Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obama releases hastily photoshopped birth certificate

I hope nobody is buying this obvious photoshop job released by the White House. This is just a doctored version of the Kenyan long form birth certificate that was leaked in 2009:

Monday, April 11, 2011

An unconventional take on gender stereotypes and biology

A friend posted a link to Facebook that showed two word clouds, one showing words used in advertising for toys aimed at boys, the other showing words used in advertising for toys aimed at girls. I'm not actually going to post the link here, because while I think the author's point is correct, I think the post itself does nothing to support the point being made, and this is all a distraction from what I actually wanted to talk about. There's been something I've wanted to say for quite some time about gender stereotypes, gender bias, and biology; and thinking about how some toys are perceived as gender-specific finally revealed to me what I think is the right way to say what I am trying to say, without coming across as patronizing.

Is gender discrepancy in toy preference purely a societal construction, or does it have any biological roots? Well, I don't think one can assert a clear answer to this question (it's undeniable that social convention reinforces this discrepancy, even if it didn't create it, which makes it very difficult to measure). But consider the following facts: Men are on average larger and more muscular than women. Babies only come out of vaginas, and milk (generally; don't distract from the central point) only comes out of the nipples of women. Given those realities, I don't think it would be surprising if we were to discover that, independent of culture, boys were more likely to play with fighting superhero toys, and girls were more likely to play with baby dolls. I'm not asserting that as true, but I really don't think it would be surprising.

But that's only a bit of speculation about what is; it says absolutely nothing about what we ought to do about it. Worse yet, it's not even the complete picture: It's undeniable that, even with gender stereotypes being bolstered by powerful cultural reinforcement as they are today, many boys would still rather play with dolls and many girls would still rather play with superheroes. It is not fair that these individuals be short-changed or stigmatized just because they don't fit a stereotypical mold, even if that mold has a perfectly natural origin. (Edit: In re-reading this, I think I inadvertently came across as presenting somewhat of a false dichotomy, i.e. that each individual either likes "boy's" toys or they like "girl's" toys. That's bullocks, and of course equally important is that even if, say, a given boy might usually want to play with superheroes, he should ideally not feel reservations about playing with baby dolls on occasions when it strikes him to do so.) Individuals should be empowered to do what they want, to act according to individual preferences and desires. This personal liberty and autonomy is one of our most important shared human values!

The upshot of this is that if it is the case that gender stereotypes have a biological basis (and again, I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to make an assertion about this either way), then that would only intensify the importance of minimizing any cultural reinforcement of those stereotypes. It might even suggest that we ought to work towards not only elimination of that cultural reinforcement, but an outright reversal of it, i.e. a society where it's "cool" to explore the opposite gender stereotype.

There is absolutely no reason to believe natural selection should be egalitarian in regards to gender. The moderate sexual dimorphism of our species suggests evolution has not been entirely blind to gender in H. sapiens (though thankfully we are quite a bit better off in that regard than C. lectularius!), and therefore we should be prepared that there might very well be natural behavioral differences between men and women. But as organisms with a uniquely powerful ability to reason about concepts of fairness and morality, we owe it to ourselves to do better than unguided evolution in this regard. The possibility that conventional gender roles might have biological roots is not an excuse to shrug our shoulders at stereotyping and inequality: rather, it is a call to redouble our efforts in combating those pernicious effects.

Thinking about meta-ethics...

I've come to learn a lot more about meta-ethics since I wrote this fumbling post way back in August of 2009. That long ramble is still fairly close to my current thoughts, but now I know a lot more of the conventional views and terminology -- and let's face it, even though jargon can be obscure and irritating, properly used it can help clarify and focus our thoughts, by giving us a name by which to refer to a very complicated idea -- and as of late, I've been stimulated to ponder it much more deeply by four events: The discussion over Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, which I suppose I will have to read now; a series of posts from Russell Blackford about meta-ethics, partially as a follow-up to discussions with Harris; my discovery of Daniel Fincke's blog Camels with Hammers, and his unconventional take on meta-ethics; and a conversation with Bjørn Østman in which he called me out on sloppily referring to objective morality in another post without proper caveats. So my thinking is evolving.

