I’m counting pronouns

I woke up late because I was working late on things from the mundane physical world, which means ploughing through spreadsheets and making columns think they are rows and rows think they are columns. This meant this morning I had less time for my entertainment, which means ploughing through spreadsheets and making columns think they are rows and rows think they are columns. Specifically, I wanted to wrangle the IGNYTE award finalists into a spreadsheet with a similar format to the one I’m using to collate Dragon Award finalists.

One bonus for the IGNYTE awards is the finalist list typically includes publisher where it is relevant. So that’s good. A downside (purely from a tabulating things perspective) is some of the names attached to a single finalist are as many as 20+ but that is a good challenge. Often things that look convenient from a data perspective (‘a book’ has ‘an author’) reveal assumptions about our world. Writing a list of stuff is something imbued with socio-political perspectives that can literally trip you up[1]. Counting people means categorising people and categorising people is not a simple thing.

A key issue is counting gender. There are good reasons for tabulating gender because it is an almost universal issue of social disparity across the world. We can see a lot about social change and inequality by looking first at gender and we have roughly two major categories of people (male, female) plus some proportionally smaller ones[2]. But gender is also complex and I’m not sure about the best way of counting it. Also, even though I primarily present gender stats in aggregate, I still am going through lists of authors and sticking them in a gender box.

Looking at the ‘how’ of the classifications I decided to modify the way I was tabulating gender. What I did with the Dragons was check Wikipedia entries or other sources of author bios and looking for indications of gender…but really what I was doing was checking pronoun usage. So, if what I was actually doing was counting pronoun usage then a smarter move was to tabulate PRONOUNS rather than gender i.e. instead of ‘other/non-binary’, ‘male’, ‘female’, use the categories of ‘they/other’, ‘he’, ‘she’. That way the presentation of the data matches what I was actually doing.

I don’t know if that’s the best approach but it has another benefit to a different question about the gender of authors. In note [1] below, the issue of James S A Corey was pertinent – two people who author books under a single name. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck are both men but what gender is James S A Corey? It’s not just an abstruse philosophical question because if we are thinking about how sexism plays out in awards or book purchases etc the presentation of gender is relevant. “Robert Galbraith” is a pseudonym used by author J.K.Rowling and at least initially it was a secret that Galbraith was Rowling, which presents an interesting question when classifying books by the gender of their author.

Historically this has a further layer. Many women have used male pseudonyms (or made their gender less obvious by using initials) as a way to avoid sexism in book purchasing etc. However, some authors in the past who used pseudonyms of a different gender to their ‘everyday’ names did so for other reasons i.e. as a means for exploring their own gender. Nor are those mutually exclusive motivations. Authors regarded socially as female may have chosen male pseudonyms both to avoid sexism and to express their own understanding of their gender, nor is it going to be entirely clear which.

There’s a sort of moral to this story which is the unsurprising conclusion that gender is complex. The specifics in this case is that classifying authors by gender is complex REGARDLESS of your views on gender. You could have quite regressive views on gender (e.g. J.K.Rowling) but that doesn’t change that there are cases of authors were gender can be hard to classify (e.g. Robert Galbraith).


[1]e.g. back in 2019 some people scoffed that I’d made an error saying 10 men had won Dragon Awards in the two headline categories because four years and two categories comes to 8, so how could it be 10 etc. https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/09/05/a-bit-more-on-dragons-and-probabilities-etc/

[2] A reminded that ‘proportionally small’ can add up to a lot of actual people https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/07/05/i-love-manchester-but-i-must-destroy-it/

It is not ethical to pirate an author’s work without their permission

I wanted to expand on a tweet I posted yesterday evening.

The context is an on-going argument about changes Internet Archive made to how they allow people to borrow in-copyright books online in response to the Covid-19 crisis (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/30/internet-archive-accused-of-using-covid-19-as-an-excuse-for-piracy and IA’s explanation here https://blog.archive.org/2020/03/30/internet-archive-responds-why-we-released-the-national-emergency-library/ ) In response to an article on NPR about the changed policy Chuck Wendig posted this tweet:

…and that set of a whole host of counter-reactions.

I’m not going to get into the details of Internet Archive’s move or whether what they are doing amounts to piracy or not. That’s been hashed out elsewhere and some of the arguments depend on the murky waters of Intellectual Property law about which almost any opinion has an uncanny ability of being wrong. Rather, what has been bugging me has been responses to Chuck Wendig’s post (and posts radiating out from there on the same topic) that take a generic pro-piracy stance with regard to written works. In particular what is bugging me is people claiming that their pro-piracy position is somehow progressive or of the left.

The argument goes along the lines of Intellectual Property isn’t real property or to take it a step further, property itself is a regressive concept and therefore by authors claiming ownership over texts they are setting themselves up as landlords/rent-seekers and by attempting to prevent piracy authors are setting themselves up as police. The argument being that authors objecting to piracy amounts to authors acting as the repressive aspect of capitalism.

