Sunday, October 29, 2006

Taking bets

I'm taking bets on how many hours it will be before the Nigerian plane crash is blamed on the Mossad by a major newspaper or government.

I'm betting sometime Monday Morning.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Review of Weston's A Practical Companion to Ethics

You know a book is just going to suck when there is a deliberate preachy lie on page 1. Anthony Weston 's A Practical Companion to Ethics does just that.
To be prejudiced is to have strong negative feelings about someone who is of a different ethnicity or gender or age or social class (or. . . ) from yourself.
This is not what it is to be prejudiced. And it is not like anyone who has ever thought about anything does not know this. You would think that this sentence would be qualified somewhere in the text. But it isn't. To give a better definition we would want to say that to be prejudiced is to have strong negative feelings about someone of a different type than yourself merely because they are of a different type After all, I know many young blacks who harbor strong negative feelings against George Bush, Weston's definition makes them prejudiced. I don't like Hitler much. I guess that I am prejudiced. We are after all of differeing races.

The book goes downhill from there. First sentence of page two insists that our instincts tell us to be prejudiced. It must be his instincts, as they are certainly not mine. I must have been raised by non-judgemental hippies. Second sentence on page two says that ethics says not to be prejudiced. This again is wrong. Ethics says nothing. Ethics is something you do, it is not a set of dogmas. Ethics is an activity that tells you how to think about right and wrong, not what is right and wrong.

The rest of the book is just full of those type of stupid things.

Much of the book is taken up with trite suggestions like listen to other people. See what they are saying. Maybe you'll learn something. Religion does not say that homosexuality is wrong, because people can reinterpret the Bible. Mandela, Tutu, Ghandi, and Socrates are wise. Listen to them. Say "hello" to people on the street. Volunteer in a homeless shelter to get "perspective" on homelessness. If people disagree about whether euthenasia is morally legitimate, try to think outside the box. (Here's an out-of-the-box suggestion, flip a coin.) Moral exploration does not need ethics. This is obviously true because Alice Walker told a story about a horse.

The junk is piled high and deep. How Oxford let this get published is way beyond me. Any ethicist that uses this is her classroom as a guide to ethics is obviously misleading their students, and most likely incompetent.

(Oh, and since I'm on the lookout for these things, p 68 has a reference to "restorative" justice". I'm adding that to the list of justices.)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Review of Stephen Nathanson's Should We consent to be Governed

Lately I have come to think of political philosophy as the study of four questions. (I think I read this in a paper by Dudley Knowles.) (1) Are governments legitimate?; (2) What is the best form of government?; (3) Are governments constrained by the rights of their citizens?; and (4) what is the proper distribution of resources. Stephen Nathanson's book is a short introduction to political philosophy, though it really only gives us a discussion of question (1) only touching on the others. This is not a criticism, but it does show that the question that Nathanson discusses is really only one of the big questions.

Though it is one of the big questions, it is also the least important. After all, you have to be a philosopher to think that the question of the legitimacy of government is really up for grabs. It is a really interesting theoretical question, or rather the reasons are really interesting theoretical answers, but the question?. . .c'mon. In high school we were all anarchists. We hated the government, the man, and authority. But then we grew up.

Nathanson's discussion is what you have when you grow up and you try to explain to your former high school self why you sold out. We all sold out. I hope there aren't many people who were thinkers in high school, and still think now what they thought then. Nathanson's discussion however is geared to the high-schooler. Nathanson clearly does have the ability to be subtle as a philosopher, though it is not exhibited here. (Though he has one argument in the final chapter that kept me tossing and turning for hours last night, and I cannot think of a good satisfying refutation.)

Nathanson Claims that there are 4 positions we can take on whether we should be governed. (1) No. (2) Accept your government. (3) Assume your government is an instrument of repression. and (4) be a critical thinker about your government, but accept the fact that governments are legitimate.

Naturally Nathanson takes the safe route and argues for (4) and against the others. The arguments are mostly simple and straight forward. Use the standard anarchist arguments for (1) and refute them. Take Plato's Crito as an argument for (2) and refute it. Take the Leninist/Thyrsamachus argument for (3) and show how misguided it is. And finally, show how Martin Luther King had a view of (4) and how true and widely acceptable it is. So there were no surprises.

