Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Quick Note About The Difficulties Of Informed Voting

(via Bleeding Heart Libertarians) Jason Brennan has a short piece in the Globe & Mail about being a rational voter. I completely agree with the main point he's making i.e. if you're going to vote you should do so in an informed manner. However, I see two practical hurdles to this approach:

  • It's impossible to be well-informed about all policy areas. As Brennan says:
    For instance, many parties promise to create more jobs. Even if a voter agrees with this goal, this does not tell her how to vote. The parties propose different policies in order to try to reduce unemployment. To be well informed, a voter must know how to evaluate these policy proposals. To do that, she needs know some economics, sociology and political science.
    It's reasonable to believe that a voter might possess the knowledge necessary to evaluate proposals in a few policy areas, but being able to meaningfully evaluate the bulk of policies proposed by any particular party/candidate is nigh impossible.
  • There's a moderate correlation, at best, between promises made during a campaign and actions taken once in office.

Given the former it seems that the "informed voter" is little more than a hypothetical construct; such a beast doesn't exist in real life. The latter would indicate that a well-informed voter wouldn't have any assurance that the responsible policies for which ey voted would actually be implemented.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Scientific Thinking Is Unnatural

Dr. Orzel is right in his assertion that everyone is capable of figuring things out, but it seems to me that's only half of what constitutes "scientific thinking". What do we make of people who are capable of cooking without a recipe, or doing a crossword puzzle, or repairing a car, but still believe in angels or UFOs or that the Earth was poofed into existence 6000 years ago? These people have all the cognitive machinery which Dr. Orzel outlines in his post while, at the same time, believing things which are clearly unscientific.

My contention is that "thinking scientifically" involves not only the practical application of knowledge but also the rejection of non-scientific concepts. The Romans and Egyptians engaged in some tremendous feats of practical (and not so practical) engineering, but they also left their intellectual descendants with encumbering, pre-scientific baggage such as Galenic medicine. It wasn't until the Enlightenment started rejecting received wisdom, supernatural explanations, and religious dogma (which were often one in the same) that we really started to make progress in terms of the development of modern science.

The human brain is a truly amazing piece of machinery, but in some ways it's ill-suited for science. It's vulnerable to epistemic entrenchment, has all sorts of cognitive biases, and is susceptible to an endless list of logical fallacies. Recognizing and compensating for these shortcomings requires, in the very least, the cultivation of a consistently skeptical mindset. In that regard scientific thinking is a learned, rather than innate, behavior.

So Dr. Orzel's analogies are fine as far as they go, but they don't address one of the major requirements of scientific thinking i.e. the willingness to change your opinion in the face of new information. Finding a better bearnaise recipe doesn't mean that you have to reevaluate your relationship to the universe; discovering that humans are hairy apes of no special merit on a ball of rock hurtling through empty space, on the other hand, may require you to do so. Scientific thinking requires that you accept the latter, however unpleasant it may be, because of the weight of evidence. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I say that scientific thinking is unnatural, because the bulk of humanity simply refuses to do so.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Friday Random Ten

Because I haven't done one of these in a long time:

  1. Silence Is Their Drug - Sponge
  2. Nothing As It Seems - Pearl Jam
  3. Oceans - Pearl Jam
  4. Trip Along - Tripping Daisy
  5. Dumb - Nirvana
  6. Final Dream - Toto
  7. Graze - Live
  8. Cheatin' - Gin Blossoms
  9. Under The Mountain (LP Version) - David Byrne
  10. Don't Talk - 10,000 Maniacs

Alright... nothing too embarrassing there apart from the Toto. That I can explain... Final Dream is from the Dune Soundtrack. Which makes me a dork, but at least I'm not a Totophile.

Thankfully, I feel like the David Byrne piece restores my damaged credibility. It's from the Catherine Wheel score (a piece by Twyla Tharp, not to be confused with the band by the same name), which you should definitely pick up if you like Byrne's other work.

