[CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of Sexual Assault] [Read more…]
[CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of Sexual Assault] [Read more…]
It’s funny, if you look back over my blog posts on Steven Pinker, you’ll notice a progression.
Ignoring social justice concerns in biomedical research led to things like the Tuskegee experiment. The scientific establishment has since tried to correct that by making it a critical part. Pinker would be wise to study the history a bit more carefully, here.
Setting aside your ignorance of the evidence for undercounting in the FBI’s data, you can look at your own graph and see a decline?
When Sargon of Arkkad tried and failed to discuss sexual assault statistics, he at least had the excuse of never having gotten a higher education, never studying up on the social sciences. I wonder what Steven Pinker’s excuse is.
Ooooh, I get it. This essay is just an excuse for Pinker to whine about progressives who want to improve other people’s lives. He thought he could hide his complaints behind science, to make them look more digestible to himself and others, but in reality just demonstrated he understands physics worse than most creationists. What a crank.
You’ll also notice a bit of a pattern, too, one that apparently carries on into Pinker’s book about the Enlightenment.
It is curious, then, to find Pinker breezily insisting that Enlightenment thinkers used reason to repudiate a belief in an anthropomorphic God and sought a “secular foundation for morality.” Locke clearly represents the opposite impulse (leaving aside the question of whether anyone in period believed in a strictly anthropomorphic deity).
So, too, Kant. While the Prussian philosopher certainly had little use for the traditional arguments for God’s existence – neither did the exceptionally pious Blaise Pascal, if it comes to that – this was because Kant regarded them as stretching reason beyond its proper limits. Nevertheless, practical reason requires belief in God, immorality and a post-mortem existence that offers some recompense for injustices suffered in the present world.
That’s from Peter Harrison, a professional historian. Even I was aware of this, though I am guilty of a lie of omission. I’ve brought up the “Cult of Reason” before, which was a pseudo-cult set up during the French Revolution that sought to tear down religion and instead worship logic and reason. What I didn’t mention was that it didn’t last long; Robespierre shortly announced his “Cult of the Supreme Being,” which promoted Deism as the official religion of France, and had the leaders of the Cult of Reason put to death. Robespierre himself was executed shortly thereafter, for sounding too much like a dictator, and after a half-hearted attempt at democracy France finally settled on Napoleon Bonaparte, a dictator everyone could get behind. The shift to reason and objectivity I was hinting at back then was more gradual than I implied.
If we go back to the beginning of the scientific revolution – which Pinker routinely conflates with the Enlightenment – we find the seminal figure Francis Bacon observing that “the human intellect left to its own course is not to be trusted.” Following in his wake, leading experimentalists of the seventeenth century explicitly distinguished what they were doing from rational speculation, which they regarded as the primary source of error in the natural sciences.
In the next century, David Hume, prominent in the Scottish Enlightenment, famously observed that “reason alone can never produce any action … Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” And the most celebrated work of Immanuel Kant, whom Pinker rightly regards as emblematic of the Enlightenment, is the Critique of Pure Reason. The clue is in the title.
Reason does figure centrally in discussions of the period, but primarily as an object of critique. Establishing what it was, and its intrinsic limits, was the main game. […]
To return to the general point, contra Pinker, many Enlightenment figures were not interested in undermining traditional religious ideas – God, the immortal soul, morality, the compatibility of faith and reason – but rather in providing them with a more secure foundation. Few would recognise his tendentious alignment of science with reason, his prioritization of scientific over all other forms of knowledge, and his positing of an opposition between science and religion.
I’m just skimming Harrison’s treatment, the rest of the article is worth a detour, but it really helps underscore how badly Pinker wants to re-write history. Here’s something the man himself committed to electrons:
More insidious than the ferreting out of ever more cryptic forms of racism and sexism is a demonization campaign that impugns science (together with the rest of the Enlightenment) for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide. […]
“Scientific racism,” the theory that races fall into a hierarchy of mental sophistication with Northern Europeans at the top, is a prime example. It was popular in the decades flanking the turn of the 20th century, apparently supported by craniometry and mental testing, before being discredited in the middle of the 20th century by better science and by the horrors of Nazism. Yet to pin ideological racism on science, in particular on the theory of evolution, is bad intellectual history. Racist beliefs have been omnipresent across history and regions of the world. Slavery has been practiced by every major civilization and was commonly rationalized by the belief that enslaved peoples were inherently suited to servitude, often by God’s design. Statements from ancient Greek and medieval Arab writers about the biological inferiority of Africans would curdle your blood, and Cicero’s opinion of Britons was not much more charitable.
