Post-modernism vs. Universalism vs. Collectivism

Since I just mentioned the boogey-word, post-modernism, here’s a terrifically good overview of the subject by Peter Coffin.

He sets it up in an interesting way, that there is a view that there is an absolute, knowable truth called Universalism that is a hallmark of fundamentalist religion (and also, unfortunately, is becoming increasingly common among proponents of atheism and skepticism), and it is opposed by a methodology of questioning, of being skeptical of universal truths, and doing your damnedest to tease apart the factors behind that belief. That methodology is post-modernism. It is hated by people who want to claim possession of an absolute, objective truth, whether it’s the Pope or the Grand Poobah of the Moment of organized atheism/skepticism.

Interestingly, he also points out that modern scientists generally dislike universalism — it’s why we are averse to claiming that we have a “proof” of something — and accept a collectivist version of truth, where we provisionally accept a claim if it has consilience among a substantial number of observers and observations. Science is fundamentally post-modern.

<cue video of heads exploding all over the youtube atheist community.>

Whoever wrote this should become deceased

From the warrant the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension filed to investigate the murder of Justine Damond:

Upon police arrival, a female ‘slaps’ the back of the patrol squad. After that, it is unknown to BCA agents what exactly happened, but the female became deceased in the alley.

female became deceased is the kind of bureaucratese that warrants further investigation, and at the very least, criminal charges ought to be filed against the police culture that permits such offenses against humanity.

Girls should never use sarcasm, it’s unladylike

I’ve heard these same accusations made out of context, and I’m ashamed to say that I did not bother to track them down. I will in the future, because I’m familiar with how creationists distort quotations, and this is just classic dishonest manipulation.

Recently, Michael Shermer (of whom I’m generally a fan) [pzm is not] claimed that Sandra Harding, a philosopher of science and influential feminist, had called Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” a “rape manual.”

Today, I read a similar statement from an anonymous source shared on Facebook which claimed that feminist and philosopher Luce Irigaray called the equation e=mc2 a “sexed equation” because she argues that “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us”. The original source of this claim is apparently a criticism of her work by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont published in 1997.

Both cases were repeated by Richard Dawkins (of whom I’m also generally a fan) in a 1998 essay entitled “Postmodernism disrobed.”

In both of these cases, the feminists were using what educated adults should know as a “rhetorical device.” In the former case, Harding was using sarcasm in her criticism of Sir Francis Bacon; in the second case, Irigaray was taking a critic’s argument to its (absurd) logical conclusion.

When we actually read what these feminist authors have said, it’s actually far more nuanced than anti-feminists claim. Here’s Harding:

One phenomenon feminist historians have focused on is the rape and torture metaphors in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon and others (e.g. Machiavelli) enthusiastic about the new scientific method.
…But when it comes to regarding nature as a machine, they have quite a different analysis: here, we are told, the metaphor provides the interpretations of Newton’s mathematical laws: it directs inquirers to fruitful ways to apply his theory and suggests the appropriate methods of inquiry and the kind of metaphysics the new theory supports. But if we are to believe that mechanistic metaphors were a fundamental component of the explanations the new science provided, why should we believe that the gender metaphors were not? A consistent analysis would lead to the conclusion that understanding nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape was equally fundamental to the interpretations of these new conceptions of nature and inquiry. In that case, why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s laws as “Newton’s rape manual” as it is to call them “Newton’s mechanics”?

Wait, what, you say? Bacon used rape metaphors? Yes, he certainly did. Here’s ol’ Francis arguing that we should study even fringe subjects or superstitions to try to unearth the actual causes (a sentiment with which I must agree):

Neither am I of opinion in this history of marvels, that superstitious narrative of sorceries, witchcrafts, charms, dreams divinations, and the like, where there is an assurance and clear evidence of the fact, should be altogether excluded. For it is not yet known in what cases, and how far, effects attributed to superstition participate of natural causes; and therefore howsoever the use and practice of such arts is to be condemned, yet from speculation and consideration of them (if they be diligently unravelled) a useful light may be gained, not only for true judgment of the offences of persons charged with such practices, but likewise for the further disclosing of the secrets of nature. Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his sole object.

