Thursday, April 10, 2014

Deacon Duncan Doubles Down

Wherein a critical mass of wrong brings me out of retirement.

My attention was draw to a sequence of two posts by Deacon Duncan which embody many of the worst habits of thought that I've observed in the atheist community. He's just so wrong, on so many levels, and sometimes in multiple ways at the same time, that I find the need to respond at length to what he says, beginning with The rise and fall of the nerd Eich and then moving on to Subverting the democratic process.

He starts out reasonably enough, if not particularly eloquently, pointing out that there are differences of opinion regarding whether Brendan Eich's treatment was fair and/or warranted1. But then he goes off the rails in paragraph 6:

Where Eich crossed the line was in going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas, to the point of actively participating in a coordinated effort to humiliate and oppress innocent people. Proposition 8 had one purpose, and one purpose only: to isolate those who fall in love differently than heterosexuals do, and deny them the fundamental human rights the rest of us take for granted. At the point where you actively attempt to bring tangible harm to others, you've crossed the line from being a bigot the rest of us should tolerate, to being an enemy of open and enlightened society. Stupid opinions are bad enough, but stupid actions, deliberately undertaken for the purpose of harming others, deserve the consequences they receive. [ Emphasis his - GG ]

Let me at this point remind the audience exactly what it was Eich did: He wrote a check in support of a ballot initiative, well before he was even employed by Mozilla. That is all2. Deacon Duncan sets an incredibly low threshold for activity that counts as bringing "tangible harm" to others; it seems that any advocacy of a position, no matter how restrained or remote in time, is fair grounds for termination or any other consequences that people might choose to impose. There's a sort of vindictiveness about his approach in that there's no notion of proportionality; any deviation from a particular line of thought merits boundless retribution. And he speaks with such certainty, seemingly leaving no room for the possibility that reasonable people might disagree with his assessment of the situation. I mean, really, his stance seems to pretty much be "say something we don't like and we're perfectly justified in destroying you", what with all the verbiage about Eich being an "enemy of open and enlightened society" and all that. You'd think a rule like that would come back and bite you on the ass, right?

Following a few paragraphs of strained analogies he comes this close to the full Godwin:

Or suppose it was someone who was not only anti-Semitic, but had volunteered his time and financial support to ensuring the passage of laws requiring Jews to wear bright yellow star-of-David badges on their clothes, so that no one would accidentally mistake them for Gentiles when doing business with them.

Again, he wrote a check. Let's have a little sense of perspective. The piece de resistance of the first post is the concluding paragraph:

We should be tolerant of words and ideas, and should respect the dignity and worth of all individuals, even when their ideas are unsavory and unhealthy. Actions, however, are more than just words, and actions can and should have consequences in proportion to the harm that they cause to others. If Eich were a bigot who kept his views to himself and who acted in ways that respected the equality and dignity of others -- including gays -- then yes, I'd be fine with keeping him on as CEO, and I'd agree that the backlash against him was excessive. But that's not the case. The backlash stems from his actions in overtly and deliberately attempting to deny to others the same dignity and liberty he expects for himself. He reaped what he sowed, and he deserves what he got.

He's paying lip service to the notion of open discourse, but this fundamentally contradicts what he said earlier: "Where Eich crossed the line was in going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas, to the point of actively participating in a coordinated effort to humiliate and oppress innocent people". Eich's sin was externalizing his opinions; that's about the only way to interpret the phrase "going beyond merely holding bigoted ideas". The only other alternative seems to be to make some kind of a distinction between talking about a subject and writing a check, which involves us believing that verbal/written advocacy (tolerance of "words and ideas", y'all) is somehow not "active participation" but writing a check is. I call bullshit; Deacon Duncan would say the same damn thing if all Eich had done was make a public statement in support of Proposition 8. Just look at his analogy about slavery; in that case the problem isn't even material endorsement but just being on record as holding an opinion. And while we're at it let's talk about acting "in ways that respected the equality and dignity of others":

Baker said that she had not known about Eich's views on gay marriage throughout most of their working relationship, until the donation came to light last year.