I’m more than happy to concede that there is much merit in the idea that IP is a deeply flawed concept. I’m also happy to accept that the concept of ‘property’ itself (even in its less abstract physical variety) is problematic. The analysis of nineteenth century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon into the nature of property (‘What is Property?‘ from which the slogan ‘property is theft’ is coined https://www.gutenberg.org/files/360/360-h/360-h.htm ) is still pertinent today and remains a challenge to how our modern society is organised.

But it is a fallacy to leap from a left-wing tradition of scepticism about property to justifying pirating books. Property maybe a concept used to prop up the injustice of modern capitalism but that doesn’t make it OK to eat your co-worker’s sandwich. Likewise, even if we accept the broad notion of property but reject the notion of intellectual property the underlying logical fallacy remains.

The fallacy is this:

  • Say the standard argument for why it is wrong to do X is because of some principle Y.
  • Say we can show that principle Y is itself fallacious, immoral or otherwise wrong.
  • It does not therefore follow that is NOT wrong to do X.

Although the framing is in terms of ethics, the fallacy is just a basic fallacy of implication. IP or maybe even property in general may be wrong, or false or fictional but that doesn’t demonstrate that it right to pirate written works. You need to show a positive case with an alternative moral framework. Sure, authors describe their opposition in terms of copyright and IP because that is how compensation for labour is set up within our current capitalist system. That doesn’t make them landlords any more than any worker looking for their pay-check.

It’s fine (indeed right) for people on the left to reject the moral framing of capitalism as far as they can and likewise it isn’t hypocritical to recognise that this is the system we are currently stuck in and have to work with. However, you can’t justify an act by rejecting moral arguments framed in capitalist terms. If you reject those terms then you have to demonstrate that it is ethical within an alternative framework.

So put aside intellectual property for a moment. Consider the ethics of written work. There is more to it than IP.

Firstly it is work. It is undoubtedly work. We do not need any kind of legal fiction to define creating writing as work. It takes time and effort. It is of benefit to others. I know of no progressive, left-wing, socialist moral framework that denies that a person should be compensated for their work or that the worker should have a say in how and how much they should be compensated.

Yes but…I can hear a person say, there are other ways authors could be compensated and…Sure, sure but that’s not what we have now and that isn’t the system that is in place. Might we find better ways of compensating writers for their labour in some future, better society other than copyright? Absolutely, the copyright system stinks. However, currently that is how authors ARE compensated. It’s rather like saying that because the modern banking system is corrupt, exploitative and unethical that is therefore OK to steal my credit card. It isn’t and nor are you liberating me by doing so.

But, but…by undermining copyright the system is being subverted, a person might claim. Well no. There are many roads to a better future and I don’t know which is best but I can guarantee that book piracy isn’t an effective way of destroying capitalism, not even at a micro-level.

But, but…compensation is still about property! Sort of. We can frame arguments about labour in terms of property but that’s because it is a concept that is designed to do that. Capitalism isn’t wholly incoherent or nonsensical. That doesn’t mean either that property must be ‘real’ or that showing it isn’t real means the points above fail (I’ll come back to that because it is the punchline of this blog).

Secondly it is about self and identity. In my tweets above I mentioned plagiarism. Off Twitter somebody took that to mean that I was saying that piracy and plagiarism are the same thing. I should be clear, they are different things. My point about plagiarism is to show that there is a moral dimension to written works that exists independent of concepts of property.

If I were to pass off Proudhon’s essay above as my own work then that would be recognised as plagiarism even though it is not legally copyright theft. We could call it ‘stealing’ but it would be a very strange kind of theft as the work is public domain and Proudhon is long dead. I’m still doing something wrong though but it is an immorality of dishonesty rather than theft.

Creative works are an extension of a person’s thoughts beyond themselves and as such an extension of themselves as a thinking being. Too appropriate somebody’s creative efforts is a form of dishonesty. Even if you give credit to the author, you are still asserting control over an aspect of the author’s self. Yes, we can translate that idea into concepts of property (particularly libertarian notions of self-ownership) but we aren’t obliged to do so nor does the claim fail if the notion of property were to magically vanish.

What about J.K.Rowling? I’ll swing over to a different argument if I may. J.K.Rowling is fabulously wealthy (although not as wealthy as the very wealthiest people) and it is hard to see her as just an ordinary working person just looking out for weekly pay check. Likewise, there’s an easy argument to make that her books are derivative and surely that undermines my second point about extension of the self. Surely, there’s no moral case against pirating Harry Potter? Well, Rowling isn’t going to suffer if you do but that’s not the point. Ad-hoc piracy isn’t the issue, the issue is creating frameworks for mass piracy and distribution of pirated works and any framework that can do that for Harry Potter can do that for works by authors who are barely making ends meet.

The impact of systems for pirating works don’t hurt J.K.Rowling, they hurt the less wealthy (what a surprise). Famous, ‘best selling’ authors are not typically rich and many notable authors are barely making do. Mass piracy is exploitative both in the sense of exploiting other people’s labour for your own benefit and in the sense of appropriation. Authors objecting to that doesn’t make them cops or landlords, it makes them workers standing up for being paid for their labour.

