Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Atheism, Skepticism, And The Pursuit Of Abstract Nouns

I was slightly surprised to find out that Amanda Marcotte spoke at Skepticon 3. I admittedly know next to nothing about her personal inclinations, but she's never struck me as a hardcore skeptic (which I presume you have to be to go to such a conference) in the same vein as PZ Myers or Christopher Hitchens, mostly because she occasionally takes positions which seem to me to be at odds with a skeptical mindset. On further thought, however, it looks to me like a lot of the most visible proponent of skepticism, PZ and Hitchens included, do the same thing.

There is, I think, a fundamental tension within the contemporary skeptical community. Amanda writes:

One thing in general I like about skeptic gatherings is just that---people are super laid back and take the claim that this is about open discourse very seriously. Instead of bunching up and freaking out when presented with challenging ideas, they really do go the extra mile to ask questions and think about the idea instead of dismissing it out of hand or seeking reasons to shoot it down without thinking about it. Not that defensiveness never happens---I heard lots of stories from activists dedicated to bringing more attention to the issues of racial diversity, feminism, and LGBT rights, and so I'm not being a Pollyanna about it---but I would say that overall, the tone of discourse compares favorably to other organizing conferences I've been to that are focused more on feminism or liberal politics.

Skeptics, or at least that slice of them represented at the conference, tend to be a progressive bunch. At the same time they're... well... skeptics, which means that they're inclined to seek evidence for their beliefs. This latter tendency wreaks havoc with strains of progressive thought which take, as a given, the independent existence of certain abstract concepts. For example, what is the appropriate skeptical response when when someone says that a particular policy should be supported for reasons of "equality and justice"? Is there sufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of either beast?

This isn't an entirely fresh observation on my part; the debate about the existence of moral facts is as old as the hills. But such controversy as exists in that regard stems almost entirely from basic, intergroup disagreements about epistemology. What makes skeptics interesting in this regard is that they are defined, as a group, by a commitment to a particular method of validating knowledge. So, rather than getting bogged down in questions about what it means to "know" something, they have a well-understood set of rules that can be applied to determine the truth of propositions.

What does contemporary skepticism have to say about abstract nouns like "justice" and "equality"? Rather than try to dope that out from first principles I'm going to proceed via analogy, which is where the atheism comes in. The bulk of skeptics have rejected the "god hypothesis" i.e. there's insufficient evidence to support the existence of god therefore proceed as if there's no such entity. It appears to me that, as a general rule, skeptical critiques of the existence of god are equally valid when applied to abstract nouns: "Justice" can't be observed, "equality" can't be measured, and so on. There's simply no evidence that these abstract nouns enjoy an independent existence "out there" somewhere1. I realize that's not a terribly earth-shattering observation, but it does have some practical consequences in the context of a group of people given to questioning assumptions.

I'm going to pick on Amanda a little now, not because I think she's especially guilty, but simply because she provides a timely example. When she says that we should be furthering the cause of gay marriage as a matter of justice and equality2 the appropriate skeptical response is as follows:

  1. How are you defining those terms?
  2. Why are those definitions superior to any others?
  3. What is so special about those definitions that they should be entrenched by force of law?

Those are hard questions to answer coherently, but as a matter of intellectual honesty doing so cannot be avoided. My general take on them is as follows:

  1. Definitions can be (among other things) ends-based or means-based. If, however, you reject the independent existence of abstract concepts then ends-based definitions suddenly become highly suspect. You can define a set of end conditions as "just", but at the same time you must acknowledge that the conditions you have selected are essentially arbitrary since there is no external referent by which they can be judged. A skeptic will prefer means-based definition wherever possible to avoid this complication.
  2. The best you can hope to accomplish here is to demonstrate that your selected definition is in greater agreement with your interrogator's principles than other definitions.
  3. This is actually a variant on question 2. In this case you need to show that your particular definition agrees with the interrogator's conception of legitimate legislation.