"That was shocking to me, because I never saw any kind of behavior or attitude from him that was not in line with Mozilla's values of inclusiveness," she said, noting that there was a long and public community process about what to do about it in which Eich, then CTO, participated.

That's a quote from Mozilla Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker; as far as I know no one has dug up anything to the contrary. So far from being tolerant of words and ideas, it seems like Deacon Duncan is willing to come down on Eich like the fist of an angry god solely on the basis of a single financial donation. So much for discourse.

Now here's where it gets interesting. In the comments I pointed out to Deacon Duncan that he was setting an awfully low bar for employers in terms of what kind of behavior was grounds for termination. Here's his response:

It's not that it's ok to fire people for political activities outside of work hours, it's that it's legit to fire people for actively seeking to do significant harm to large numbers of innocent people, as Eich did. I think that's a pretty clear dividing line.

I found myself desparately trying to come up with some sort of political activity that Eich could have engaged in that wouldn't also have met Deacon Duncan's threshold for "significant harm". Moreover, it seemed to me that "significant harm" was totally subjective, so quoth I:

That construction is even worse; "significant harm" is in the eye of the beholder. Now all some Hobby Lobby type has to do is decide that a pro-choice activist has done "significantly harm" to large number of "pre-born children" and poof, no more job.

Deacon Duncan didn't respond, but I did get a response from one "Nick Gotts":

No, significant harm is not "in the eye of the beholder". The fact that some people see significant harm where there is none, and fail to see it where there is, does not make this a matter of personal taste any more than creationists' failure to see the evidence for evolution means evolution is "in the eye of the beholder".

No no no no no nononononono... arrrrrggghhh! This, THIS!, drives me up the fucking wall. How can atheists and skeptics, people who are so careful about epistemology in scientific settings, suddenly cast that all aside and claim the mantle of moral certainty? Nicks Gotts said it, but the same sentiment is lurking behind what Deacon Duncan wrote as well. This idea that somehow they've managed to grab ahold of universal truth and people who disagree with them are just self-evidently wrong. Not even any attempt to explain their position, just flat out truth-by-assertion.

Anyhow, let me summarize the essence of the first post and the responses to my comments: It's not OK to fire someone for political activity, unless that political activity causes significant harm to large numbers of innocent people. You can cause significant harm by something as innocuous as providing material support to a campaign, or even just expressing the wrong opinion, but don't worry about that because it only happens to bad people who disagree with Deacon Duncan Nick Gotts.

Fuck me... moving on...

Deacon Duncan's second post is worse than his first. Ed Brayton weighed in, saying that the reaction to Eich's behavior was "out of proportion" (excuse me while I do the "I told you so" dance), at which point Deacon Duncan starts talking out of his ass about the democratic process:

You've probably heard the quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, to the effect that "democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried." It's true. Democracy is the best we've been able to come up with so far, but it's flawed. In particular, it's subject to demagoguery and to injustices perpetrated against minorities by the majority, for whatever reason.

I'm going to take a stand on principle, and say that our goal, as a society, should be to oppose that sort of abuse of the democratic process, even when it is technically legal. It is never a legitimate use of "free and fair election" to subvert the process in order to demean minorities and deprive them of their fundamental human rights.

Hold up there Deacon. Yes, there are a lot of valid critiques regarding democracy as its practiced in America, but that's not what we're debating here. The question is whether its ok for an employer to rain down hellfire and damnation on an employee for participating in the very process of which you're so fond.

ENDA is a legitimate use of the democratic process, because it goes the other direction: it seeks to restore and/or protect minorities against discrimination and second-class status. Proposition 8 was the exact opposite. It didn't even have any significant benefit to the majority. It was purely a spiteful and bigoted attempt to make gay people suffer for being gay. It is never legitimate to use the democratic process in this way.

So Deacon, what you're saying is that I can engage in the democratic process as long as whatever it is I'm doing meets with your approval? But wait, hold on... if you already know what counts as a legitimate use of the democratic process why do we need the process at all? You can just tell us what to do and we can go back to watching TV.

