The random correspondence theory of truth

Republicans may not believe in scientific reasoning, but Republican administrations seem to be the best for generating innovations in epistemology. The Bush administration brought us the taxonomy of “known unknowns”, etc.

Now presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway continues to press forward her creative truth-value confections. After coining the term “alternative facts” for what were formerly called “lies”, she is now attacking what might be called the curatorial conception of truth.

“You can talk about somebody almost making a mistake and not doing it,” Tapper said. “I’m talking about the President of the United States saying things that are not true, demonstrably not true. That is important.”

“Are they more important than the many things that he says that are true that are making a difference in people’s lives?” Conway replied.

It is not important, in her conception, for true statements to be statistically more common than false, or, presumably, even more common than background randomness. Only that they are there, and that they “make a difference”. The lies presumably make a difference as well.

Abstractly, statements can be generated by a machine, or a Magic 8 Ball, and there are approximately equal numbers of potential statements that are true as false. (Think Library of Babel.) We count on humans having a preference for truth, even an abhorrence of falsehoods. From Conway’s point of view, though, Trump has no obligation to make overwhelmingly true statements, as long as the truths that do crop up “make a difference”.

The unexpected autocracy

One of my favourite logic paradoxes (does everyone have favourite logic paradoxes?) goes by the name of The Unexpected Hanging. There are numerous versions, but a standard story is: A man has been condemned to death for some crime. The judge tells him, “Today is Monday. You are to be hanged at noon some day in the next week, but you will not know until the morning of the day of the hanging which day it will be.” The man then reasons, it can’t be Sunday, because if I haven’t been hanged by Saturday noon, I’ll know it must be Sunday, which would contradict the judge’s order. Since it can’t be Sunday, if we get to Friday afternoon, I’ll know it must be Saturday. Again a contradiction. So it can’t be Saturday. Working backward in this way, he is confident that he cannot be hanged at all. But then Thursday dawns, and he is hanged, and he never anticipated it.

I was thinking about this, particularly in the light of this comment by Josh Marshall:

One thing we can say in Donald Trump’s favor, there was no bait and switch. They told us they would do all of this and more.

It’s true, and I’m not surprised. And yet… Trump did say he would ban Muslims. He would build a wall. He would ban abortion. He would revoke the Affordable Care Act. And yet, at the same time, he was saying over and over again, I’m going to be unpredictable. I won’t say what I’m really going to do. More than that, his whole demeanor suggested that you couldn’t believe the specifics of what he was saying. So, in the end, he does exactly what he said he would do, and it actually is somewhat surprising. Continue reading “The unexpected autocracy”

From portent to program: Factless fascism

I’m old enough to remember when “relativism” was the second-favourite scare word hurled by the Right (after “socialism”, of course). The truth of the matter was that leftist intellectuals had put a lot of effort into analysing the way worldviews are created by and support particular power relations. This seems like good work, in principle, and obviously useful in interrogating the making of history, economics, and social ideologies, and has made important contributions to the philosophy of science. There have been excesses — edging into denial of scientific truth or progress.

The arch-cultural reactionary Dinesh D’Souza in his heyday (before he became completely ridiculousused the then-modish term deconstruction as a catch-all for this iconoclastic posture toward literary and (it is implied, more than actually shown) moral authorities of the past to exemplify the inconsistent application of moral relativism as a political weapon:

Marx, for instance, never seems to be deconstructed, nor does Foucault, or Lacan , or Derrida, or Barthes. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, seem to enjoy immunity. There may be an entire gender exception for women.

I’ve never been sufficiently au fait with the humanities and social sciences — “critical theory” — to judge whether these extreme denials of objective truth were ever as central to leftist discourse as some critics would suggest. I think this has been overall very productive intellectually and scientifically. But as a political tactic it was, it seems clear now, tragically short-sighted. The Left made a serious strategic error in trying to shortcut its way out from under the dead hand of the past  by promoting relativism and attacking the authority of science and rational discourse. The right wing were taking notes, and while the older generation — figures like William F. Buckley, John Silber and Allan Bloom — started by ridiculing the anti-rationalist turn, the younger generation saw it as a program to be emulated and developed. Fascists have always had an uncomfortable relationship with objective reality, that seems to be offering only stubborn opposition to the imposition of the authoritarian will.

Nietzsche — the doyen of this kind of analysis, but conflicted in this as in everything else — framed what should have been the core left-wing critique of relativism in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft [The Gay Science]:

Ein Jude umgekehrt ist, gemäss dem Geschäftskreis und der Vergangenheit seines Volks, gerade daran — dass man ihm glaubt — am wenigsten gewöhnt: man sehe sich darauf die jüdischen Gelehrten an, — sie Alle halten grosse Stücke auf die Logik, das heisst auf das Erzwingen der Zustimmung durch Gründe; sie wissen, dass sie mit ihr siegen müssen, selbst wo Rassen- und Classen-Widerwille gegen sie vorhanden ist, wo man ihnen ungern glaubt. Nichts nämlich ist demokratischer als die Logik: sie kennt kein Ansehn der Person und nimmt auch die krummen Nasen für gerade. (Nebenbei bemerkt: Europa ist gerade in Hinsicht auf Logisirung, auf reinlichere Kopf-Gewohnheiten den Juden nicht wenig Dank schuldig; voran die Deutschen, als eine beklagenswerth deraisonnable Rasse, der man auch heute immer noch zuerst „den Kopf zu waschen“ hat. Ueberall, wo Juden zu Einfluss gekommen sind, haben sie ferner zu scheiden, schärfer zu folgern, heller und sauberer zu schreiben gelehrt: ihre Aufgabe war es immer, ein Volk „zur Raison“ zu bringen.)

