But it’s only a calculation and numbers


Richard Dawkins used his recently much calmer Twitter account to snipe at something he doesn’t seem to understand.


All humanity should be proud of Newton & the precision of eclipse forecasting (oh but surely an eclipse is only a social construct?)

The first part is true. We can predict these things thousands of years in advance; yesterday’s eclipse was announced years ahead of time, maps were produced that told everyone precisely when and where it would be visible, and presto, they were correct, as everyone rightly expected! There are brute facts about the relative movements of 3 astronomical bodies that can be calculated with impressive precision.

But why the snide remark about a “social construct”? The eclipse was also a social construct! We attach a value to witnessing these events, and also to conversing about them to our friends and families, and on social media. People felt awe when the sun was obscured by the moon. They wrote about it, they took pictures. They traveled long distances to witness it, and felt the effort was worth it. Some of us didn’t bother, because what we individually value is also a social construct. Eclipses would continue to happen if humanity managed to eradicate itself; the shadow will continue to move across a planet of smoke and ash and crumbling skeletons, but this other cultural dimension will have vanished, and we wouldn’t have science communicators feeling proud of their accomplishments, they wouldn’t be explaining how it occurs, and we wouldn’t be telling their children about it.

Did you know we can trace the path of totality by mapping the traffic jams afterwards? Newton did not forecast that. He couldn’t, despite the fact that traffic patterns are also a brute material fact. Because it was a consequence of the social construct built around the eclipse.

It was also weird to see that put-down of the importance of social structures in interpreting astronomical events because just a few hours earlier, he wrote this:


“Listening to the eclipse” http://bit.ly/2vh3u51 I journeyed to Austria for 1999 eclipse. There was a moving wave of human yells & whoops

What? Why did he travel all the way to Austria to watch a highly predictable shadow? Why did the humans in attendance yell and whoop, when all that happened is that it got dark for a few minutes? Stay home. Run an astronomy simulation and get the numbers and parameters. The rest is only a social construct.

Scientism is also a social construct, by the way.

Comments

  1. says

    There seems to be the typical false dichotomy, too, in that he uses the word “only,” which can be interpreted to imply that it is either fully a social construct or fully not. Why is it so hard to understand people can build social constructs around facts?

  2. rietpluim says

    I interpreted it like a sneer to for example gender studies, because of course gender is a solid fact, like an eclipse is…

  3. says

    I see I am not missing anything of value by not reading what Dawkins has to say these last few years, ever since he “Dear Muslima” embarassed himself.

  4. Saad says

    You’d think a scientist (not to mention a white male one, the most rational and objective kind) would use critical thinking about all topics, not just religion.

  5. robro says

    The penchant to “tweet” before “think” is strong in this one. If he were an American, he might land a job as science advisor to a certain TweeterDumb.

    Scientism is also a social construct, by the way.

    And science? I would think everything humans do has a socially constructed component.

  6. Bill Buckner says

    You’d think a scientist (not to mention a white male one, the most rational and objective kind) would use critical thinking about all topics, not just religion.

    This is just my opinion, but the parenthetic comment makes the same category error as Dawkins’ tweet: A gratuitous slam. Dawkins on those whom he believes use social construct where it doesn’t apply. You on white male scientists. His comment on social construct detracted from his valid point on science. Your comment on white male scientists detracted from your point on critical thinking.

  7. Sastra says

    Deepak Chopra said something fatuous once about the moon only existing because we are there to see it. My guess is that this sort of thing is Dawkins’ target. In the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know” there was an argument that the indigenous people in the Americas literally could not see the European ships coming towards them. Not that they didn’t interpret them as ships, but that there was just nothing there from their perspective. They couldn’t construct an image outside of their social experience. Perhaps we only see the eclipse then because we expect to.

    That’s not a scholarly view, but it’s an annoying bit of pop nonsense which discombobulated a lot of skeptics a while back.

  8. says

    All humanity should be proud of Newton & the precision of eclipse forecasting (oh but surely an eclipse is only a social construct?)

    Translation: Richard Dawkins feels compelled to remind people that he’s a reactionary ass on a semi-regular basis.

    His douchebaggery is also a social construct but it has the very real impact of reinforcing reactionary attitudes regarding gender, race, and a host of social justice issues among the less savory parts of atheism and other quarters. He has become the aging king of petulant white male nerdom across the globe.

