A Philosopher's Blog

Science & Self-Identity

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2014
English: The smallpox vaccine diluent in a syr...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to impose on another’s belief, who has already imposed on his own? Who can reasonably expect arguments and conviction from him in dealing with others, whose understanding is not accustomed to them in his dealing with himself? Who does violence to his own faculties, tyrannizes over his own mind, and usurps the prerogative that belongs to truth alone, which is to command assent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it.

-John Locke

As a philosophy professor who focuses on the practical value of philosophical thinking, one of my main objectives is to train students to be effective critical thinkers. While true critical thinking has been, ironically, threatened by the fact that it has become something of a fad, I stick with a very straightforward and practical view of the subject. As I see it, critical thinking is the rational process of determining whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected or false or subject to the suspension of judgment. Roughly put, a critical thinker operates on the principle that the belief in a claim should be proportional to the evidence for it, rather than in proportion to our interests or feelings. In this I follow John Locke’s view: “Whatsoever credit or authority we give to any proposition more than it receives from the principles and proofs it supports itself upon, is owing to our inclinations that way, and is so far a derogation from the love of truth as such: which, as it can receive no evidence from our passions or interests, so it should receive no tincture from them.” Unfortunately, people often fail to follow this principle and do so in matters of considerable importance, such as climate change and vaccinations. To be specific, people reject proofs and evidence in favor of interests and passions.

Despite the fact that the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, there are still people who deny climate change. These people are typically conservatives—although there is nothing about conservatism itself that requires denying climate change.

While rejecting the scientific evidence for climate change can be regarded as irrational, it is easy enough to attribute a rational motive behind this view. After all, there are people who have an economic interest in denying climate change or, at least, preventing action from being taken that they regard as contrary to their interests (such as implementing the cap and trade system on carbon originally proposed by conservative thinkers). This interest would provide a motive to lie (that is, make claims that one knows are not true) as well as a psychological impetus to sincerely hold to a false belief. As such, I can easily make sense of climate change denial in the face of overwhelming evidence: big money is on the line. However, the denial less rational for the majority of climate change deniers—after all, they are not owners of companies in the fossil fuel business. However, they could still be motivated by a financial stake—after all, addressing climate change could cost them more in terms of their energy bills. Of course, not addressing climate change could cost them much more.

In any case, I get climate denial in that I have a sensible narrative as to why people reject the science on the basis of interest. However, I have been rather more confused by people who deny the science regarding vaccines.

While vaccines are not entirely risk free, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that they are safe and very effective. Scientists have a good understanding of how they work and there is extensive empirical evidence of their positive impact—specifically the massive reduction in cases of diseases such as polio and measles. Oddly enough, there is significant number of Americans who willfully deny the science of vaccination. What is most unusual is that these people tend to be college educated. They are also predominantly political liberals, thus showing that science denial is bi-partisan. It is fascinating, but also horrifying, to see someone walk through the process of denial—as shown in a segment on the Daily Show. This process is rather complete: evidence is rejected, experts are dismissed and so on—it is as if the person’s mind switched into a Bizzaro version of critical thinking (“kritikal tincing” perhaps). This is in marked contrast with the process of rational disagreement in which the methodology of critical thinking is used in defense of an opposing viewpoint. Being a philosopher, I value rational disagreement and I am careful to give opposing views their due. However, the use of fallacious methods and outright rejection of rational methods of reasoning is not acceptable.

As noted above, climate change denial makes a degree of sense—behind the denial is a clear economic interest. However, vaccine science denial seems to lack that motive. While I could be wrong about this, there does not seem to be any economic interest that would benefit from this denial—except, perhaps, the doctors and hospitals that will be treating the outbreaks of preventable diseases. However, doctors and hospitals obviously encourage vaccination. As such, an alternative explanation is needed.

Recent research does provide some insight into the matter and this research is consistent with Locke’s view that people are influenced by both interests and passions. In this case, the motivating passion seems to be a person’s commitment to her concept of self. The idea is that when a person’s self-concept or self-identity is threatened by facts, the person will reject the facts in favor of her self-identity.  In the case of the vaccine science deniers, the belief that vaccines are harmful has somehow become part of their self-identity. Or so goes the theory as to why these deniers reject the evidence.

