Category: Reason Hell

Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have To: Truth and Truthiness

What is truth? Well we certainly won’t find out today, as I dive into one man’s quest to loudly proclaim what Truth is watch him get hoplessly confused without ever realising it.

hilosophy is the study of truth, which is a definition that raises almost as many questions as it answers. What is truth? How is truth differentiated from falsehood? Why is truth even preferable to falsehood? Truth is the accurate identification of facts and principles in objective reality.


Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 273-278). Kindle Edition.

That’s an odd definition of philosophy but not one worth arguing about. Certainly philosophy isn’t about trying to be wrong. What makes it limiting is Molyneux then defining truth:

Truth is the accurate identification of facts and principles in objective reality.

Molyneux is going to define truth several times, which would be a reasonable thing to do in a work on philosophy if he acknowledged what he was doing but he doesn’t. He asserts what truth is and asserts different concepts of truth as he goes along without ever interrogating them. That this first definition is oddly circular (what can “accurate” or “facts” mean without reference to truth?) passes him by. Truth will be important for Molyneux but he has two problems:

  1. he doesn’t know what he means by truth
  2. he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know what he means by truth.

Philosophy is supposed to be a thing you do, not just a body of knowledge about past philosophers. Molyneux’s book avoids both. He asserts rather than examines and asserts without looking critically at what he asserts.

Why, you may ask, “objective reality”? Is Molyneux saying philosophy can’t consider issues in subjective domains or things which aren’t real? Can philosophy not discuss fiction for example?

‘“Truth” describes verifiable and objective principles and experiences. If I say that I had a headache last summer while camping alone, there is no way to verify my statement. But if I say that the sun is 8.3 light minutes away from the earth, there are ways to verify my statement. Subjective experiences do not fall in the realm of philosophy, any more than nightly dreams fall in the realm of physics. Saying that something “feels true” makes about as much sense as saying that “imagination proves scientific hypotheses.” The conflation of subjective experience with objective truth is one of the great curses of human history.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 403-410). Kindle Edition.

I don’t think Molyneux knows that he’s offering a different definition of what truth is now. Truth now needs to be verifiable whereas before it simply had to match “objective reality”. He’s apparently offering a much more radical theory of truth. Has he simply mistyped? Experience with Molyneux shows he is often very credulous about certain things, so maybe he just has a very generous concept of verified?

I assume he’s simply got confused between “truth” and “knowledge”. Yet, he commits initially to this restricted view of truth with an example. His headache example puts anything you can’t check beyond the realm of truth. Note not whether we can know whether something is true or not but whether the truth even applies to such things.

Does he really believe that? No, of course not. This is not a model of truth he’ll be able to sustain. It’s simpler to assume that sometimes when he says “truth” he means “knowledge” and sometimes he means “truth” but he doesn’t know the difference. Yes, this is a book on philosophy that is unaware of epistemology.

He does mention knowledge:

“If you have a hypothesis that cannot possibly be disproved, then you have added nothing whatsoever to the sum total of knowledge, truth, understanding or perception – or to anything, for that matter.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 600-601). Kindle Edition.

But is unclear about the distinction between knowledge and truth.

Truth, he asserts is empirical:

“The reason is that a truth proposition must be compared to something in order to find out whether it is true or not. Truth cannot be entirely self-referential. Otherwise, it cannot be the truth at all. Truth is a standard that we apply to propositions that reference something other than their own principles or arguments.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 616-618). Kindle Edition.

So that’s analytical truths down the drain then. He just accidentally killed mathematics. Don’t worry, he’ll forget that he said this later.

He also knows the word “epistemology” but maybe is unclear as to what it is?

“Naturally, a central question of epistemology – the study of knowledge – is whether the information we receive from our senses is valid. Now “valid” is just another word for “accurate” or “true,” which brings us back to the basic question – what is truth? As discussed before, “truth” is a statement about objective reality that conforms with the nature and principles of objective reality. If I say that there is a cloud overhead, my statement is true if there is in fact a cloud overhead.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 780-785). Kindle Edition.

He’s butchering the word “valid” now and wandering back to a correspondence with “objective reality” as the definition of truth. His earlier definition would mean it would only be true that there was a cloud overhead IF he had checked and verified there was. Maybe it is obvious in that context that he would have checked or maybe he just forgot.