  9. Saad says

    Bill Buckner, #11

    This is just my opinion, but the parenthetic comment makes the same category error as Dawkins’ tweet: A gratuitous slam. Dawkins on those whom he believes use social construct where it doesn’t apply. You on white male scientists.

    My slam wasn’t on white male scientists. It was on the racist sexist Dawkins fans.

  10. chris61 says

    @5 PZ Myers

    Wrong. Lots of people can snark poorly.

    And of course nobody snarks quite like you either PZ.

  11. says

    Bill Bucker @11: *sigh* Saad’s (great) sarcastic comment was pretty damned obvious to anyone who doesn’t immediately get butt hurt at even the most casual mocking that mentions white men by name.

    Sastra @12: Ever since “Dear Muslima” Dawkins has been very easy to understand. When he uses words like “social construct”, it’s reeeeeeeeeeeally clear what he’s referring to.

  12. =8)-DX says

    Always the irony of people scoffing at social constructs on social media. Also Trump briefly looked at the sun. I don’t get the problem, I briefly look at the sun multiple times a day, to see where it is – any child knows not to stare at it – and we got a bit of welders’ glass to watch the half-eclipse a few years back. And that half-eclipse had lots of social interactions going on aroung it, from the lady in the hardware store’s knowing grin when I asked for the welders’ glass, to the random strangers who noticed us watching the sky who we lent our bit of glass to take a look. Gosh, seems as if eclipse-watching is a social event, it’s importance and all the surrounding meanings endlessly socially reconstructed..
    =8)-DX

  13. says

    Tangent
    _______________
    @=8)-DX

    I briefly look at the sun multiple times a day, to see where it is

    You will not damage your eyes straightaway, but you run a significant risk of damaging them thus in the long run.
    When working in garden and in a need to know where the sun is, I look at the direction and length of the shadows. It is never a good idea to look directly into the sun. Even briefly.

  14. consciousness razor says

    Sastra:

    Deepak Chopra said something fatuous once about the moon only existing because we are there to see it. My guess is that this sort of thing is Dawkins’ target.

    That notion goes back at least to Einstein. He was of course criticizing such bullshit about QM, since many actual scientists endorsed it, well before Chopra came along. It’s probably a mistake to attribute any original ideas to Chopra. If he peddled the nonsense more, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.

    Anyway, Dawkins brought up social constructionism, not quantum woo, which aren’t the same thing. Maybe he’s conflated them, but that isn’t obvious to me.

  15. Bill Buckner says

    Tabby Lavalamp,

    Bill Bucker @11: *sigh* Saad’s (great) sarcastic comment was pretty damned obvious to anyone who doesn’t immediately get butt hurt at even the most casual mocking that mentions white men by name.

    Sigh. Fuck you for taking the cheap approach (which Saad did not take) — just calling any remotely dissenting view a “butt hurt.” How easy. How predictable. White-knight Idiot.

  16. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    What a pathetic attempt at sniping. It doesn’t even make any sense.

  17. thirdmill says

    I think it’s important to distinguish a cold, hard, scientific fact, like an eclipse, which is not a social construct, from human behavior that responds to it, which is a social construct. And I think the danger of saying that everything is a social construct is just as great as the danger of saying that nothing is a social construct.

    If something — like an eclipse — would happen whether or not humans were around to notice it, then it’s not a social construct. If humans do notice it and change their behavior or thinking as a result, then it’s the human activity that’s the construct, not the event itself. And both can peacefully coexist.

  18. starfleetdude says

    An eclipse is a physical phenomenon, and as a viewer of it yesterday myself it was an experience I’ll never forget. I’ll leave the philosophizing about social constructs to others. When April 2024 rolls around I hope to see the next eclipse then. Sometimes an solar eclipse is just a solar eclipse, after all.

  19. mordred says

    Also, shouldn’t we be proud of Shi Shen, who described a way to predict eclipses more than a thousand years before Newton?