As a personal aside I became a libertarian as a byproduct of going through this general exercise for myself. One of the defining factors of libertarian philosophy is that it is concerned only with means, not ends; any end is legitimate provided it is arrived at via legitimate means. Moreover, the core principles/axioms by which legitimacy is established (self-ownership, informed consent, fidelity of contract) are accepted (at least in theory) by a wide swath of the modern world. As such libertarianism strikes me as the philosophy which is most compatible with a skeptical/atheistic mindset. Alternatives to libertarianism, when they have any sort of coherent philosophical basis at all, seem to require metaphysical commitments which I cannot accept.

1 To hold otherwise is essentially to endorse a form of Platonism, which seems inconsistent with the rejection of the god hypothesis.
2 A statement I happen to agree with, but I get there by a much different route than Amanda.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Converting an Integer IP to ASCII in Erlang

As far as I can tell the base Erlang distribution doesn't have a function to convert an integer IP to an ASCII dotted quad. It has inet_parse:ntoa, but that function expects a 4-part tuple, not an integer. Surprisingly, Google is also remarkably quiet on the subject. So here, for posterity, is what I came up with:

inet_ntoa(IntIP) ->
            fun(X) -> integer_to_list(X) end,


(via Religion Clause) The Public Religion Research Institute has released a post-election survey which contains the following gem:

A majority (58%) of Americans believe God has granted America a special role in human history.

That's a depressingly-large percentage, and it's not just confined to the crazy wing of the Republican party:

Members of the Tea Party (76%) and Republicans (75%) are much more likely to believe that God has a granted the U.S. a special role in human history than independents (54%) or Democrats (49%).

The belief that your particular country is favored by some set of deities is the crassest tribalism. Hitchens is right... how do you run a country when people have batshit-insane baseline assumptions like that? It's enough to make me want to flee to the EU.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Welcome Facebookers

Sitemeter tells me that someone posted a link on Facebook to an old post I wrote back in 2006 on Atheism and moral relativism. I've done a lot more thinking and writing on the subject since then which you should check out:

What's The Intent of Social Security?

Apropos of this soundbite over at Eschaton:

I really don't think the Catfood Commission gives two shits about raising the retirement age 40 years from now. What they're really after is means testing Social Security. If that happens, 40 years from now Social Security will be little more than a welfare program for the elderly.

Wasn't that always the general intent?

Seriously though, I feel like the discussion of Social Security is a little incoherent. Is Social Security a form of enforced retirement savings, or is it a form of social insurance? The history of Social Security strongly suggests that it's the latter, a stance echoed by previous posts at Eschaton.

If Social Security is an entitlement, part of the social safety net, then it makes sense to me that it should be means-tested. People who already have sufficient means don't need additional support nor do they, under the idea that making Social Security contributions is part of the general social contract, have any sort of moral claim to unpaid funds.

The alternative interpretation is that means-testing Social Security benefits is unacceptable because individuals have a moral claim to their contributions. If that's the case then Social Security is little more than a scheme to force people to save for retirement. In which case I'd like my taxes back; I'm quite capable of saving for my own retirement thankyouverymuch.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Government Cheese Pimps

Amanda is correct in noting the absurdity of the government sponsoring anti-obesity initiatives while, at the same time, heavily promoting cheese products through outfits such as Dairy Management Inc.. I've got to disagree, however, with her root-cause analysis:

That’s right. The government runs an agency whose entire purpose is to move Americans away from ingrained cultural tendencies not to suck down rubbery-tasting cheese by the gallon, and instead get us to coat everything we eat with cheese. They do this for the sole purpose of improving profits for companies that are, bit by bit, destroying the health of Americans.

Eh... no, not quite. As Amanda notes in the following paragraph, Dairy Management Inc. exists to promote the interests of dairy producers. This effort is not driven by the desire to boost Domino's profits, but rather is just the latest in a long string of interventions designed to prop up the dairy industry. In her defense she points out a little later on that reducing subsidies on dairy would certainly help in this situation.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Self Identify And Perceived Identity

We're diversely meta here at Shiny Ideas, and nothing says "meta" quite like discussions of identity. So when I saw this post on perceived identity over at Feministe I felt compelled to add my $0.02. Stipulating that the entire incident is absurd and unfortunate I'd like to examine some of Chally's reasoning a little more closely.