He’s dead keen on objective reality though. Truth is not something he thinks should be applied to subjective views.

“This requirement for objective reality as a standard of truth can be challenging for some who believe that their own internal states have a truth or falsehood about them. It is true, for example, that I felt sad yesterday; it is true that I feel happy today. It is true that I love my wife, that I study the truth, and that I hate evil.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 785-789). Kindle Edition.

Yes, his example directly contradicts everything he just said including the point he just tried to illustrate. Molyneux is a sort of materialist. I need to be cautious here because honestly I don’t know to what extent Molyneux can be said to believe something – his ideas are not self-consistent. Yet he appears to believe minds are functions of brains and so emotions and mental states are grounded in physical effects – which would make them part of “objective reality”. I’ll return to this later when I try to untangle what he means by “objective reality” in another post.

Not knowing exactly what truth is (or what “objective reality” is) should not be considered a flaw in a book on philosophy. They are hard topics to grasp without descending into circular definitions and they are topics on which many great minds have struggled. However, not knowing that you DON’T KNOW is whatever the opposite of philosophy is. Philosophy does not require its practitioners all to be radical sceptics but if you aren’t questioning your own ideas then whatever it is you are doing, it isn’t philosophy.

“Saying that something looks wet to me, if it really does, is an honest statement. Saying that something is wet, just because it looks wet to me, is a hypothesis. If I see water drops on my window, and I say that I see water drops on my window, I am telling the truth.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 879-882). Kindle Edition.

For Molyneux his own internal states have a truth or falsehood about them. He said earlier that it was challenging for people that they don’t and here I can’t fault him in so far as he failed his own challenge after a few pages. We can speculate that what Molyneux wants is to be able to dismiss the claims others might make about their feelings or opinions without questioning his own.

But what if truth itself is an internal state?

“A tree cannot be incorrect, sunlight cannot be erroneous, water cannot take a wrong turn, and fungus cannot be immoral. Truth and falsehood exist as distinct states in only one entity in the universe that we know of: the human mind.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 917-919). Kindle Edition.

Is it even possible to discuss Molyneux’s beliefs about truth? Truth is a state of mind? Again, he might be trying to say knowledge rather truth. I’m not sure. His ideas have become so jumbled here that untangling them requires active re-writing of what he wrote. I’d pity his editor but I’m assuming he doesn’t have one, not even his cat.

Literally the next paragraph he zigs one way:

“Truth is a state that results when a concept matches an entity or a hypothesis matches the facts of reality.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 919-920). Kindle Edition.

A state of what? A state of mind? That’s a reasonable reading as he was just talking about truth as a state within a mind but I’m not sure. That seems far too a subjective view of truth for Molyneux. Perhaps he means an abstract state? I should be grateful he’s not attempting metaphysics but his lazy materialism raises too many problems.

He then zags another way:

“Truth always refers to concepts or language and the degree to which they match what exists and occurs in objective reality. If I point at a mug and say it is a telephone, we cannot fix my statement by replacing the mug with a telephone. If I call the mug a “telephone,” I am incorrect, because my word does not match what I’m pointing at.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 920-923). Kindle Edition.

Truth is about language and concepts? I mean, OK, that’s not terrible. Truth as something propositions have – a perspective of truth as value takes us into a domain of logic.

“The standard of truth refers not only to the relationship between concepts and objects, but also to concepts about the relationships between objects, such as gravity or magnetism. If I say that “gravity repels,” then I am incorrect; my language does not match the true relationship between mass and gravity. If I say that “magnetism can pull down a tree,” then I am equally incorrect.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 923-928). Kindle Edition.

I’ll just point at that paragraph. Each one of these follows on from each other. I think he’s trying to get at “belief” but he avoids the word, just like he avoids “knowledge”. Yes, these words are technical terms within philosophy and he’s obviously trying to avoid referencing other philosophers or other philosophical texts but you can see how clouded his thinking is here. Failing to make conceptual distinction leads him to confusing belief, truth and knowledge while he also tries to explore the relationship between them.