Despite the fact that as recently as a week ago I declared that I "certainly do not" subscribe to moral error theory, I am beginning to think that on some level it is the most accurate approach to meta-ethics. Although I think it is utterly irrelevant in practice, if we want there to be (as Blackford puts it) "more metaphysical grunt" behind morality, if we want to assert that people are compelled to behave morally as opposed to just naming what is moral and what is not... if that's important to us, well, you can't have that, so in that sense if that is what most of us are trying to say when we make moral statements, then that is necessarily an error, and moral error theory must be correct.

I am not sure if in practice the lack of a true metaphysical imperative is really all that important, though. I might also describe myself as a moral realist in the sense that I think what is meant by morality is non-arbitrary, describable at least in principle, and -- here's where I got into trouble tossing around that word "objective" so flippantly -- once we have all that, I think that for many moral propositions we can confidently assign it an unambiguous truth value.

The only thing that is missing is some ghostly metaphysical demand that we "ought" to behave that way, but I don't think this is actually a problem. As a result of natural selection, virtually all of us (excepting true sociopaths and those whose meta-ethical foundations have been severely distorted by bogus ideologies and dogmas) buy into the core subjective "ought": namely that we ought to try and promote those universal values which seem to be shared among all human cultures.

The elusive metaphysical imperative is unnecessary, because we already have the necessary imperative built in; indeed, one could argue that it's a pretty fundamental part of being human.

Which is not to say that humans naturally behave morally, heavens no. But we all naturally have an inclination towards fairness, towards avoiding undue suffering, etc., and given that, our big brains are (or ought to be) able to puzzle out some more advanced moral concepts in order to support that underlying imperative.

So I am asserting: that morality is supported by a built-in imperative universal to virtually all humans; that it is non-arbitrary; and that for at least some moral statements, we can confidently state their truth or falsity in a way that firmly transcends culture. That's 99% of the way to moral realism, I think, and so I am hesitant to disclaim the label. Call it moral quasi-realism perhaps?

Now there is a parallel here to my thoughts on the Problem of Induction. In both cases I am making an assertion ("inductive reasoning is effective", "people ought to behave in a way that promotes universally shared values") which I believe to be ultimately unsupportable, but I am not too worried about it because I think these assertions are shared by pretty much everybody; and I think that the rest of what we want to get (objective reality in one case, moral truth in the other) flows naturally from that.

There is one important difference, however: In the case of inductive reasoning, while I believe the assertion is unsupportable without resorting to a defective circular argument, I also happen to believe the assertion is objectively true, no matter what humans might have to say about it. If the world blew up tomorrow, I'm pretty confident that inductive reasoning would continue to be a valid way of uncovering reality (assuming there were some other beings around to do the reasoning, but of course even if there weren't, it would still be true that it would work). Objective reality does not depend on the existence of humans or other sapient beings. I cannot prove this, nor can I really offer any evidence without resorting to circular reasoning; but I am extremely confident it is true nonetheless.

In the case of morality, however, even though I think it is non-arbitrary and that moral statements can sometimes be classed as true or false, all of that depends on humans (or sapience, or at the very least sentience). Morality is non-arbitrary only in reference to who we are, and if we didn't exist, or if what it means to be human fundamentally changed in certain key ways, those assertions would no longer stand up.

So while my belief in objective reality depends on an unsupportable assertion, I believe that assertion is objectively true. It's objective all the way to the core. In contrast, my belief in "objective" morality not only depends on an unsupportable assertion, but that assertion depends on some subjective traits of humanity. My meta-ethics has a crunchy objective shell with a chewy subjective middle. Bite into it, and I suppose I subscribe to moral error theory; but for all outward intents and purposes I am a moral realist.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Another breathless science story for the blogosphere to open a skeptical can of whup-ass on?

