Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for March, 2015

Heckler’s veto in Southampton

A couple of weeks ago I signed a petition in support of a conference planned for 17-19 April at the University of Southampton, on “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” that had been threatened with cancellation because of pressure from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the UK Zionist Federation; ubiquitous-parking enthusiast and Communities minister Eric Pickles also contributed his opinion. It seemed to me an obviously legitimate academic conference, on a subject of both academic and public interest. If the choice of speakers does not cover all possible opinions on the matter — my impression is that my own view would not really coincide with any of those represented, and the framing of the topic is too politically tendentious for my taste — well, that’s unfortunate, though I’d wait until after they’d spoken to comment on what they have to say, and then opponents are free to organise their own conference.

Now the university has decided to cancel the conference because of specious “health and safety” concerns: because protestors threatened violence, or because the university authorities consider them the protestors — or the conference organisers — inherently deranged. I recognised long ago that “health and safety” is the leading weasel word in the British bureaucratic vocabulary. Pretty much anything can be justified with it, and it sounds so much more decisive and incontrovertible than saying “I am worried that someone could get hurt” (or “someone could catch Ebola”).

This is a dangerous decision. As someone whose grandparents’ generation was forced out and/or murdered by brownshirt thugs who came to power in Germany and then most of Europe after applying the strategy of directed violence against opposing political and intellectual viewpoints, I am dismayed to see that Jewish organisations in the US (see, e.g., the Salaita affair) and UK have come to the conclusion that the main problem with the Third Reich was too much free speech. Never again!

This is a dangerous step. Either Southampton will make itself a pariah by this move, or it will make itself an example to other universities, who increasingly find that all that academic exchange-of-ideas mumbledy-goop just gets in the way of the free exchange of money and services with well-connected donors.

Prenatal sex ratio

A paper that I’ve been involved with for a dozen years already has finally been published. We bring together multiple data sets to show that the primary sex ratio — the ratio of boys to girls conceived — is 1, or very close to 1. Consequently, the fact that more boys than girls are born — the ratio is about 1.06 pretty universally, except where selective abortion is involved — implies that there must be a period in the first trimester when female embryos are more likely to miscarry than male.

This is one of those things that is unsurprising if you’re not an expert. The experts had developed something close to a consensus, based on very little evidence, that the sex ratio at conception was much higher, some saying it’s has high as 2 (so that 2/3 of the conceptuses would be male), with excess female mortality throughout gestation. (We know that male mortality is higher in the second half of pregnancy, and after that… forever.)

The paper has its problems, but I think it’s a useful contribution. It’s also the first time I’ve been involved in research that is of any interest to the general public. Several publications have expressed interest, and an article has already appeared in two German magazines online, including the general news magazine Der Spiegel.

Update: Guardian too. This makes it interesting, in retrospect, that we had such a hard time getting a journal even to be willing to review it. One said it was too specialised.

An impressive display of openness and freedom

… in a secret trial. What’s that about?

The Guardian reports on the conclusion of the terrorism trial of Erol Incedal, who was convicted last year of possessing a bomb-making manual, but now acquitted at a second trial on the more serious charge of plotting a terrorist attack.

On each occasion, the evidence was carefully presented in one of three sessions. Parts of the case were in open court, with the press and the public free to come and go; other parts were held behind locked doors, before a jury whose members were warned that they could go to jail if they ever divulged what they had heard; and parts were held in intermediate sessions, in the presence of the jury and a small group of journalists who are prohibited – at least for the time being – from reporting what they learned.

This is definitely not an ideal situation — nobody claims that it is — but I am hugely impressed by the fact that so much care was put into finding a solution to difficult problems of secrecy and criminal justice, making an effort to provide information to the public wherever possible. Including a jury. Not to mention the fact that the state was willing to accept an acquittal, something that is unthinkable these days for a terrorism trial in the US. The trial judge “had originally acceded to a demand from the prosecution that the entire trial be heard in secret, and that Incedal, and the man arrested with him, Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, be identified only as AB and CD.” This was overturned by an appeals court, after criticism by MPs and civil-rights groups.