The final zig-zag in these sequential paragraphs is:

“The relationship between concepts in the mind and matter or energy in the world is the relationship we refer to as “truth.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 928-929). Kindle Edition.

I’ll concede that there’s some content there. Those series of paragraphs are confused but not vacuous and they might be even thought provoking. I am sure somebody defending him could extract a reasonable position out of what he is saying. I am not sure that two people would extract the same position. Rather like Jordan Peterson, the confusion of ideas is a feature not a bug.

More vacuous are statements such as:

“Philosophical arguments, which establish truth regarding objective and rational reality, must themselves be objective and rational.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 970-972). Kindle Edition.

But let’s get back to “valid”. Remember that earlier he’d said that “valid” is just another word for “accurate” or “true,”? Well, he wants valid to be something more specific now:

“In relation to truth, there are three categories of concepts – valid, potentially valid, and invalid. A valid and true concept is one that has been verified and established, both by its internal rational consistency, and by its consistency with empirical observations. The idea that the earth is a sphere, rather than flat, is not internally self-contradictory. No one is saying that the earth is both a sphere and flat at the same time. And its roundness has been consistently verified through empirical observations, both on the surface of the earth and in space.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 973-980). Kindle Edition.

I mean, it’s great that he’s using another word but his definition of “valid” is almost the same as his previous definition of ‘truth’. He’s improved upon it though by adding “internal rational consistency”. I think he wants “valid” to mean true but he wants two different concepts for things that aren’t valid but only wants one concept for things that aren’t true.

“Potentially valid concepts are those for which there is no empirical evidence, but no internal self-contradiction either. For instance, the idea that silicone, rather than carbon, could be used as the basis for a living organism is not internally self-contradictory, but there is no evidence as yet of a silicone-based life form. The position that intelligent life could exist on other planets is not internally self-contradictory, but no evidence as yet exists to prove this hypothesis.

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 986-990). Kindle Edition.

You know what? That’s OK. Yes, it is deeply at odds with his headache example from earlier in the book (which surely is “potentially valid” in this scheme). ‘Prove” we’ll skip over – it’s asking too much expect him to look at that word. ‘Silicone’? Sure, why not.

“Invalid concepts are those that are self-contradictory, and thus can never accurately describe atomic consistency. One example of a self-contradictory concept is the “square circle,” which cannot exist because the characteristics of squares and those of circles contradict each other.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 990-992). Kindle Edition.

Again, not so terrible. We are a quarter of the way into the book and either the process is leading him to think a bit better or he’s explaining himself better. I was confident this book wouldn’t get good, it’s too laden with contradictions and confused concepts, but at this point perhaps it might provide some insights. Then he follows up with another example:

‘Another example of a self-contradictory entity is the concept of “consciousness without matter.”’

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 992-994). Kindle Edition.

He goes onto say why but its not a great argument (and I say that even though I agree that consciousness requires matter). He basically just begs the question, asserting in different ways that consciousness depends on matter. Fair enough except he’s supposed to be showing that the idea is self-contradictory, instead he just asserts in different ways that it’s not true.

I was wondering at this stage whether it was just that Molyneux wanted a radically materialist and empirical view of truth and knowledge. That wouldn’t solve all the confusion in his book but maybe that’s what he was going for. Perhaps his view of mathematics, for example, was that it was only true when it is applied empirically. That would be interesting but no, that’s not what he thinks either:

“When we ask a child to accept that two and two make four, we are not asking the child to believe this truth for any particular instance, but rather for all instances of that equation. It’s not just that these two coconuts and two coconuts make four coconuts, but rather that two and two of anything make four. When we ask a child to write the number “4” on an answer sheet, we are asking the child to compare his proposed action – writing a number – with the ideal standard of writing the correct number.

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1337-1343). Kindle Edition.

Do we need more layers of confusion here? Apparently we do. Molyneux not unreasonably ties ethics in with truth. He, like most people, sees there a moral aspect to preferring truth to falsehood.

‘Truth is infinitely preferable to error. Truth requires rational consistency and empirical evidence.’

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1099-1101). Kindle Edition.