To be effective, this rejection must be more than simply asserting the facts are wrong. After all, the person is aiming to deceive herself to maintain her self-identity. As such, the person must create an entire narrative which makes their rejection seem sensible and believable to them. A denier must, as Pascal said in regards to his famous wager, make himself believe his denial. In the case of matters of science, a person needs to reject not just the claims made by scientists but also the method by which the scientists support the claims. Roughly put, the narrative of denial must be a complete story that protects itself from criticism. This is, obviously enough, different from a person who denies a claim on the basis of evidence—since there is rational support for the denial, there is no need to create a justifying narrative.

This, I would say, is one of the major dangers of this sort of denial—not the denial of established facts, but the explicit rejection of the methodology that is used to assess facts. While people often excel at compartmentalization, this strategy runs the risk of corrupting the person’s thinking across the board.

As noted above, as a philosopher one of my main tasks is to train people to think critically and rationally. While I would like to believe that everyone can be taught to be an effective and rational thinker, I know that people are far more swayed by rhetoric and (ironically) fallacious reasoning then they are swayed by good logic. As such, there might be little hope that people can be “cured” of their rejection of science and reasoning. Aristotle took this view—while noting that some can be convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” most people cannot. He advocated the use of coercive habituation to get people to behave properly and this could (and has) been employed to correct incorrect beliefs. However, such a method is agnostic in regards to the truth—people can be coerced into accepting the false as well as the true.

Interestingly enough, a study by Brendan Nyhan shows that reason and persuasion both fail when employed in attempts to change false beliefs that are critical to a person’s self-identity. In the case of Nyhan’s study, there were various attempts to change the beliefs of vaccine science deniers using reason (facts and science) and also various methods of rhetoric/persuasions (appeals to emotions and anecdotes). Since reason and persuasion are the two main ways to convince people, this is certainly a problem.

The study and other research did indicate an avenue that might work. Assuming that it is the threat to a person’s self-concept that triggers the rejection mechanism, the solution is to approach a person in a way that does not trigger this response. To use an analogy, it is like trying to conduct a transplant without triggering the body’s immune system to reject the transplanted organ.

One obvious problem is that once a person has taken a false belief as part of his self-concept, it is rather difficult to get him to regard any attempt to change his mind as anything other than a threat. Addressing this might require changing the person’s self-concept or finding a specific strategy for addressing that belief that is somehow not seen as a threat. Once that is done, the second stage—that of actually addressing the false belief, can begin.


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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 19, 2014
Fox News Channel

Fox News Channel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Daily Show With John Stewart has, obviously enough, a Fox New fixation. Or foxation, if you prefer. One of the common segments involves showing the inconsistency of the fine folks at Fox by juxtaposing segments. For example, when discussing the $4 billion in federal largess for oil companies, the Fox view was that $4 billion is a drop in the bucket. However, when discussing the $3 billion for food stamps, the same Fox fellow suddenly regarded $3 billion as a huge amount of money. Since 4 is greater than 3, this seems to be an inconsistency. Or perhaps it is a Foxconsistency.  As another example, the folks at Fox routinely rail against Obama being a tyrant, a king and a dictator. The same folks then claim he is weak and engage in a rather bizarre tyrant-crush over Putin-a person who actually does the things that they claim to hate about Obama. That is, being a tyrant and a dictator. As a third example, when the fine Fox folks were discussing the wealthy, they regarded a $250,000 income as seemingly barely enough to get by on. However, when going after the “fat cat” teachers, their pay (about $70,000) was seen as exorbitant. I could go on with example–but I would suggest watching the Daily Show clips laying out example after example of Foxconsistency.

After seeing a multitude of clips like this, I had a small revelation in regards to my dislike of Fox. While I tend to disagree with their political views (which seem to boil down to “rich=good” and “poor=bad”), one of my main issues is with their inconsistency. That is, they do not hold to a consistent set of standards and principles when assessing matters. As in the example given above, $4 billion in largess to oil companies is a tiny thing, but $3 billion in food stamps is massive. However, whether a sum is large or small should be largely a matter of the size of the numbers. Naturally, it does make sense to regard something as costing too much-but the point made by the fine Fox fellow was that the $3 billion was a huge amount. It was not that the food stamps were more expensive relative to a modestly priced largess for the oil companies.

This Foxconsistency serves to rob Fox of a rational foundation for assessment. That is, they are not consistently applying a set of standards and principles and justly finding things to be good or bad. Rather, they judge something to be good or bad and shift their standards and principles as needed to fit that judgement. So, for example, in Foxconsitency a CEO who is making millions earns that money because people deserve to get paid what they are worth…while a minimum wage worker should not be paid what she is worth because it would be bad for business.  However, as suggested above, Fox does seem to have at least a few core principles. One of these seems to be that the rich are good and the poor are bad.