Harding is not literally accusing him of writing a rape manual; she’s pointing that his science is viewed through the lens of a man living in a profoundly sexist culture. Bacon is not arguing that we ought to rape people to discover the truth, but Harding is showing that he is unperturbed by metaphors about “a man…penetrating holes” because his society sees nothing wrong with poking into things against others’ will, an attitude that doesn’t just affect relations between men and women, but is going to be reflected in an era of colonialism.

If you’re going to seriously study the history and philosophy of science, you don’t get to just say one set of words have profound meaning, while another set is to be clearly dismissed as irrelevant. This is the whole point of that dirty word, post-modernism: scrutinize what people said and put it in a context of meaning. Bacon’s word choices are seen as interesting and revealing, and we should recognize that even great scientists aren’t free of biases.

John McCain’s last chance for honor

He’s screwed it up so many times before. He likes to pretend he’s a “maverick”, but somehow he’s always supported the conservative status quo, and has always betrayed any sense of principle. This is the man who took on Sarah Palin as his running mate in a failed attempt at the presidency. He is just generally a screw-up.

And now he’s mortally ill with cancer. Heroically, he’s flying back to Washington DC to cast a vote on a health care bill that no one has seen, that no one will be allowed to see, that given Mitch McConnell’s history of promoting selfish, evil tax-cuts-for-the-rich bills under the guise of “health care” is certainly pure poison.

We don’t know how McCain is going to vote.

He’s voting with zero information, so he ought to reject it out of hand, as all the senators should. There’s a principle at stake here, but given what I’ve seen of McCain, I think that means he’ll run away from responsibility, vote yes, and then allow the sycophants to tell him how brave he was to leave his cancer treatments to vote to deny millions of people cancer treatments.

He’s got one chance to go out on a high note. It won’t change his legacy, but he’ll exhibit one tiny scrap of conscience.

I expect he’ll fuck it up. He’s John McCain.

Never trust a boy scout

It’s a corrupt organization. They don’t allow atheists to participate (my boys were briefly in the scouts, but they couldn’t say anything about their beliefs, and had to do all the religious oaths; Margaret Downey has been fighting this for years), and they only allowed gay and transgender boys in recently, while still prohibiting gay scout leaders. It’s a conservative organization that typically works to instill regressive values — with a few exceptions — and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the boys clapped and cheered, while their leaders capered and grinned, at Trump’s speech to a boy scout jamboree.

That speech is something else. It’s pure madness. It’s the kind of speech a Caligula would give: self-serving, obsessive, focused on slights to his majesty, derisive of the previous administration. He wants to encourage loyalty, but he still can’t resist the temptation to encourage them to boo the previous president and his opposition in the last election. He is still going over and over the size of the crowd over and over, the legitimacy of his election, and “fake news”. And he ends by telling them they’ll be allowed to say “Merry Christmas” again, as if this has ever been prohibited. There was no good message in it, unless you count that bizarre anecdote about a rich man losing his ‘momentum’ a moral message. It’s a speech that tells us much about Donald Trump, none of it good.

But he still has the devout support of the Christian Evangelical community!


Jebus. Read George W. Bush’s speech to the boy scouts in 2005, and compare. W was a disgrace as a president, and yet look how far we’ve fallen with Trump.

Roger Waters…Wednesday!

The day after tomorrow I’ll be sitting in the nosebleed seats for Roger Waters Us + Them tour. I love the guy’s music, and he’s got the right sensibility for the era, as reported for his Chicago event.

It’s also very political, and that’s something that should surprise absolutely nobody. Waters has never been a stranger to controversy, and his recent political views (especially those involving the Israel-Palestine conflict), have certainly been turning all the right and wrong heads across the world. But he sounds revitalized again, and if you couldn’t tell from all the rage and angst that radiates from his latest record, Is This the Life We Really Want?, then he makes that pretty clear with the Us + Them Tour. Unlike his recent reprisal of The Wall, which toured the world for the better part of the early 2010s, Waters sounds less like he’s dusting off older material and more like he’s rewriting them for a new era. And in a world that’s as savage and dour as ours right now, we’re also singing louder than ever.

Anyone else going?

Teachers, leave them kids alone

On my home planet, everyone learns basic algebra. Earth seems to be different.

People are actually discussing whether to remove algebra requirements from community college curricula. They don’t seem to be discussing the elimination of basic reading and writing skills, at least not yet. It seems to me, though, that passing algebra ought to be a really low hurdle to leap, but apparently it isn’t.

Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads.

It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you’re not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?

I was a first generation undergrad. I didn’t take algebra in college…because I took it in high school. If you were on the college track, you took it early, because in your junior or senior year you’d take trigonometry/pre-calc. If you were an advanced math student (I wasn’t), you got calculus done right there in public school. 16 year olds can learn algebra. It really isn’t that daunting.

“Why even study algebra?” is a stupid question. If you’re not a history major, why study history? If you’re not an English major, why do you need to learn to write good? If you’re an American, why bother learning a foreign language? Algebra is a kind of minimum standard for elementary numeracy.

This interview with Eloy Ortiz Oakley is appalling in many ways.

You are facing pressure to increase graduation rates — only 48 percent graduate from California community colleges with an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution within six years. As we’ve said, passing college algebra is a major barrier to graduation. But is this the easy way out? Just strike the algebra requirement to increase graduation rates instead of teaching math more effectively?

I hear that a lot and unfortunately nothing could be farther from the truth. Somewhere along the lines, since the 1950s, we decided that the only measure of a student’s ability to reason or to do some sort of quantitative measure is algebra. What we’re saying is we want as rigorous a course as possible to determine a student’s ability to succeed, but it should be relevant to their course of study. There are other math courses that we could introduce that tell us a lot more about our students.

No one decided that it was the only measure. People looked at the progression of math concepts that were taught — algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus — and set the standard on the most introductory of the math skills. Students who come into college not knowing algebra are totally screwed if they want to enter any STEM field, but even if they’re doing a non-STEM major, I’d argue that everyone ought to have that minimal level of math literacy.

I don’t see the problem here. If “relevance to their course of study” is the standard, I could see biology majors insisting that they don’t need to know psychology or literature (they’d be wrong). A college degree should not be a narrow certificate that says you’ve been exposed to a thin slice of knowledge, but here we are, arguing that it’s all about getting a job.

A lot of students in California community colleges are hoping to prepare for a four-year college. What are you hearing from the four-year institutions? Are they at ease with you dropping the requirement? Or would they then make the students take the same algebra course they’re not taking at community college?

This question is being raised at all levels of higher education — the university level as well as the community college level. There’s a great body of research that’s informing this discussion, much of it coming from some of our top universities, like the Dana Center at the University of Texas, or the Carnegie Foundation. So there’s a lot of research behind this and I think more and more of our public and private university partners are delving into this question of what is the right level of math depending on which major a student is pursuing.

Look. We get transfer students from community colleges at my university all the time. They do not and should not get a free pass on courses that our full four year students have to take — we don’t set standards arbitrarily. They need to take certain lower level courses because they’ll need those skills in upper level courses. If the community colleges set lower standards, it just means that they’ll have wasted two years as the four year colleges tell all those students entering in their third year that sorry, you have to go back and take all these courses your CC decided were unnecessary.

In a perfect world, students would learn algebra in high school; students who struggled or were not mature enough to engage in disciplined learning (which is a real problem) would attend a CC to get the prep they missed in high school, and the four year colleges would be able to assume a basic skill set on all entering students. If CCs are going to punt, what next? Do we just get unprepared students who enter college with 60 credits of unchallenging courses that do not prepare them all for the major curriculum?

And there are people writing about concepts of numeracy that may be different from what people have been teaching all this time. Do you have in mind a curriculum that would be more useful than intermediate algebra?

We are piloting different math pathways within our community colleges. We’re working with our university partners at CSU and the UC, trying to ensure that we can align these courses to best prepare our students to succeed in majors. And if you think about it, you think about the use of statistics not only for a social science major but for every U.S. citizen. This is a skill that we should have all of our students have with them because this affects them in their daily life.

I kind of agree with this — I would like to see more statistics-literacy in the general public. But this is a proposal to increase the amount of math students should know, and I don’t know how you teach statistics to students who can’t comprehend algebra. Again, there seems to be a relevance argument lurking here — if statistics awareness is good for every U.S. citizen, how can you suggest that art majors have no need of algebra? I want to see some minimal expectations for numeracy and literacy, and we don’t get there by trying to second-guess whether a student will ever find a particular fundamental skill “useful”. You just don’t know.