I suspect he means ‘the pursuit of truth’ or something similar. He uses the word ‘truth’ without qualifiers to mean different aspects of truth or things related to truth or to which truth can be applied (as we’ve seen with ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’). This is not just a quirk of bad writing or sloppy thinking though. He keeps equating truth as a thing with different but related ideas. For example he then goes on to say that determinism destroys truth (his views on ‘free will’ I’ll need to save for another time).

‘If you are a determinist, there can be no preferred states in your world view. Determinism is not the establishment of truth, but the destruction of the very concept of truth. Truth is a preferred state – preferable to falsehood – however, if everyone and everything is a machine, there can be no preferred states, since no alternative possibilities can exist. A rock lands where a rock lands – the rock has no preferred state. Everything is the inevitable clockwork unrolling of mere physics – there is no right and wrong, no truth and falsehood, no good and evil – these are all primitive superstitions, akin to a belief not in the geological reality of a volcano, but the imaginary superstition of a volcano god.’

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1810-1816). Kindle Edition.

And later:

‘Integrity is fidelity to moral truth. In the deterministic universe, there is no truth; therefore, there can be no morality and, therefore, there can be no integrity.

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1857-1859). Kindle Edition.

In a deterministic universe there would still be concepts which could either correspond with or not correspond with objective reality, hence by at least one of his standards of truth, there would still be truth. Yet, now he’s added a moral dimension to truth by confusing “truth” with “the pursuit of truth”.

Molyneux is very much in the region of ‘not even wrong’ and whatever he is doing is not philosophy. It is essentially the opposite of philosophy: a process by which ideas are obscured and go unexamined. Instead of questioning Molneux asserts, instead of examining he declares. He is untroubled by his confusing and conflicting uses of the word truth because he is , laying claim to the word “truth”. Molneux both literally and figuratively wants to own truth. He has a radical notion of intellectual property:

“An argument is just as much a product of your body as a house, a song – or a murder, for that matter. If you say to someone you are debating with, “You are wrong!” you are saying they have created an argument that is false – that they own the argument, and they own the “wrongness” as well. If you say to someone, “You are a fool,” then you are saying they have done something that earns them the label of foolishness. Arguing against property rights requires accepting property rights; it is a fool’s position.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 2550-2556). Kindle Edition.

Viewed through the lens of Molyneux’s conception of property, then his claims on truth become more comprehensible — at least in terms of motive rather than content. He wants to own capital-T Truth like Cadbury chocolates owning purple. This is a land grab but a poorly executed one.

More nonsense next time.

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Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have To: Part 1

I wandered into the rabbit hole that is alt-right cultist Stefan Molyneux the other day. I’ve covered Molyneux only tangentially in the past, mainly because he’s pals with Vox Day. Molyneux mainly does his thing via YouTube and podcasts and I find those media tiresome to analyse. It’s very hard to double-back and check what people said earlier and I think they disguise confused thinking better than text.

Anyway, Molyneux also does free books. That is a lovely pairing of words, “free books”, but let me just say that the book I got was overpriced. It’s called “Essential Philosophy: How to know what on Earth is going on”.

I’m not quite ready to go through it in detail, mainly because it is less than coherent. There’s a core ethical problem because I think Molyneux believes that he believes things that he doesn’t actually believe. To assert that somebody misunderstands their own beliefs doesn’t sit well with me, even if it is somebody of dubious morals such as Molyneux. I don’t mean just that he misrepresents his own beliefs or that he lies about his beliefs (probably both of those are true as well) but that he asserts ideas that he understands well enough to express but which are at odds with what he later claims.

If you are thinking “that sounds like Jordan Peterson”, well yes it does. Molyneux has a lot in common (aside from being Canadian) with Peterson and has a similar cultish aspect to him. The Rational Wiki entry is well worth a read https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Stefan_Molyneux

However, Molyneux is much, much less entertainingly incoherent than Peterson. Peterson is tiresome to read if you try and follow a chain of ideas but if you just give up trying to make sense of Peterson, you do get a weird hallucinatory trip into the mind of a troubled man desperately trying to externalize his inner demons by pretending his own character flaws are actually problems with the world.

Molyneux on the other hand is a dull writer with equally confused ideas but none of the wacky diversions into lobsters and flying over pyramids.

In the meantime, I got distracted. I went to Molyneux’s Twitter feed to check something and ended up writing an essay about an IQ question.