I said there was a punchline. There is but it is a punchline for this blog as a whole because it is a common theme from posts on mathematics, atheism, Hugo awards or talking cats. Lots of things are fiction. The range of things I regard as fiction is broader than most people’s. However, the counterpoint to that is that fiction is also powerful and not just in the sense of being emotionally moving. Yes “intellectual property” is not ‘real’ but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful concept that is *currently* how the economic system of capitalism has hacked how to compensate creative work. It’s confusing and flawed and a legal mess and is exploited by powerful business but it is *currently* the means by which authors get paid and pirating books won’t change that.

Vox Day sort of denies he is a flat earther

I say “sort of” because he really doesn’t believe the Earth is more or less spherical. One of Day’s recruits to his video streaming thing has been the comedian Owen Benjamin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owen_Benjamin. Benjamin had the beginnings of a Hollywood career including co-starring with Christina Ricci in an obscure film in 2009. However, his career got derailed by his increasingly extreme views. These days Benjamin pushes extreme anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which amount to a kind of unified theory in which her thinks everybody is trying to make you believe lies about the moon landing etcetera as part of a Satanic plot. It’s the usual nexus of anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia with epistemic paranoia. The central theory is that people are lying about everything to make you believe lies in general.

What’s interesting here is that Day appears to be following Benjamin down the same path. Not that Day also doesn’t push the same kind of fallen-world anti-Semitic nonsense but that he’s being more open about how out there some of his beliefs about the world are — including flat earthism.

The specific pretext is this 2012 interview with a NASA data visualisation person: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/about/people/RSimmon.html The interview explains how he helped create an image of one hemisphere of the Earth as seen from space by stitching together multiple higher resolution images of Earth. Aha! Say the flat Earthers, Manipulation! Lies! etc etc.

It’s something you see a lot from falt-earth to vaccine denial to global warming denial: a rejection of any data, images, graphs etc that relies on any kind of inference or data cleaning etc. The demand is for evidence that is an unfiltered capture of external reality — which is impossible. Heck, not only is it impossible but which we know is myth at least since the time of Plato. What you see out of your own eyes is stitched together and processed and inferred.

Day sums up his position:

“Notice that ALL of the hemisphere photography we think we’ve seen has turned out to be nonexistent. It’s becoming clear that from the evolution fairy tale to the Blue Marble fraud to the dinosaur fraud and the satellite myth, the world is very, very different than we have been told it is. What is the point? To deceive you into serving Satan rather than God.”

Interestingly he gets a lot more pushback in his comments than he normally does. I guess even Day’s followers aren’t keen to adopt a flat-earth although structurally it’s no different than the anti-vaxx and anti-evolution stuff Day peddles.

In the comments Day responds with a weak equivocation:

“VD October 24, 2019 12:20 PM Jesus… The earth is not flat. What part of “fraud is being committed concerning X” leads you to immediately conclude that this means “Therefore Y”? I don’t believe the Earth is flat. But I don’t believe the mainstream narrative concerning the nature of the Earth either, because it contains too many lies. Binary thinking is usually a serious mistake.”

The “mainstream narrative” here being that the world is more-or-less spherical.

Unfortunately Day really does need to engage in some binary thinking here. Just by visiting different places in the world we can quickly observe that whatever curvature the Earth has it’s pretty much the same everywhere. Sure big mountains are pointy and oceans are flat but in both places you can observe that whatever is going on it’s pretty much the same everywhere. That is seriously limiting to the range of possibilities for the curvature of the Earth. A flat or curved disc with an inaccessible underneath would have edges with a radically different curvature. Any shape that you could circumnavigate, if it wasn’t basically a sphere, would have some spots with extreme curvature that frankly everybody would have noticed i.e. the Earth really isn’t a cube.

A sphere isn’t just one option among many for the shape of a thing. It’s a particularly special shape. If you want a uniform (more or less) curvature and no edges, then let’s just say your options are limited. Or…maybe the devil is making me say that…

Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1

When P.Z. Myers is cited positively and unironically by Vox Day, you know there’s something amiss with the universe. There’s heresy in the air and right-on-right attacks going down.

On the one hand, we have Jordan Peterson: transphobic right-wing purveyor of semi-coherent self-help books for people frightened by women going to university. On the other hand, we have Vox Day: a man who regards the terrorist child-murder Anders Brevik as a hero and who pushes a violent nationalism based on pseudo-scientific race theories. While we could see Peterson as at least being more moderate than Day, we can’t ignore that Peterson is a kind of gateway drug into the morass of confused thinking based on male resentment at a changing society. What Vox has in toxicity, Peterson has twice as much in reach.

Who is the more appalling of the two? Perhaps we need another candidate…

[more appalling people after the fold]

Continue reading “Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1”

CoOrDiNaTeD aTtAcKs!