More to the point, the intellectualized racism that infected the West in the 19th century was the brainchild not of science but of the humanities: history, philology, classics, and mythology.
As I’ve touched on, this is so far from reality it’s practically creationist. Let’s ignore the implication that no-one used science to promote racism past the 1950’s, which ain’t so, and dig up more data points on the dark side of the Enlightenment.
… the Scottish philosopher David Hume would write: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” […]
Another two decades on, Immanuel Kant, considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the modern period, would manage to let slip what is surely the greatest non-sequitur in the history of philosophy: describing a report of something seemingly intelligent that had once been said by an African, Kant dismisses it on the grounds that “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” […]
Scholars have been aware for a long time of the curious paradox of Enlightenment thought, that the supposedly universal aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity in fact only operated within a very circumscribed universe. Equality was only ever conceived as equality among people presumed in advance to be equal, and if some person or group fell by definition outside of the circle of equality, then it was no failure to live up to this political ideal to treat them as unequal.
It would take explicitly counter-Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century, such as Johann Gottfried Herder, to formulate anti-racist views of human diversity. In response to Kant and other contemporaries who were positively obsessed with finding a scientific explanation for the causes of black skin, Herder pointed out that there is nothing inherently more in need of explanation here than in the case of white skin: it is an analytic mistake to presume that whiteness amounts to the default setting, so to speak, of the human species.
Indeed, connections between science and the slave trade ran deep during [Robert] Boyle’s time—all the way into the account books. Royal Society accounts for the 1680s and 1690s shows semi-regular dividends paid out on the Society’s holdings in Royal African Company stock. £21 here, £21 there, once a year, once every two years. Along with membership dues and the occasional book sale, these dividends supported the Royal Society during its early years.
Boyle’s early “experiments” with the inheritance of skin color set an agenda that the scientists of the Royal Society pursued through the decades. They debated the origins of blackness with rough disregard for the humanity of enslaved persons even as they used the Royal African’s Company’s dividends to build up the Royal Society as an institution. When it came to understanding skin color, Boyle used his wealth and position to help construct a science of race that, for centuries, was used to justify the enslavement of Africans and their descendants globally.
This timeline gives an overview of scientific racism throughout the world, placing the Eugenics Record Office within a broader historical framework extending from Enlightenment-Era Europe to present-day social thought.
All this is obvious via a glance at a history book, something which Pinker is apparently allergic to. I’ll give Harrison the final word:
If we put into the practice the counting and gathering of data that Pinker so enthusiastically recommends and apply them to his own book, the picture is revealing. Locke receives a meagre two mentions in passing. Voltaire clocks up a modest six references with Spinoza coming in at a dozen. Kant does best of all, with a grand total of twenty-five (including references). Astonishingly, Diderot rates only two mentions (again in passing) and D’Alembert does not trouble the scorers. Most of these mentions occur in long lists. Pinker refers to himself over 180 times. […]
… if Enlightenment Now is a model of what Pinker’s advice to humanities scholars looks like when put into practice, I’m happy to keep ignoring it.
I’m not a fan of EvoPsych. It manages the feat of misunderstanding both evolution and psychology, its researchers are prone to wild misrepresentation of fields they clearly don’t understand, and it has all the trappings of a pseudo-science. Nonetheless, I’ve always thought they had enough sense to avoid promoting scientific racism, at least openly.
[CONTENT WARNING: Some of them don’t.]
As Jordan Peterson’s become more and more influential, there’s been an uptick in the number of people writing about him. The most astute analysis I’ve seen yet comes in podcast form via CANADALAND, but a recent blog post by PZ Myers directed me to Peter Coffin’s excellent contribution as well as Shiv’s ongoing coverage.
I see a common thread to it all, though. Coffin in particular points out just how poor Peterson is at coming to the point. That twigged a memory; forgive this copy-paste from The Skeptic’s Dictionary, but the entire text is important.