    Yes, I had to look up the name…

  20. anbheal says

    @24 Thirdmill — I think you’re intentionally missing PZ’s point. Grass growing is a cold hard scientific fact, as is rain, as is acne among adolescents, as is your pinky toe not being easy to move independently. Shit happens in the universe. What we attribute a value to, such as “interesting”, or “rare”, is a social construct. There are trees that have witnessed dozens of annular and 8 or 10 total eclipses, and for them it’s perhaps not a big deal. You could ask them, and wait for their answer. “Cold hard scientific fact” is a completely social construct. A sneeze is mechanically and physiologically almost identical to an orgasm, and yet there aren’t 10,000 books and studies about sneezes. Almost as if one fact is different from another, because there’s no such thing as a cold hard scientific fact unless we humans are conditioned to dwell on it. All of those admonitions yesterday to not let your dogs stare at the sun were the stupidest fucking things since, um, yesterday. Because dogs always go blind staring at the sun.

  21. aziraphale says

    It’s possible to predict lunar eclipses quite well using the Saros cycle. However because the cycle is not an exact number of days the track of a solar eclipse will be shifted westward by about 120 degrees of longitude in each cycle, and the next eclipse will not be visible from the same locations as the current one. Accurate prediction of the track does need Newtonian mechanics. If any ancient astronomer predicted the day and the location of a solar eclipse I would be extremely surprised.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saros_(astronomy)

    Also: “Was Dawkins always this bad at thinking?”
    No.

  22. Vivec says

    The interactions between the sun, earth, and moon are a matter of fact, but the fact that we call specific orientations of them an “eclipse” and assign it particular emotional and scientific weight is a social construct.

  23. =8)-DX says

    @thirdmill #24

    I think it’s important to distinguish a cold, hard, scientific fact, like an eclipse, which is not a social construct, from human behavior that responds to it, which is a social construct.

    That would be nice. Except you are using these socially constructed things called “words” to make your point: how are scientific facts “cold and hard”? Oh because we associate certain temperature ranges with solidity (because we’re regularly in contact with frozen water, as carbon-based organisms?) Aren’t scientific “facts” just measurements? Why are some “cold, hard”? Oh you mean repeatedly making the same measurements, one gets the similar results within margins humans find relevant? So when a lot of humans in a society that values repeatable measurements, and to their best knowledge accurately (repeatedly) calculate the movement of a piece of rock (that is relevant to them: lots of rocks in the solar system), that is “cold, hard scientific fact”?

    The very fact that you can say “cold, hard, scientific fact, like an eclipse” and have other humans understand you is the result of centuries of careful and meticulous social construction of meaning and the description of a whole host of social facts.
    There is a reality underneath our experience, I’m not denying that. But to pretend that you can access that reality (or often do so) without all the socially constructed meaning and categories and models, is just absurd.

    Which is why @anbheal #27 ‘s point is appropriate, but creating comes short:

    What we attribute a value to, such as “interesting”, or “rare”, is a social construct

    Yes, and what we perceive as “an eclipse” is also a social construct. Even knowing nothing about eclipses, we would experience “a shadow” and “the sun goes dark”, but our notions of “shadow” and “sun” would still be socially constructed, and clearly explains why other societies have percieved eclipses entirely different. Having a word for something is socially constructing meaning around that thing. What we have agreed is a fact, is only such due to social construction.

    And so when @starfleetdude #25 says:

    An eclipse is a physical phenomenon

    “Physical phenomenon” is a social construct. How we divide what part of our experience is “physical” and what “intellectual” or “artistic” (or divide phenomena from epiphenomena), when all of these things are just different sensory inputs interacting with our brain. The fact that one can leave the minutae of social construction to other people to worry about is precisely because we have all these very helpfully and precisely socially constructed notions that help our brains make sense of everthing.
    =8)-DX

  24. =8)-DX says

    To rewrite @Vivec #30 ‘s comment:

    The interactions between the sun, earth, and moon are a matter of fact, but the fact that we call specific orientations of them an “eclipse” and assign it particular emotional and scientific weight is a social construct.

    From the viewpoint of social construction:

    What humans define as “sun”, “earth” and “moon” closely model physical reality according the models our society has created. But how our society values the term “eclipse”, how we within that society react to it , concerning the how we interpret our emotional responses or the socially established norms of the efficacy of our models are another layer of social construction built up on the previous.
    =8)-DX

  25. consciousness razor says

    There is a reality underneath our experience, I’m not denying that.

    Are you sure? Which types of things, if any, are not social constructs?

    thirdmill wrote about that distinction (using words, obviously). Then you apparently found something disagreeable with it, although it’s not at all clear what that is supposed to be.