Besides for its simplicity and limited scope, I shan't critique the book. I would actually recommend it to someone if they were a precocious high-schooler and wanted to know what political philosophers talk about, and what the opening moves in a discussion of one of the major questions in political philosophy are.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Where can you go for good Science?

Give or take a little scepticism, I tend to think that humans have had a negative effect on Earth's atmosphere. I believe this not because I have examined any evidence. I have not. I am not qualified to examine the evidence. I would not know how. I hear the evidence presented by real climatologists, and I take it pretty seriously. I try my best to grasp the problems and the evidence. When I have hit my limit of understanding, I trust the scientific consensus. What more can I do? I only have so much time to figure out the issues, and frankly I don't care about them enough to put in the real work that it takes to grasp it.

This week's Nature has an article about some radical environmentalists who have taken to destroying research laboratories. It is annoying to learn that the people most concerned with the environment seem to distrust science. After all, everything they know about how bad the Earth is, is through scientific research.

But more annoyingly, I still have no idea how much Al Gore trusts science. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth is based on a lot of speculation, and contnetious scientific models. That is not to say that it is all wrong, but it is to say that you do not get any real picture from watching the movie. And Nature will certainly not have a good discussion of that. It is as if just dismissing the radical fringe, makes the normal environmentalists right, after all, Al Gore is not blowing up laboratories. He invented laboratories. But is the center presenting us with real science?

What is even worse than the enviornmental debate is the IQ debate.
A recent commentator made the following observation that will ring true to anyone who has ever tried to teach a statistical concept to a class:
Imagine you are addressing a room full of people. We can let them be quite well-educated people, so long as they are not trained statisticians. A room full of students from some university Humanities department will do nicely. Now say the following thing to the room: “Men are, on average, taller than women.” I can almost guarantee—it is nearly a dead certainty—that someone in the room will stand up and say something like: “What about Sally? She’s taller than any of us. Taller than you, for sure—Ha ha ha ha!” The room will then consider your thesis to have been decisively exploded. Men taller than women? Nonsense! Look at Sally!
Yet this es exactly the kind of science done by CNN in a recent segment on the male/female IQ discussion. (I always expected more of Sanjay Gupta. I really trusted him!) Yet the scientific research explored by the scientists being mocked in the segment is completely ignored.

IQ is another question I am pretty agnostic about. I really don't know if there are group differences in IQ, and I am pretty convinced that humans are still a really long way off from actually giving a good answer to almost any social science question. They are hard, and people who do real science will be the first to admit that.

Or will they?

I am really getting to the point where I think that it is unfair for anyone to look at a scientific or political question and appeal to experts. Experts, we know, are no less ideologically driven than anyone else. Experts do what everone else does, they brandish their opinions, but with more arrogance.

Moreover, I am not the first to realize this. The danger in my attitude is that it breeds a strong distrust for science. A strong distrust for science means that society is willing to fund science less, and people will be less likely to learn it.

Who can blame creationists for saying that biologists are just agenda-driven liberal atheists? They are. (I'll bet there is a biologist out there screaming "but look at Sally, she is a conservative Christian biologist".) Creationists don't trust science because scientists have done little to earn anyone's trust. Of course "creation scientists" or whatever they are calling themselves these days (ID proponents?) are jus as dishonest.

So where does one go for good science?

Friday, October 06, 2006


Ideas by Jewish organizations for building a positive Jewish identity among 20-somethings generally range from the assinine to the moronic. Ocassionally they are thinly veiled ways to make you join some religious group or other. Today I was reading about one that prima facie does not seem to suck. It is this. Of course those that are neither too wannabe, to kitchy, to poserlike, too religious, generally tend to be part of these hippy do-godder organizations that think that four out of five books of the bible involve saving whales, the the fifth one was where Hilary Clinton got the idea for universal healthcare. One day I ought to look at all of these more carefully. There has got to be one somewhere that normal people could live with.

Thursday, October 05, 2006