Shotgunning: Shotgunning is a cold reading trick used by pseudo-psychics and false mediums. To convince one’s mark that one is truly in touch with the other world, one provides a large quantity of information, some of which is bound to seem appropriate. Shotgunning relies on subjective validation and selective thinking.
Peterson is using a fairly old trick: blast out as many points as you can, and hope that a few of them stick. It doesn’t matter if some or even most of them fail, because people will cling to the handful that resonate with them. As an added bonus, shotgunning adds cognitive load to anyone hoping to critique you. If you want to make your critique solid, you need to grasp the entire argument and hold it in memory, which is nearly impossible when it’s a small fraction of a wandering, wide-ranging rant. Coffin needed to piece together small segments of three separate interviews to illuminate one of Peterson’s beliefs, for instance, making it easy to toss out the “out-of-context” card. Some reviews of Peterson’s latest book back up Coffin’s observation, though.
… the reader discovers that each of Peterson’s 12 rules is explained in an essay delivered in a baroque style that combines pull-your-socks-up scolding with footnoted references to academic papers and Blavatskyesque metaphysical flights. He likes to capitalise the word “Being” and also to talk about “fundamental, biological and non-arbitrary emergent truth”. Within a page, we are told that “expedience is cowardly, and shallow, and wrong” and “meaning is what emerges beautifully and profoundly like a newly formed rosebud opening itself out of nothingness into the light of sun and God”. The effect is bizarre, like being shouted at by a rugby coach in a sarong. […]
What makes this book so irritating is Peterson’s failure to follow many of the rules he sets out with such sententiousness. He does not “assume that the person he is listening to might know something he doesn’t”. He is far from “precise in his speech”, allowing his own foundational concepts (like “being” and “chaos”) to slide around until they lose any clear meaning. He is happy to dish out a stern injunction against straw-manning, but his “Postmodernists” and Marxists are the flimsiest of scarecrows, so his chest-thumping intellectual victories seem hollow.
Peterson has a knack for penning sentences that sound like deep wisdom at first glance but vanish into puffs of pseudo-profundity if you give them more than a second’s thought. Consider these: “Our eyes are always pointing at things we are interested in approaching, or investigating, or looking at, or having”; “In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise.” It is no defence to say there are truths here clumsily expressed: rule 10 is “Be precise in your speech”.
- The content does not justify the length of the book. When you strip away the pseudo-profundity and verbosity, you’re left with rather simple ideas you could find in any self-help book or discover on your own. Rule # 1, for instance, essentially states that females prefer males with confidence and that success breeds confidence and further success. This is rather obvious without having to understand the evolutionary history of lobsters.
- The introduction of the book presents the author as an objective investigator of the truth, disillusioned by dogmatic ideology and prepared to demonstrate its dangers. He then proceeds to incessantly quote from the bible, perhaps the most dogmatic text ever written. I didn’t purchase the book to be preached at, and found it unexpected and highly obnoxious.I understand that the author is interested in story and “archetypes,” but the bible is quoted out of proportion. There are many ancient stories to choose from, each with endless interpretive possibilities, but the bible is, for some reason, the primary text. Now I’m sure this is fine with many people, but I was unpleasantly surprised that I had purchased a book on biblical criticism or theology.
The latter review brings up another good point: Peterson’s morality is fundamentalist Christian and heavily influenced by the Christian Bible. He’s recently denied believing in their god, during an interview about his book which obsessively quotes from their Holy Writ. Less than a year ago, he was arguing in apocalyptic tones that everyone is secretly Christian.
… and that brings me to the last line which is that “so that we can all stumble forward to the Kingdom of God” Why would I put it that way? The reason I put it that way is because, well first of all, everybody does really know what that means, even though they may not believe in it, but that doesn’t really matter, being I think that to believe is to act and not to spout a set of statements and it is certainly possible to act as if what you are attempting to do is to bring about the Kingdom of God, and I would say that doing so is something that will radically justify your miserable existence and that’s really what you need, is radical justification for your miserable existence, and because human beings are so powerful, really powerful beyond the limits of our imagination, we have no idea where our ultimate destiny might be, that it’s not clear what our limits are and then if we decided to improve the place, let’s say, and I would say, starting with ourselves, because that is the safest and humblest way to begin, that there’s no telling where we might end up.