  26. starfleetdude says

    @31

    You’re confusing things here. The philosopher David Hume usefully divided perceptions thusly: the contents of the mind (ideas and concepts), and physical impressions (seeing and feeling). Things like social constructs fall into the former, while solar eclipses fall into the latter. The experience of an eclipse is therefore not a social construct, but is a pheonomenon that is directly sensed. You can certainly form more complex ideas about it yourself and share them with other people (and they with you), but that’s not the same thing as the experience itself. I’m not talking about actual reality here, I am talking about our direct physical experience of it.

  27. thirdmill says

    That words are a social construct misses the point. Words are tools that enable us to share information with one another, but the information (in this case, that the moon passed between the earth and sun) would have objective reality and existence whether humans existed or not, and whether humans had the capacity to share information about it or not, and whether humans cared about it or not. So back to my original distinction: The fact that the moon passes between the earth and the sun is objective fact. The value that humans place on it is a construct. (I’m not sure that’s even a social construct since different individuals may place a different value on it, but it is a construct.) Otherwise, we couldn’t do science, because science is premised on the idea that we can study things because they have objective reality and properties and natures.

    And I don’t even see that those commenters who are disagreeing with me are actually saying anything that conflicts with what I said. “But how our society values the term “eclipse”, how we within that society react to it , concerning the how we interpret our emotional responses or the socially established norms of the efficacy of our models are another layer of social construction built up on the previous” — well, yes, of course, and what did I say that contradicts that? Like I said, human response is a construct, but the underlying reality is not.

    Someone once defined reality as that which exists whether or not anyone notices, cares, or likes it. And if someone disputes that objective reality exists, I would invite that person to try spending a day living as if it doesn’t, and then report back as to how well that worked out for you.

  28. grasshopper says

    The way I read Richard Dawkins’ comment is that there are people who argue that science is only a cultural/social construct and that therefore the predicted eclipse could not have happened without western-centric science. This echoes an earlier observation

    ““Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite … If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there – the reason you don’t plummet into a ploughed field – is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sum right.”

    Celebrating an eclipse is undeniably a social event. Why you decided to lay into Mr. Dawkins with your bovver boots is beyond my ken.

  29. =8)-DX says

    @consciousness razor #33

    There is a reality underneath our experience, I’m not denying that.

    Are you sure?

    No, I’m not sure. It’s a base assumption related to what I perceive to be the repeatability of parts of my experience and which corresponds to what I understand of the communicated experiences of others. If you don’t make that base assumption (that there is an underlying reality), then you can’t rely on logic or even experience.

    Which types of things, if any, are not social constructs?

    Within the socially constructed notion of “things”, we have many parts of the underlying physical reality we assume exists. That reality was not socially constructed, but all our descriptions of or approximations of it are.

  30. =8)-DX says

    @starfleetdude #34

    The experience of an eclipse is therefore not a social construct, but is a pheonomenon that is directly sensed.

    You might have a point, if all our sensory experiences (since birth) weren’t socially modulated. We learn to see and understand light in a social setting (even as babies). A human adult’s experience of an eclipse may be highly sensatory, but the neural networks in the brain of such a person have already be shaped by society. Yes: a “tabula rasa” socially excluded human might look at an eclipse and percieve a bright light and similar physical sensations (or burn their corneas), but in all practical situations, your sensory inputs are already modulated by social interactions, your reaction to look away and not burn your eyes is part of what society has taught.

    Brains are plastic and, despite Hume’s division, sensory input and cognition are interconnected.

  31. says

    @12, Sastra

    Deepak Chopra said something fatuous once about the moon only existing because we are there to see it. My guess is that this sort of thing is Dawkins’ target.

    Sounds unlikely, he said “social construct” not “consciousness causes collapse” or whatever. There’s an entire subculture of people who mock the idea of “social constructs” and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Deepak Chopra. That’s far more pervasive and likely here, given the exact words involved.

  32. =8)-DX says

    @thirdmill #35

    So back to my original distinction: The fact that the moon passes between the earth and the sun is objective fact. The value that humans place on it is a construct.