Setting aside the snark for a minute, Deacon Duncan has a very particular view of democracy and doesn't seem to realize (or at least fails to acknowlege) that there are plausible alternatives. In particular, its clear that he's an advocate for substantive democracy i.e. a democractic process which exists to serve an end indepedent of the process itself. Atheists have (or should have) the same problem with substantive democracy that they have with other teleological theories, namely the epistemic justification of the end being served. But even ignoring that criticism he seems to be very certain about his ability to discern legitimate and illegitimate uses of the democratic process, as if no reasonable person could disagree with his assessment. It's not even clear that he has any coherent theory for separating one from the other. Consider the rubric which he lays out in the paragraph which follows:

I agree with Jim: we should indeed think long and hard before we demand that someone be removed from their job for exercising their constitutional rights. But having thought long and hard, we should recognize three things.

  • Nobody has a constitutional right to demean and discriminate against anyone else, including gays.
  • Nobody has a constitutional right to subvert constitutional processes in order to institutionalize unconstitutional discrimination.
  • You reap what you sow.

The first bullet is just wrong; demeaning speech is expressly protected by the First Amendment in a wide variety of contexts. There are a number of Federal cases on this topic, for example American Freedom Defense Initiative v. MTA and Doe v. University of Michigan.

Bullet two is... confused. You keep saying that word, "subvert", but I do not think that it means what you think it means. Prop 8 proponents didn't stuff ballot boxes or intimidate voters; they brough a referendum to ballot through the process defined in Article II of the California Constitution. Deacon Duncan isn't alleging some violation of that procedure, or arguing that the CA Constitution somehow violates Federal constitutional protections in this regard, so by definition what they did was fully constitutional.

And now let's turn our attention to the last bullet point: "You reap what you sow". For the love of Dog, can you taste the irony? An atheist referencing a Bible verse to justify what is essentially a policy of unlimited retribution? Because that's all it is, a fancy way of saying that people, by defintion, get what they deserve. How about Jessica Ahlquist? She reaped what she sowed, right? Or Ryan Bell? Or Amanda Donaldson? No, of course not, because they're the good guys, right?

In the end Deacon Duncan's argument across both posts amounts to one long, special plead, which is really the ultimate source of my ire. Things that he should think about:

  • He is not the sole arbiter of truth. See "pluralism, reasonable".
  • Propositions are propositions, rules are rules, assertions are assertions... we don't get to pick and choose who they apply to. If you're going to say that political speech should be protected in the workplace then that goes for your enemies as well as your friends.
  • If you're going to carve out an exception to a rule it needs to be justified with something more than "because I said so".
  • Saying something is unconstitutional requires that you spend at least 5 minutes googling relevant caselaw.

1 Lest I be accused of defending Mr. Eich: I don't particularly care about him one way or the other and belive that it was Mozilla's prerogative to get rid of him.
2 Lest I be accused of being anti-gay-marriage: I think the state should get out of the marriage biz entirely, but until they do LGBTQITSLFA individuals should get the same treatment as everyone else.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Atheist/Skeptic Dialogue, Strand 1, "Robert's Rules of Order" edition

Strand 1 of the Atheist/Skeptic Dialogue is going nowhere fast. People are getting hung up on the definition of satire and the right of reply and a bunch of other crap which seems utterly tangential to me, which apparently means that I've completely missed the subtext of the discussion. Reading the comments at Stephanie's blog it has become clear that Strand 1, at least, is a front in an ongoing war between two (three? four?) factions over moderation fascism and whether it's ok to photoshop someone's head onto a cow (or something). Not interesting. Maybe I'll check in again if/when Strand 2 starts.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Atheist/Skeptic Dialogue - 2013-04-09 Update

The dialogue is moving slowly. I've written a couple more comments (here and here), but mostly I'm waiting for something interesting to happen. I suppose its good in the long run that they're spacing things out, but so far the give-and-take has been pretty vanilla and hasn't directly addressed any of the various elephants in the room. This seems to be a shared sentiment; folks over at Stephanie's blog are saying the same thing.