And since we’re all fragile and vulnerable creatures, and we’re going to lose everything anyway, we might as well risk everything to obtain the highest possible good, and then that would make the misery that constitutes our life bearable as a consequence of our intrinsic nobility. And there’s nothing in that except the good. And so then why not do it? And so that’s what I would enjoy and encourage, encourage everyone to do because there’s nothing better to do than that and we might as well all do that which there is nothing better than!
You’d think the mix of fundamentalist Christianity and self-help psychobabble would set off alarm bells in atheist and skeptic minds. As PZ points out, though, it isn’t. Even some big names in the movement are falling for Peterson, like Michael Shermer. Sam Harris is more resistant, yet has talked with him twice already and has a third event upcoming (tickets start at $79!). Some of YouTube Atheism is all agog over Peterson, too. This seems paradoxical at first glance.
But there’s a simple calculus at work here: Peterson’s stance against social justice is highly valued by these people, so much so that it doesn’t trigger skepticism or easily swamps those concerns. We see the same thing in evangelical Christians’ support for Donald Trump: he may be highly immoral according to their worldview, but stacking the courts in their favor is so important that they’ll wallpaper over his moral failings. This segment of skeptics and atheists values social justice over skepticism and atheism, albeit as a target of scorn.
If we combine that segment of anti-social-justice skeptics/atheists with the pro- side, however, isn’t that more than half of all atheists and skeptics? And if more than half of us value social justice that highly, isn’t it fair to argue social justice is a core part of the atheist/skeptic movement? Even if my numbers are off, it’s amusing to compare the PZ Myers of 2009 to that of 2017. The Culture Wars have made us all more mindful of social justice, no matter what subculture we belong to, and in the case of atheism/skepticism gradually turned it into a defining issue. You can’t understand our subculture without knowing about the social justice Deep Rift, and that makes social justice critical to understanding us.
The UN Population Fund puts it well:
Child marriage is a human rights violation. Despite laws against it, the practice remains widespread, in part because of persistent poverty and gender inequality. In developing countries, one in every four girls is married before reaching age 18. One in nine is married under age 15.
Child marriage threatens girls’ lives and health, and it limits their future prospects. Girls pressed into child marriage often become pregnant while still adolescents, increasing the risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth. These complications are a leading cause of death among older adolescents in developing countries.
UNICEF is even more forceful:
Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Many factors interact to place a girl at risk of marriage, including poverty, the perception that marriage will provide ‘protection’, family honour, social norms, customary or religious laws that condone the practice, an inadequate legislative framework and the state of a country’s civil registration system. Child marriage often compromises a girl’s development by resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupting her schooling, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement and placing her at increased risk of domestic violence. Child marriage also affects boys, but to a lesser degree than girls.
These children are insufficiently developed to vote or drive under the law, yet they can freely consent to a possibly life-long legal partnership? Ridiculous. It’s not hard to find stories of girls who felt like slaves to their husbands, or had to endure years of abuse before they could legally divorce. And the excuses given to protect it defy belief at times.
Last year, 17-year-old Girl Scout Cassandra Levesque campaigned to change the New Hampshire law that allows girls as young as 13 to get married if their parents approve. “My local representative introduced a bill that raised the minimum age to 18. But a couple of male representatives persuaded the others to kill the bill and to prevent it from being discussed again for some years,” she says. “One of them said that a 17-year-old Girl Scout couldn’t have a say in these matters.”
“So they think she’s old enough for marriage, but not old enough to talk about it,” says Reiss. “I think that reasoning is terrifying.”
My point exac-
… Wait. “New Hampshire?!”
In 2013, [Sherry] Johnson was working at a barbecue stand in Tallahassee when she told her story to a senator who was one of her regular customers. “She listened to me and decided to do something,” Johnson recalls. “She presented a bill to restrict child marriage in 2014, but it failed. That was because nobody understood the problem at the time. “People thought: this can’t happen in Florida. The minimum marriage age is 18; what’s the problem? But they didn’t know about the loopholes. Between 2001 and 2015, 16,000 children were married in Florida alone. A 40-year-old man can legally marry a five-year-old girl here.”
Child marriage is semi-legal in New Hampshire and Florida? That can’t be right.
In most US states, the minimum age for marriage is 18. However, in every state exceptions to this rule are possible, the most common being when parents approve and a judge gives their consent. In 25 states, there is no minimum marriage age when such an exception is made.
