Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.
Shouldn't Harvard Believe In Educating Misbehaving Children?
Harvard’s recent decision to rescind it’s offer of admission to Kyle Kashuv really bothers me for a number of reasons. The fact that adolescent boys will egg each other on to do stupid shit shouldn’t surprise anyone. Indeed, any guy who tells you that they are sure they wouldn’t have done something equally offensive (though perhaps not online) at that age in the right circumstances (deliberately being extreme in what was foolishly assumed to be a private context) isn’t telling the truth. The admissions department at Harvard knows this and deliberately chose to put headlines over their supposed goal of educating admitted students. There isn’t any actual evidence this student is racist. Just someone who showed bad judgement like other adolescents. Harvard is willing to admit confessed violent criminals so the idea that this conduct was just too extreme is absurd.
No, he isn’t being sent to prison and his life is surely not ruined because he has to go to state school but it is a serious consequence and even if it wasn’t that just changes the extent of the damage and isn’t a justification for Harvard’s actions. Though, I’ll grant that if Harvard came back around after the controversy died down and offered to let him into the next year’s class that might make for an overall sound response. But I doubt they will do that.
Second, this further contributes to the troubling social narrative that not getting caught using bad words and otherwise signalling a certain kind of social virtue is more important than actually being good to other people. Yes, racist words can be quite hurtful but compare using the n-word in this context to making fun of a socially awkward classmate or even cheating on your significant other. If Harvard wants to condition admission on being a good person how about they start by kicking out students who were mean to their fellow classmates or their significant others. If the worst that kids do in highschool is use racist/sexist/whatever language in a context they believe won’t be seen by anyone likely to be offended that would be an infinitely better world than the one we live in now.
Third, one can reasonably infer that this past conduct surfaced as a result of Kyle’s public political positions. Using someone’s own words to counter their public arguments is certainly justified but the net effect of punishing kids for engaging in political advocacy. The exact opposite of the position that Harvard seemingly advocates. Moreover, one has to wonder if these documents would have come out (and if Harvard would have reacted as it did) if he wasn’t publicly known as the Parkland survivor with a conservative viewpoint. Moreover, the absence of any similar stories about the other contributors to that google doc having their admission to college rescinded suggests that either other schools don’t see things the same way Harvard does or raises questions of selective enforcement based on public visibility.
Fourth, it suggests that Harvard really does see it’s own admissions system as a kind of prize to be doled out for good behavior rather than a scarce resource that is allocated based on perceived benefit. If Harvard was interested in taking the best, brightest and likely future influencers and molding them for the benefit of the country this is the last thing they should do. Yes, make it clear this behavior is bad but then admit the student and mold him into a better person. Rescinding the admission just engenders bitterness and the kind of ugly emotions that led to Trump’s election.
Even after reading the counterarguments it seems clear that part of the mathematical community suppressed a mathematical [article] (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.04184.pdf) because it was ideologically inconvenient. As detailed in the quillette piece a paper accepted for publication (and actually published online) at the Mathematical Intelligencer was yanked from publication because some mathematicians felt it’s mathematical modeling of the greater male variability hypothesis might be discouraging to prospective female mathematicians and/or be picked up by conservative media.
Obviously (if the account is close to accurate) this is a horrific violation of academic norms. If there is anything that academic freedom means it’s that ideas can’t be suppressed because they might support politically inconvenient conclusions and it appears that is exactly what happened. What makes the whole situation truly absurd is that the people complaining about the paper were the ones doing the real damage to gender equality. Obviously, one unheralded paper entertaining a greater male variability hypothesis will have a lot less of a harmful effect than even the chance of a controversy over pulling it and the subsequent attention and overreactions1. Not to mention that explaining the gender imbalance via bias and harassment is far more discouraging to potential female mathematicians than invoking a biological difference in male/female variability2.