I suppose that regardless of what happens this is an interesting experiment. Even if it comes to nought it'll answer a question about the viability of dialogue under rigorous conditions.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Atheist Skeptic Dialogue, Round 1

I'm not much given to participating in Internet forums, but the Atheist Skeptic Dialogue touches on a lot of areas that I find interesting so I figured I'd give it a try. I've posted comments in response to both of the opening statements which have, after some delay, made it through the moderation queue. It's interesting to see the modifications that the moderators felt were necessary to keep my comments within the guidelines. My comment on Stephanie Zvan's opening statement orginally contained the following sentence at the end of Item 1:

To pick a recent example, reasonable people may disagree over whether the American Atheists "slavery billboard" ( advanced the cause of atheism.

which the moderators apparently had some sort of a problem with, given that they removed it and added the note

Mod Note: Moderation team removed an example from the end of (1) in order to keep dialogue within the guidelines.

Not that big a deal, but I specifically added the example in order to conform to guideline 2.a.5 ("Provide sources if asked, or modify (or retract) your claim if unable to do so."). I was honestly expecting that they'd balk at what I said about teleology and moral facts in 4c, given that it was a strong, but unsupported, assertion. I suspect that right now they're primarily moderating/editing for tone, trying to keep unduly inflammatory material out of the discussion too early to keep it from getting derailed.

My comment to Jack Smith's opening statement originally included

Please feel free to strike the following if it is felt to be off-topic:

General criticism: One of the root causes if schism within the skeptical community is disagreement over concepts/definitions, what they mean, and who gets to do the defining. As such, coming to a consensus defintion of terms is a necessary precondition to further progress. For example, we should define the following terms that were referenced in items 1 - 10 above:

  • Ethics
  • Morality
  • Values
  • Equality
  • Justice

I believe that we could also benefit from an explicit enumeration of the core principles of skepticism.

2) Disagree; we should not conflate the "atheist" and "skeptic" communities. Atheism requires nothing more than a disbelief in god(s); one can be an atheist and disagree with the core issues from item 1. By definition, however, one cannot be a skeptic and disagree with these issues. It is true that there is significant overlap between the two groups, but only the skeptic community holds enough core beliefs in common to make discussions fruitful.

They struck all of it. My response to item 2 was pretty tangential, but on reflection I think I should have held my ground on the definitions bit. Guideline 2.a.3 says: "Define words and/or terms when you are asked to do so. Pre-empt such questions by defining, at first use, words already known to raise this question among participants on either 'side' (e.g. 'feminism')."; it seems reasonable that statements should be held to the same standard. I sent a note to the moderators in that regard:

I do think it would greatly improve the general discussion to explicitly tackle definitions. Note that guideline 2(a)3 states "Define words and/or terms when you are asked to do so. Pre-empt such questions by defining, at first use, words already known to raise this question among participants on either “side” (e.g. “feminism”).". If that's what is expect for comments it seems reasonable that Statements be held to the same standard. I recognize the (admirable) desire not to get sidetrack by definitional issues, but I think that disagreements over definitions are part of the core problem the dialogue seeks to address.

It's interesting to see how things are shaping up; here's a quick tally of the responses to date:

Responses To Stephanie Zvan's Opening Statement
ItemAgreeAgree With ReservationsDisagreeOther

The commentariat tends to agree with most of Stephanie Zvan's opening statement; the "other" comment tends to be requests for clarification or commentary about vagueness. The strongest reaction so far has been to Item 5:

5. According to these people, we may not or we may or we must include religious skepticism under our skeptical umbrella. We may not or we may or we must build friendly working relationships with religious institutions with similar goals. We may not or we may or we must shape our agendas to appeal to groups of people whose relationships to these various issues are very different from the relationships of the white, cisgendered, educated, middle-class to upper-class men who have shaped the traditional concerns of our movements.

Needless to say that last bit about white/cisgendered got people's dander up. It's pretty clear that the moderators are granting significantly more leeway to Statement authors; given what got excised from my own response I expect that sort of language would have been removed from a comment.

Responses to Jack Smith's opening statement
ItemAgreeAgree With ReservationsDisagreeOther

There's significantly more disagreement regarding Jack Smith's opening statement. My take is that this is due, in part, to the nature of the claims he was asserting; they were a more specific and thus give people more to disagree with. Though, interestingly enough, he seems to have agreement of at least a plurality of commentors on each item.