Cast your minds back to April 7 2015. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were beaten by the Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship and Senator Rand Paul announced he was going to run for the Republic nomination for President of the United States. Meanwhile, in Sad Puppy related news, Larry Correia posted this: https://monsterhunternation.com/2015/04/07/addendum-to-yesterdays-letter/

“To the the SMOFs, moderates, new comers, and fence sitters I addressed yesterday, yes, we have disagreements with you. We’re happy to discuss them. We are not, however, happy to be libeled as the vilest forms of scum to walk the earth, and we are not happy to live in fear of career destruction. You want my part of fandom to coexist peacefully? You want to work out our differences and keep the awards meaningful? So do we. Though we disagree on the details and the issues, we also love this stuff. But coordinated slander campaigns, lies, character assassinations, threats, witch hunts? No… We won’t stand for that.” [CF: my emphasis]

“Coordinated slander”, oh my golly gosh! The issue being that the Sad Puppy campaign had become notable enough that its impact was being covered by the mainstream media. You’d think that was predictable — make a loud enough noise, eventually pay attention — but no, for Larry the news coverage must have been because of some hidden layer of coordination. A week later he was on the same theme: http://monsterhunternation.com/2015/04/14/george-r-r-martin-responds/

“So here is a question for you.  What term would you use to describe the shared politics of the dozens of reporters, columnists, and bloggers who have run similar articles this week with obvious false accusations that Sad Puppies supporters ran an anti-diversity slate, motivated by racism, sexism, and homophobia? Jerks? Yes, they are, but that is a bit too coordinated for mere jerkage. That was a political attempt to establish a political narrative.” [CF: my emphasis]

Changing topics but not themes and sticking with a Sad Puppy outlet for a moment, fast forward to February 3 2017. Milo Yiannopolous’s star had risen high with an invite to the Conservative Political Action Conference and a book deal with Simon & Shuster when anti-Trump Republican group The Reagan Battalion released an edited version of a 206 video in which Yiannopolous justified sex with 13 year olds. At Mad Genius Club, Kate Paulk was unhappy about Yiannopolous’s book deal being cancelled: https://madgeniusclub.com/2017/02/23/the-inadequacy-of-silence/

“What I care about is that someone who has – objectively – done not one damn thing wrong is the subject of a coordinated effort to not merely silence him, but disappear him. I’ve seen this happen in the past. It happened to Larry Correia. To Brad Torgersen. I didn’t get the full force of it last year, but instead got the cold shoulder of people doing their best to pretend I’d already been disappeared.” [CF: my emphasis]

The theme being coordination obviously, the idea that if multiple sources are saying similar things it must be because of hidden coordination. Of course, some people really do plan things and approaches. Obviously the Reagan Battalion planned their media campaign against Yiannopolous but the “coordination” claim is stronger than that and proposes that the subsequent fuss and related outrage was also somehow coordinated.

I was initially planning this post yesterday after I read a series of tweets from Ethan Van Sciver, the right wing comic book artist who claims the mantle of ‘ComicsGate’®™. EVS was the guy who had the big falling out with Vox Day in September. In a series of tweets he disappointed me slightly by using the word “organized” instead of “coordinated”. I shan’t link to the tweets because it messes with the WordPress layout but the combined message was this:

“This Wave of Organized Attacks on ComicsGate consisted of:
1. The rise of @sinKEVitch as leader of AntiCG!
2. Jeff Lemire calling pros to arms against us!
3. Darwyn Cooke’s widow baiting CG!
4 Three Bleeding Cool hitpieces on me!
5. Hit pieces in the Washington Post, & INVERSE
6. Hit piece in The Guardian! The Daily Dot!
7. Robbi Rodriguez sending me a photo of his anus!
8. Vox Day trying to co-opt ComicsGate for the Alt Right!
9. Patton Oswalt condemning ComicsGate!
10. Pablo Hidalgo of Lucasfilm compares ComicsGate to the KKK!
11. John Layman spews bile at 21 year old CG writer Nasser Rabadi for 21 consecutive tweets!
12. Kieran Shiach penned hitpiece in POLYGON!
13. Marvel Comics Chief Creative Office Joe Quesada weighs in to debate @DiversityAndCmx and EVS: Loses debate.” [CF: my emphasis]

Rather like the Yiannopolous defence, the charge of coordination here crosses political lines. EVS suggests a conspiracy between a disperate group that includes the Guardian and Vox Day. The Yiannopolous piece suggested coordination between the left and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Like I said, this post was going to concentrate on a theme among culture wars and be a break from writing about the nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. However, the morning news presented this to me: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/24/politics/read-brett-kavanaugh-letter-senate-judiciary-committee/index.html

“These are smears, pure and simple. And they debase our public discourse. But they are also a threat to any man or woman who wishes to serve our country. Such grotesque and obvious character assassination—if allowed to succeed—will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from service. As I told the Committee during my hearing, a federal judge must be independent, not swayed by public or political pressure. That is the kind of judge I will always be. I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out.” [CF: my emphasis]

It’s an interesting principled-tone Kavanaugh strikes whilst simultaneously accusing two different women of inventing ‘smears’ against him. And there is that tic again. Of course, yes, clearly the Democrats coordinate their opposition to his nomination just as the Republicans and other conservative groups have coordinated their support of him but the ‘coordination’ here is intended (as it does in the examples above) to imply that criticism is not just illegitimate but sinister and underhand.

