Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Neanderthal science

I just listened to all of a two-hour discussion between journalist Ezra Klein and professional atheist Sam Harris, about Harris’s defense of the right-wing policy entrepreneur (as Matthew Yglesias has described him) Charles Murray, famous for his racist application of intelligence research to public policy, most famously in a notorious chapter of his book The Bell Curve. Klein pushes back effectively against Harris’s self-serving martyrdom — Harris, not unreasonably, identifies with the suffering of a wealthy and famous purveyor of quack science whose livelihood is ever-so-slightly harmed by public criticism* — but he doesn’t sufficiently engage, I think, with Harris’s contention that he is promoting the values of real science. Unfortunately, the “mainstream social science” that Harris and Murray are promoting exists only in secret messages from “reputable scientists in my inbox, who have totally taken my side in this, but who are too afraid to say so publicly”. Harris doesn’t allow for a second that there is any good-faith argument on the other side. Anyone who disagrees is merely trying to shut down scientific progress, or simply confusing scientific truth with do-gooding wishful thinking.

The truth of the matter is, Murray and other brave seekers of truth are doing the opposite of helping to clarify reality. They are wading into a swamp of confusion, and pulling out some especially stinky slime that they can hurl at disfavoured groups.

As much as Harris tries to promote Murray as a pure-hearted “content-of-our-character” anti-racist individualist, as long as “race” exists as a social factor affecting people’s self-image, the communities they belong to, and the way they are perceived by others, it remains a potent social force. When demographers argue that “race” isn’t “real”, they are saying that racial categories don’t separate natural clusters by genetic or physical traits. When Murray says, let’s stop talking about race, let’s talk about individual genetic endowments, he is saying that racial groupings have no causal effect on their own, but only label clusters whose difference arise from deep physical causes — wrong on both sides. (more…)

The magical zero marginal

There’s no knowledge like secret knowledge… Prominent in today’s news is Labour’s contention that

leaked Home Office documents suggesting government cuts are linked to the rise in violent crime, and demanded the home secretary explain herself to parliament.

It’s a bizarre accusation, not because it is implausible, but because it could not be otherwise, and the suggestion that this has been “revealed” by a secret report is part of implicitly accepting an inane pattern of government — and not just government — obfuscation that I am choosing to call the magical zero marginal. The way it works is, the government (let us say) feels an urge to reduce expenditures on (let us say) policing. It’s a problem, because the voters rather like police, by and large, and feel that they derive benefit. Not to worry, says the government press release (possibly produced by a dedicated key on the Whitehall keyboard), there will be no reduction in service. The costs will be made up with efficiency gains. The claim is that there is a significant portion of the current budget that is bringing zero marginal benefit, and whose elimination will therefore cause no harm. Perhaps this portion doesn’t exist as a budget line item now, but will after a “reorganisation” — but then the implicit claim is that the costs of the reorganisation as well will be covered by the savings. (more…)

Self-deconstructing clichés: US Supreme Court edition

Part of an ongoing series.

From a report on recent Supreme Court oral arguments about partisan gerrymandering:

Breyer pointed out that all the tests “have slight variations on different themes”

The whole point of “variations on a theme” is to communicate that they are fundamentally the same, with some superficial differences. There is one theme, and all the distinct versions are slight “variations”, What does it mean to be “variations” if they are all on different themes?

For other entries in this series see here, here, and here.

Internal Brexit

The Conservative campaign in local elections in the outer London borough of Havering has been getting some attention for their focus on keeping the borough safe from insurgents pouring across the border — from London.

Andrew Rosindell, the “staunch Brexiter” Tory MP for the area, was quoted at a campaign event — attended by Boris Johnson, which is why the press is interested — saying

While Havering is an outer London borough, we don’t want the social problems which come with more migration from inner London. Havering has always been a low crime area with great community spirit.

If it’s about letting good solid British yeoman insurance agents get on with their lives without having to be bothered by the sight of foreigners, then exiting the EU is just the beginning of the Brexit project. The enemy is already inside the gates!

I’m wondering if perhaps we were missing the signal when Johnson suggested last month that the inner-Irish border after Brexit should end up looking like the border between London boroughs.