Ey offers the following:

Well, let's try some logic: Ms Betterridge is a Wiradjuri person. Ergo, how she looks is what an Indigenous person looks like.

I don't think it's quite that simple; let's turn eir statement into a syllogism:

  1. Ms. Betterridge is a Wiradjuri.
  2. All Wiradjuri look like an Indigenous person.
  3. Therefore, Ms. Betterridge looks like an Indigenous person.1

Assertion 2 is semantically valid2, but it sounds odd to me. "Indigenous person" refers to what, exactly? I'd proffer that, in this case, its a composite category that referrs to an expected appearance (or range of appearances) for a person. What isn't immediately apparent, however, how we go about determining the truth of the statement "looks like an Indigenous person". Chally is on the right track when ey says

[T]hat's the crux of it: who gets to be the arbiter of whether someone is manifesting an identity "properly"?

That's the heart of the matter, no question there. But then ey goes on to say

Something that comes through pretty strongly in this narrative is that if someone does not look like they are of a particular background, according to the observer's perceptions, their claim to that background is not as legitimate as that of one who does fit the observer's criteria.

That, I think, mischaracterizes the issue. The actions of Epic Promotions/Let's Launch do not necessarily reflect a belief on anyone's part that Ms. Betterridge is not entitled to claim Wiradjuri/Indigenous identity on account of her appearance. Here's what the original article in the Sydney Morning Herald says regarding the job for which Ms. Betterridge applied:

Tarran Betterridge, 24, a Canberra university student, applied for the post through an ACT company, Epic Promotions, which had been asked to find five people of ''indigenous heritage'' to staff a stall at Westfield in Canberra handing out flyers for GenerationOne.

Epic Promotions/Let's Launch were hiring people to staff a booth at a mall advertising GenerationOne's Aboriginal employment initiative. In this context it seems that a more likely explanation for their behavior is that, rather than seeking to deny Ms. Betterridge's identity claim , they were instead trying to predict how a third party would categorize Ms. Betterridge's identity on casual observation. Put more bluntly, they were judging whether having Ms. Betterridge staff the booth would attract GenerationOne's target audience.

Based on the materials available on GenerationOne's website its highly likely that their intended audience, in this context at least, was Indigenous job seekers. Whether having Ms. Betterridge on staff would attract or repel this audience is an emprical question and, as I know bugger-all about Australian racial identify/politics, I'm not even going to hazard a guess as to the actual effect. But thinking about that sort of interaction leads to some interesting questions.

Chally is right in identifying this as fundamentally an issue about the manifestation of identity. There is no single, objective description of what an Indigenous person looks like to which we can refer; the category of people who "look like an Indigenous person" is socially constructed and thus varies with context. The $64k question is whose construction is going to be given the heaviest weight? Chally appears to believe that the category should be construed broadly:

Indigenous Australians, as determined by Indigenous Australians themselves, look all sorts of ways. To deny those identities based on skin colour or hair type or other physical features is an act of cultural imperialism.

Anyone can be of Indigenous descent, so the group of people for whom the predicate "looks like an Indigenous person" is true is essentially unbounded. I believe that Chally is technically correct in this regard; as Ms. Betterridge clearly demonstrates there are Indigenous people who fail to meet any of the common stereotypes regarding the appearance of Indigenous individuals. What is not clear, however, is whether Indigenous people as a group would universally agree with that scheme.

Pan-Aboriginal identity is a relatively recent phenomena arising from European colonization; there's little evidence to support the contention that Indigenous people regarded themselves as a homogenous group prior to that point3. Additionally, unfortunate as it may be, Indigenous heritage is still tightly coupled with notions of "blackness". Yolanda Walker, of the Secritariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, writes:

Racism is an external factor that has hit Aboriginal families hard. It has caused great disadvantage in employment, housing, health, education and training, and this in turn puts an incredible strain on Aboriginal family life. An example is employment; if a father cannot provide for his family because of the lack of job opportunities for Aboriginal people, there is a lot of stress and anger within the family which affects each family member.