“They” are out to get me and it doesn’t matter who ‘they’ are or that ‘they’ are a superfluous hypothesis to describe events. By casting events in this way, a call to action is made against the shadowy Them — who, to quote Kavanaugh, are a threat “any man or woman who wishes to serve our country”.

Personally I like to believe Them are giant ants. I prefer the classics.

 

 

 

 

How big is a mob anyway?

While I had more important things to post about today, I couldn’t let this post by Brad Torgersen go by without some comment. Having said that, this isn’t a Brad bashing piece. Rather, some of his comments got me thinking about some of the language we use (as well as touching on some questions about truth and evidence which is very much my briar patch).

Brad, somewhat late to the party, discusses Larry Correia’s disinvitation as Guest of Honour at Origins Game Fair. He summarises the problem as this:

“What’s concerning is that conventions — indeed, almost all institutions of various descriptions — are being placed in the position of either bending to the will of what are essentially mobs, or facing threats of both bad PR and, potentially, painful legal annoyance. In each case, the institutions almost always take the path of least resistance. It’s far easier to eject a guest who has attracted the mob’s attention, than stand your ground and endure the mob’s ire; as a “defender” of the alleged wrong-doer.”

‘Mob’ is doing a lot of work here. It is partly a way of making those who complain faceless & depersonalised and partly a way of making them seem irrational, angry & threatening. It is easy to characterise groups of people doing something as a ‘mob’ – for example, it would have been easy to call Sad Puppies ‘a mob’ or the Tor Boycott the action of a mob but the ease with which it can be done also demonstrates why it is largely an empty term.

But what about something like Gamergate? I can see why people use a term like ‘mob’ there but I am still worried that the term clouds issues more than it describes actions. The actual decisions made by people in Gamergate (or if you prefer some leftwing incident of many people acting on social media) were not those of an actual mass of people in physical proximity but rather many separate individuals making distinct decisions over long periods of time. I’m not trying to play dictionary definitions on the word ‘mob’ but rather trying to point out that ‘mob’ creates a misleading impression of the psychology and the community dynamics here.

In the case of the Origins Game Fair, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of a mob of any kind. Larry Correia himself is blaming one person as the source of complaint but I’ve seen evidence of other, quieter concerns raised to the con.

“Mob” as a term primarily obscures. It hides the way social media forms out of individual action both negatively and positively. An individual who is told they were part of a social media mob can look back at their actions and think “No, I just made that one comment and it was a reasonable one” and yet the subject of the comment may genuinely feel mobbed. At the Gamergate end of this spectrum, direct, individual acts of malice are made to look like individual responsibility played no part.

The (often genuine) feelings of being mobbed comes from the volume and the individuals making comments are often unaware of how they contribute to that volume.

An examples that crosses the Puppy/Puppyologist divide would be the recent brouhaha concerning the Romance author who is attempting to trademark the word ‘Cocky’ for her book series. I’ve written about it and Mad Genius have written about it and I don’t think there is much of a difference between our views on the issue. I’m sure the author concerned is feeling mobbed by the sheer scale of the response. It is unlikely she has read the Mad Genius posts on the topic and even more unlikely she has read my post but to some extent those posts all contribute. If our answer is ‘well she deserved it’ then I can see how that is a reasonable conclusion but that feeds into a different issue.

Brad raises other questions:

“None of this — in 2018 — happens without social media, of course. One might argue that Social Justice Zealotry could not exist without the anonymity and virility that social media provides. Pick your target from behind the safety of your keyboard, light the digital torch, rally your friends to the cause, and off you go to pillory whichever offending party suits your fancy this week. Proof? A preponderance of evidence? P’shaw!”

I’m not going to pick through the obvious hypocrisy of Brad’s complaint there — if we lived in a world in which Brad reflected on the faults he sees in others and whether they applied to themselves, then I’d have far fewer blog post topics.

Rather, it is worth asking about standards of evidence. Rather absurdly, Brad compares the con’s decision to the work of a military ‘seperation board’:

“Thank goodness separation boards don’t rely on the mob’s methods. Because when I am sitting down with my fellow officers to review a case, we’re all poignantly aware of the fact that we’re holding somebody’s career in our hands. We are not a court martial, so we can’t determine anyone’s guilt or innocence of a crime. But we can determine if the evidence of misconduct — not necessarily criminal in nature — does warrant severing the servicemember, and what the character of that severing should be. Because any discharge below honorable carries potentially life-long, negative consequences for the servicemember in question. And when something’s going to stick with somebody for the rest of their lives in a bad way, there better damned well be plenty of proof that it’s necessary, and justified.”

Again, self-reflection would probably help Brad see that, no, the standard of evidence that people should feel they need to have before commenting on social media about a con’s choice of guest should NOT be required to be of the same standards of evidence as a board convened to determine whether somebody should lose their full-time job. But that does not imply we should have no standards of evidence or truth.