    My point was that arguing about what is (essentially) socially constructed is futile. What we agree is the underlying reality is the same as what social construction theory describes as “social facts”. Just as we could argue what is what part of the trajectory of the Sun Moon and Earth are an eclipse, or how far inside the shadow you have to be to experience a “full” eclipse. Note your use of “objective fact” here. So that means even if no human was there to experience it, it would still happen, right? So your use of “objective” is still predicated on the existence of humans on Earth, or on observers. On someone caring about the amount of light from one star that hits one planet at a given time. Social construction is just as basic for us humans (or any other observers) as is the underlying physical reality. If the physical reality were different, (and say no eclipses happened on our planet) we would construct different social facts do describe that new reality.
    =8)-DX

  33. =8)-DX says

    @Brian Pansky #39
    I’d be inclined to believe that Dawkins wouldn’t have much problem equating any mention of “social constructs” with woo and Deepak, as another “Delusion”. He’s tweeted as vehemently against both perceived enemies of his rational thinking in the past. But yeah, he was specifically targetting social studies there…
    =8)-DX

  34. F.O. says

    Dawkins’ ability to present himself as rational thought leader AND shoot one logical fallacy after the other amazes me.
    He’s the poster boy for bias blind spot.

  35. The Mellow Monkey says

    Slightly off the topic of the eclipse, but seeing Richard Dawkins yet again poking at social constructs has dredged up an old memory that’s rather baffling in retrospect.

    There is a passage in one of Dawkins books I read in college that stands out in my memory. I don’t have any of his books any longer, so I can’t verify which one it was, but I suspect it was The Ancestor’s Tale. The passage describes this unbroken chain from you to your grandmother to her grandmother and her grandmother, all the way back. At no point in that chain can it be said that the grandchild is clearly one species and the grandmother is clearly another, and yet a few hundred thousand years one way the ancestors are clearly not what we’d consider human and a few hundred thousand years the other they clearly are. As a liberal arts major, I immediately recognized an aspect of this description that I’d always assumed Dawkins understood as well:

    Species is based on real, physical, measurable things that cannot possibly be argued to not exist, but species is also a social construct. Where the line is between two populations, what the boundaries of a species are, at what point does a stable hybrid population count as its own species, are all socially constructed. Going broader, depending on your native language or opinions about clades, you could classify people as apes, or monkeys, or fish. If you can see all of that when it comes to taxonomy, what other than bias could possibly prevent you from seeing it when it comes to gender and sex?

    Back to the eclipse, I saw some people giving warnings on social media not to allow your dog outside during the eclipse. Not out of concern over crowds or people’s reactions upsetting the animals, but because the dog will look at the sun and go blind! No, it will not. Because while the eclipse is a physically real astronomical event, the dog lacks any mental framework for it and would not think, “Hmm. Something is funny with the light. I should stare at the sun to try to figure out why that is.” It’s only humans with our social constructs that allow us to do something so incredibly self-destructive as to desire, desperately, to look directly at the sun.

  36. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    He’s the poster boy for bias blind spot.

    Amen! Which is why I stopped listening to him years ago. Twit. Reminds me of the Monty Python sketch, Upperclass Twit of the Year. I’m waiting for the evidence otherwise….

  37. =8)-DX says

    @The Mellow Monkey #34

    Species is based on real, physical, measurable things that cannot possibly be argued to not exist, but species is also a social construct. Where the line is between two populations, what the boundaries of a species are, at what point does a stable hybrid population count as its own species, are all socially constructed.

    Yes! The mistake is to imagine that in any of our mappings of reality, in any of the boundaries we create, there is some external, godlike, ultimate decider of what is here and there, what is one thing or another. We define the boundaries, so we should aknowledge those as useful constructs. “Real measurable things” are all things we’ve decided to describe in a certain way, measure in a certain way, as a (scientific) society.
    =8)-DX

  38. says

    Richard Dawkins used his recently much calmer Twitter account to snipe at something he doesn’t seem to understand.

    It’s true, he probably doesn’t understand it, but since he said:

    oh but surely an eclipse is only a social construct?

    (note the word “only”)

    and you replied with:

    But why the snide remark about a “social construct”? The eclipse was also a social construct!

    (note the word “also”, and the lack of the word “only”)

    I think you’re attempt to help here has some flaws. Because the logic between what he said and what you said don’t match. So people could be unsure about the relevance or the meaning of your reply.