The BBC reports that researchers at the Tevatron particle accelerator in Illinois are claiming the possible discovery of a new high-energy particle not predicted by current formulations of the Standard Model. It's not nearly high enough energy to be the Higgs-Boson, so they are thinking it's something completely unanticipated.

Now I am not a particle physicist, but this smelled fishy to me right off the bat, even before I remembered the whole story with Tevatron. Extraordinary claims, and all that. There are surely many refinements to be made in our understanding of particle physics, and the precise energy of the expected Higgs-Boson particle is of course highly uncertain. But a completely unanticipated particle, that would be... well, highly unanticipated. These things happen, of course, but it would take a lot of convincing, and even the researchers themselves agree they have not met the required uncertainty threshold yet.

But there's more. The BBC was extremely remiss in failing to point out in the article that Tevatron is scheduled to cease operations this September, unless they somehow miraculously secure an extension of their federal funding. The reason given is that it has been "made obsolete" by the Large Hadron Collider. Oh, and lookie, the scientist they quote casting a skeptical eye on this discovery works on the LHC. Hmmmmm, are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Again, I am not a particle physicist, but it seems obvious to me that this is what's going on:

The Tevatron folks are desperate. They feel they can still do useful work (and for what it's worth I agree; see below) and yet the whole project is going to be shut down in less than six months.

Now, the folks at these particle accelerators comb through a lot of data. As a recent XKCD graphically illustrates, the more data you are going through, the higher your chances of false positives. The standard of certainty for these guys isn't p < 0.05, it's p < 0.00001 (I think I counted the right number of zeroes... 5-sigma certainty). Tony Weidberg, the guy from the LHC project, is quoted as saying, "every few years we get these three-sigma [p < 0.001] effects..." (That is the certainty level being claimed by the Tevatron researchers at present.)

So a shade over five months from Doomsday, the Tevatron data fortuitously happens to show one of these three-sigma blips. In a desperate gambit to garner public exposure for the (still very useful!) work they do, they decide to go public with it right away, with breathless claims of a possible new particle. If their plan works, there is an initial spike of popular support for the Tevatron effort, which barely diminishes when (as not reported prominently in the mainstream media) the blip turns out to be nothing. Hell, maybe they can even leverage some of the populist jingoism we are so afflicted with these days -- after all, the LHC is located on the border between France and Switzerland. We can't let those cheese-eating surrender monkeys gain the edge in particle accelerators, can we?! The hope is that they can parlay this into an extension of their funding.

And to be honest, I don't really begrudge the Tevatron researchers for this last ditch maneuver. It is true that the pace of significant discoveries from Tevatron has waned, and it's also true that the LHC is bigger and better in virtually every way. On the other hand, there is only one LHC, so having the lower-energy Tevatron operational means the world's researchers can run twice as many experiments within that energy range. The LHC could be knocked out of commission for a period, by like a catastrophic magnet failure or something -- I know it sounds far-fetched, eh? Moreover, the annual operating budget for Tevatron is $35 million. So dudes, like, take one day off from mixing it up in Iraq, and you can keep Tevatron open for eight more years. (Seriously, fucking do the math, it's that ludicrous!)

Is it ethical? Would I engage in this kind of misrepresentation in their situation? Hell, I dunno. But I sure don't blame 'em. They're getting short shrift here, and if this little PR sleight of hand buys them some more time, more power to 'em.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Thurgood Marshall on the Founding Fathers

[T]he government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and major social transformations to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the freedoms and individual rights, we hold as fundamental today.
--Thurgood Marshall

Damn, he was totally dead-on with that. Worth pondering, I think. The US Constitution, for all its successes, undeniably had some real crap in it to start with, and arguably still does. (I'm looking at you Electoral College and ambiguously-worded Second Amendment!) One can certainly admire the Founding Fathers and the document they crafted, but to insist there's some magical super awesomeness that needs protecting... that's just plain ahistorical (unless you want to scrap every single amendment past the Tenth and reinstitute slavery, I suppose...)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Cultural relativism: Mullah-ing it over