Our families are proud people, and our children grow up knowing that 'Black is beautiful' and learning to be 'Black and proud'. The home, the nurturing place of learning, teaches us a lot about ourselves, but unfortunately does not always prepare our children for the roller-coaster ride ahead of them. Our kids face racial problems from day one at school, and have to cope with growing up at home with such strong cultural values and being so proud of who they are and then going out and mixing with the wider society to be confronted with bigots who have few clues about the sensitivities of our people.

Blackness is seen as a marker of Indigenous identity not only by whites, by but Indigenous people as well. Which means that, even in an urbane city like Canberra, people may very well evaluate group identity on the basis of skin tone.

This leaves Epic Promotions/Let's Launch in something of a bind. Ms. Betterridge has straight hair and pale skin, which means that there's a non-trivial possibility that she would not be recognized as an Indigenous person by GenerationOne's target audience. Do they do the socially-responsible thing and hire her anyway, knowing that they may alienate a part of their audience as a result, or do they make a safe choice and hire an Indigenous person who looks stereotypically "black"?

Honestly, I think this is largely the case of a bunch of low-level recruiters trying to do their job to the best of their ability. They're not getting paid to work for social justice, they're getting paid to effectively staff booths at malls. It's a little annoying to see someone like Tim Gartrell to come down off the mountain and condemn their methods when it's clear that they've been ensnared by a quirk of Australian identity politics.

1 I suspect that Chally had the following syllogism in mind when ey made that statement:

  1. Ms. Betterridge is a Wiradjuri.
  2. All Wiradjuri are Indigenous persons.
  3. Therefore, Ms. Betterridge is an Indigenous person.

This is unarguably correct; the problem is that "Indigenous person" means different things in both cases. In the case of the "is a" predicate "Indigenous person" refers to an unambiguous (for present purposes) legal definition whereas in the case of the "looks like a" predicate it refers to a much more nebulous category whose very definition is currently under discussion.

2 As opposed to being nonsensical e.g. "All Wiradjuri are banana".
3 Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in the Pacific, pp. 191 - 192.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Wherein I get PWNED

I hate getting pwned, especially when it comes to political philosophy. I'd like to think, at least, that I can out-argue the average schmo. So I'm particularly annoyed that I had no good response to a proposition put forth by one of my colleagues at work today.

Our office is normally apolitical, in large part due to the fact that there's a fairly wide range of views amongst the staff and we prefer not to be unduly distracted by heated discussion. However, it being the morning after, we made an exception and were talking about the state of things in Washington state. The income tax measure failed, as did the two measures intended to eliminate the state monopoly on liquor sales, which I maintained was a logically inconsistent result1. I suggested that, in regards to the liquor control measures, people were voting emotionally rather than considering the anticipated impacts of the bill.

As a rejoinder my colleague said, in essence, that it was perfectly acceptable for people to make such decisions based on emotion rather than dispassionate analysis2. Which completely derailed me; I obviously disagree with that statement, but I was unable to articulate why dispassionate analysis was better.

I suppose I could have made a consequentialist argument that rational analysis is more likely to produce an internally consistent body of legislation, but I generally prefer not offer ends-based rationales if at all avoidable3. So is there a deontological argument to be made that "voting your gut" is a bad thing? Let's look at the theory, shall we?

Most of the criticisms of direct democracy, of which the initiative/referendum process is one expression, tend to center around the idea of voter competence. People on the pro- side argue that individual citizens are just as competent as elected legislatures, whereas those on the opposing side highlight evidence to the contrary4. Implicit in this argument is the concept that both voters and elected representatives should govern rationally but, as Gutmann and Thompson note, aggregative democratic practices don't take voter rationality as a given5. At best we can say that most people talk about direct democracy as if rationality is important.

There's nothing in the theory underlying the referendum process that prohibits irrational decisions so, if we're going to argue against the use of emotion, we've no recourse but to look at outcomes. However, we can do so in a very generic fashion that doesn't involve nitpicking over specifics. We can simply ask whether there's any cause to believe that emotional decision making results, on average, in better outcomes than rational decision making? I feel safe in saying "no" and asserting that

  • Policies which conform to empirical fact are better, on average, than those that don't.
  • Policies that are chosen primarily on the basis of emotion are unlikely to conform to empirical fact.

