On January 6, 2021, a mob of frenzied insurrectionists, fueled by the lies of Donald J. Trump and his allies in the Republican Party, stormed the U.S. Capitol building. Their aim, it has become clear, was to overturn the outcome of a free and open election by force of violence.
Most of us are still processing what happened. It’s going to take a while—certainly months, quite possibly years. But the path forward, whatever shape it ultimately takes, must begin with a clear and honest accounting of what is actually happening in the United States.
That reality is ugly. Among its many hideous facets: the fact that millions of Americans willing voted for a would-be autocrat, and that one of only two viable political parties in the United States—the Republican Party—has spent the last few decades displaying what can be most charitably described as an increasingly gleeful indifference to representative governance and the rule of law in the United States.
There is a danger in thinking of ourselves as political and—more precisely—partisan animals. A big chunk of our modern political derangement flows directly from incorporating ideas like “liberal” and “conservative” into our individual identities. As I write in an essay at MerionWest, this is dry kindling for the spread of partisan discord.
On either side of the political spectrum, discourse is dominated by unhinged ideologues whose voices are amplified by their reactionary opposites and an attention-hungry media that feasts on controversy. The most salient opinions are often those most thoroughly divorced from discernible reality. From pole to pole, nuance and clarity are actively derided. On the political right, a pandemic has become a hub for belligerence and conspiracy theories. On the political left, race, gender, and power have suddenly transformed into religious fetishes, and dissent has become an act of intolerable violence. The political arena is no longer a contest of ideas, but of identities.
None of this reflects a political reality anyone would esteem. And most of us—regardless of how we voted in the last election—recognize this. But because the idea of left and right, of liberal and conservative, has seeped so deeply into our brains and characterizes so much of our political discourse, many of us are left fumbling for fresh traction. There is something kooky—even dangerous—going on in the shrill fringes. It is true wherever you look. Unfortunately, our way of understanding ourselves as political animals does not leave us with a lot of options. Open dissent from political orthodoxy risks excommunication—from friends, from family, from professional affiliations.
Read more at MerionWest.
I wrote a new thing for Areo Magazine. Here are some excerpts:
Science is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon. Individual scientists are riddled with biases and blind spots. Their views are subtly influenced by their sociopolitical contexts. The scope of their thought and investigation is substantially curtailed by the limits of extant knowledge and technology, some of which might well be faulty. But science is also a structured in a way that imbues it with peculiar properties. It can produce mistakes, but, to a degree unmatched by any other discipline, it is uniquely designed to identify those mistakes. Though imperfect, science is—by a considerable margin—the most powerful knowledge-gaining mechanism humans have ever devised.
But, even with a theory like general relativity, whose predictions have been tested and confirmed countless times, scientists still don’t claim to have discovered the final, unimpeachable description of space and time. In fact, most physicists will probably tell you that, at very vast or very tiny scales, the physics of general relativity is useless, if not entirely wrong. General relativity is one of the most successful theoretical frameworks ever devised, but it is not true beyond all doubt. There’s more reason to be confident in general relativity than there is to be confident about any of the comforting assumptions we use to get through the day—my spouse loves me, my job is secure, I’ll see my family again in the evening—but, in the strictest sense, it is not true beyond doubt.
Because postmodernists reject the idea of a final arbiter, such as a universally accessible and ultimately knowable reality against which claims can be evaluated, when postmodernists ask themselves are you sure? they can never really know the answer. Postmodernism lacks an anchor point for error correction. As a result, it is fundamentally illegitimate—and ultimately pointless—as an intellectual enterprise. It is, at best, a self-perpetuating indulgence, ostensibly doing the work scientific disciplines naturally do on their own.
In repudiating the notion that truths are fixed for eternity, postmodernism denies itself the capacity to course correct. Its students may pay lip service to the crude notion that some truths are better than others. But, without recourse to something universal and knowable outside their individual and social contexts, they’ll never be able to tell which truths those are.
As always, I encourage you to read the full piece here. And take some time to explore Areo, because they publish a lot of other interesting and insightful stuff.