Some mathematical blogs critisize the argument in the paper (see back and forth in comments) but don’t allege it’s absurd or incoherent. A more substantial counterargument is made in the comments at ycombinator where it is suggested that a rogue editor deliberately pushed the piece through and directed changes to make it an overtly political piece supporting his own views. However, looking at the actual [article] (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.04184.pdf) reveals a piece perfectly appropriate to the Intelligencer or indeed many peer reviewed journals (perhaps excepting the relatively unspecialized nature of the content)3:. Moreover, if the editor had truly gone rogue rather than just having made a decision the board disagreed with she would have been summarily fired.
Of course, at this point it’s just one isolated incident (and new facts could always emerge to change the narrative) but it’s critical to express our disapproval now so this doesn’t become acceptable behavior. Ideally, I’d like to see some kind of resolution or statement of principles at an AMA meeting so hopefully we don’t need to move to a boycott or anything. Of course, political and ideological considerations do affect what gets published all the time but it’s critical to reinforce the norm that such considerations shouldn’t matter which makes our response in the few clear cut cases like this all the more important.
What to do about the original paper is more of a puzzle. I’m tempted to say that some other periodical should publish it merely to avoid giving even an apparent victory to the forces of censorship. However, there aren’t many equivalents to the Intelligencier and maybe it really isn’t a great model (though hopefully peer review could tell us). Also, at this point publishing the paper really would send a very different politicized message that other periodicals would be understandably reluctant to send. So other than moving quickly to the end of the journal format I don’t really know what should be done about the paper.
I do not expect many women inclined to fight through group theory and differential geometry (as well as any gender specific barriers) to be deterred because some mathematicians aired an idea about gender differences in a journal. ↩
Moreover, prospective female mathematicians have no reason to believe that conditional on being the sort of woman even considering going into math they are any less likely to be good than their male colleagues. Indeed, after conditioning they might expect to be better if it is true boys are more encouraged to enter these fields as well. ↩
Indeed, the inclusion of the appendix citing support for the greater male variability hypothesis seems necessary to insulate against criticisms that it’s perpetuating an unacademic, unsupported talking point. ↩
So my understanding (which might be wrong) is that (with a few rare exceptions) the paleontological value of fossil bones is entirely a function of their 3D shape (and perhaps a small sample of the material they are made of) and the information about where and in what conditions they are found.
Given that we now have 3D scanners shouldn’t museums and universities be selling off the originals to finance more research? Or am I missing something?
I’d add that the failure to have greater funding for new expeditions means we are constantly losing potential fossils to erosion, looters, damage etc… It’s crazy to think that the optimal overall scientific end is served by selling none of the fossils in institutional collections (even the low value ones) while knowing that there are probably high value fossils being lost because we aren’t finding them before they are damaged or that land is developed or whatever.
Also, one could simply include buy-back, borrowing or sampling clauses in any sale. Thus, at worst, when the museum wants to do later sampling it must buy back or partially compensate the current private owner putting them in a strictly better situation.
So in response to my criticism of me too someone suggested I should post about an experience I’ve had. I won’t post about a situation where I’ve done something useful to combat sexual discrimination nor extreme violations of the law since that isn’t particularly helpful in my opinion. The goal isn’t to signal moral virtue or share scary stories but, instead, to illustrate the ways in which unfair treatment can hide even in surprising places so we can excise those last remnants of sexism and discrimination.
So the story I’ll convey is about how at an academic institution I attended a friend of mine was repeatedly asked to perform administrative tasks and food provisioning tasks by an elderly professor because of her gender. Certainly, she could have raised a fuss but doing so would have caused her more grief than going along with the situation. What I think is instructive about the situation is that this reflected only the messed up priorities of one member of the faculty but despite this the fact that it was easier for all the other faculty members not to get involved meant that this was all it took.