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

A Shared Mythology

I’ve semi-seriously discussed quasi–pseudo-academic debate of monopuppyist versus duopuppyists i.e. was science fictions attempted right-wing coup in 2015 one movement (with internal differences) or two movements (with some shared features). One reason I keep looking at those events (and those distinctions) is the way they were a microcosm of broader ideological movements among the right.

Taking stock of those broader movements, similar issues arise. How are things different and how are things the same? There is scope for error in lumping diverse beliefs together and in becoming too focused on points of difference to see the commonalities. I spend a lot of time reading rightwing websites and comment sections (not just former Sad Puppy related ones) and two things stand out as commonalities:

  • Unmoored anti-leftism. ‘Unmoored’ because while the anti-leftism is common the rationalisations offered are not. For example, left opposition to the Bush Jr. Iraq war remains a sore point for many on the right (who ignore Democrat support for the war) but is ignored by the section of the right who also opposed the war (who don’t ignore Democrat support for the war but do ignore left opposition to it).
  • Common mythology. By this, I mean a set of beliefs about the world that are quasi-factual in nature.

The common mythology is a social glue and also a medium of cultural exchange. These are beliefs about how the world is that are:

  • Very specific, i.e. more specific than economic or social models that may be more ideological in nature.
  • By their nature beliefs that can be examined critically against facts but…
  • …which are either NOT examined critically against facts or more often run counter to established facts.

That such mythological-like beliefs exist among the right isn’t a new observation. However, many which we might associate with the right lack this common currency aspect. For example, many people in this broader right I’m discussing are not creationists (although most creationists are of the right), likewise Holocaust denial is still regarded as objectionable by many on the right. Anti-vaxxer beliefs are drifting more rightwards but still cross ideological boundaries. However, a broad habit of believing things that just aren’t so has become entrenched on the right.

I’d like to suggest the following as a core-common shared set of mythologies that act as a means of group identity. These ideas are shared uncritically in diverse parts of the US/Anglosphere right and questioning them too much leads to social ostracisation.

  • Global warming data and theories have been corrupted by politically active scientists. Note this isn’t quite the same as denial of global warming but obviously works very closely with it. The belief that temperature records and other aspects of global warming have been meddled with allows discussion of the reality of global warming to be avoided.
  • Universities and colleges routinely indoctrinate students with Marxist social theories. This belief over-extrapolates the existence of actual courses (perhaps a course somewhere on queer theory) and asserts that this is the norm for all students. The belief has a bedrock of fears by evangelical Christians about their children becoming less religious at college or exposed to things like evolution but in the form, I am describing is more general and less tied to religion.
  • The Democratic Party routinely engages in mass voter fraud at a highly organised level. The belief is very pertinent today given the headlines but the work on this idea is constant and on-going. US conservatives are primed to believe this idea against any facts to the contrary.
  • Mass illegal immigration is an intentional policy of leftists and foreign governments. This deeply disturbing myth and surrounding rhetoric about ‘invasion’ is widely believed and extends beyond the alt-right & more overtly ideologically racist parts of the right.
  • Europe is on the verge of (or already is) being controlled by or dominated by Islam. There’s a vagueness here as to what the actual proposition is. Partly this is due to the age of the claims. 10 years ago, claims about an imminent Islamic take over of Europe were very common on the right and 10 years later the claims are similar. In the face of ridicule of some claims (e.g. ‘no-go’ zones in places that aren’t ‘no go’ zones), the broader beliefs have become vaguer and less open to immediate refutation.
  • Cities are places of rising violent crime. At some point, of course, this idea gets to be true. Crime stats go up and down but what is remembered is the ‘ups’ and what is ignored is the ‘downs’ as well as general trends. What marks this belief as mythology is that it remains unchanged over decades: violent crime is always rising but somehow the point where violent crime was low shifts around.
  • Home invasions and violent attacks on middle-class suburbs or rural areas are common and imminent. These two form a pair and of course relate closely to gun ownership and NRA propaganda.