Everyone’s seen the headlines by now. Grabby grandpa Joe Biden is in trouble for making a growing list of women feel uncomfortable with his unhinged displays of physical affection. A few months back it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson, excoriated in the social media-sphere for getting too goddamn handsy with colleagues and coworkers.
From my understanding, none of the offending events was sufficient to land Biden or Tyson a ticket to Cosby-Weinstein Island, a place populated by vile degenerates with no place in civil society. But neither does that make all this wild touching of strangers okay.
It’s a simple fact that there is a wide spectrum of human behavior, one dimension of which is introversion-extroversion. You could probably even chart it out on something like a normal curve. The fat middle bit would be populated by regular folks who like spending time with their fellow humans but also occasionally feel beset by social obligations.
Then you have the long tails.
Here’s an essay for Areo Magazine, a very fine place to go if you like to read interesting things:
Few things in life are certain. Some will populate a short list of inevitabilities with death and taxes, but really, only the former is guaranteed—just ask the sitting president of the United States. If you have spent any amount of time on the internet, however, I’d wager a lofty sum that you’ve seen plenty of headlines of the “Why Blank Is Problematic” variety. More often than not, these aren’t essays that offer insight or clarity. Instead, they simultaneously monetize a boring fact about the world—that everyone’s conception of it is necessarily incomplete—while snidely sidestepping all efforts to understand the intent behind a given act of communication or creation and empathize with its originator.
Read more here.
Back in the days of my youth–roughly between the middle 80s and middle 90s–I would sometimes build model airplanes or spaceships. B2 bombers and Miranda Class starships fell together in sloppy assemblages of glue and shoddily applied decals. It was truly atrocious work, owing largely to the fact that I didn’t have the attention span to build things with greater care.
Star Trek: Discovery is an odd show. A common refrain is that it’s good—it’s just not Star Trek. There’s an interesting debate to be had there. One could mount a compelling case that the show both fails to honor the thematic legacy of Trek and honors the thematic legacy of Trek in new and interesting ways. Discovery’s real problem is not how well it fits into established canon. It is how indifferent—if not openly disdainful—its writers are toward their audience.
This one is hosted over at Areo Magazine. Here’s a taste:
Cultural appropriation. The term alone leaves many people primed for offense. Unfortunately, as a tool for policing behavior, the concept makes little sense. It implies that extant cultural differences are precious and worth preserving at great cost; that cultural artifacts can be owned; that the bounds of ownership break cleanly along racial lines; and that the value of minority cultures is somehow contingent upon how members of dominant cultures treat them. The first claim is clumsy and misguided—an understanding of culture reveals the latter two to be both false and pernicious. After a quick appraisal of the current sociopolitical landscape, I will explain how a scientific understanding of culture and basic human biology drains cultural appropriation of its coherence, while a sufficiently broad survey of human history renders it petty and parochial.
For more, check out Stop Stigmatizing Cultural Appropriations. And poke around a bit while you’re over there. Lots of interesting stuff at Areo.
Does this weird, anthropomorphized rodent diminish an entire culture? Would a mouse so fond of cheese rapidly develop cardiovascular problems? What would his (hers? its?) dopamine reaction curve look like anticipating cheese versus consuming it? Are misused sombreros an act of violence? So many questions. So few answers.
Much has been written about the recent hoax perpetrated against segments of postmodern academia, most of it fairly binary. People are either enthusiastic fans or strident critics. For my part, I’m in the former camp. The fields targeted by the hoax are, at best, silly and indulgent. Less generously, a case can be made that these fields are actively harmful. They not only spread, but actively reinforce, bias, confusion, and extremism.
Still, the hoax was flawed. For one, it wasn’t scientific. Though, in this regard, it’s worth remembering that the authors never claimed otherwise—in fact, they state explicitly that their project was not scientific. And, while it proves that journals within those fields will publish garbage, it doesn’t prove that garbage is all they produce.
Below, I’ll explore some of these criticisms. I’ll do so largely with an eye on the philosophical roots of the disciplines in question as compared to the sciences. Points of merit will be noted, but the primary thrust here is to illustrate how a lot of the criticism of the hoax stems from a failure to understand the fields it hit.