As far as solutions go I think this illustrates the importance of not simply relying on complains or formal channels to solve these problems. Its important for people to be aware when their colleagues are imposing an unfair policy (gender based or otherwise) and say something. I also think it reveals how some people find they virtually never experience this kind of treatment and other people experience it frequently. While I don’t think it would have mattered in this case (female victims were in short supply here), I can easily imagine that a less stubborn/crotchety instigator would specifically target those individuals who seemed least likely to report/complain.
Anyway I’ve kept details vague to avoid identifying anyone but this is the kind of description I felt would be helpful as opposed to merely ‘me too’.
In the past I’ve written at length about my concern that the newly invigorated attitude that we must outlaw, or at least severely socially punish the speakers, racist/sexist/etc.. speech is a mistake. I have doubts about the efficacy of such punishments and believe that pushing racism adjacent views into a hidden underground where they fester and mutate1 creates more hate. However, the primary thrust of my concern was the usual slippery slope argument (importantly serious harms arise as soon as well-intentioned people start to fear that an epistemic mistake could land them in trouble). Unfortunately, evidence for a steep slippery plastic slope with extra soap arrived all too quickly.
Superiority of Western Culture
First we had this really stupid opinion piece that I would have guessed was written by a machine learning algorithm trained on 1980s era conservative values pieces if it had only mentioned crack (still managed a shout out to the pill for destroying our perfect 1950s society). Personally, I thought it was just as stupid this time around as I did in the late 80s and early 90s except these authors should have seen how that went and known better. However, as far as offensiveness goes it rates as a “kids these days…have no … always on their..” but somehow it has become the subject of accusations of racism and the subject of seriouscontroversy (yes, that last article is written by a friend of the original author so take its slant with a grain of salt).
True, there is no credible effort to have the author fired from her position in the law school but it has generated enough outrage for students to get up in time to picket Wax’s class as racist and its not just some hasty people with signs. At least a non-trivial segment of the Penn campus left is willing to call this piece racist, sexist or otherwise suggest it isn’t just dumb and wrong but deserving of open moral scorn.
While one might try and charitably reconstruct some argument based on the text of the oped2 what is going on is what is always going on with accusations of racism/sexism/islamophobia etc.. Rather than parsing the literal content of a piece and asserting those claims amount to racism (or providing evidence that the author was being disingenuous) people decide to call something racist if it feels like the things racists would say. In this case there is no doubt this oped has that feel. Indeed, it hits many of the points that one would expect from a racist dog-whistle: glorification of European/western culture, suggestion that something associated with whites is superior, a nostalgic comparison to the 1950s, reference to some aspect of black culture the author disapproves of (“anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks”) and even the obligatory focus on whites that have the traits you are criticizing.
The problem with taking this as grounds for accusations of racism is that it confuses being the sort of person whose strong affinity for traditionalism and reverence for long lived institutions and practices may make needed reform more difficult with actual racism. However, we are generally quite willing to let the earnest man who is such a strong believer in feminism that he frequently gives a piece of his mind to men who he views as pushing an aggressive male-centric approach on women and thereby does more to perpetuate the stereotype of women as unable to handle these situations than anyone he criticizes. This case is only different in that it is harder to imagine genuinely feeling that these old school conservative values are the secret to a better life and wanting to help minorities by sharing. Also in that often people who feel this way about morals and newfangled social innovations also feel this way about minorities but that’s just a stereotype.
Most importantly, it renders the standard for racism uselessly subjective. If it is no longer necessary to have overt animus or believe in some particular stereotype then it is insanely easy to apply the term to virtually anyone you want. Especially given that as the sphere of things that have been labeled racist expands fewer and fewer non-racists say anything in that sphere so just imagine the same dialog in 20 years about pieces supporting free speech. It would be something mostly racists talk about as a cover, anyone like me writing about it would explain that we believed in it for everyone (while detractors would point out that we kept focusing on the free speech of the racists as they don’t see it from the context in which that is the right place to make one’s stand), one could raise analogies to the contract rights arguments offered in the civil rights movement (yes its bad but the constitution…we just can’t do anything). The only thing this lacks is the subjective feel that comes from hearing lots of racists say something that sounds similar but we can’t cede to racists the power to decide what is and isn’t considered.