One rather obvious reply is to throw out a red herring or an appeal to common practice by claiming that the liberals or MSNBC folks do the same thing. Or that everyone is inconsistent. While this might be true, it is also irrelevant to the issue at hand. Another obvious reply is to engage in various ad hominems against me. This would, obviously, not provide a rational or effective response to the point made here. What would needed would be a clear argument that Fox operates on consistent principles and that the multitude of clips showing such Foxconsistency are in error.

I realized that I haven’t tossed out any red meat for a while-hence this post.

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Smokescreens & Sebelius

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 9, 2013
Official portrait of United States Health and ...

Official portrait of United States Health and Human Services Secretary . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On October 7, 2013 Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was the guest on the Daily Show. Given that Jon Stewart is often regarded as a liberal mouthpiece, most folks probably expected that this would be a mutual admiration sort of interview. However, things certainly turned out rather differently as Stewart did what “real” journalists rarely do: he raised an important concern and refused to allow the person to shift the issue.

The question raised was one that certainly should be answered, namely the question of why large businesses were granted a delay in their implementation of Obamacare while individuals did not receive the same delay. While there should certainly be a fair and rational answer to this question, Sebelius went into verbal acrobatics to avoid answering it. This tactic is known as the smokescreen/red herring in philosophy:

A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic.  A common variation on this is the smokescreen: it functions like a red herring, but the attempt at diversion involves piling on complexities on the original issue until it is lost in the verbal smoke. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Topic A is under discussion.

2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).

3. Topic A is abandoned.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.

In the case of Sebelius, her attempts to switch to other issues and to pile on other matters did not answer Stewart’s reasonable question. In general, people use this tactic in response to a question when they either 1) have no answer to the question or 2) have a problematic or bad answer to the question. In the case of Sebelius, I would suspect that the second option holds: she almost certainly has an answer, but it almost certainly is not a good one.

Stewart seems to have drawn this sort of conclusion regarding Sebelius’ maneuvering:

“I still don’t understand why individuals have to sign up and businesses don’t, because if the businesses — if she’s saying, ‘well, they get a delay because that doesn’t matter anyway because they already give health care,’ then you think to yourself, ‘fuck it, then why do they have to sign up at all. And then I think to myself, ‘well, maybe she’s just lying to me.’”

In terms of why this question matters, one obvious point of concern is the matter of fairness. If large businesses get a year delay, then fairness would seem to require that the same courtesy be extended to individuals.

It might be countered that there is a relevant difference between large businesses and individuals that warrants the difference in treatment. If so, Sebelius should have simply presented this difference or differences and that would have quickly settled the matter. For example, it might be the case that a large business would need more time to implement the change on such a large scale, while an individual just has to implement it for herself. But, Sebelius provided no such relevant difference and spent her time trying throw out red herrings and blow smoke. This suggests that she was either ignorant of a relevant difference or was aware that the difference did not actually justify the difference in treatment. That is, there is no legitimate relevant difference.  Given her position, the explanation based on her ignorance seems unlikely, so the reasonable conclusion is that she knew the answer, but believes that it would make things look worse than engaging in evasion. Of course, it is also possible that such evasion are just a matter of how politicians operate—like the famous scorpion being carried across the river, they cannot deviate from their nature. In any case, Sebelius’ behavior creates the impression that something is wrong here and creating this impression is, I am sure, not what she intended in her interview.

Interestingly, while this difference between businesses and individuals is a legitimate point of criticism, the Republicans seem to have little interest in engaging Obamacare in depth on points where it actually generates legitimate concerns. While the Republicans have noted that they want to defund or delay Obamacare, they seem to be unable to avoid hyperbole and other excesses of defective rhetoric. I suspect that this occurs for a variety of reasons. One possibility is that they are also like that scorpion: they simply cannot bring themselves to engage the matter of Obamacare in a rational way—instead, they have to sting away with crazy rhetoric and a government shutdown. Another possibility is that they believe that engaging in the actual issues will be bad for them in some manner. A third possibility, which is more specific than the second,  is that they believe that their target audience is best played to by such rhetoric and behavior and that they would be ill served politically by engaging on actual issues in a rational manner. As a final possibility, they might not actually care about Obamacare as such—rather, they are simply out to oppose Obama and Obamacare happens to be the point of contention. To use an analogy, they are like Meletus in the Apology—they are not concerned with what they claim to be concerned about, they are just out to get their man.

