Category: language

Undergraduate Career Advice!

Yeah, but seriously if you are planning your post-school studies, seek proper professional advice and not this blog post.

Via numerous Twittery things, the question of what degree a young person intent on Higher Education should study has been doing the rounds in various ways. One source was a snarky comment about English degrees from a successful writer, a second one I ended up Tweeting about was somebody claiming that STEM students can cope with Arts/Humanities degrees better than vice-versa. I’ll get to the specific question of writing & the humanities v STEM in a bit but I want to look at things more generally first.

More after the fold – as this goes on for awhile.

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John C Wright is upset that people didn’t take his Left=Witches argument seriously

In a piece entitled “Rational and Magical Thinking”, Mr Wright attempts to deal with the criticism of his previous argument. Here’s a taste:

Here is the difference between arguing with a rational atheist and arguing with a Leftist: suppose for the sake of argument that you penned a column describing the psychology of Leftism as involving a neurotic (if not deliberate) confusion between symbol and object, commonly known as “magical thinking.”

Magical thinking is thinking where the believers believes that manipulating a symbol manipulates reality. By this definition, anyone who hopes to remove race hatred from among men by changing the words used by one race to refer to another is engaging in magical thinking.

Let us further suppose that when you list three or four examples of magical thinking about the Left, one of the groups mentioned is a coven of wicca who claim to be casting spells on Donald Trump. Let is finally suppose you call them by their traditional name, witches.

Now, a rational atheist will argue with you, and say that since the supernatural does not and cannot exist, therefore there are no witches, so your column errs in referring to these people by that term.

This argument is fallacious (it depends on the fallacy of ambiguity) but it can be addressed. Once you point out that the column is explicitly agnostic on the question of whether the witch’s spells actually are real, the question of whether the people calling themselves witches are real can be addressed. And that is a simple question of fact that the rational atheist can discover for himself.

Whether witchcraft is real or not is a question not addressed by the column. The people who think it is real are real.

Mr Wright gives a straw man example for a case of ‘magical thinking’: ‘anyone who hopes to remove race hatred from among men by changing the words used by one race to refer to another is engaging in magical thinking’. Ignore the straw man element here for a moment and consider the elements.

  • What are the symbols in this example? Words.
  • What is the ‘reality’ in this example? Racial hatred.
  • What kind of thing is that ‘reality’? A set of ideas and attitudes and emotional responses.

Put that all together and Wright’s example implies this: attempting to use words to change ideas, attitudes and emotional responses is magical thinking. Now, this is perhaps not far from his actual beliefs, in so far as he seems to believe in a kind of Platonistic spiritualism, but in this essay, he is ascribing this ‘magical thinking’ to the left, not to himself.

Looking back at his original essay you can see the same confusion. Aside from the actual examples of people overtly calling themselves witches, his other examples of people on the left engaged in supposedly magical rituals are all the same. In each case, it is people doing symbolic things in an attempt to effect how other people are thinking.

That is not ‘magical thinking’, that is ‘people communicating with other people’. In short, Wright is confusing cognitive psychology with magic.

‘Ah!’ Says an imaginary interlocuter, ‘You think minds are based in physical reality and so you do think physical entities are changing because of symbols being manipulated!’

Meh. We don’t even need intelligence or to delve into how minds might work to see that mechanical devices can exist which can effect physical change because of how I manipulate symbols. I’m doing that right now as I type on this laptop. That isn’t magic or magical thinking.

Mr Wright then complains that people on the left treated his argument with disdain:

But a Leftist does not argue in this way. Rather, his argument is that you are a stupid lunatic for being afraid of witchcraft, and for thinking that everyone on the Left is a practicing satanist.

Now, if you notice, there are three things wrong with this argument: first, you neither said nor implied what the Leftist accuses you of saying or implying. So it is a strawman argument, therefore irrelevant. Second, it does not address the argument you gave, merely mocks you as a person. So it is ad hominem, therefore irrelevant. Third, it is not an argument at all. An insult is not an argument.

