Random Charlottesville stuff

I am not a news reporter, and I am assuming readers are already familiar with the general course of events.

You may have heard that Donald Trump failed to condemn Nazis in his speech on Saturday. I saw on Last Week Tonight that it was worse than that.

Reporters were actively shouting at him to make a statement condemning White supremacists. He goes to the podium as if to respond, but then says something unrelated.

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Disagreeing with HJ here

HJ Hornbeck has a post titled Watch Your Language, criticizing Laci Green for a series of tweets on Trump’s ban on trans people in the military.  I have numerous disagreements with HJ’s post, and it feels too long to leave as a comment.  On the other hand, this is a bit arcane, so I don’t actually recommend people read this unless they’re especially interested in the topic.

TL;DR: It is reasonable to call trans discrimination gender discrimination (as opposed to gender identity discrimination).

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Trump’s past light cone

When Trump was elected, and for many months following, people kept on talking about why he was elected. What caused it? This conversation irritates me deeply, because people lack a base-level understanding of what causation is. But I’ve waited to say anything because I thought it might be too crass to insert a philosophical discussion into a political one, at least while it was still hot.

Cause and effect is often thought to be a fundamental part of the way the world works, but I and other physicists understand that it is not. For a brief explanation, I recommend this video by Sean Carroll. It is better to think of causality as an emergent property, more in the realm of philosophy than physics.

What does physics have to say about the cause of Trump’s election? It’s everything in Trump’s past lightcone! It was the DNC, it was Clinton, it was Comey, it was Russia, it was neoliberalism, it was identity politics, it was ancient supernovae. This answer is rather naive, but what did you expect from us? Physics can’t provide all the answers.

When we talk about causes, we’re typically just selecting a few things from the past lightcone, and highlighting those things as important. In philosophy, this is known as causal selection. Sean Carroll talks a little bit about causal selection. He says that one way of thinking about it is that a cause is something that has great leverage over the future. But that’s just one way we might think about it.

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Dawkins being “deplatformed”

I will only make a brief comment on this, because I don’t think it is really worth more than that.

In Berkeley, where I live, Richard Dawkins was invited to give a talk about his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.  The sponsors of his talk, KPFA, a progressive radio station, decided to cancel the talk because of “abusive speech” by Richard Dawkins.  This story has hit some of those frozen peach buttons, with Jerry Coyne declaring it “a terrible blow for free speech”.

The one and only time I ever saw Dawkins speak was at the very same venue, talking about another book he wrote, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.  There are many things I find objectionable about Dawkins, but I am personally able to separate that from his science writing, which seems fine.  So I don’t really agree with KPFA.

But geez, by turning this into a free speech issue, you’re making me take the opposite side!  Obviously, the KPFA, being the sponsors of the talk, has a right to cancel their own talk.  In fact, it would practically be a violation of KPFA’s free speech, if they were forced to sponsor a talk from someone they didn’t like.  Also, doesn’t sponsoring talks cost them money or something?

People are always thinking of these issues in terms of the speaker’s free speech, but if anything, it’s about the inviters’ free speech.  If speakers have a right to platforms, where are all my speaker invitations, and why isn’t anyone standing up for my free speech?

Taxation, theft, and “deserving”

Let us consider an idea that perhaps isn’t really worthy of consideration, the idea that taxation is theft. This is a common idea in certain libertarian political philosophies, so I don’t really need to reinvent the wheel. I found a perfectly good rebuttal upon a basic search.

The article suggests three different ways to interpret the claim that taxation is theft:

  1. Theft is a legal crime, and so is taxation.
  2. Taxation is morally wrong for the same reasons that theft is morally wrong.
  3. Taxation is pragmatically bad for the same reasons that theft is pragmatically bad–e.g. claiming it depresses GDP.

I skimmed the comments to see if there were any other interpretations, and concluded we should add one more:

4. Taxation resembles theft in that there is an involuntary exchange of wealth under threat of force.

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On equal opportunities and outcomes

I recently found an article interviewing Jonathan Haidt. It’s in the rather tedious “liberals are going too far and eliminating free speech” genre. I’m not going to address most of it, just this part (emphasis mine):

The left, meanwhile, has undergone an ideological transformation. A generation ago, social justice was understood as equality of treatment and opportunity: “If gay people don’t have to right to marry and you organize a protest to apply pressure to get them that right, that’s justice,” Mr. Haidt says. “If black people are getting discriminated against in hiring and you fight that, that’s justice.”

Today justice means equal outcomes. “There are two ideas now in the academic left that weren’t there 10 years ago,” he says. “One is that everyone is racist because of unconscious bias, and the other is that everything is racist because of systemic racism.” That makes justice impossible to achieve: “When you cross that line into insisting if there’s not equal outcomes then some people and some institutions and some systems are racist, sexist, then you’re setting yourself up for eternal conflict and injustice.”

Here’s the thing. Outcomes are a product of several things: opportunities provided by society, the abilities of the individuals, and random chance. I believe that people in these minority groups do not systematically have less inherent ability than people in the majority. So if we truly had equality of opportunity, I would expect that minority groups would also have equal outcomes, plus or minus some statistical noise.

Comic transcript: This Ayn Random number generator you wrote *claims* to be fair, but the output is biased toward certain numbers. Well, maybe those numbers are just intrinsically better!
Source: XKCD

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Immigration is a science issue

The March for Science happens this next Saturday. I don’t typically participate in protests, but if you’re interested there are hundreds of them occurring throughout the world. The March for Science website explains why they organize:

Science, scientists, and evidence-based policymaking are under attack. Budget cuts, censorship of researchers, disappearing datasets, and threats to dismantle government agencies harm us all, putting our health, food, air, water, climate, and jobs at risk. It is time for people who support science to take a public stand and be counted.

I’m surprised by an omission from this agenda: immigration policy. Immigration is very obviously a science issue. My advisor is an immigrant. 1/3 to 1/2 of the students and postdocs in my research group have been immigrants. The same is true of my class. The effect is so large, you hardly need statistics to show it.

Nonetheless, some statistics…

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