One thing which I think I was only tangentially aware of is that there are (allegedly) "sides" to this discussion, which seems to me like a gross oversimplification. I have big disagreements with both Jack Smith and Stephanie Zvan; I don't think I belong to either camp. Nor do I see much in the way of evidence of "sides" in terms of the responses of the commentariat. I suspect that there are distinct "sides" in the sense of clusters of viewpoints, but that we haven't gotten deep enough into fundamental differences for those clusters to have reveal themselves.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Solved: Recreate Minitab Normal Probability Plot in R

I'm taking a stats class where everything is done in Minitab, which is Teh Suck because Minitab only runs on Windows and I No Haz Windows. I've been successfully using R as a substitute, which has turned out to be a non-issue for the most part. However...

Minitab produces a very specific type of probability plot, the "Normal Probability Plot", which has no near-equivalent in R. Thus I embarked on a journey to try to recreate the damn thing. There are lots of threads all over the intertoobs that solve parts of the problem (which turns out to be fairly involved), but I couldn't find anything which puts all the pieces together into a single, ready-made solution. What follows is a pretty close recreation; I just had to move on to the rest of my life before I could get the legend right.

Presented in the hopes that it'll save other people the effort:

minitab_normal_prob_plot <- function(data, x_label) {
    # The labels for the y-axis, corresponding to percentiles

    y_axis_labels = c(1,5,10,20,30,40,50,60,70,80,90,95,99)

    # Lengths, mean, and sd of data

    n = length(data)
    my_mean = mean(data)
    my_sd = sd(data)

    ### Set up the y-axis values

    # Translate labels to decimal percentages

    percentages = y_axis_labels / 100

    # Convert percentages to z-values and shift so that all values are >= 0

    y_axis_points = qnorm(percentages)
    y_shift = y_axis_points[1]
    y_axis_points = y_axis_points - y_shift

    # The minimum and maximum y values

    y_min = y_axis_points[1]
    y_max = y_axis_points[length(y_axis_points)]

    ### Calculate the main data set
    # x and y values per

    x_data_points = sort(data)

    data_percents = c()
    for(i in 1:n) {
        if (i == 1) {
            data_percents[i] = 1 - 0.5^(1/n)
        } else if (i == n) {
            data_percents[i] = 0.5^(1/n)
        } else {
            data_percents[i] = (i - 0.3175)/(n+0.365)

    ### Trend line calculation
    # Project a line represented expected distribution values on assumption
    # that data is normal.

    trend_x0 = qnorm(percentages[1], mean = my_mean, sd = my_sd)
    trend_x1 = qnorm(
            percentages[length(percentages)], mean = my_mean, sd = my_sd

    # Convert percents to z-values and shift as before

    y_data_points = qnorm(data_percents) - y_shift

    ### Set up the envelope
    # Stolen from

    fd<-fitdistr(data, "normal") #Maximum-likelihood Fitting of Univariate Dist from MASS
    xp_hat<-fd$estimate[1]+qprobs*fd$estimate[2]  #estimated perc. for the fitted normal
    v_xp_hat<- fd$sd[1]^2+qprobs^2*fd$sd[2]^2+2*qprobs*fd$vcov[1,2] #var. of estimated perc
    xpl<-xp_hat + qnorm(0.025)*sqrt(v_xp_hat)  #lower bound
    xpu<-xp_hat + qnorm(0.975)*sqrt(v_xp_hat)  #upper bound

    ### Set up the x-axis

    x_min = min(c(data, trend_x0, trend_x1, xpl, xpu))
    x_max = max(c(data, trend_x0, trend_x1, xpl, xpu))

    ### Plot it all

    # Data set. Points plotted twice due to keep them from getting clobbered by
    # white rectangle.
    par(bg = "beige")
        x_data_points, y_data_points,
        xlim = c(x_min, x_max), ylim = c(y_min, y_max),
        axes = FALSE,
        ylab = "Percent", xlab = x_label,
        pch = 16, col = "red",
        main = paste("Probability Plot of", x_label,"\nNormal - 95% CI")
    rect(par("usr")[1], par("usr")[3], par("usr")[2], par("usr")[4], col = "white")
    points(x_data_points, y_data_points, pch = 16, col = "red")