One cannot argue with this for the same reason one cannot argue with poop flung by a monkey. The monkey poop is not attempting to discuss a difference of opinion nor come to a conclusion about the true answer to any questions being discussed.

Why would a Leftist in an argument make statements he knows or should know have no relevance to the argument?

The answer is as given above: the words uttered are merely symbolic. It is a verbal form of magical thinking.

He is correct here that the reaction to his claim was not a reasoned argument. He is incorrect that therefore the reaction was irrational or another example of ‘magical thinking’. Laughing at poorly constructed arguments with absurd conclusions is both reasonable and rational.

Mr Wright is capable of structuring argument but he often fails to do so and he has great difficulty in continuing a rational dialogue in good faith. Why, in such circumstance, should anybody on the left treat his argument with any kind of depth of analysis? His conclusion was false and easily refuted – the tortured root by which he reached a false conclusion (replete with much-overblown language) is of interest only from an educational perspective.

So what is magical thinking? Magical thinking is when people confuse their desires with reality i.e. when people confuse what they would like with what actually *is*. That might involve rituals or manipulating words, but it is just as frequent when people use their own powers of thinking to bemuse and befuddle themselves – just as John C Wright is apt to do on a range of topics from history to climate science.

Put yet another way, when a person ceases to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Is Hidden Figures Science Fiction?

I’ve actually written a longer piece on this film, which is still unfinished and may be unrescuable because of far too many tangents (less obvious ones including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a toilet, and the nasty rightwing Christian ‘Focus on the Family’ group). In the meantime, this is an attempt to address the question I intended to address in the other piece but never actually reached. Somehow Ludwig Wittengstein* ended up in this one. Sorry, he gets everywhere.

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Farewell Raymond Smullyan

Martin Gardner was a kind of gateway drug. When I was a kid I went to the same secondary school that my dad taught at. That wasn’t a particular problem for me but it meant I had to hand around school until he was heading home.

This meant sitting in the school library by myself reading, which, being a bookish sort, was not any great hardship. I ploughed through the sci-fi books but on other occasions, I’d just look at random books.  It was in this way I stumbled across old Penguin (or Pelican?) editions of Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzle’s and Diversions books. Now, I was not much of one for mathematics at the time but I liked puzzles and I liked the odd, arcane nature of these books.

As an older teen Gardner led me to other writers: Douglas Hofstadter (notably I read Metamagical Themas first then Godel, Escher, Bach) but also Raymond Smullyan.

Like Gardner, Smullyan combined a love of puzzles and magic but also the absurd. That logic and absurdity are natural companions is something that people find paradoxical. People think it odd that Lewis Carroll was both an eminent logician and author of Alice in Wonderland despite the absurdism of the Alice books often relying on wordplay and uncooperative literalism.

Smullyan, who died last Monday (Feb 6th 2017) tied absurdity more closely to logic in his complex puzzle books. The connection is overt – using weird settings and strange kinds of people (knights, vampires among others) with proscriptive approaches to communication. The New York times has a substantial sample here

So why the close connection between the absurd and logic?

Two elements are at play. Firstly the necessary insistence on literalism. Exactly WHAT is being said? It is an insistence that when applied to normal conversation is a breach of normal social conventions. Secondly, the use of absurd or nonsensical propositions and conclusions helps highlight FORMAL aspects of an argument from informal and empirical aspects. To see how a syllogism functions (for example) it can be misleading to use a string of commonplace truths.

For example, Wikipedia uses this example for Felapton:

No flowers are animals.  All flowers are plants. ∴ Some plants are not animals. (SoP)

But to see the formal connection writers like Carroll might use more odd juxtapositions

No elephants are professors.  All elephants are stamp collectors.  ∴ Some stamp collectors are not professors.

Formal truths need to hold even in absurd worlds.

Smullyan wrote a whole bunch of wonderfully weird books, that used puzzles and odd juxtapositions to exemplify logic and reasoning. I think his most substantial achievement was Forever Undecided: A Puzzle Guide to Godel that used his signature style to lead the reader to Godel’s incompleteness theorems in a charmingly accessible manner.