Also, as a practical matter this kind of use of the accusation of racism isn’t productive. The reason to use the term at all is to invoke our shared disapprobation of certain behaviors to change people’s behavior. Telling someone ‘suggesting that blacks only eat fried Chicken or look like Gorillas’ is racist usually results in an immediate change and the world is a better place but when you say that some vague thing about the gestalt I get from your article is racist doesn’t. If I were the author and was willing to sell out my views so I wouldn’t be racist how would I even know where to start?
Call these ideas out as stupid or even the kind of progress phobic thinking that perpetuates racism that’s great but its just not racism.
University of Tampa’s Impolitic Twitter Firing
Also, we have the University of Tampa firing a visiting professor for the following poorly considered and bumblinging inappropriate tweet
I dont believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.
This is obviously just a case of someone not realizing how what he said would be taken in context. When he did he apologized. That should have been the end of it.
While at first glance one might feel that this isn’t really relevant to the broader picture at the moment. However, while it wasn’t exactly an academic paper this tweet is fundamentally nothing but an expression of a political sentiment. Indeed, suppose the author really believed this was some kind of divine vengeance on Texas for voting GOP. Surely that is core political-religious speech if anything is so its hard to see how this is anything but a direct attack on the idea that Professors get to comment on current events and broader social issues without fear of being fired for controversial views (assuming they don’t bear on their academic qualifications…mathematicians probably shouldn’t say $\omega$ and $2^\omega$ have the same cardinality).
We need room for people to make mistakes! Even mistakes about what to believe on controversial issues because only when people feel they won’t lose their jobs or be shunned if they get it wrong can they allow themselves to explore the issue and reach the right conclusions.
I know its really hard in these discussions to imagine any other perspective than your own but rarely is it the case that someone just wakes up out of the blue filled with hate and the desire to see another race suffer. Sure, sometimes the reasons are just visceral (your gang is white they are black) but in most cases there is some chain of thought and emotion that made every step they took seem reasonable so if you suspect the target of your criticism of simply reasonless hate you should probably reevaluate that view.
However, that is what makes the situation so dangerous as well. Given that even racists think they have good and sound justifications for their beliefs an atmosphere which imposes severe penalties for even minor infractions allows only one safe response: parrot back the official dogma.
But, if we are going to fix the remaining barriers and harms inflicted by problematic stereotypes and structural racism/sexism we need to find them in non-obvious places and that takes open speculation. We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit so more looking for white or male ‘perpetrators’ (if it could have been fixed easily that way we would have) we instead need to look at the less examined reservoirs of stereotypes such as members of the group themselves or the well-intentioned helper3. That means we need to walk on the edge and consider possibly offensive or unpleasant possibilities if we are going to figure out what is really going on so we can do something to fix things.