There are other beliefs that I could list but which I feel are more clearly ideological. For example beliefs around public healthcare relate to specific policy positions overtly advanced by conservatives for decades. Similarly, beliefs around affirmative action or even ‘PC culture’ have a closer connection with ideology. There is a common thread of seeking to avoid facts or to examine these ideas critically that gives them a similar quality of belief that would only be true in a parallel universe.

A relevant question is whether these beliefs are sincere. Salon writer Amanda Marcotte had a recent Twitter thread where she examined some of the anti-factual claims of the right and argues that they are insincere i.e. overtly lies:

Her argument is a strong one and there’s a longer analysis in this 2016 piece she wrote: https://www.salon.com/2016/09/26/its-science-stupid-why-do-trump-supporters-believe-so-many-things-that-are-crazy-and-wrong/

Clearly, some of these viral claims are trolling. The argument that ‘birtherism’ was insincere holds water. However, I think the ones above are held with sincerity of a kind. There is a lot of advocation of beliefs that don’t stand up to critical scrutiny going on that CAN’T be primarily about trolling people on the left. I can be confident of that because these are often beliefs that people on the right do not wish to discuss with the left or raise with the left. To point out factual or logical errors in particular beliefs is seen as trolling BY the left rather than the left being trolled. Readers familiar with the Sad Puppy debarkle will have many ready examples to hand.

Marcotte also raises the group identity aspect as part of the issue i.e. that asserting false or dubious beliefs ties people together, as they act as a marker of loyalty. However, in addition, the soup of false beliefs fostered by creationism on one hand and corporate propaganda on issues such as pesticides, smoking, guns and global warming has entrenched confused thinking as a habit among the right. These poor cognitive habits encourage the ‘grift’ culture I’ve talked about before within the right, that often makes them prone to both perpetuate and be victims of scams and dubious money-making schemes. Marcotte points out Trumps willingness to say what he is thinking is often mistaken for honesty and forthrightness by his supporters. This kind of uncalculated, unhedged speech without weasel words can be refreshing in a world where many people try to avoid being caught in a literal lie. Meanwhile, the new acting Attorney General of the USA was himself part of a company that deliberately targetted military veterans in a scam https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/09/matthew-whitaker-acting-attorney-general-wpm-scam

What’s trolling, what’s an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of public misbelief, what’s a scam and what’s people being scammed and what is just the inevitable confused belief of poor thinking habits is hard to disentangle. What the shared mythology has in common is that I think these are largely internally believed and which act as defence mechanisms for other beliefs or expressions of fears. In particular fears about race and social change among conservatives who see themselves as ‘libertarian’ and ‘not-racist’ require hoop jumping rationalisations that they can express by changing classifications (racial fears changed to fears about violent people in cities or rule-breaking immigrants). The ‘scam’ part here is that more openly racist parts of the right (i.e. the parts that are more willing to own the label ‘racist’) can control those fears via propaganda.

 

50% chance of doing X

This is a bit abstract and it follows on from this previous post about voting demographics.

Let’s say you’ve got a statistical model that predicts a person Z with Y characteristics has a 50% chance of doing X. The actual percentage doesn’t matter but 50% is a nice amount of measurable uncertainty — maximally knowing that we don’t know what person Z will do about X given the context of Y.

Empircally, the data would be looking at lots of Y people and seeing they do X 50% of the time. However, note that there’s a big and important distinction here between two extremes.

  1. Half of Y people do X and half of Y people don’t but those two halves are distinct. This implies that Y isn’t really the relevant factor here and we should be looking for some other feature of these people that better explains X behaviour.
  2. Y people do X half of the time randomly. That is Y people are essentially a coin toss with regards to X. In that case Y isn’t great for predicting whether people will do X but it is really relevant to the question (particulalry if W people behave more decisively).

In the demographic voting model and taking a figure of say 80%:20% for atheists splitting between left and right, I suspect this is a grouping where individuals have even less variability in their actual voting patterns. Some of that 20% will be Ayn Rand style atheists who are very committed to a right-wing viewpoint, rather than representing a 20% chance that a given atheist would vote Republican. However, that is not neccesarily true of other groups where the percentage may more closely represent a degree of individual variability.