Politically correct snowflakes

Two expressions with interesting histories have collided in recent years. I first heard the term “politically correct” in the fall of 1984, as a second-year student during the dining-hall workers strike at Yale. My one movement-left friend was talking to a comrade about suggestions for supporting the strikers by a certain lecturer. One of them asked “Is he politically correct?” and the other affirmed that he was. There was some smirking going on, and this friend had sufficient self-awareness that I was never sure of this was meant entirely seriously or more tongue-in-cheek. I next encountered the word in the late 1980s, when conservatives like John Silber, president of Boston University (and Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, in possibly the only election in which I voted for a Republican) picked up the term as a cudgel for attacking the Left on campus. Since Silber had attained prominence precisely as an opponent of free speech and academic freedom, there was little attempt at that time to pretend that anti-PC was a stance for freedom. In his campaign book Straight Shooting, Silber presented it instead as a struggle for absolute unchanging truth against fickle academic fashion. Weird, since the current anti-PC movement has fully embraced the extreme moral relativism that it used to ascribe to the Left.

As for snowflake, I think it’s important to remember that it didn’t start as a reference to the fragility of snowflakes, but to their beauty and uniqueness. Liberal writers on child-rearing referred to children as snowflakes in opposition to what they saw as an obsession with molding children into a predetermined image. Each snowflake is individual, and each one is beautiful in its own way. A lovely metaphor. Of course, there were immediately those who attacked what they saw as mollycoddling, rather than slapping some reality into the little brats, suggesting that these “precious snowflakes” were growing up to have an inflated sense of self. And at some point the self-esteeming precious snowflakes acquired the fragility of snowflakes. The self-described tough guys (and gals) of the right could dismiss complaints about their shredding of constitutional norms as the snivelling of “snowflakes”, implicitly unfit for the rough and tumble of real life by their neglectful upbringing.

Muddying the shibboleth

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by words. I like words with complicated history and many layers of meaning, enabling them to encapsulate complicated ideas or sentiments — like the word Abend (“evening”) in Hofmannsthal’s poem “Ballade des äusseren Lebens” (Ballad of the outer life):

Und dennoch sagt der viel, der Abend sagt,

ein Wort, daraus Tiefsinn und Trauer rinnt

wie schwerer Honig aus den hohlen Waben.

And yet one says so much just saying “evening”,

a word from which profundity and pathos drip

like thick honey from the hollows of the honeycomb.

Often I seem to be the last to notice that a word has changed its vernacular usage, and then I see all at once several appearances of the “new” meaning. One example is this report in The New Republic on the NY gubernatorial campaign of Cynthia Nixon:

If nothing else, perhaps she’ll run a strong enough campaign to make the Democratic Party reconsider its credentialism shibboleth.

I have no opinion about the political candidacy, and I never saw Ms Nixon’s television show, but I grieve for the word shibboleth.

Its original meaning is a word whose proper usage marks someone as belonging to the in-group. (It was the word for a ‘stream’, and the Gileadites in a civil war between Hebrew tribes narrated in chapter 12 of the Old Testament book of Judges used it as a watchword, since the opposing Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the initial consonant correctly. Rather like the story of American troops in WWII in the Pacific identifying Japanese in the dark by demanding they pronounce the word lollapalooza.) There is plenty of scope for applying this concept in the debates over political correctness and social justice warriors. But I guess it is doomed to become just a fancy synonym for a petty requirement. It is probably beyond saving.

The original story:

Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives from Ephraim, you Gileadites—in the heart of Ephraim and Manasseh.” Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

Fannee Doolee likes college professors but she doesn’t like scientists

When I was a child, there was a regular feature on the program Zoom called “Fannee Doolees”: Riddles about the titular character who liked some things, but didn’t like other very similar things, interspersed with the question “Why do you think that is?”. Listeners could send in their own suggestions, to show they’d figured out the pattern, like: Fannee Doolee likes sweets, but she doesn’t like candy. Fannee Doolee likes batteries, but she doesn’t like electricity. The trick was, FD likes only words that have a double letter in them. So naturally I thought of this when I saw this plot (pointed out by Kevin Drum) from a paper on political partisanship by political scientist Larry Bartels, showing the results of a survey that asked for a favourability rating on a zero-to-ten scale for various groups and institutions, separated between self-identified Republicans and Democrats.

Screenshot 2018-03-20 21.59.44

Looking at this it really jumped out at me that Republicans have widely divergent views of “college professors” and “scientists”. Scientists are well up in the positive zone, about equal with Jews, and Republicans themselves, whereas college professors are well down into negative territory, next to gays and environmentalists. They also like wealthy people, but they don’t like Wall Street Bankers. Fannee Doolee is definitely not a Republican.

Weirdly, Republicans say they like men and women both more than they like Republicans.