    Another thing I think might be an issue is that you didn’t specify why or how your list of human actions are capable of making/being a “social construct”. Obviously they involve people, so “social” kinda fits (but individuals doing something on their own isn’t really “social”, just human). But what about “construct”? It isn’t clear what “construct” means here.

    Lastly, even if all of that was cleaned up, you said “the eclipse” was also a social construct. But none of the things you listed were the eclipse. People taking pictures of the eclipse are not themselves the eclipse. Traffic jams are not the eclipse. And so on.

    Metaphorically, if your conversation here was a piece of computer code, you’d get several errors when you tried to run it, and you’d have to go back and rewrite before it would do what you wanted it to do. Assuming you wanted to get him (and others like him) to understand.

  39. says

    Of course, “listening to the eclipse”, which Dawkins linked to, is also calling human noises “the eclipse” even though they are not the eclipse.

  40. thirdmill says

    DX, no 40, no, my use of the term “objective” is not predicated on human observers. Humans name things and describe phenomena, but many of those things and phenomena would still objectively exist even if we had never made our appearance on the planet. They just wouldn’t have names.

    And while I don’t want to put words in your mouth, I think your comment no. 45:

    “The mistake is to imagine that in any of our mappings of reality, in any of the boundaries we create, there is some external, godlike, ultimate decider of what is here and there, what is one thing or another”

    strongly suggests that the real issue for you is that you don’t want “objective reality” used as an opportunity to smuggle God in through the back door — if I understand your argument correctly, you think that objective reality requires, if not God, then something very god-like with final and decisive authority to declare what that reality is.

    If that is your argument, then I disagree. I don’t think objective reality requires a God or anything even remotely close. It’s possible to accept both that objective reality exists, and also that our human limitations make it difficult or impossible to know what it is. But if you agree with me that it’s objective reality that if I jump out of an airplane at 35,000 feet without a parachute I’m probably going to die, then we agree that some things really are objective, and we’re just quibbling about where to draw the line and how to know what they are.

  41. consciousness razor says

    =8)-DX, #37:

    No, I’m not sure. It’s a base assumption related to what I perceive to be [blah, blah, blah]

    I meant whether you’re sure you weren’t denying it. If you’re not, because there are things which aren’t social constructs, then you’re presumably not expressing any substantive disagreement about that. And if that’s so, then it also isn’t clear what the fuss is about.

    =8)-DX, #40:

    So that means even if no human was there to experience it, it would still happen, right? So your use of “objective” is still predicated on the existence of humans on Earth, or on observers.

    How does that follow? An objective thing, which does not logically depend on an observer (isn’t about an observer, etc.), is predicated on observers?

    If the physical reality were different, (and say no eclipses happened on our planet) we would construct different social facts do describe that new reality.

    But reality in its entirely isn’t properly described by “social facts.” Societies or social phenomena may be described in such terms, but there is simply no need for it with everything else.

    I don’t appreciate pointlessly muddled statements like PZ’s “The eclipse was also a social construct!” No, that’s false, it wasn’t. Various human activities pertaining to the eclipse may be, but not the orbits of the Earth and Moon, which has nothing to do with human society or agency or anything of the sort. Such statements are uttered anyway, for no apparent reason other than to contradict some asshole on twitter. And now I guess we have to hear a bunch of elaborate excuses about why it’s okay to not say what you mean, as if doing so will somehow offer a more sophisticated or more technically understanding of the world. Well, sorry, but it doesn’t do that. It doesn’t seem to be doing anything useful. It’s just a load of bullshit.

  42. consciousness razor says

    Sorry, I dropped a word:

    a more sophisticated or more technically correct understanding

    The parallels with theology seem pretty striking. They don’t really mean any of it — no, of course not — but for centuries, reams of sophisticated-sounding apologetics are published anyway, as if that would be constructive and not just add to the pile of garbage.

  43. jefrir says

    The Mellow Monkey

    Back to the eclipse, I saw some people giving warnings on social media not to allow your dog outside during the eclipse. Not out of concern over crowds or people’s reactions upsetting the animals, but because the dog will look at the sun and go blind! No, it will not. Because while the eclipse is a physically real astronomical event, the dog lacks any mental framework for it and would not think, “Hmm. Something is funny with the light. I should stare at the sun to try to figure out why that is.” It’s only humans with our social constructs that allow us to do something so incredibly self-destructive as to desire, desperately, to look directly at the sun.