It’s ironic, but news like this revives my belief that the spirit of liberty survives in the UK. It’s not that I necessarily think that the courts made the right decisions, but the fact that they are treating civil rights as important counterweights to the demands of the security services, worthy of substantial effort and special procedures.

The Pope’s Shluchim

I’ve just been reading Amir Alexander’s book Infinitesimal, about the intellectual struggle over the concepts of infinitesimals and the continuum in mathematics and science (and theology) in the 17th century. The early part of the book is a history of the Society of Jesus, presented as a ruthless and intellectually daring force for religious conservatism, strictly hierarchical, devoted to its holy founder, a thoroughly mystical movement that built its reputation and influence on educational outreach. And then it struck me: The Jesuits were just like Chabad-Lubavitch!

The patron saint of cranks and charlatans

I can’t remember who it was who referred to Galileo that way. Ted Cruz, the right-wing US senator, presidential candidate, and one-time Ivy League super-elitist has invoked the protection of this saint to defend his position on climate change, in opposition to the overwhelming consensus of the experts:

Today the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-earthers. You know it used to be: ‘It is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat.’ And this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

This is standard crank-Galileo stuff, impressive for the number of misconceptions it builds into such a small space. Of course, Galileo’s critics didn’t think the Earth is flat. It was certainly not “accepted scientific wisdom” in his day. (Beyond any theoretical or cultural understanding, it was nearly a century since Portuguese sailors had circumnavigated the globe.) Galileo was not dismissed by the scientific experts of his day. His theories and discoveries were controversial, but he was generally acclaimed by scientific authorities. He was punished for contradicting the Church’s entrenched philosophical commitments, by a panel that, while not completely devoid of expertise in astronomy and Aristotelian physics, was chosen for its institutional commitment to the Church. It’s not really the most felicitous comparison for a climate-change denier to bring up.

Logical fallacies aside — “They laughed at the Wright brothers. They also laughed at the Marx brothers.” — there aren’t many cases of new ideas being dismissed as ridiculous by the scientific community, and later proved right. There is often entrenched conservative resistance (as there should be) to radical new ideas, but almost never is a single thinker so far beyond everyone else that his ideas don’t elicit significant support. Perhaps the best exception is Alfred Wegener, with his obviously crackpot theory of continental drift. For some reason Galileo, who was very much respected and mainstream, gets called into service to defend the crazies, and not Wegener. I imagine that Cruz’s backers would be almost as uncomfortable with plate tectonics as they are with evolution, if they knew anything about it. At that point the USGS would be banned from using plate tectonics to predict earthquakes.

In any case, Wegener wasn’t sitting in a Senate office reading Heritage Foundation talking points; he learned everything that was known about geophysics (which wasn’t much at the time) conducting expeditions to Greenland to collect evidence.

Which ageing monster?

The New Statesman has a review of a new book, Blair, Inc., about the money grubbing post-Downing-Street career of a certain former Prime Minister. Among Blair’s unsavoury activities, he received £8m a year for providing PR advice and speechwriting services to “an ageing monster whose regime is mired in allegations of torture and murder.” But before you wonder where Gordon Brown came up with that kind of money it’s explained that this is Kazakhstan’s President Nursaltan Nazarbayev, “We learn that a number of people from Blair’s Downing Street team, including Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, also provide services for Kazakhstan.”

The first self-hating Jew

Binyamin Netanyahu’s application of the Book of Esther as a guide to negotiations with the Persian (sorry, Iranian) regime reminded me of this famous passage from Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews 1933-1945:

A line of anti-Semitic descent from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler is easy to draw… To be sure, the similarities of Luther’s anti-Jewish exhortations with modern racial anti-Semitism and even with Hitler’s racial policies are not merely coincidental. They all derive from a common historic tradition of Jew-hatred, whose provenance can be traced back to Haman’s advice to Ahasuerus. But modern German anti-Semitism had more recent roots than Luther and grew out of a different soil…

It really needs to be emphasised that Haman is almost certainly a fictional character. What would it mean if this claim were true, that the tree of anti-Semitism has at its root a fictional text invented by a Jew? One presumes he was drawing on some genuine experience, but the brilliant rhetorical crystallisation — “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are different from other people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not in the king’s interest to tolerate them” — is the invention of Esther‘s author.*

The Jews have shown a particular genius for telling their own story, to themselves and to the world. Maybe sometimes we are too effective for our own good.

