoherence" of gender studies that puzzled Jonathan. They begin as postmodernists by refusing to make sense of our words in the ordinary way, reducing all meaning to the "play of signification", the endless multiplication of arbitrary references. But then, when the signifier points directly at them they suddenly take it, ahem, "personally". They notice the gender of the pronoun and think it's all about them, their gender identity, and, since they're not so presumptuous as to know who they are, they want the pronoun to express the full anxiety of their authentic being. They want to exist fully in the language. They should let their body do some of their being for them.

Other than a proper name, I don't know how to refer to someone's "true" or "authentic" identity. I can just try to talk about them at the level of referential detail that my knowledge allows. At the end of the day, Bryson wants to change the meaning of my pronouns, i.e., not the pronouns I prefer to be referred to with, but the pronouns I use to refer to people and things in my environment. I agree with Jordan Peterson when he says that neither Bryson nor the Parliament of Canada can decide what those words mean.

In a slogan that I'd like to become famous for, we can say*: "Pronouns have gender. People have sex." The gender of the pronoun conveys information about the sex of the person it refers to. Now, I respect people's privacy. So if someone wants to conceal their sex from me, by choosing a unisex name and an androgynous style, then I'm going to be stumped as to their sex and I'll be forced to use "their". It will not mean "I think this person is of non-binary gender" (because I don't know what that means) but "I don't know this person's sex." In most cases, they are in their right not to tell me, even if I ask.

As I understand the changes being proposed in the Canadian Charter of Human Rights, we are heading towards a future in which I no longer have a right to ask. I.e., not only do I not have the right to information that might help me determine the sex of the person I'm talking to or about, I don't have the right to seek that information through ordinary, interpersonal inquiries. These inquiries, unless framed as a respectful request for the persons "preferred pronouns," will be a violation of their dignity.

I think I'm understanding this correctly.

Anyway ... this was a really long and difficult post to write. I apologise. There are probably lots of things I need to clear up, but I'm going to put it out there. I think this is really important to think about.

__________
*Note to self: always Google a pithy slogan you think you just invented before claiming to have coined it.