Baseless accusations are not a good thing but we also can’t hold all truth claims to some sort of court-of-law standard either or even the standards of a HR function of a major institution*. To shift contexts slightly, there is a problem of regress here – imagine a company with some sort of grievance policy. The policy has to have at least two standards of evidence:

  • The standard used for the company to act on a complaint by one employee about another.
  • The standard used by the company to regard an employee’s complaint as reasonable.

The second standard has to be less than the first standard because employees need to be able to make complaints without undertaking the same due-process/evidence gathering/discussions that the complaint process uses. Indeed, there needs to be a third standard: the evidence needed for the company to regard a complaint as malicious or frivolous.

The same is true for reporting something to the police. It’s unreasonable to demand that somebody reporting something to the police should have ascertained the level of evidence needed for a trial. It’s unreasonable (indeed absurd) for the police to need that level of evidence to decide whether to investigate a possible crime. However, there has to be SOME standard because people make malicious complaints to harass others and there are obvious (and sometimes deadly) instances of the police acting on the basis of very poor quality information and/or prejudice.

There’s no easy answers at the end of this. To not just be truthful but to be concerned about the truth is a moral imperative. To consider the collective impact of our individual actions is also a moral imperative. That there are social consequence for bad (but not illegal) behaviour is part of how societies work. That there is no one-size-fits-all standard for evaluating the truth of a claim before commenting on the claim is a logical necessity.

*[Only afterwards did I see that calling the US Army a ‘major institution’ was a pun.]

The trope that changed my mind

Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes occupy different genres of speculative fiction. One is a contemporary horror film that examines privilege and alienation and the other is a space adventure set in the future. Such differences do not preclude similarities – both deal with violence, mistrust, secrets and the abuse of power. In both wealthy characters use their position to manipulate people into losing autonomy over themselves both in terms of their overall identity and their physical bodies.

Continue reading “The trope that changed my mind”

Objectivity and stuff

I wanted to write about some of the interesting things people have been saying about reviewing but part of my brain obviously wants to talk about reason and evidence and those sorts of things. I guess I haven’t done much of that this year in attempt to look less like a philosophy professor.

Anyway – objectivity! The thing with objectivity as a word is that we (including myself) use it in a way that implies various things which maybe aren’t really part of what it means. Objectivity carries positive connotations and connotations of authority in contrast to subjectivity. Those connotations suggest impartial judgement and a lack of bias. That’s all well and good – words can mean whatever a community of users want them to mean but I think it creates confusion.

Here is a different sense of ‘objective’ – to say something is objective is to say that two people can follow the same steps/process and come up with the same answer reliably. Maybe we should use a different word for that but such processes are often described as ‘objective’ because they clearly contrast with subjective judgement.

The thing is that meaning does not in ANYWAY imply a lack of bias. Lots of systematic or automated processes can contain bias. Indeed we expect there to be biases in, for example, processes for collecting data. More extreme examples include machine learning algorithms which are inherently repeatable and ‘objective’ in that sense (and the sense that they operate post-human judgement) that nonetheless repeat human prejudices because those prejudices exist in the data they were trained on.

Other examples include the data on gender disparity in compensation for Uber drivers – the algorithm was not derived from human prejudices but there was still a pay disparity that arose from different working patterns that arose from deep-seated social disparities.

However, there is still an advantage here in terms of making information and data gathered more objective. Biases may not be eliminated but they are easier to see, identify and quantify.

Flipping back to ‘subjective’, I have discussed before both the concept of intersubjectivity (shared consensus opinions and beliefs that are not easily changed) as well as the possibility of their being objective facts about subjective opinions (e.g. my opinion that Star Trek: Discovery was flawed is subjective but it is an objective fact about the universe that I held that opinion).

Lastly the objective aspect of data can be mistaken for the more subjective interpretation of the data. In particular the wider meaning or significance of a data set is not established simply by the fact that the data is collected reliably or repeatedly.

Consider another topic: IQ. I’ve discussed before aspect of IQ and IQ testing and much of the pseudoscientific nonsense talked about it. Look at these two claims between Roberta and Bob:

  • Roberta: My IQ is higher than Bob’s.
  • Roberta: I am more intelligent than Bob.

The first statement may be an objective fact – it is certainly a claim that can be tested and evaluated by prescribed methods. The second statement is more problematic: it relies on opinions about IQ and the nature of intelligence that are not well established. The objectivity of the first statement does not establish the objectivity of the second. Nor does the apparent objectivity of the first imply that it does not have biases that may also impact wider claims based upon it.

Ockham, the neo-Thomist right and transgender rights

Micael Gustavsson asked a good question in the previous post and my reply got so long that I thought it should be a post instead. [A caveat – I’m not an expert on Medieval philosophy or Ockham but I have been to Surrey. Any philosophy professors or expert on the theology of the middle ages feel free to correct my errors – or anybody really 🙂 ]

//Why would it have been impossible to reach todaylevel technology based on the philosphical thinking of thinking of Thomas? Or is that maybe to big a question?//

Mainly because it doesn’t work – so assuming technological and scientific thought proceeded anyway then over time then Thomism would increasingly be in conflict with advances in knowledge. It’s not so much that William O had to invent nominalism for science to happen, just that the kind of reasoning & conceptual framework that will come about in response to engaging scientifically with the world won’t match Thomism.