On account of his people’s business relations and past, the Jew is not used to being believed. You see this in the way Jewish scholars are obsessed with logic, that is, compelling assent through reasons. They know that they can succeed in this way, even when the prejudice of race and class tell against them, even when one would rather not believe them. Nothing is as democratic as logic: It recognises no personal distinctions, and takes even the crooked nose for straight.(Europe must be grateful to the Jews particularly with respect to logicalising — for clearer habits of thought. Above all the Germans, a pitifully irrational race. Everywhere where the Jews have gained influence, they have taught people to reason more precisely and write more clearly. It has always been their task to bring a people “to its senses”.)

And so we find ourselves in the 21st century with a senior adviser to a Republican president criticising, in 2002, the naivety of what he called the “reality-based community”, stating

That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.

And sure enough, as soon as a new Republican is elected, we have his surrogates even more openly attacking the very notion of objective reality:

 And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.

You may think you’re talking about facts and evidence, but for those on the inside these are just ways of saying whether you “like Mr. Trump”. They tried out their message first on evolution as a matter of “belief”, honed the message on climate science — a harder nut to crack — and finally brought us to where groundless claims that millions of people voted illegally are also matters of belief.

Speaking of Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago philosopher who had a hit book in the mid-1980s The Closing of the American Mind, which was mainly about how the kids today with their crazy rock-and-roll music were having more sex than he had at their age, which was driving him crazy. But I remember one really striking idea that he was pushing was that, just as the Romans conquered the Greeks militarily, but then as a consequence of absorbing the Greek world ended up being dominated by Greek culture and philosophy, so the Anglo-American world conquered Germany militarily, but are now dominated by the German Weltanschauung, and Nietzsche in particular.

How to do racist things with words

In contemplating the state of political discussion on the right wing of US politics, I found myself thinking about the celebrated work How To Do Things with Words, by the linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin.

I’ve been trying to understand the way Republicans talk about Donald Trump. For months mainstream Republicans have been predicting that Trump would “pivot” toward the general election and adopt a more “presidential” tone.  “Pivot”, a term that usually describes a turn away from the interests of ideological allies in ones own party toward emphasising more centrist positions, but in the special context of this presidential election means ceasing to make racist attacks and boasting about penis size.

Republicans don’t like Trump’s open racism. You might think they would then not support him. Or (and I’m not so naive as to miss their inescapable self-interest in continuing to support him) if they find his racism just embarrassing but not inherently a problem they might publicly condemn it, while privately encouraging him to tone it down, and hope that people will forget. Instead, though, they are publicly encouraging him to stop making racist comments. For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “He needs to quit these gratuitous attacks on other Americans”, and said “Donald Trump has got a lot of good qualities, but he needs to put them forward and suppress some of these other actions.” Senator Bob Corker said Trump has “two or three weeks” to “pivot to a place where he becomes a true general election candidate.” Continue reading “How to do racist things with words”

Politicians debate statisticians and philosophers

I should have known the writing was on the wall for my career in Canada when, at the first federal election debate in 2006, the Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe said

We don’t need inspectors. We don’t need statisticians. We need doctors and nurses.

The rest of academia kept their heads down, hoping the storm would blow over. But now, not even a decade later, just south of the border, presidential candidates have another academic discipline in their sights. In yesterday’s Republican presidential debate Marco Rubio said

Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

As is pointed out here, the first statement isn’t actually true. Whether it should be true is another question. We might say, a philosophical question; although, in a serious dispute over the issue between a philosopher and a welder, I would not be surprised if the latter came out the better for it.

First they came for the statisticians…

Nietzsche, China, and Tory politics

John Holbo has pointed out, in a post on Crooked Timber, that Nietzsche advocated in Morgenröte expatriating 1/4 of the European population, and replacing them with Chinese immigrants, who would

bring with them the type of thinking and living that would suit industrious ants. Indeed, they could generally help the nervous Europe that is jittering itself to bits to attain some measure of asiatic calm and contemplation…

Know we know where the Tories have been cribbing their social policies! Just a few weeks ago Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, made headlines by declaring that cuts to tax credits for the working poor were needed to inspire them to work as hard as Chinese and Americans:

My wife is Chinese. We want this to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years’ time. There’s a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which is essentially: are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard?

Unlike Nietzsche, Hunt believes in transfer of spirit without transfer of people. I’m not sure if this is what the UKIP voters thought they would get by keeping out the foreigners.