An impressive Sokal-style hoax came to light this week and, frankly, I could not be more pleased. The same should be true of anyone who values evidenced-based reasoning and thoughtful, honest scholarship. It took aim at the ideological fanaticism, rampant bias, and pseudo-intellectualism poisoning large swaths of the humanities. There’s an excellent and extensive write-up on this in Areo Magazine, so I won’t spend much time on an exhaustive summary. Make no mistake–it’s worth looking into, but I won’t pretend I can provide a better summary than the one provided by the original authors. Suffice it to say that several leading journals in the humanities (ones focused on culture/gender/identity studies) accepted and/or published papers with absurd or evenly deeply unethical conclusions. One even published sections of Hitler’s Mein Kampf reworked with modern feminist jargon.
Here, I’d like to explain why the hoax is a good thing. Surely people immersed in the fields exposed by the hoax as cauldrons of blind and indulgent hucksterism will cook up all manner of wild apologetics to minimize the harm done to their disciplines. Rationalizing faults and failings is a very human thing to do. Some of their criticisms will probably even have merit.
Thing is, the hoax–perpetrated by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsey, and Peter Boghossian–wasn’t about harming a grossly misguided set of intellectual traditions. It was about exposing the harm those fields are doing to academia in general and society at large. These are the vacuous progeny of schools of thought based primarily in tortured sophistry and intellectual masturbation. They are, by their very nature, incapable of contributing to human knowledge or advancing human progress. Curing diseases, expanding the scope of human rights, improving the prospects of vulnerable or marginalized groups, or even the humbdrum business of finding things out is not what these fields are about.
Religious liberals and conservative moderates often recoil in the face of hard atheism. To them, atheism represents a sort callous disdain for an inoffensive source of succor and support. Why, they wonder, are people subjected to such rancorous ridicule for believing in something that brings them comfort?
Doubtless this reaction springs from a place of authenticity. There are plenty of atheists who scorn religion wholesale and excoriate its practitioners as frail imbeciles. And there are plenty of others who take no real offense at private religiosity but opportunistically assail believers with similar barbs. Why not? It’s good fun at the expense of an easy target. A bit of lazy recreation can go a long way. It’s shooting tin cans in the desert.
Because of this confusion, it’s worth making efforts to advance a more nuanced position. Naturally, I can’t speak for the entire population of atheists. The atheist community is diverse. Some, like me, disavow religious belief because it is contrary to a worldview built around reason and evidence. Faith is a childish epistemology. It can’t be reconciled with science and careful reasoning. Others disdain religion for emotional reasons.
PC Police and Conservative Persecution Complex
A lot of conservatives are under the impression that they are a widely maligned, politically persecuted group in the United States. Read this delusional piece by professional fabulist Dennis Prager as a good for instance. If you’re partial to statistics, this might do the trick: Around 73% of Republicans think the FBI and Department of Justice are enacting partisan campaigns to undermine President Donald Trump. Remember, the people in charge of both organizations are Republicans appointed by Donald Trump. Watch any amount of Fox News or listen to any amount of conservative talk radio for similar results.
At the same time, there is a breed of intolerance blossoming on the far left. It has yet to take a shape even vaguely redolent of the sweeping anti-Republican pogrom some conservatives envision. Nevertheless, it is an unmistakable drive to build a sanctuary for a high-octane version of liberal orthodoxy. The clearest, most widely publicized front of this campaign has been college campuses. There, activist students and professors have sought to badger, ostracize, and silence the people they disagree with. But it is also visible online, where so-called social justice warriors* (better characterized as “virtue-signalers”) aim to fight white supremacy by harassing high school girls for their choice of prom dress. It’s not obvious what any of this is accomplishing, but it does lend support to the sense of persecution many conservatives share. This, in fact, might be the most salient consequence of far left social media and campus activism.
The conservative sense of persecution is largely imaginary. However, the political provincialism growing on the far left grants this sense of abuse real-world anchorage. It’s not that obvious instances of harassment and cruelty toward conservatives are particularly widespread or in any way comparable to the kinds insults faced by the truly oppressed. Rather, it’s that these instances – however frequent – represent both a sad betrayal of liberal values and an egregious tactical error. If someone is already prone to hearing voices, it’s probably not a good idea to start whispering in their ear.