    The more sensible versions I saw of this were about dogs’ reactions to human body language – dogs will pay attention to what humans are looking and, especially, pointing at, so if you’re all stood around pointing at the sun, there’s a risk your dog will look at it.

  44. chigau (違う) says

    When humons point at stuff, dogs look at the humon’s hand,
    not at the target of the point.

  45. says

    @chigau

    When humons point at stuff, dogs look at the humon’s hand,
    not at the target of the point.

    Not in my experience. I had a dog and he learned to follow pointing gestures quite easily and without conscious effort on our part. Of course that might just be a fluke.
    So I asked Dr. Google and they delivered this, probably referenced also here..

  46. rietpluim says

    Funny how many of us interpret Dawkins’ tweet differently.
    Perhaps we should ask for clarification. It appears our understanding of his words is not fully socially constructed yet.

  47. rietpluim says

    The challenge for today: try to describe the phenomena of last Monday with as “cold, hard” factually as possible. I know I’ll fail miserably, but here is my attempt:

    In some areas of the universe, matter is more concentrated than on others. We call these concentrations stars, planets, moons, etcetera, depending on their properties. Now please focus on one of these stars, called the sun, one of these planets, called the earth, and one of these moons, called the moon.

    Their movements are described by saying that earth resolves around the sun and the moon around the earth. Every now and then, the sun, the earth, and the moon have a position that approaches a straight line. The sun emits electromagnetic radiation, which is impede by the moon, causing the radiation not to reach a certain area on the surface of the earth when they are in this position. This we call an eclipse.

    On earth, organisms mostly based on carbon and water, have a nerve system that processes the available radiation of certain wavelengths. This system is adapted to a certain rhythm in the availability of radiation. The appearance of an eclipse does not fit in the perceived rhythm, causing the organisms to value eclipses differently than other availabilities of radiation.

    (Stopping here. My head is starting to hurt.)

  48. jefrir says

    Not in my experience. I had a dog and he learned to follow pointing gestures quite easily and without conscious effort on our part. Of course that might just be a fluke.

    In my experience, some do, some don’t, depends on the dog (and possibly on how the humans around them generally interact with them, but I’ve seen dogs in the same household succeed and fail at following pointing)

  49. consciousness razor says

    The challenge for today: try to describe the phenomena of last Monday with as “cold, hard” factually as possible.

    The Moon’s shadow was cast on the ground.

    That seems to meet the challenge. It wasn’t difficult to leave out the warm, squishy people. They aren’t needed in that picture. Some may not like the fact that it isn’t about portraying a comforting or empowering image of ourselves, as central or indispensable figures in everything that happens in the world. That’s too bad for you, if that’s how you feel. And it’s really hard to see how anybody could raise some kind of an objection that is any more serious than that.

    Maybe I should’ve seen this conversation coming during the postmodernism thread last month, when coincidentally I used the eclipse as an example. I don’t even know what to say anymore…. The attitudes some people express here are pretty remarkable at times, even if they don’t mean a word of it. (Perhaps especially if they don’t mean a word of it, considering how enthusiastically it’s defended.) But I guess I’m starting to be a bit less surprised by it.

  50. starfleetdude says

    Say, it’s just a social construct
    Moving over a flashlight sun
    But it wouldn’t be really real
    If you did not believe

  51. emergence says

    Aside from debating over the social values placed onto the eclipse, let’s not forget the rotten core of Dawkins’ tweet: he points to a physical event, and mockingly calls it a social construct in an attempted stab at people who reject gender essentialism. It’s the Dumbass Dichotomy again; either you accept the reductive, regressive bullshit that people like Dawkins and James Damore spew about gender, or you apparently believe everything is socially constructed.

    The funny – or rather irritating – thing is, Dawkins and the other assholes who don’t believe in social constructs have to ignore a good number of brute facts themselves in order to believe what they do.

    First, it’s all too possible for societies to believe things that aren’t true. That’s something you have to acknowledge right out of the gate if you’re an atheist. Somehow Dawkins can accept that creationism, original sin, and other religious beliefs are myths constructed by a pre-scientific society, but somehow can’t accept the same thing about gender roles that were invented during the same time period by those same socieities.

    Second, socialization and a compulsion to adhere to the norms of the people around you are very real neurological processes that can have a profound effect on the personality and cognition of people raised in different social environments. The existence of social facts is largely due to a brute fact about how the human brain works.