…. What the hell, USA? How could you allow over 200,000 children to get married between 2000 and 2015? How could your judges approve marriages before one party can even consent to sex?! Between this and your poor maternal health outcomes, your unsustainable military spending, your dysfunctional political system, and your growing reputation as a tax haven and money launderer, I have half a mind to invalidate your “developed country” card.
(Thanks to blf for pointing me to this outrage.)
Sick of all this memo talk? Too bad, because thanks to Lynna, OM in the Political Madness thread I discovered a new term: “computational propaganda,” or the use of computers to help spread talking points and generate “grassroots” activism. It’s a lot more advanced than running a few bots, too. You’ll have to read the article to learn the how and why, but I can entice you with its conclusion:
The problem with the term “fake news” is that it is completely wrong, denoting a passive intention. What is happening on social media is very real; it is not passive; and it is information warfare. There is very little argument among analytical academics about the overall impact of “political bots” that seek to influence how we think, evaluate and make decisions about the direction of our countries and who can best lead us—even if there is still difficulty in distinguishing whose disinformation is whose. Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher with Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project who has helped to document the impact of “polbot” activity, told me: “Often, it’s hard to tell where a particular story comes from. Alt-right groups and Russian disinformation campaigns are often indistinguishable since their goals often overlap. But what really matters is the tools that these groups use to achieve their goals: Computational propaganda serves to distort the political process and amplify fringe views in ways that no previous communication technology could.”
This machinery of information warfare remains within social media’s architecture. The challenge we still have in unraveling what happened in 2016 is how hard it is to pry the Russian components apart from those built by the far- and alt-right—they flex and fight together, and that alone should tell us something. As should the fact that there is a lesser far-left architecture that is coming into its own as part of this machine. And they all play into the same destructive narrative against the American mind.
Democracies have not faced a challenge like this since yellow journalism.
To understand what the memo is talking about, you have to trace back three separate threads.
Carter Page. In 2013, a number of Russian government agents tried to recruit him, via a lucrative deal with Gazprom. In return, Page admits to feeding them documents (which he claims were “basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents”). As luck would have it, at least one of those agents was already under surveillance (which would later lead to a conviction for espionage), so the FBI asked for and got a FISA warrant to ensure Page wasn’t part of a Russian spy network. That would have been scary, as Page was an advisor to then-candidate Donald Trump. These warrants expire every 90 days, and if the government wants them renewed they have to plead their case to a judge in a special court. The warrant against Page was renewed at least four times, by multiple people and multiple judges.
George Papadopoulos. According to the New York Times, “During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.” By “dirt,” he meant “stolen emails;” a spear-phishing campaign against the DNCC by a Russian government hacking group dubbed “Fancy Bear” succeeded in mid-March 2016, and on April 26th a Russian intelligence agent was teasing Papadopoulos with the emails. When they were released to the public in July 2016, the FBI opened an investigation into Papadopoulos. According to his guilty plea to the Special Investigator, Papadopoulos was bullish on getting Trump to meet Vladimir Putin and kept up his contacts with Russian spies during his time on the Trump campaign. As late as December 4th of 2016, Papadopoulos was publicly calling himself a Trump advisor.
Fusion GPS. In multiple congressional testimonies, Glenn Simpson said that his company was hired by The Washington Free Beacon to dig up dirt on Trump. Fusion GPS’s research found a tonne of it, most notably potential money laundering for Russian oligarchs. Simpson hired Christopher Steele, a former British spy with decades of Russia experience and a solid track record, to investigate the Russian angle. Steele’s work would eventually become “the Trump Dossier” (which may need to be renamed, as I somehow missed a second dossier). Partway through generating the 17 separate memos which would become The Dossier, Trump was crowned the official Republican presidential candidate and the Washington Free Beacon stopped funding it; the Democratic National Committee then picked up the tab. What Steele found had him so terrified that he, with Simpson’s approval, started sharing the information around. The first contact was an FBI agent in Rome; when the FBI themselves seemed oddly disinterested, he went to journalist David Corn and later Senator John McCain. The Dossier’s veracity has improved over time, and the Kremlin may have iced one of Steele’s contacts.
You’ll need a bit more background to fully grok it, but I can sprinkle that in while covering the claims of the memo itself.