 

I’ve Found My New Favourite

I returned to Voxopedia to see if it had been transformed into a temple to Englebert Humperdinck and found something even better: some maths crackpottery! I love this kind of stuff because it requires so much more investment of time and brain power to come up with stuff. There’s not been a good example of it at Voxopedia since the Pi=4 guy stormed off.

Let me introduce you to Bibhorr, who appears on his own Voxopedia page in aviator sunglasses in a rockstar pose: https://infogalactic.com/info/Bibhorr Said person is the inventor of the “Bibhorr formula” which also gets its own page: https://infogalactic.com/info/Bibhorr_formula  [Archive version]

That page tells us that:

“Bibhorr Formula, universally known as King of equations, is a new mathematical equation invented by an Indian aerospace engineer. Bibhorr. The formula is a part of a set of three formulas first disclosed by Bibhorr in his research treatise. The formula that has evolved into a mathematical branch is considered as the foundation of ultra-modern science. It is an alternative to the traditional trigonometry, as it forms a relation between the all four elements of a right triangle.”

And the page then provides a breakdown of the terms in this formula. What it says (using conventional Western nomenclature) is that for a right angle triangle with sides of length a,b & c (where c is the hypotenuse and a & b are shorter sides) that the size of angle ∠A opposite to side a can be found using this formula:

Angle ∠A = 90 × [(c + a − b)^2 ] ÷ [a^2 + 1.5c × (c + a − b)]

You can ignore the 90 for the moment, what the rest of the expression forms is a fraction that use the lengths of the triangle to determine what proportion of a turn Angle A is. Swap out the 90 for pi/2 and you get the answer in radians. Plug in the lengths of an arbitary 45° right-angle triangle and the formula will spit out 45° because the main chunk of the formula comes to half. Which is neat. In fact you’ll get a decent match for any right angle triangle.

“Decent” but not correct. For example a 30°, 60°, 90° triangle does not give the correct values. This is a handy test case because the angles are simple fractions of 90 (1/3 and 2/3). Instead of a third, the formula gives a decimal approximation to a third that’s 0.001 and a bit out. Now that’s not bad for some purposes and it tells us what this formula actually is a species of: a trignometric approximation formula.

Trigonmetric approximation formulas are themselves fascinating and have been around for a long time. Obviously their importance has lessened as it has become easier to access accurate values for sine, cosine and tangent via printed tables and these days electronically. A particulalry notable one is Bhaskara’s sine approximation formula https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhaskara_I%27s_sine_approximation_formula which is well over a thousand years old.

As a curiosity this formula is interesting. If it is genuinely novel, then that’s quite clever. However, it is only that: an interesting approximation formula which these days is actually more effort than using trig functions. Wayyyy back, the original scripting language for Macromedia Flash didn’t have trig functions and I remember having to look for trig approximation formulas back then.

So the crackpottery really derives from the associated claims about the formula i.e. that it REPLACES the trigonemetric functions rather than approximates them. The page goes onto claim that:

“Bibhorr formula also finds its application in the following areas:

  • Astrophysics: For finding inter galactic distances.
  • Aerodynamics: For finding various angles of attack of an aircraft.
  • Navigation: In finding real time locations of vehicles.
  • Geography: In calculating distances between far located geographical locations.
  • Robotics: In studying robotic arm movements.
  • Civil Engineering: In the study of various architectures.
  • Teleportation and Quantum Physics: In micro-level invisible particle patterns.”

The “King of Equations” had a short life on the actual Wikipedia where it was summarily deleted for obvious reasons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Bibhorr_formula

The question is what will the benighted souls at Voxopedia do?

Reading Bad Science So You Don’t Have To

Yesterday I made a mistake. I was aware of a kerfuffle around the publication in the notable open journal PLOS One of an article on the dubious notion of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria”. The mistake was not listening sufficiently when lots of people said the article was very, very bad and thinking “Yeah, but how bad could it be if it was published somewhere non-obscure?” A pernicious thought that I’m very glad I didn’t express out loud because then I went and read the article…

There’s a bad, bad mental habit of discounting objections to arguments that you haven’t paid attention to when those arguments come from people you perceive as being in some way partisan on an issue, even if you yourself are partisan on the issue. It is the insidious sibling of false balance and ‘both sides’ that assumes that criticism from ‘your’ side must be at least a bit exaggerated. So I’m starting with a mea-culpa: it wasn’t that I didn’t believe the critics of the article, just that I assumed they must be exaggerating its badness at least a little. It’s a bias of arrogance that assumes that because somebody feels passionate about something that their statements aren’t wholly reliable (arrogance because it’s not a rule you then apply to yourself).