    Finally, the reason why we reject traditional gender roles and call them social constructs is because we have evidence that gender doesn’t work that way. A ton of say, James Damore’s critics have been scientists who pointed to scientific research that concluded that the gender differences he was blaming for the gender gap don’t actually exist. Most of the critics of evolutionary psychology have been scientists pointing out that evolutionary psychology is built on a deeply flawed understanding of both evolution and human behavior.

  52. consciousness razor says

    emergence:

    he points to a physical event, and mockingly calls it a social construct in an attempted stab at people who reject gender essentialism. It’s the Dumbass Dichotomy again; either you accept the reductive, regressive bullshit that people like Dawkins and James Damore spew about gender, or you apparently believe everything is socially constructed.

    Well, I agree that you don’t have to buy into this, that we’re not committed to the claim that “everything is socially constructed.” I think that’s where things went off the rails in this thread, because that just doesn’t make any sense.

    However, I have no problem with reductionism (not regressive bullshit of course), and maybe it’ll be helpful to walk through that issue for a moment. Everything in the world is physical — there are no non-physical events, and so forth — including all of the real features of the world which are properly understood as social constructs.

    If it isn’t a real thing, like for example the proper role of women in society, then the right thing to say is straightforwardly that it doesn’t reduce to any actual physical stuff. It just doesn’t exist, and ideas about it have basically the same status as imaginary friends or works of fiction. People believe in gender roles and their beliefs about it have all sorts of real consequences, but the role itself isn’t an actual thing. You’ve got these extremely huge and complicated physical systems (people, social groups, economies, etc.) which nobody is studying in terms of fundamental physics … but reductionism isn’t a methodological recommendation, so even if you knew how to reduce everything in that way, the claim is that you would not find anything in it which corresponds to what the proper gender roles are. Those are not real.

    In other cases, that’s not the right thing to say, because there is an actual object or set of events to talk about, which simply belong in the category of social/cultural stuff (as opposed to, for example, biological stuff). Of course, Dawkins is a biologist: he’s got that hammer, and it all looks like a bunch of nails to him. I often get the impression that, if it doesn’t fit into his narrowly biological framework, his opponents must be saying it’s some kind of magic, because he just doesn’t seem to appreciate the wide variety of physical stuff that happens outside of that framework. So, all of this talk about sociology is bullshit, because it’s not real science like biology is, because it’s not about anything in the real world — that’s basically the thought process in many cases.

    But one thing to note here is that only saying it’s a social construct wouldn’t tell you which kind of status it’s supposed to have. On the one hand, societies may treat something as if it were real when it isn’t (like ghosts, gender roles, etc.), but there are also things which are real by virtue of what social groups do (like the meanings of words, political systems, etc.). So it doesn’t seem helpful to me to talk about those very different cases in the same terms, at least not without making that kind of distinction explicit.

  53. emergence says

    consciousness razor @63

    Yeah, that’s more or less what I was getting at. I was trying to point out that gender essentialism is just as much of a myth as creationism. Actual neuroscience is as incompatible with sexism as actual biology is with creationism. Calling it “socially constructed” is another way of saying that it’s a falsehood that’s embedded into our cultural values.

    About that “when all you have is a hammer” thing, my second point was that socialization is a demonstrably real neurological process. If Dawkins ignores socialization, he’s ignoring a huge part of biology.

    I think you’re right about needing to distinguish between social facts like currency or political systems and things that societies hold to be true when they aren’t. I’m not sure what terms we should use to describe each category though. The distinction also gets slightly blurry when talking about societal and cultural norms and customs. It’s entirely possible for social structures, things that are real by virtue of how societies behave, to be partially built on something the society treats as real when it isn’t.

  54. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    The challenge for today: try to describe the phenomena of last Monday with as “cold, hard” factually as possible.

    It is a fact that the thing the word “eclipse” is generally understood to refer to in English happened on the most recent day labeled “Monday.”

    Due to the reduction in solar radiative heating, areas affected by the “eclipse” phenomenon were, briefly, relatively cold.

    Apparently, a couple Idaho Port of Entry Employees found not being complete shits while directing exit traffic afterwards, at the Sage Junction Weigh Station lot to be just too hard.

    Done.

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