* As a bonus, the Book of Esther includes a founding text of misogyny as well, put into the mouth of Memukhan (whom the Jewish sages identified with Haman):

Memukhan presented the king and vice-regents this answer: “Vashti the queen has wronged not only the king, but also all the officials and all the peoples in all the provinces of King Achashverosh; because this act of the queen’s will become known to all the women, who will then start showing disrespect toward their own husbands; … If it pleases his majesty, let him issue a royal decree — and let it be written as one of the laws of the Persians and Medes, which are irrevocable — that Vashti is never again to be admitted into the presence of King Achashverosh, and that the king give her royal position to someone better than she. When the edict made by the king is proclaimed throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom, then all wives will honor their husbands, whether great or small.”

The reign in New Spain

There’s nothing funny about the never-ending drought in California, but I couldn’t help being amused by the misspelling of the word “rain” — sorry, “rein” — in this Slate article about the lack of rain:

These moves are small potatoes compared to what’s needed to reign in statewide water use, of which agriculture forms the vast majority.

I think what strikes me here is that “reign” is such an oddly spelled word in English, with its vestigial silent ‘g’. Why would you want to put it in when you don’t need it?

The “small potatoes” cliché in a sentence about big agriculture is the icing on the cake. Or the manure on the strawberries. Or something…

Four quadrants of moral law

I commented last week about the fascinating panel discussion at the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies that brought together rabbis from three different denominations — Reform, Masorti, and Modern Orthodox. All were insightful and eloquent advocates for their version of Judaism, and they responded creatively to a wide variety of questions. (Michael Harris, the Orthodox rabbi, had the hardest job, since a significant portion of his movement rejects the very notion of sharing a platform with rabbis from other denominations. I asked him whether, given that, it might not be misleading for progressive Jews to pay attention to what any Orthdox rabbi says who is willing to participate in such a panel, since they are then, inevitably, outliers. He responded graciously that, in this respect, British Orthodoxy is not representative of the movement worldwide, and he hoped that this insularity would decline.)

Someone asked the panel whether they thought that moral principles and values change over time. Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain said, of course they do, citing slavery and other examples; Rabbi Harris said no, the core moral laws are eternal and unchanging.

That’s the way their sort are expected to answer. But that got me to thinking: Don’t they have it backwards?  Why is it that the people who declare that moral laws are external to human society and human choice tend to be the same ones who think that these laws were correctly formulated thousands of years ago? Consider two dimensions of beliefs about moral laws: X is the dimension of social construction, ranging from “Something humans make up completely arbitrarily”, to “law that we cannot influence, but can only know or not know”; Y is the dimension of permanence of our values, ranging from “constantly changing” to “fixed and unchanging”. It seems clear that all four quadrants are possible, but there is a rhetorical presumption in favour fo the main diagonal: upper right or lower left. Either socially constructed laws with mutable social values or external moral law with unchanging values.

Why is that? You wouldn’t expect someone to say, “I believe the laws governing the motions of falling bodies are facts external to human society. Therefore I object to any suggestion that we could improve upon Aristotle’s version.” (more…)

Competitive immigrant-bashing: The Tories strike back

Yesterday I commented on the ferocious competition among the leading UK political parties to prove their anti-immigrant bona fides, with UKIP trying to stake out an unassailable position by arguing that they need to stop children of immigrants from going to school. Today the Conservatives are fighting back, arguing that that’s not enough, they need to stop immigrants from having children at all. With this we’re back to 2008, when I first came to Britain (as an economic migrant), and the BBC was fulminating against the “foreign-born mothers” who were costing the NHS £350 million a year in maternity services. The fact that the NHS would grind to a halt if some of those foreign-born mothers were not working as nurses, in the intervals between popping out their expensive babies, was not mentioned.

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