Logician, Taoist, Magician – a 97 year life of tricks, puzzles and deep thoughts.


Reason Hell: You can’t prove a negative

Reason Hell will be an occasional series on reasoning short cuts, fallacies and internet-sayings that pertain to modes of argument.

Part of Junho Peter Whang's proof of Euclid's theorem from Wikipedia

Part of Junho Peter Whang’s proof of Euclid’s theorem from Wikipedia

You can’t prove a negative. A maxim of logic or more of a challenge? First let’s see if we can prove a negative.

  • A prime number is a whole number with exactly two factors
  • 4 is a whole number with exactly three factors: 1, 2 and 4
  • Therefore 4 is not a prime number

Well this looks like it is going to be a short post! A negative neatly proved by virtue of 2 not equaling 3.

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Reason Hell: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

Reason Hell will be an occasional series on reasoning short cuts, fallacies and internet-sayings that pertain to modes of argument.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” it is a neat saying and a quick comeback but like many neat sayings it is too tidy. As it stands the aphorism is either a legitimate comment or a logical fallacy. This is a term that should be used with great care or not at all.

The first thing to note about the aphorism is that it pertains to evidence. Evidence is not the same as proof. There is no contradiction in saying that there is evidence for A and also evidence for not-A. Even a short treatment of the nature of evidence would be too long for this post and I will save that for a later post. However, it is fairly safe to say that evidence are facts that lend weight to regarding a proposition to be true or to be false. The strongest kind of evidence is a factual counter-example to a more general statement. A counter example is a kind of evidence that can amount to a formal proof that a proposition is false. For statements that are more hedged (most X are Y, many X are Y, frequently X’s are Y’s etc) a counter-example does not amount to a formal proof that the statement is false but clearly adds to a weight of evidence against it.

“Absence of evidence is not proof of absence” is a stronger statement. That there is no evidence of a deity does not prove there is no deity (the deity might be intentionally hiding and being omnipotent can ensure there is no evidence). This though is not aphorism. Applied to the case of a deity an absence of evidence for one would amount to evidence that there isn’t one because we would otherwise expect there to be evidence for a deity if one existed.

Put another way the existence of an X implies that there will be evidence of an X. Framed that way the aphorism looks like a logical fallacy in most cases – the exception being an X that has no material or observable impact on our world. If P implies Q and we can show not-Q then we can conclude not-P. With less the less tight logical implications of evidence, evidence for not-Q is evidence for not-P. Interestingly the reverse is less logically valid (i.e. evidence for Q implying P) but that also is a discussion for another time when I get to empiricism more generally.

Why then, is this aphorism so popular in discussion? Applied correctly it is not fallacious but it all very much depends on why there is an absence of evidence.

I am currently typing this on a train. Is there a man called James Smith on this train? As things stand I do have evidence that there are men on the train (I can see them) and my general knowledge about the country I am travelling in tells me that ‘James’ and ‘Smith’ would not be unusual names for a man on the train. However, apart from that I have no specific evidence on whether there is a James Smith on this train. Is this absence of evidence for James Smith on my train evidence that James Smith is absent from my train? Well, no or rather it isn’t very good evidence for one key reason: I haven’t actually looked.

What I should do if I really wish to establish whether there is a James Smith on the train is to seek him out. I could enter each carriage and call out “James Smith! I’m looking for James Smith!”. If a James Smith answers me then I have strong evidence that there was a James Smith on the train. If no James Smith answer then yes, this absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Not proof of course – James Smith may be hiding his true identity from the crazy person shouting on the train.

More generally absence of evidence is not evidence of absence when we either haven’t looked or we haven’t looked exhaustively or our experimental design or instrumentation may not have been sensitive enough.

Objective facts about intersubjective things

N-grams and metaphor maps, marking rubrics and lists of award winners all have a common theme: extracting objective facts from data about intersubjective entities. We can add to that list voting systems as well.

The net effect is, I believe, a way in which the nature and boundaries of science are changing in a world in which data collection and data structures become more common place. We can discover facts about purely invented things. Arguably this has always been the case with mathematics but now we have more definite cases.