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Virginia’s Ultrasound Law

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on February 24, 2012
English: The state seal of Virginia. Српски / ...

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The Virginia state legislature is on track to pass a law requiring women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before being permitted to have an abortion. As might be imagined, there is considerable opposition to this law. Some critics have  even argued that forcing women to undergo an invasive procedure could actually be a sex crime under Virginia law. As might be imagined, this matter raises numerous moral concerns.

One point of concern is that, as presented in comedic fashion on the 2/21/2012 Daily Show, some of the folks supporting the bill seem to be directly violating their own professed principles regarding the appropriate role of the state. For example, the woman who put forth the bill previously argued against “Obamacare” on the grounds that the state should not make such an imposition on liberty. As another example, the governor of the state was critical of the TSA “pat downs” as being too invasive. He has, however, expressed his intent to sign the bill into law.

As might be imagined, forcing women to undergo such an invasive procedure seems to be rather inconsistent with the past arguments by these folks regarding individual liberty and the appropriate role of the state. After all, if it is unacceptable for the state to force people to buy health insurance because it violates their liberty, forcing a woman to undergo penetration against her will seems to be even more unacceptable.

Naturally, I am not claiming that these people are wrong now because their current view seems to be inconsistent with their past views. After all, doing this would be a fallacy (ad hominem tu quoque). However, it is fair to simply take the reasons they presented against forcing people to buy health insurance and apply them to their own view on the forced ultrasounds. As such, if they were right then, then they would seem to be rather wrong now. Naturally, people tend to not be very big on consistency-as Mill noted in his discussion of liberty, people generally take the view that the state should do what they want and do not base this on a consistent principle regarding what is fit and unfit for the state to do (or not do).

The most important point of concern is, obviously enough, whether or not it is right for the state to mandate such a procedure. While, as noted above, proponents of this bill seem to have railed against state imposition in other matters,I will accept that  there are cases in which the state can justly impose. The question then is whether or not this is such a case.

The most common basis for justifying state imposition is the prevention of harm. To use an obvious example, the state justly forbids people from stealing. In the case of the ultrasound, the assumption seems to be that this law will help reduce the number of abortions and this will, as some folks see it, combat a harm. However, the evidence seems to be that this will not be the case. Dr. Jen Gunter has a rather thoughtful analysis of this matter that addresses this point. As she notes, sex education,access to medical care and  contraception have the greatest impact on reducing abortion rates. These are, oddly enough, often opposed by the same folks who are vehemently opposed to abortion. As such, the law makes no sense as an abortion reducer even if it is assumed that the state has the right to make impositions with the goal of reducing abortions. In light of this, it would seem clear that the law is morally unjustified.

Even if the law would, contrary to fact, reduce the number of abortions, there is still the question of whether or not the state has the right to make such an imposition. After all, there are appealing arguments for individual liberty and keeping the government out of peoples’ business-often made by the very same people who back this particular intrusion into liberty (as noted above). My general principle is that the burden of proof rests on those who would make such impositions into law. That is, they have to provide a sufficient reason to warrant impinging on personal liberty and choice. As its stands, the proponents of this law have not made such a case. After all, it will not even achieve its apparent goal of reducing the number of abortions. There are also no legitimate medical reasons for making such an imposition and, as such, it seems to be an unwarranted and  needless attempt to legalize the violation of the rights and bodies of women.







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Grumbling About Advertising

Posted in Business, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 18, 2011
NYC: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Image by wallyg via Flickr

As I’ve aged (like a fine wine, of course), I have found that I have started picking up some of the stereotypical behavior of old folks, such as running slower and napping more. I have also found that I find more things annoying. I used to infer that was because there are, in fact, more annoying things. However, I am willing to consider that I am suffering from the same syndrome that causes folks to yell “get off my lawn, you damn kids.”

One thing that has triggered my inner grump is advertising. Almost no one likes it, but I have found certain things especially annoying. One is something almost everyone finds aggravating: when commercials jack up the volume. I’ve noticed this most when watching stuff online, such as the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. I’ll barely be able to hear Jon Stewart’s witty liberalisms when suddenly I will be deafened by the roar of someone pitching Rogaine or some new smart phone. Another is that such inserted ads often seem to screw up the show’s playback. For example, an ad for a car might take over and run another Flash app, then miserably fail to hand control back to the episode I am trying to watch. This, as one might imagine, hardly inspires me to buy the product that has just annoyed me.