A High Priest in the First Church of Anti-Liberalism
Let me tell you about a man named Dennis Prager. An extreme right-wing pundit, Dennis Prager is an idiot cloaked in a thin-veneer of intellect—a white-knuckle blowhard who has trouble telling the difference between loud voices and good arguments. But more to the point, he is also a High Priest in a new religious order: The First Church of Anti-Liberalism.
Normally, it’s considered bad form to fill an essay with ad hominem attacks, let alone start with them. And rightly so—that sort of thing rarely gets us out of the woods and into a place where we can begin to understand one another. Yet it would be perverse to ignore a history of shoddy reasoning and wild fanaticism in assessing the value someone’s work.
In that regard, Prager’s partisan hysteria and thoughtlessness is the core issue. This is a man who has made a career out of enthusiastically mistaking his feelings about how the world ought to be for facts about how the world really works. He even runs a “university” dedicated to the practice. Human as that is, it is also very foolish. Even, I dare say, idiotic. But more to the point, what makes Prager’s particular brand of proud idiocy dangerous is that his primary audience are citizens of a struggling representative democracy where massive social media companies funnel his nonsense into the laps of eager, credulous dupes.
An aide walks into a Republican Senator’s office. She has just finished a report on climate change and is giving the Senator a brief summary of her findings:
Aide: If we continue to burn fossil fuels, there’s a good chance we’ll cause significant ecological, political, and economic disruption. It could get very bad.
Senator: But it’s not 100%?
A: No. But–
S: Okay. Let’s keep burning fossil fuels. Otherwise, some people won’t make as much money on their investments and others might need to find new jobs.
A: Well, if we keep burning them the changes in our climate could be extremely difficult to cope with. Entire species could go extinct. Storms and droughts and wildfires will worsen and become more frequent. Millions of people could be displaced, in which case tens of thousands will surely die. Likely more. Sea levels could rise and inundate hundreds of billions of dollars in property and infrastructure. Maybe trillions. Conditions will be ripe for civil unrest, even war.
S: But it’s not 100%?
Here’s an old but interesting bit of news. A few months back Cormac McCarthy wrote an article for Nautilus on the nature of human language. It was a largely speculative, rangy piece, enjoyable and thought-provoking in its own way. A few months later he wrote another article addressing some of the criticisms spawned by the original.
McCarthy’s most interesting claim is also his most misguided. He argues that language is an invention of humans, rather than the cold, reductive calculus of biological evolution. This is true, insofar as we are concerned with the specific forms of language and the representational significance of individual words. It seems very unlikely, however, that it is true of the capacity for language itself.
Thanos’ motivations in Avengers: Infinity War make absolutely no fucking sense. Cast as something of benevolent maniac, Thanos wants to kill half the life in the universe to restore “balance”. Putting aside the question of whatever the fuck balance might mean, Thanos seems to be driven by the belief that overpopulation will cause more suffering for life in the cosmos than simply turning half the universe to ash with the snap of a finger. It’s a simple equation: suffering from sudden death < suffering from overpopulation.
But there are a couple of problems with this. While it is true that overpopulation can cause all sorts of problems, it rarely (if ever) directly causes extinction. In natural systems, consumer populations and resource bases fluctuate in cycles of delayed feedbacks. Continue reading
Last Friday I read an odd opinion piece about the mostly excellent TV series Westworld. The author argued that the Shogun version of Westworld due to be introduced in season 2 was inherently racist. His reasoning, more or less, is that white people might visit and get a kick out of killing robots that looked like Japanese people.
To assert that there is a special degree of moral depravity in Westworld’s Edo-period sister park simply because the hosts there are phenotypically Asian and some of the people who might visit will surely be white is, at best, a peculiar sentiment. It suggests there is something inherently wrong in a white person killing a sentient robot that looks like a Japanese person that isn’t wrong in a white person killing a sentient robot that happens to share their complexion (and vice versa). That is, killing and torturing robots that don’t look like you is somehow more unethical than killing robots that do, regardless of your motivations.