ROFL Of The Day

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Silver Fork Makes A Mean Burger

My better half and I were looking for someplace new to eat yesterday, so we stopped off for lunch at Silver Fork, a somewhat generic-looking diner in Seattle's Mt. Baker neighborhood. I'm generally skeptical about "extreme food" and the piling of gratuitous crap on top of hamburgers (foie gras? Really?), but at the same time I have to admit that such creations can be beautiful when done correctly. One of my all-time fast food favorites is The Hat's pastramiburger, a really good burger made better by the addition of pastrami, so after looking at the menu I figured I'd give the Soul Burger, a hamburger patty topped with bacon and a hotlink, its day in court. To make things even better, when I ordered the waitress asked "You want an egg on that?". Sure, why not?

Good choice. You can gauge the quality of a burger by the first bite... there's a balance between the meat and condiments that makes you say "yeah, that's a damn fine burger". Silver Fork's offering passed that test with flying colors: the patty was hot and juicy and contrasted well with the chill, crisp veg. The hot link was an interesting touch as well. They use a good quality sausage, not the kind that drips orange oil all over the place, which lent a nice spicyness to the burger. The bacon and egg, while not detracting from the burger, were mostly superfluous.

The only flaw in the execution, one which is shared by a number of burger joints, is that the bun didn't really hold up under pressure. If you're going to be putting lots of toppings, especially messy ones like a fried egg, on your burger you'll want a more durable vehicle than the standard white bun. What you really need is a larger roll which can absorb a little moisture and still hold together... maybe a toasted sourdough bun? Anyway, that's just nitpicking on my part. I have to say that the Soul Burger it a strong contender for the best burger I've had in Seattle. It's definitely on par with the offerings from places like Burgermaster or Frisko Freeze.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Atheists Need A Good Wrenching

(via Evolutionblog) Jean Kazez argues, contra Russell Blackford, that technical arguments regarding the moral implications of atheism are best kept in within the philosophy department:

Suppose Russell gets lots of fame and acclaim, and starts promoting the error theory all over the place. So he starts influencing people to think that atheists must believe the sentence above is false, or at least not true. I wouldn't hesitate to say I thought that was a bad idea. It wouldn't be my place to address him in the second person and tell him what to talk about, but I'd be perfectly entitled to my opinion that spreading this view is unwise.

And it would be a perfectly cogent and respectable opinion. This sort of meta-ethics would likely increase public distrust of atheism and discourage people from accepting atheism. I'd also make another sort of argument--that meta-ethics can't be discussed coherently in the public square. It's a highly technical area of philosophy, where philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic intersect. There is simply no way that the ordinary person, with little or no education in philosophy, can get a grip on the pertinent issues.

I agree with her to a certain extent; there's no sense in indiscriminately broadcasting the implications of error theory. Though this has less to do, I think, with the technical nature of the argument per se and more to do with the fact that the details would get mangled in the process. It's entirely too easy to imagine Blackford's "sophisticated moral relativist" being reduced to an amoral creature who eats baby back ribs for lunch.

That said, to confine such discussions to philosophy seminars does a disservice to the atheist community. As I've written about on multiple occasions, many atheists seem to be ignorant of (or unconcerned with) the difficulties that arise when you make humanity the arbiter of morality. For example, I noticed atheist luminary PZ Meyers saying the following not so long ago:

Morality derives from empathy and a sense of communal obligation with our fellow human beings, not with an arbitrary and whimsical supernatural authority.

To which I respond:

  • Why empathy? It's an evolved response deserving of no particular epistemic privilege. I might just as reasonably suggest a morality based on disgust.
  • All humans? What about ones who disagree with that premise? Or want to do me harm? Humans that I don't know, that might be a thousand miles away? Surely we should extend the courtesy to all sentient being, yes? What's so special about sentience anyway?

And so on... you get the idea. PZ's statement is uncontroversial provided that you agree to certain core principles. But atheists, gnu and otherwise, are frequently in the position where they have to defend themselves against people who do not share these principles and it strikes me that they don't realize how tenuous their position actually is. They need to go through Blackford's "psychological wrench" and understand what they're actually arguing before they can articulately defend their position. And the only way that's going to happen is if people like Kazez and Blackform spend some time talking gory details with the atheist community at large.

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