One type of ad is one that I find more odd than annoying. It is the ad within the ad. For example, I noticed that some previews (which are just ads) for games will require me to watch the preview for another game before I can watch that preview. In some cases, Game A’s preview will have an ad for game B, while B’s preview will have an ad for game B. Maybe the ad business is so bad that even advertisers have to sell ad space in their ads. I suspect this might lead to some sort of infinite regress of advertising in which for each ad n you must watch another ad, n+1, before you can see n.

My overall view is that I recognize that advertising is how I am able to get all kinds of stuff, like TV shows, for “free”: in return for being exposed to the ads, I get something I want. The advertisers sell stuff and the folks who sell advertising time/space get money. So, everyone sort of wins. Of course, the whole point of advertising is to make the consumer want to buy products. However, these sorts of advertising approaches/problems make me less likely to buy since they make me feel annoyance. So, advertisers, be less annoying.

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Spotting Psychopaths

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2011
Character Rick Deckard has a hard time resisti...

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Seeing Jon Ronson’s interview on The Daily Show got me thinking about psychopaths. I did not buy his book, so I will not comment on it. Rather, I’ll say a bit about spotting psychopaths from a philosophical perspective.

First, a bit about psychopaths. According to the standard view, a psychopath has a deficit (or deviance) in regards to interpersonal relationships, emotions, and self control.

In terms of specific qualities  psychopaths lack, these include shame, guilt, remorse and empathy. These qualities tend to lead  psychopaths to rationalize, deny, or shift the blame for the harm done to others. Because of a lack of empathy, psychopaths are prone to act in ways that are tactless, lacking in sensitivity, and express contempt for others.

Psychopaths are supposed to behave in ways that are impulsive and irresponsible. This might be because they are taken to fail to properly grasp the potential consequences of their actions. This seems to be a  general defect in that it applies to the consequences for others as well as for themselves This reduced ability to properly assess the risks of being doubted, caught, or punished no doubt has a significant impact on their behavior (and their chances of being exposed).

Robert Hare, who developed the famous Hare Psychopathy Checklist, regards psychopaths as  predators that prey on  their own species: “lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.”

Given these behavior traits, it might be wondered how psychopaths are able to avoid detection long enough to actually engage in such behavior. After all, people tend to be on guard against such treatment.The answer is easy enough. First, psychopaths often seem charming. Since they seem to tend to lack a commitment to truth, they are willing and able to say whatever they believe will achieve their goals. Second, they are often adept at using intimidation and manipulation to get what they want. Third, they are often skilled mimics and are able to pass themselves off as normal people.

It is estimated that 1% of the general population is made up of psychopaths. The prison populations are supposed to contain a larger percentage (which would hardly be surprising) and the corporate world is supposed to have an above normal percentage of psychopaths. However, these numbers are not solidly established.

One obvious problem facing anyone attempting to determine the number of psychopaths is that they will tend to do their best to hide their true nature. After all, the intelligent psychopaths will generally get that they are not like other people and that normal people will tend to react negatively to them. The same holds true in attempts to determine whether or not a specific person is a psychopath or not. In many ways, the psychopath is like Glaucon’s unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story: he is a person who wants to do what he wants without regard to others, but needs to avoid being recognized for what he is.

As noted above, psychopaths are characterized as possessing traits that would tend to result in their exposure. As noted above, psychopaths are characterized by having poor impulse control, having difficulty with behaving responsibly, and a poor capacity for assessing consequences. Their deficiency in regard to empathy also probably  makes it more difficult for them to blend in properly.These could be called “exposure traits” in that they tend to expose the psychopath to others.

One rather interesting point to consider is whether or not these exposure traits are actually traits that are essential components of being a psychopath. After all, they might merely be traits possessed by the psychopaths that have been exposed. To advance this discussion, I will head into the territory of science fiction.

In science fiction, one interesting problem is the thing problem. This problem gets its name from Carpenter’s classic horror film The Thing (which is based on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell). The thing is an inimical alien that can almost flawlessly imitate any living thing it has consumed. In the case of the movie, the humans had to sort out who was a human and who was a thing. In the case of psychopaths, the challenge is to distinguish between normal humans and psychopaths. In the movie, a test is devised: each part of a thing is its own creature and will try to survive, even if that means exposure. So, sticking a hot wire into a blood (or thing juice) sample will reveal whether the person is human or thing: if the “blood” squeals and tries to escape, the donor is a thing.