Technical I suppose that both of those are empiric statements in their own right, and thus testable/falseafiable, but they seem so obvious to me that I'm inclined to treat them as axiomatic.

1 There's lots of different ways to slice that one; I could easily be wrong.
2 Long form, slightly paraphrased:
Him: The measures would have increased the number of liquor outlets.
Me: How do voters determine the appropriate number of outlets?
Him: It's ok for them to vote their gut on that one.
3 Seems that I'm not alone in this regard: "Do we damn both representative and direct democracy on the basis that each produces outcomes that many find repugnant? Clearly, an assessment of either process in terms of its results is something of an analysitc cul-de-sac". Demanding Choices: Opinion, Voting, and Direct Democracy, p. 10.
4 ibid., pp. 11 - 14.
5 Why Deliberative Democracy?, pp. 13 - 14.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Antonin Scalia, Defender of Free Speech?

Surprising as it may be I'm starting to warm to Justice Scalia. Per the NYT here's an interesting snippet from this morning's oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association:

"What's a deviant violent video game?" asked Justice Antonin Scalia, who was the law's most vocal opponent on Tuesday. "As opposed to what? A normal violent video game?"

Good question... how do you propose to regulate something that you can't even meaningfully define? In a similar vein, when I was rereading the transcript of oral arguments in Citizens United, I noticed this exchange between him and then Solicitor General Kagan:

GENERAL KAGAN: It is still true that BCRA 203, which is the only statute involved in this case, does not apply to books or anything other than broadcast; 441b does, on its face, apply to other media. And we took what the Court -- what the Court's -- the Court's own reaction to some of those other hypotheticals very seriously. We went back, we considered the matter carefully, and the government's view is that although 441b does cover full-length books, that there would be quite good as-applied challenge to any attempt to apply 441b in that context.

And I should say that the FEC has never applied 441b in that context. So for 60 years a book has never been at issue.

JUSTICE SCALIA: What happened to the overbreadth doctrine? I mean, I thought our doctrine in the Fourth Amendment is if you write it too broadly, we are not going to pare it back to the point where it's constitutional. If it's overbroad, it's invalid. What has happened to that. 1

You know, if you'd asked me about Scalia's stance vis-a-vis free speech I'd have assumed that he was a lukewarm advocate at best. But here he is, in both cases, arguing against sweeping, badly-written laws that criminalize legitimate speech. Good for him; maybe he's not the devil after all. His approach is certainly preferable to Kagan's "Well, we'd never to that" or Breyer's suggestion that we use "common sense".

As an interesting side note, for people who argue that Alito is a Scalia clone, it looks like the two of them got into during arguments:

"What Justice Scalia wants to know," Justice Alito said, "is what James Madision thought about video games."

"No," Justice Scalia responded, "I want to know what James Madison thought about violence."

1 http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/08-205%5BReargued%5D.pdf, p. 65, lines 2 - 21.

The 17th Amendment as a Design Problem

I've been mostly indifferent to recent back-and-forth regarding the utility/propriety of the 17th Amendment; neither method of election, direct or indirect, seems obviously superior to me. Todd Zywicki, however, makes an interesting argument in favor of repeal that I've never considered before:

The bottom line question is what system of selection of political officers will best further the goals of the Constitution. I happen to think that the original framework was a pretty good balance of creating a republican government that would tame agency costs by political actors, preserve individual liberty, and frustrate special interest rent-seeking. Non-democratic appointment of judges with shared authority between the President and the Senate, direct election of House members, state election of Senators, and the elaborate state-based architecture of the Electoral College* strikes me as an ingenious and well-balanced system.

There's certainly merit in that position. I think there's also an argument from fairness to be made here: Under the current system state governments don't have a direct voice at the Federal level. If state governments are legitimate stakeholders in the running of the country then giving them such a voice via the Senate, while preserving the People's control of the House, is more fair that providing the People with two vehicles for representing their views while shutting out the states.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Good Article On Voting Your Conscience

There's a lovely and cogent article by Daniel over at Crooked Timber about voting your conscience as an alternative to holding your nose and picking the Democrat. Read it.

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