I’ve seen any number of scenarios in which the perception that certain topics can’t even be discussed doesn’t erase those ideas from people’s minds. Rather, it pushes them to form groups (the ones that go silent when a woman or minority comes by and we work so hard to eliminate) in which they feel they can comfortably express views they are sympathetic to but are too controversial for general consumption. Unfortunately, when people gather together for the purpose of feeling safe sharing controversial views creates a strong social pressure not to call anyone else’s views in that group out for sexism/racism/etc.. even in a polite friendly way. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly both such groups form and how quickly they descend to the lowest common denominator and serve as a breeding ground where hateful ideas can infect good people because there is no opportunity to apply the corrective of a good counterargument and criticism. ↩
Taking their complaints at face value would seem to suggest the problem is that suggesting WASP culture (not so named) is superior is racist or at least unacceptable and bad. While those of us immersed in liberal sensibilities naturally flinch a bit when the suggestion is made that one culture is superior to another that doesn’t make the claim wrong or racist. Indeed, we all believe that, at least in the modern context, modern western culture is superior to the violent revenge culture in some New Guinean tribes all things considered (of course cultures have so many traits surely we could cherry pick a few improvements but the original piece doesn’t deny this). Hell, the very idea of tolerance and equality that those on the left are fighting for is a rare value for a culture to have and we are right to identify it as something good and important. But I think this “can’t say one culture is better than another” line isn’t a very charitable interpretation. ↩
Everyone knows that a great deal of slut-shaming and outfit policing is done to women by women and we’ve learned recently that it is other women who do the majority of interrupting women and may very well be the ones preventing more competitive female involvement. This matches both my experience at caltech (women who had few if any female friends their whole lives were way more likely to just blunder in and shot their load on the conversation or dismiss someone else’s contribution as stupid) and what evolutionary psychology would suggest (men have little interest in policing women but each gender needs to police rivals). Of course, men aren’t on the hook they are just on the hook for something else perpetuating harmful male stereotypes which can harm women as much as they do men (say by men not being willing to become primary caregivers). ↩
How an Idiotic Hoax Gave Skeptics A Bad Name and Reinforced A Dubious Discipline
Skeptic magazine recently published a piece describing a hoax article submitted to a gender studies journal (and published by one journal) in an attempt to debunk gender studies as deeply intellectually flawed. I’m not going to wade through the resulting controversy but suffice it to say that skeptic magazine didn’t put in sufficient due diligence to verify the results obtained really backed up the conclusions about both the field of gender studies, the status of academic publishing or pay to publish academic journal. I was embarrassed that a publication so associated with the skeptic community didn’t notice multiple major unjustified assumptions required to reach anything more interesting than a mild finger-wagging at the publisher and/or editor of NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies for passing along (what they claim was an automated message sent mistakenly) suggesting republication in what Cogent Social Sciences along with their rejection. Worse, this failed attempt to discredit gender studies functions to further the narrative that it is a cogent academic discipline engaged in a search for the truth.
Indeed, if the hoaxers really believed that gender studies had gone off the railings they should have known no hoax would work. The discipline of gender studies must continue to hire and fire professors, determine which papers to publish in top journals and generally make determinations of status and it’s not plausible that this is all accomplished by the toss of a coin. Rather, you would expect to see the same kinds of cultural signifiers of status you see in subgroups like hipsters of goths. Certain kind of language, references etc.. etc.. would all collude to let members of that subculture recognize each other and notice an interlooper immediately. This is even more true regarding choice of ideology. Just because Christian beliefs about Jesus have almost no basis in fact and to the non-believer sound like “Blah Blah Jesus nice…miracle…salvation…soul blah” doesn’t mean an unfamiliar non-believer can just toss something together that sounds similar to them and pass as a Catholic theologian. When ideology because the driving force rather than fact people don’t shrug and say ‘close enough’ they start killing each other over minor differences (at least Tuvel only had her paper withdrawn).
In other words the hoax was surely doomed to fail because, in a large part, gender studies is deeply flawed in something like the way they fear. But simple reflection should have made it clear this would mean they would have far more means of detecting belonging/status than a discipline with clear objective standards like mathematics.
Discrediting Gender Studies and Feminist Philosophy Myself
Rather than following the hoax strategy there is a much easier way to debunk gender studies (and it’s relative feminist philosophy). Simply take a look at what they themselves write. For example, to quote from a paper I found by browsing Hypatia (a top tier journal) to get a taste of their articles (no, not cheery picked)
When it comes to relations among specific human beings, I understand sexual agency as the ability to contribute meaningfully to the quality of the sexual interaction in question. To have sexual agency is to be recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction; it is, in an Irigarayan sense, to be recognized as sexually distinct from the other, such that the interaction is marked by that difference.