Landing the plane

One of the weirder stories to come up right after the 9/11 attacks was that the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui  — the Al Qaeda operative who was arrested by the FBI a month before the attack — raised the suspicions of the flight school teacher because he wasn’t interested in learning how to land the plane. In fact, this doesn’t seem to have been true, but the instructor said one of the things that aroused his suspicions was that Moussaoui was interested in how to turn off the oxygen and the transponder. They also thought it was odd that he was starting with learning to fly jumbo jets, which clearly could not part of any rational career strategy.

He also had a weird reason for wanting to learn to fly a jumbo jet, said Nelson — he told them that he merely wanted to be able to boast to his friends that he could fly a 747.

“He was telling us that it’s an ego thing,” Nelson said. “That’s a lot of money to spend to play.”

“I need to know if you can help me achieve my ‘goal,’ my dream,” Moussaoui wrote, listing five types of Boeing and Airbus jets. “To be able to pilot one of these Big Birds, even if I am not a real professional pilot.”

There’s an oddly similar story in The Guardian’s new report on Cambridge Analytica’s possibly even more consequential attack on the British and US elections, facilitated by Facebook. There was this pitch that the company made to the Russian oil conglomerate Lukoil in 2014:

A slide presentation prepared for the Lukoil pitch focuses first on election disruption strategies used by Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, in Nigeria. They are presented under the heading “Election: Inoculation”, a military term used in “psychological operations” and disinformation campaigns. Other SCL documents show that the material shared with Lukoil included posters and videos apparently aimed at alarming or demoralising voters, including warnings of violence and fraud.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who has come forward to talk to the Observer, said it was never entirely clear what the Russian firm hoped to get from the operation.

“Alexander Nix [Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica]’s presentation didn’t make any sense to me,” said Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica soon after the initial meetings. “If this was a commercial deal, why were they so interested in our political targeting?”

Lukoil did not respond to requests for comments.

I guess even oil conglomerates have dreams. And they can find clueless techies willing to make their dreams come true.

Don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?

I’ve had a number of conversations with Europeans that made me realise that many Europeans actually believe in the British self-image, that they are by nature calm and pragmatic. I may be wrong, but I think Americans — in common with Canadians and Australians — tend to have a more clear-eyed view of Britain, a nation so much in the grip of their ideologies — even as they flit from one to the other — that they can’t even recognise them as ideologies. Since the Thatcher reign the obsession has been market liberalism.

If there’s one thing the British excel at, it’s marketing, and they have marketed their own image brilliantly. It’s only with Brexit that the scales are falling from the eyes of the Europeans. One foreign academic who I was talking with today on the picket line said, in her first years in the UK she was constantly stressed because British colleagues would never keep to any agreement. If you try to appeal to the fact that something was agreed, even that it’s written down in a contract, you’ll be told how petty and unreasonable you are being. “Reasonable” is a favourite power play, because only the in-group knows which of the vast number of rules a “reasonable” person has to follow.

Anyway, I just happened to be reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, written at a time when the British were marketing a different self-image, and came upon this passage:

“Mrs. Gould, are you aware to what point he has idealized the existence, the worth, the meaning of the San Tome mine? Are you aware of it?”

“What do you know?” she asked in a feeble voice.

“Nothing,” answered Decoud, firmly. “But, then, don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?”

“Well, what of that?” asked Mrs. Gould.

“Simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale. The earth is not quite good enough for him, I fear.”

It reminds me obliquely of when I came upon the odd passage in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where he remarks with pride how easily Englishmen pick up other languages, contrasting it with the incapacity of foreigners to learn English:

This also is proper to vs Englishmen, that sith ours is a meane language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in vtterance, we may with much facilitie learne any other language, beside Hebrue, Gréeke & Latine, and speake it naturallie, as if we were home-borne in those countries; & yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other meanes, that few forren nations can rightlie pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especiallie the French men, who also seldome write any thing that sauoreth of English trulie.

What’s English for Führerprinzip?

The Guardian today knocks back the argument that UK vice chancellors are not overpaid — indeed, are grievously underpaid — when you take account of the extraordinary talents they must bring to the job, and compare them with the appropriate reference group of CEOs and American university presidents. They fill their remunerations committees with CEOs who will swear that no one worth their salt would get out of bed for less than half a million, and what can you do but pay what it costs to hire someone who can manage this huge and complex organisation and wheedle the high-class donors.Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.27.50 (more…)

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