In reality, the most famous divergence came with Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church but that just highlights one spot where a central authority tried to hold onto one aspect of a broader model and picked a very silly spot to make their stand.

I don’t think Ockham set these changes in Western thought in motion – I think he was an astute thinker who spotted a whole set of flaws in the Thomist consensus. The only way for these flaws to STAY overlooked would have been for the Catholic Church to somehow prevent intellectual development in Western Europe at both a philosophical and practical level.

Put a different way: the neo-Thomist right really want things (i.e. everything) to exist to serve an underlying purpose and for categories of things to reflect that purpose and deviations of things FROM those categories & purposes are therefore immoral.

A current example is the right and its reaction to transgender people. Now let me be clear the basic issue of the right is simply bigotry and ignorant prejudice but the styles of rationalisations that the right applies neatly illustrates how the view on categories works as an epistemology and a view on ethics.

So an anti-transgender rights conservative (which isn’t all of them) might claim that:

  • there are only two sexes/gender
  • that God created those two sexes for distinct purposes
  • that when a person acts in a way contrary to the purposes of their sex that is sinful (because it is ‘unnatural’/against God’s purpose)
  • that therefore they should not be encouraged or enabled to do so

These ideas are really just bigotry but if you were casting around for a reputable philosophical scheme to rationalise them then a set of ideas that join Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas look attractive. This is the idea that the reason things are similar (and hence can be lumped together in categories) even though they are different (so we can tell them apart) is because the truer, deeper, more essential reality IS the category. All women are alike (in this idea) because womaness is the underlying truth. As a way of thinking it makes sense if you are classifying quadrilaterals (all square-like things are instances of the underlying deeper truth of the Platonic ideal of a square).

Now there is a whole bunch of stuff there: a metaphysics, a theory of science, a view of God and theological truth (i.e. we can reason about categories and discover ethical truths). Why do John C Wright and Vox Day like syllogisms? Because they were a medieval/classic way of reasoning about CATEGORIES.

Now Ockham called bullshit on aspects of this. Specifically he moved (reluctantly at times) towards a position called nominalism – essentially that categories are primarily convenient ways of thinking about stuff. Things are essentially different but humans can identify similarities and lump similar things together. But that lumping together isn’t the truer deeper reality. Nominalism has its problems also obviously. However, when we look at things scientifically what do we see:

  • There are not only two human biological sexes. It is not a biological fact that humans divide neatly into two simple groupings by sex. It’s not true physically and it isn’t true genetically.

Now, the existance of inter-sex people is NOT the cornerstone of transgender rights – those rights exist regardless but I’ll get back to that. I’m highlighting it because it illustrates how the neo-Thomist scheme falls apart on a contemporary issue once we engage with the actual facts of the world. Even quite strong natural/empirical categories that we encounter empirically (such as biological genetic sex in humans) that has fairly well-understood causal (in the modern sense) basis does not form categories with zero fuzziness in the boundary. If God set up this scheme then God set up a scheme in which categorical boundaries have a tendency to get fractal.

And that’s JUST sex! Gender brings in questions or societal roles, behaviour, attitudes, dress, personality etc shows no respect for neat natural categories. Of course, the empirical evidence for this is in the ‘softer’ sciences of psychology and sociology and hence easier for the right to dismiss but essentially we have a similar issue. The neo-Thomist is claiming that the categories are a TRUTH about the universe i.e. A QUESTION OF FACT and that from those facts THEOLOGICAL truths can be established (God’s intent) and from that an ETHICAL truth can be inferred (being transgender is supposedly against God’s purpose) – and they are plain wrong.

I doubt William of Ockham had and views or perspective on the issue of transgender rights and there isn’t a coherent way of saying what he would think if he was alive today because he’d be a different person BUT! Bill-O (as I feel I should call him now) was already pulling apart most of the pieces of that argument.

  • His nominalism points to categories as being empirical observational things that will have exceptions, complications, and non-neat boundaries. We live in a world in which there is a platypus and birds are tiny singing dinosaurs.
  • His fiedism separated theological truths from logical and empirical ones. I.e. if God exists then God transcends logic (God is more powerful than logic and isn’t constrained by it) but therefore you can’t logic God.

Now, as I said I don’t want to overstate the fact that biological sex is not a neat category as a reason for transgender rights being important. That isn’t the actual positive reasoning. Rather, it is the fact that biological sex is not a neat category that demonstrates that the neo-Thomist argument CANNOT be correct. It is a metaphysical scheme that falls apart when brought into contact with OBSERVATION – which is what happened repeatedly since Plato first came up with the idea. Ironically it was Aristotle (who Thomas Aquinas venerated) who began chipping away at the scheme. It wasn’t a bad idea as such and Platonism had a good run in mathematics until at least the 19th century.