Much has been made -- appropriately, I think -- of the fact that the shameful murders of UN workers in Afghanistan was not directly in response to Terry Jones' burning of the Koran (which initially did not make that much press this time around since it was after all just some crazy fundamentalist kook holding a dumb little ill-attended show inside his church), but rather in response to Afghani president Hamid Karzai's very public announcement and condemnation of Jones' actions, and subsequent incitement by some very angry mullahs. I immediately spotted the parallel to the Danish cartoon affair, which barely made the news outside of Denmark until a couple of imams decided to tour the Mideast a year later stirring up anti-Danish sentiment (I was not the only one to make this observation, by the way).

So in both cases we have a Western nation experiencing an otherwise rather short-lived and mostly harmless free speech controversy, in which freedom of speech ultimately triumphs despite widespread condemnation of the message (which is just great; that's how liberal democracies are supposed to work) -- which was later turned into an international incident when some mullahs deliberately tried to make an issue out of it and fan the flames of violence. To me, it seemed easy to see where the blame lies: with the mullahs, not with the dumb bigot pastor or the controversial cartoonists.

That is, until I realized that unless one rejects cultural relativism (which, thankfully, I do) that argument falls apart, or at the very least undermines some other moral statements we'd very much like to make.

Take for example the problem of child witchcraft accusations in parts of Africa. Ophelia Benson's blog is a good resource to find out about this, but in a nutshell, there is a problem in certain parts of Africa where bad events are blamed on local children practicing witchcraft, and the children are then exiled or murdered in the most brutal ways. Terrible stuff.

Of course, like the Terry Jones book-burning and the Danish cartoons, locally it is not that big news. Sadly, that's not too far out of bounds for how things are done in those regions.

Perhaps this is a poor example because, shamefully, this travesty hasn't gotten much press in the West. But if we did want to do something about this, the way to do so would be to publicize what had been only a minor local issue, get people over here angry about it and motivated to do something. In other words, do exactly what the mullahs have done in regards to perceived slights against Islam in Western nations.

Don't misread me here. I am not drawing a false equivalence. I happen to think that murdering children in the name of superstition and scapegoating is not even comparable to the questionable exercise of free speech. And I happen to think I am right about that in some objective sense, not just as a matter of cultural or personal bias.

But that's just the point I am making. Without a strong statement that, in this particular case, one culture has got it right and the other one has just plain got it wrong, we cannot blame the mullahs for inciting violence. They simply drew public attention to what, in their cultural perspective, was an unacceptable event taking place elsewhere -- an event so unacceptable that they felt, just as I feel about the child witchcraft stuff, that they could not turn a blind eye to it just because it is happening halfway across the world. From their cultural perspective, burning a Koran is as bad or worse than murdering children. And so, unless we reject cultural relativism, the mullahs were perfectly justified in what they did.

As much as a sick fuck as Terry Jones is, it's baffling and enraging to me that people want to put as much blame on him as they do on the mullahs who directly incited violence, or on the angry mobs who murdered innocent UN workers in their infantile rage. But maybe it's because of cultural relativism run amok. After all, unless we flat-out reject the idea that it's okay for another culture to be as angry about their holy book being desecrated as we Westerners might be about murdered children, then we have no leg to stand on in condemning them.

We should not make the leap from a long overdue rejection of our history of cultural imperialism and an appropriate humility about our own cultural perspective and its potential flaws, into a pure ungrounded cultural relativism. There is nothing inherently superior about Westerners that ought to make our culture always superior; and when culture does not warp people's values into a twisted caricature of morality, cultural variation is part of the rich tapestry of human experience. But none of that changes the fact that there can be issues on which another culture is just flat-out objectively wrong, no ifs ands or buts.