Anyway, enough beating myself up. Some background.

The rights of transgender people have become an increasingly virulent political battlefield following a pattern that we’ve seen many times before: a group of people who have been systematically marginalised ask for what is little more than basic human dignity only to be met with a counter-reaction that is deeply confronting. The pushback from the Christian Right and the Alt-Right is one thing but the vehement reaction from some people in the centre and the left can also be terrible.

Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” is a concept that has been floating around various anti-transgender rights groupings on the internet. It is essentially a pseudo-scientific term in the sense that it takes a basic (and false) claim and dresses it up in quasi-scientific terms. The claim is that many teenagers are claiming to have gender dysphoria because it is trendy or because of peer pressure. The concept has rested mainly on increased visibility of transgender people in society and structurally is no different than similar claims made about people being gay or lesbian. As social stigma is reduced and as people find more open social support, more people will be public about core aspects of themselves. (see also this link https://medium.com/@juliaserano/everything-you-need-to-know-about-rapid-onset-gender-dysphoria-1940b8afdeba )

However, there are people who are keen for “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” to be a thing, that is somehow a “real” medical condition that should be recognised as a false-positive when a young person claims to be transgender. Essentially it is a way of trying to medicalise the argument that “it is just a phase”.

Into this space has come a paper published in the journal PLOS One entitled “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports” by Lisa Littman. It is currently available here https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0202330 and it really is a very bad study.

There is a whole series of posts starting here that pull the study to bits in various ways that are worth reading and in particular this post: https://genderanalysis.net/2018/08/meet-the-unbiased-reliable-not-at-all-transphobic-parents-from-the-rapid-onset-gender-dysphoria-study/ gets to the heart of what is so very wrong with the paper.

The paper claims to be a kind of exploratory study of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” as a hypothesis and uses a report from parents to suggest that such a phenomenon exists as an actual condition. The paper then speculates on causes and recommends some actions by medical practitioners. However, the paper is not just methodologically flawed, it is actually an unwitting study of something else altogether.

The study involved posting a questionnaire on several parent websites but those websites were websites were “rapid onset gender dysphoria” was already being discussed and which included activism around the concept. The survey posted itself included leading question such as:

“How many of your children have experienced a sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria, which began after puberty?”

In the survey instrument that is the first question after the basic demographic questions. Put another way, the study assumed the existence of the phenomenon and then surveyed people likely to also believe in the existence of the phenomenon and then reported positive results as confirmation that the phenomenon existed.

Put another way, it would be like surveying people on an internet forum where people discussed and shared studies of UFO sightings, asked them “How many UFOs have you seen?” and then credulously used the number of positive reports as a lead into to discuss whether the UFOs were from Mars or another galaxy. Too silly an example? Perhaps, but here is a different analogy. The study is very like surveying internet forums known for GamerGate activism and asking them “How many cases of bad ethics have you seen in games journalism?” and then concluding that the volume of responses showed something meaningful about how reviews of video games function.

Essentially it is a very complex form of question-begging.

There are some formal ways that the paper adopts valid methods. There is a survey and the responses were collected and (I assume) tabulated correctly. It’s not necessarily invalid to collect data from parents to possibly identify a medical condition in their children. However, the basic structure of what was done fundamentally changes the meaning of all the results from what was intended.

To salvage the work done and turn the data into something meaningful would require recognising that it answers no medical questions at all. Instead, what has been done is a survey into *beliefs* and specifically beliefs among a community of people i.e. the study is sociological and the topic is “really” how a pseudoscientific idea becomes entrenched in some internet communities. Ironically, the study focuses on concepts such as “social contagion” and yet somehow misses that the study itself reveals how ideas spread due to peer pressure and apparent topicality.

What lessons are there to be learned? Well for me I should have not wasted my time reading a paper that everybody had already told me was bad. It was bad, bad not just interestingly flawed or mistaken.