If you read that quote without contrarian fussiness it feels like something meaningful was said but try and actually identify what it was and it fades away. For starters, what is the effect of qualifying this passage to `specific human beings’? Are there non-specific human beings? While mere unreasonable verboseness isn’t a mortal sin it is qualifiers like this which simultaneously create the sense that something deep and non-trivial is being said while leaving open the option to use ‘sexual agency’ in some completely different sense by setting up a metaphorical sense in which it is no longer about ‘relations among specific human beings.’ Coming to the definition of agency one finds oneself totally unenlightened. My grip on ‘sexual agency’ was stronger than my understanding of what is meant here by ‘contribute’, ‘meaningfully’ and ‘quality.’ For instance, does meaningfully operate as a synonym of significantly, indicate the phenomenological feeling of purpose/understanding or simply serve as a weasel word so that any time sexual agency needs to be denied one can simply say it isn’t meaningful?
Then we come to what appears to be a further elaboration of that definition but now we are told that it is “recognized and effective as an active element in the creation of an intersubjective interaction.” But this seems to be a completely different criteria than the one it elaborates. If your partner has a fetish for having sex with robots genuinely tricking them into believing you were a robot using your mad acting skills in a way you both find super hot should be off the charts on the first definition yet as you are literally not recognized nor is the interaction intersubjective the second definition says something completely different. Maybe the author is sneakily reading this sense of intersubjective recognition into the idea of quality which does violence to the plain meaning but that just highlights the tension between the robot example and our intuitive sense of sexual agency.
Note that none of these definitions makes any sense of the claim that in cases of where a woman’s partner only seeks their ‘consent’ and wouldn’t take any other reaction at face value their sexual agency is limited. Notice how the inattentive reader who is inclined to assume a cogent argument is being made is pulled along. It certainly feels like there is something limiting about having only one ‘real’ choice but even that is the result of a sleight of hand. Presumably there is nothing less real (only less desirable) about choices that require one to have unpleasant interactions. If we understood agency to diminish as the unpleasantness of the outcomes increases then we would have to say a disabled individual whose conditions imposes massive untreatable pain has much less agency because the outcomes of all his choices are deeply painful. Moreover, yet again the definitions above seem to give all the wrong answers and the situation continues downhill when we are later told that in an act of sexual violence the victims agency is ‘negated’ (whatever the hell that means) because what happens and how is unaffected by her desires, interests, etc.. etc… But surely some rapists are motivated by an active desire for cruelty and deliberately perform whatever acts they intuit their victim would most dislike so are we to conclude that in those cases the victims agency isn’t ‘negated’? Moreover, if agency is understood as the ability to contribute meaningfully then a victim whose rapist would deeply enjoy her consent (and if necessary suppose it would change the nature of the experience for her) is overflowing with sexual agency despite, intuitively, the fact that her agency is being denied by overriding her choice.
Note that I’m not engaging in unrepresentative cheery picking. The entire content of the paper (as well as the other papers I pulled) has this form. Worse, the author is not only apparently willing to let her concerns about what is desirable function as reasons for believing or rejecting specific claims she actually sees this as a huge positive.
What I aim to emphasize is that the very act of categorization needs to be recognized as a social and world-constituting act, one that ought not to be understood as an objective practice that either succeeds (by correctly aligning an experience with a definition) or fails (by mismatching an experience with a definition). To identify a particular experience as an instantiation of sexual violence (or not) doesn’t just reflect the world as it is (or reflect it inaccurately); it creates new possibilities, and forecloses others.
This passage pushes the paper into the realm of the openly absurd. There is no sense in which all the fancy words in the article are actually an attempt to describe the world. Of course, those inclined to defend postmodernism will offer long erudite sounding defenses of this sort of thing but as the above exploration showed the kind of explanations they will provide shouldn’t be assumed to have any factual content just because they sound smart. They will also surely explain that I simply don’t understand what is being said here and it is only in relation to (big name drops) that I can appreciate this but at some point when a subject simply continues not to make sense as you dig down layer after layer you’ve simply got to shrug and say you don’t believe there is anything there.