    # Trend line

    segments(trend_x0, y_min, trend_x1, y_max, col = "blue")

    # Lower and upper bounds

    lines(xpl, y_axis_points, col = "blue")
    lines(xpu, y_axis_points, col = "blue")

    # Y-axis gridlines

    for (i in 1:length(y_axis_points)) {
        abline(h = y_axis_points[i], col = "gray", lty = 2)

    # Axes

    axis(2, at = y_axis_points, labels = y_axis_labels)

    # Box and x-grid

    grid(ny = NA, lty = 2)

    # Legend

            paste("Mean", my_mean, sep = " "),
            paste("StDev", my_sd, sep = " ")
        bg = "white"

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Sometimes You Hurt The Ones You Love

I really like the crew at Sadly, No!; they're included on the shortlist of what passes for a blogroll in these parts. But they also exhibit, from time to time, some of the worst traits of knee-jerk progressivism. Which is why it pains me a little to have to do this:

Shorter Tintin, Sadly Not Well Thought Out:
Yglesiatlas Shrugged

  • The gasoline fairy will bring gasoline to all the virtuous people who have nothing more pressing to do than stand in line for hours on end.

Point the first: Contra Tintin, it is not the case that "[w]aiting in line is something everyone can do no matter how much they have in their bank account". There's a positive correlation between wealth and free time, which makes ability to stand in line a weak proxy for wealth. More importantly, however, a person who's stuck in a cold house caring for kids and/or sick relations may have more genuine need1 than a person who lacks such obligations, but only the latter will be able to obtain gasoline. There's no reason to think that willingness/ability to wait in line is a reasonable proxy for need and thus no reason to maintain that allocation of gasoline via queuing is more just than allocation via price.

Point the second: What happens when the local gasoline supply runs out? The queuing method doesn't provide a signal to the wider market that supply should be shifted to address demand; no one is keeping track of queue length or queue time, much less broadcasting that information in an efficient fashion. Allowing people to raise prices, on the other hand, provides an immediate market signal that will cause a shift in gasoline supply from areas of low demand to areas of high demand by virtue of the fact that the suppliers will make more money delivering to the high-demand areas2. History and theory both prove that price ceilings lead to shortages which, in turn, lead to other things like black markets and crime.

In closing:

  • Substituting "free time" for "money" doesn't guarantee a more just outcome.
  • Market-based pricing mechanisms have lots of beneficial properties which queue-based mechanisms lack.
  • Theory and history give good cause to think that price ceilings are counterproductive.
  • For the love of god stop and think for 30 seconds before opening your mouth.

1 However you choose to define it. The fact that it's hard (or impossible, depending on how pessimistic you are) to do so objectively is part of the problem, but I'm not going to get into that here.
2 Recognizing that there are complications here because gasoline delivery may be controlled by long-term contracts rather than spot prices. But this observation is absolutely true for other commodities like ice and bottled water which are delivered almost exclusively on the basis of short-term pricing.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Ok, I Voted For Obama, Now What?

Update: Synchronicity. The problem is the system; everything else is just a symptom.

I said I was going to stay away, but there are too many people wrong on the Internet. Today's ire is directed at all the gazillions of people who are saying "Vote for Obama, because Romney is worse".

Ok, fine, I get it... voting for Obama might be the best way to minimize damage in the short run. But what about the long game? If you acknowledge that all the viable candidates produced by the two party system are shitty, then shouldn't you also be pushing for electoral reform so that people who don't suck ass have the opportunity to at least participate in the frickin' debates?

Hello... <crickets>... thought so.

Look... go read this old Glenn Greenwald piece about the masochism of the Democratic base. The Democratic Party knows that, as things stand now, they can fuck us seven ways till Sunday and we'll still vote for them because they'll at least give us the reach-around now and again. We won't get anything meaningful or substantive from them until such time as they have to worry about us voting for someone else, which will be never if the "hold your nose and vote for Obama" crowd has its way.

So all y'all who want me to vote for the lesser of two evils: Come back when you have a plan to fix the electoral system and maybe I'll listen. Taking your advice, sans a push for electoral reform, amounts to kicking the can down the road; we'll be having this same discussion all over again in 2016.

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