This test will, of course, expose any thing. Or, more accurately, expose any  thing that acts as expected. If a thing was, contrary to the way things are supposed to be,  able to suppress the survival response of one of its parts, it would pass the test and remain undetected. As such, any exposed thing would be a thing that could not do this, and this could lead the humans to believe that things cannot do this. At least until the things that could finished them off.

If you prefer machines or replicants to things, this situation can also be presented in terms borrowed from Phillip K. Dick’s works. In Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) there are replicants that can easily pass for humans, with one exception: they cannot pass the Voight-Kampff Test because they do not have the time to develop the responses of a normal human. The similarity of the Hare checklist is obvious. Of course, the test only works on replicants that cannot mimic humans enough to pass the test. A replicant that could give the right responses would pass as human.

Dick’s short story “Second Variety” also presented human-like machines, the claws. These machines were made for a world war and eventually broke free of human control, developing machines that could pass as humans. Unlike the replicants, the claws were always intent on killing humans-thus necessitating a means to tell them apart.  The early models were easily recognized as being non-humans. Unfortunately for the humans in the story, the only way they could tell the most advanced models  from humans was by seeing multiple claws of the same variety together. Otherwise, they easily passed as humans right up until the point they started killing.

It seems worth considering that the same might apply to psychopaths. To be specific, normal people can catch the psychopaths that are poor mimics, have poor impulse control, have difficulty with behaving responsibly, and  possess a poor capacity for assessing consequences. However, the psychopaths that are better mimics, have better impulse control, can act responsibly, and can assess consequences would be far more difficult to spot. Such psychopaths could easily pass as normal humans, much like Glaucon’s unjust man is able to conceal his true nature.  As such, perhaps the experts think that these specific traits are part of what it is to be a psychopath because these traits are possessed by the psychopaths they have caught. However, as with the more advanced claws, perhaps the most dangerous psychopaths are eluding detection. At least until it is too late.

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David Barton

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2011
The signature of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd Preside...

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If I were the envious sort, I would probably be a bit envious of David Barton. After all, I have worked reasonably hard as a serious academic and have never been featured in the New York Times, the Daily Show, or Mother Jones. However, I will endeavor to keep this non-existent envy from impacting my assessment of his work.

Barton’s main theme is that America is actually a Christian nation. While he has made the “big news” only fairly recently, he has been advancing these thesis for about twenty years.  It was not, however, until he was blessed by Gingrich, Bachmann and Huckabee that he achieved national fame. He has, as noted above, been rewarded for his efforts with considerable attention.

Academic historians (that is, professionals) have been extremely critical of his scholarship. Critics also point out that he has no academic credentials and is not a trained historian. While this does raise questions about his expertise, it is not decisive proof against him. After all, there are other paths to expertise other than the academy. As such, I am not inclined to dismiss his claims on that basis. To do so would, in fact, be to fall into a logical error. However, to be suspicious of his claims in the field  because of his lack of credentials in the field would be quite reasonable. These concerns would, of course, be settled by considering factors beyond his qualifications.

When pressed about his credentials, Barton essential makes an appeal to the originals. To be specific, he seems to be claiming that his substantial collection of first edition works of the founders provides him with a special understanding of American history that academic historians lack.

While it is tempting to dismiss his reply as a silly “I don’t have a doctorate, but I have a lot of documents”, his reply is actually worth considering. As Hume (who was a historian as well as a philosopher) noted, a key part of  empirical history involves tracing things back to the originals. If Barton’s historical documents do, in fact, contain information that is relevant to re-assessing theories about American history, then they would certainly be well worth considering. After all, this sort of thing is a legitimate method in academic history and has, in fact, been done when original documents and other evidence has been unearthed to change the received view. As such, the basic method of taking into account original documents is a legitimate method.

However, Barton goes beyond simply using original documents as a basis for historical research. He also claims that the meaning of the texts is somehow self-contained and no additional context is required for their interpretation. As such, he is highly critical of academics who do not cite the primary sources but instead make use of other sources. He also holds that the original text somehow has a plain meaning that is distorted by academic scholars.

One of the main problems with his view is that the original texts generally do not have a plain meaning that is the only obvious and plausible interpretation. While I am not an historian, I have read a significant number of original texts from the founders, primarily their political (and philosophical) writings. I have also studied original texts in my area of professional expertise, namely philosophy.