To move away from biology and sociology, you can see how this divergence works in chemistry. Neat categories of four elements gives way to a plethora of elements. The periodic table itself isn’t a fatal wound because there are lots of natural groupings but the inherent fuzziness (e.g. elements that are nearly but not quite metals) pushes against it. Atomic theory kills it dead – the commonalities between elements arise not from them all being in the same category but rather similarities at an atomic level lead to common properties. Having the quality of a metal becomes something that can be described without recourse to the quality of being a metal.

Anyway, this article on William of Ockham is a good read: http://www.iep.utm.edu/ockham/

Also Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, which is a great read regardless is very much tied up in the times and ideas of William of Ockham as prototype for modern rationalism. The protagonist, William of Baskerville, shares the same first name with the addition of the allusion to Sherlock Holmes but is also an English Fransciscan and contemporary of William of Ockham. The background to the story involves a political dispute between the Pope and the real life Michael of Cesena head of the Franciscans in which William of Ockham was involved.

 

The Right Really Doesn’t Like William of Ockham

No, no, not a piece on how the right’s current tendency towards consipracy theories or misplaced explanations. The Right (or at least the tiny section of the right who knows who he was) don’t like the actual William of Ockham 1285-1347. William, an English Fransciscan monk is an important figure in the philosophy of epistmology and reasoning. Also, there’s a weird coda at the end…

So why don’t the right like him? In the review I did of conservative philosopher Edward Feser’s book on how Thomas Aquinas somehow disproved atheism (spoiler: he didn’t) I pointed out how William of Ockham and Duns Scotus are seen as the villains of the middle-ages by the new advocates of Thomism. Feser’s main beef with William O was his fideism – the notion that faith is the only or primary route to theological truth. While that principle sounds very devout, it eliminates the possibility of their being logical or rational ways of learning theological truths i.e. if you adopt fideism you give up trying to prove the existence of god. So while William of Ockham is devout he is seen as creating a kind of back door in Western thought for atheism.

I cam across another piece on William of Ockham at that weird conservative site Intellectual Takeout – the place that had that odd piece on Hannah Arendt. This time the piece is called William of Ockham: The Man Who Started the Decline of the West. The title shouldn’t be surprising by now – we’ve seen enough figures on the right and the alt-right hankering for a return to the middle-ages to no this isn’t a parody of modern conservatism.

The writer, Danile Lattiter, points on Ockham’s nominalism as the issue:

“Prior to Ockham, the dominant Western understanding held that individual things (“particulars”) have common natures (“universals”) which dictate the purpose of each thing, and which can be known by man. Thus, for instance, if an individual was referred to as “human,” it was because he really possessed a human nature that was ordered toward flourishing through a life of virtue (as Aristotle says) or participation in the divine life (as Christian revelation says).

However, Ockham denied the real existence of universal natures. In Ockham’s view, the universe is inhabited by a number of individual things that have no necessary connection with each other. We can call human beings “human” based on their sharing a certain resemblance with each other, but we can’t infer anything about them based on their common name. We can know that one thing can cause another thing to happen only based on repeated experience, not on some abstract knowledge of a thing’s nature (thus laying the groundwork for modern science). Anything theological—such as the existence of God or his attributes—can be known by faith alone (thus, apparently, laying the groundwork for the Reformation).”

Lattiter cast the article as him reporting the views of others rather than his own views but he doesn’t put much of a counter case. Personally I doubt William of Ockham personaly set this train of ideas in motion – the flaws in reasoning he was exposing become manifest the more people engage with the world as it is. The Platonic/Aristotlean-Thomistic approach was not going to last and if it had we wouldn’t have just had philosophical stagnation but technological and social stagnation in Europe as well. There isn’t a plausible alternate universe in which Western thought stuck with Aquinas AND developed the technology it did.

Anyway, not the worst article I’ve seen there but not great.

Looking at the articles the author wrote though, I found this piece of nonsense: http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/way-too-many-books-are-being-published

It’s pretty much a classic conservative lament: things are all different and changing and wasn’t it great when things were how they used to be. It isn’t good and the ideas are confused.

The weird coda is finding Sarah Hoyt laying into the same article at Mad Genius Club: https://madgeniusclub.com/2018/01/10/we-dont-need-no-education-we-dont-need-no-thought-control/

Hoyt’s attempted fisking of the piece isn’t great either but what’s funny is somewhere along the way Hoyt and the commenters assume the piece is by a leftist. So they set up various strawmen positions that the writer didn’t espouse and knock those down.

Here’s our old pal Phantom commenting on an article he presumably didn’t read:

“One more Leftist screaming SHUT UP!!!11! in a futile attempt to shove the Internet genie back in the bottle.

This is my favorite part: “We need to identify the key texts that should act as the foundation of our shared cultural and interpersonal knowledge.”

This guy wants to make -me- stop writing. By which I mean, me personally. Because I assure you, my work does not support his notion of “shared cultural knowledge.” Quite the reverse, I hope.

Come and get me, hipster twinkies. Molon labe.”

Nope – it is a rightist implying people should shut up in a futile attempt to shove the societal change genie back in the bottle. I doubt they want Phantom to stop writing as such but then hey probably haven’t read what he writes…