His cabinet colleague Michael Gove believes the Chinese have other lessons to teach. He wrote a few years back that

I’d like us to implement a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China.

Zionism and antisemitism

What is the connection between Zionism and antisemitism? The question is rarely posed, since those who are interested in these themes are usually concerned with the converse link, between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. That link clearly exists. Those who hate the Jewish state usually end up helping themselves to the stockpile of ideological weapons of antisemitism, honed over centuries; and it’s hard to miss the historical continuity between traditional left-wing antisemitism in Europe and modern anti-Zionism. (The crassest form, unsurprisingly, was in Germany, as recounted in Hans Kundnani’s book Utopia or Auschwitz, about the German ’68 generation, who simultaneously attacked their parents for their war crimes, and demonstrated their antifascist opposition by helping the PLO to kill more Jews — or by planting bombs themselves in German synagogues.)

And yet, the link in the other direction is also impossible to ignore. It’s hardly novel to point out that Binyamin Netanyahu is committed to fulfilling Hitler’s dream of removing all Jews from Europe. (It’s true that the ultimate methods of the Nazis were exterminatory, but that was not an inevitable part of their programme. Many ferocious antisemites were happy to have the Jews be genuinely expelled. For example, to Palestine.) And now I have just discovered, reading Hannah Arendt, that one of the 20th century’s most famous antisemites was also a committed Zionist: Continue reading “Zionism and antisemitism”

The first statistician

I like to share with beginning statistics students the aphorism of C. R. Rao

Uncertain knowledge + knowledge about the extent of uncertainty in it = Useable knowledge

And it just occurred to me that the extreme limit of this dictum is that if you are infinitely uncertain, if nothing is knowable, the knowledge of that fact in itself is highly useable. The realisation of which would seem to make Socrates the first statistician:

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. (Apology, translated Benjamin Jowett)

The REF Research Rating Agency

Among the many inefficiencies imposed by the hexennial ritual of centralised research evaluation in the UK is the requirement that some of the nation’s most esteemed academics (thankfully, I am not one of these) need to dial their research productivity down to nearly zero while they spend their waking hours — and some when they might otherwise be sleeping — reading and ranking hundreds of papers, and attending interminable meetings. And then, after the results are complete, the specialised skills they have developed during this sisyphean herculean task are of no use to anyone, other than helping their individual departments get a leg up on the next REF, of course. Wouldn’t it be great — and very British — to enable the researchers who have devoted so much time and effort to monetise the skills they have acquired for personal gain?

This is why I am proposing the creation of a public-private consortium (privately owned, but initially funded by the British taxpayers), to be called the REF Research Rating Agency (REFRRA). The idea is simple: One of the major outcomes of the REF is to induce British universities to hire leading researchers away from other British universities shortly before the REF census date, expecting that their 4* papers will pay their salaries for the next six years. They also hire researchers from outside the UK on 20% contracts to pop by occasionally and credit their  research output to their generous UK host. By these means, the University of Birmingham has had itself crowned the king of UK philosophy.

The problem is the amount of guesswork that goes into these hiring decisions. That is why we need the REFRRA, employing experienced former REF examiners, to provide researchers in the UK and worldwide with Audited REF Score Evaluations (ARSE). For a modest fee, academics can purchase a documented ARSE to list on their CV. This will ultimately lead, it is hoped to a complete automation of the appointments process, whereby academics can simply go to a web site of a university they would hope to work for, put in their ARSE and a few demographic details, and receive an immediate job offer or rejection, based on the calculation of whether their hiring would be a financial net gain or loss for the university.

When I told a colleague about this idea, she said that no one could trust ratings where the ones being rated are the agency’s paying customers. Too much conflict of interest. On further reflection we had a good laugh at her naïveté.

Default settings, encryption, and privacy

One essay that powerfully shaped my intellect in my impressionable youth was Douglas Hofstadter’s Changes in Default Words and Images, Engendered by Rising Consciousness, that appeared in the November 1982 issue of Scientific American (back when Scientific American was good), and Hofstadter’s associated satire A Person Paper on Purity in Language. Hofstadter’s point is that we are constantly filling in unknown facts about the world with default assumptions that we can’t recognise unless they happen to collide with facts that are discovered later. He illustrates this with the riddle, popular among feminists in the 1970s, that begins with the story of a man driving in a car with his young son. The car runs off the road and hits a tree, and the man is killed instantly. The boy is brought to the hospital, prepped for surgery, and then the surgeon takes one look at him and says “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” As Hofstadter tells it, when this story was told at a party, people were able to conceive of explanations involving metempsychosis quicker than they could come to the notion that the surgeon was a woman. It’s not that they considered it impossible for a woman to be a surgeon. It’s just that you can’t think of a human being without a sex, so it gets filled in with the default sex “male”. (The joke wouldn’t really work today, I imagine. Not only are there so many women surgeons that it’s hard to have a very strong default assumption, but the boy could have two fathers. On the other hand, a “nurse” has a very strong female default, so much so that a male nurse is frequently called a “male nurse”, to avoid confusion.)

Continue reading “Default settings, encryption, and privacy”