My experience has been that the original texts that are substantial in nature generally do not have a plain meaning. Rather, the texts can be interpreted in various plausible ways. This is hardly shocking, given that language is an imperfect medium for conveying the ideas of imperfect beings. However, there is no need to take my word for it. Get copies of some of the founder’s substantial documents (like the Constitution) and gather around you a diverse group of people. Then have everyone try to find the plain meaning of the document.

It is also well worth considering that the founders did not put forth a monolithic view. If you return to the original documents, you will find that they contain considerably disagreement on key points. As such, even if one could find what the founders really meant, one would find many things.

Why, then, does Barton hold to the view that there is a plain meaning that he can see and that others distort? One obvious explanation is that people naturally take their view to be the plain view. Any view that differs must then be a distortion of the correct view. This outlook is maintained and fed by accepting only evidence that supports one’s interpretation and rejecting (or re-interpreting) any evidence to the contrary.

However, as with religion, what seems plain and obvious to one person is regarded as a distortion by another. Being critical about history requires being able to take into account the fact that everyone see’s history through their own distorting lenses. While these lenses cannot be eliminated, it is possible to correct for their distortion. However, Barton’s view seems to be based on the assumption  that he sees plainly while everyone else is viewing through distorted lenses. How wonderful it must be to be unique in this manner.

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Who is to blame?

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 1, 2010
Democratic political consultant and chief Obam...
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The Daily Show had an interesting segment on the political blame game. When David Axelrod appeared on the show, his comments fired up the fine folks at Fox. To be specific, they took Axelrod as blaming the Bush administration for the problems with the MMS (and other problems).

Jon Stewart responded by playing clips from Fox, in which various fine folks blamed Clinton for many of the problems that the Bush administration faced. From a logical perspective, he was pointing out that these folks do not seem to be operating from a consistent principle of responsibility. To be specific, if Clinton could be blamed for the woes of Bush, then it would seem to follow that Bush could also be blamed for the woes that Obama is facing. Likewise, if Bush is not to blame for what Obama seemed to have inherited, then Clinton would seem to be free from blame.

Naturally, it could be argued that there are relevant differences between the situations. Perhaps Clinton created problems that blossomed during the Bush years and Bush did not create such problems for Obama. However, this seems to be contrary to the known facts.

Turning back to the main topic, the key matter here is sorting out a principle of blame. Fortunately, there has been considerable work in legal theory regarding this and it is reasonable to see if this can be re-purposed for the situation at hand.

One aspect of placing blame is tracing a causal chain. Obviously, if a person had no causal role in bringing about a situation, then she cannot be blamed for that situation. If there is a causal connection between a person and a situation, then this creates the possibility of blame.

In the law, this involves what is known as “conditio sine qua non” (“a condition without which nothing”). This is also refereed to as a “but for cause”:  this would not have happened but for that. For example, the war in Iraq would not be happening but for the invasion during the Bush administration.

One rather obvious concern is that the causal chain for a situation can extend rather far. In fact, the causal chain might very well extend beyond the chain of blame. For example, the spill in the gulf can be traced back to the inventor of the oil well (and way beyond). However, to blame the inventor for the spill would seem unreasonable.

In the law, the usual solution is to address this matter in terms of what counts as a proximate cause. The solution proposed by  H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honore is that common sense can be used to settle such concerns. To be specific, for a person to be responsible for a harm, the harm must be traceable back to the actions of that person.

By this standard, the oil leak can be traced back to the Bush administration. Of course, as the Fox folks pointed out, the causal chain can also be linked to the Clinton administration. It can also be traced back to previous administrations. However, the strength of the chain presumably diminishes as the chain is stretched out over ever greater distances.

As such, the Clinton administration does get to take some of the blame. However, the blame must be proportional to the causal role the Clinton administration actually played in bringing about the spill.

In the political blame game, it is common to present blame in an all or nothing way. For example, the blame is placed on one administration (or one president). However, blame tends to be more distributed. In the case of the oil spill, it can be traced back to policies (or lack of policy) going back over the years. Likewise, the blame can also be traced back across time and administrations.

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Males Trying to be Men

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2010

I happened to catch the segment on the Daily Show about the “mancession” and related matters. This reminded me of the various “men” movements that have sprung up over the years and how damn silly they are. But first, I will look at some serious issues.

One concern that I have written about before is that men have become the minority in higher education. Naturally, there are some academic branches that are still male dominated. However, the general college population is now predominately female. Interestingly, the feminists who were so very loud when women were the minority are now silent about the plight of men. This situation is, of course, as much a matter of concern as when women were the minority.

Another concern is the matter of economics. The unemployment rate for men is higher than for women and there are indications that women might very well out earn men soon. Economic equality is a good thing (read Mary Wollstonecraft‘s Vindication of the Rights of Women for an excellent argument) and hence we should be as worried about men as we were about women.

If arguments are wanted as to why we should be concerned about the situation that men are facing, we can simply dust off the old feminist arguments for equality and equal opportunity. Naturally, men are still doing well in many ways: men still dominate politics, business and higher education. However, it is wise to be concerned that men might be facing some of the same problems that women faced (and still do).

Now, switching to something less serious: males trying to be men.

The segment I saw on the Daily Show showed males trying to be men by going out into the woods, passing around a talking stick, and speaking about their feelings.

As I see it, joining a male group to cure one’s lack of manliness is like going to a bar to cure alcoholism. Clearly, a male who is passing around a talking stick or standing in a circle to talk about his feeling is hardly a man at all.

I am not saying that a male needs to chug beer, hoot at women, and kill wild animals with his bare hand in order to be a man. I’m just saying that participating in male groups of this sort won’t make a male into a man. In fact, they would seem to clean out any residue manliness the male might have left.

So, what is the way to be a man? There are actually many ways, despite the stereotype of there being just one way. I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

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The Future of TV

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2009
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While I’m rather fond of technology and gadgets, it is only recently that I tried Netflix streaming video on my Xbox 360. It was fairly easy to do: sign in via your Xbox Gold membership, download the Netflix app to the Xbox 360, get the code it provides, sign in to Netflix, input the code and you are ready to start streaming. While Netflix is accessed via a Gold Account, it does not actually link to that account, so if you switch your Gold account to another Xbox 360, you will need to go through the activation process once again.

On the plus side, the streaming video is part of  Netflix and does not add to the cost (as long as you have the appropriate level of membership, of course). I found that the quality was quite good-comparable to watching a DVD. Of course, my TV is not HD (yes, I bear that shame), so I could not provide a truly proper assessment of the quality. The only problems I had were with Comcast-but that is not the fault of Netflix. One the downside, the selection of movies is still somewhat limited. While there are some top tier movies, there are also many B grade flicks.

Watching movies stream over my Xbox 360 made me think about the future of cable TV. Not surprisingly, I began to wonder why anyone would pay for premium movie channels when they could get movies they want, when they want. Of course, some premium channels do offer content that is not available via services like Netflix and there are “on demand” services.

I am, of course, not going out on a limb to say that the path of the future is along the trail being cut by services like Netflix (and, of course, online TV like Hulu). In the near future, set programming schedules will be rather limited or perhaps even non-existent. True, media providers will still produce content on their own schedule, but perhaps there will be something like a “daily delivery” of content that people can view at their convenience. For example, the Daily Show might be filmed in the morning and be ready for viewing anytime after noon.

It also seems likely that the convergence of computers and TV will continue. While there have been various lame and failed attempts to merge the two in the past, the technology is clearly much better now. In fact, as I type this, I am watching V on my PC.

The web and the rise of ereaders like the Kindle show that even the printed media is blending even more into the realm of computers. Even radio is being streamed over the net, thus it seems that all forms of media are converging.

On the positive side, having the web, TV, radio and all sorts of media blended together into one super media does make it more convenient to get that media fix. Also, it might save consumers some money-rather than having to buy multiple devices and have numerous types of subscriptions, people might just need one main device and one subscription (or perhaps a variety will still be the order of the day).

On the negative side, media convergence can lead to monopolies and provide an even more reduced pool in regards to diversity of opinion. After all, one concern about the media today is that a few major companies own almost all the forms of media. Such convergence would put even more control into the hands of a even more limited number of people.

Of course, it could be argued that such convergence will allow for greater diversity. After all, almost everyone has access to the web and can thus be content creators. This convergence would allow (in theory) anyone to provide content and thus there would be an expansion rather than a contraction. Of course, this assumes that those in control of providing access will allow such diversity of content. On one hand, they have much to gain for allowing such content. After all, YouTube thrives (but seems to have yet make any money) on the basis of such user created content. On the other hand, companies often desire to control content and set limitations. After all, there has been considerable dispute over net neutrality in recent years.

Of course, normal TV will continue for quite some time. There are still many people who are just fine with it and, of course, there is the weight of inertia to overcome. But, the future, as always, brings change.

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