Wednesday links

Zach Weiner explains very succinctly why it’s so hard to be a pacifist, Eve Tushnet reads about single mothers, John Wilkins doesn’t believe politicians have mandates, some guy named “Zippy Catholic” decides that women’s suffrage and abortion rights are inseparable (and therefore women’s suffrage must go!,) Laura Flanders and Eve Ensler have never talked to each other about their vaginas and don’t plan to start,  this map does a terrific job of encapsulating the results of the 2012 US presidential election, xkcd is hilarious, and Jim Goad can think of ten good reasons not to assassinate Barack Obama.

Time and cartoons

In the comic books, Superman is quitting his day job as a newspaperman.  The company that publishes the Superman titles, DC Comics, explains that, as part of an effort to make the character more relevant to “the 21st century,” he will become- a blogger!  Evidently the part of the 21st century they want him to be relevant to is the part that ended about 6 years ago.

Nina Paley summarizes the history of the Levant in 3 minutes and 32 seconds of animation.

Despite what you’d expect from a webcomic with its name, Doghouse Diaries rarely deals with dogs.  Yesterday’s strip is therefore in rare company.

Neither Zach Weiner nor Randall Munroe is at all impressed with the level of statistical discourse in mass media.

 

Cartoon etymology

Thanks to Stan Carey, who introduced those of us who read his site to “Mysteries of Vernacular.”  “Mysteries of Vernacular” is a series of animated shorts exploring the etymology of a few English words.  Here’s the one for hearse.  I like the interactive graphic that they give you to browse the videos:

 

The other day, Zach Weiner’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal featured an explanation of the origin of the phrase “vanilla sex.”  The explanation:

The VAN- part comes from the Spanish “Vaina” from the Latin “Vagina.”  The -ILLA part is diminutive.  So, etymologically, “Vanilla Sex” refers to a little vaginal sex.

Each of the etymological claims in the explanation is basically true,* but the conclusion they allegedly support is ludicrous.  Which I’m sure is the point, the etymological information represents a pun of an unusual and elaborate form.

*Basically.  So Spanish vaina does come from the Latin vagina, but so does Spanish vagina.  In Latin, vagina meant either “vagina” or “sheath”; in Spanish, vagina means “vagina” and vaina means “sheath.”  So, etymologically, “vanilla” means “little sheath,” not “little vagina.”  If the people who coined the phrase “vanilla sex” were thinking about the etymology behind the word “vanilla,” the etymological meaning of the phrase would be “little sheath sex.” In that case, we would expect the first appearances of the phrase to have some association with condoms.  Perhaps with little condoms.  Though perhaps not; sometimes the Romans used diminutive endings the way we use them in English, as terms of endearment or as ways of sounding cutesy (like the -sy on the end of “cutesy,” or the -y on the end of “thingy.”)  So maybe “condom-y sex,” or “condomish sex” might be a more accurate rendering than “little condom sex” if the original formation of “vanilla” were in fact part of the history of the expression.

Things I’ve been saying

Recently I’ve posted comments on several blogs and forums.  In response to a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic strip, I mused about James P. Carse’s theories of religion and Michael Oakeshott’s political theory.  At Dart-Throwing Chimp, I proposed that political scientists might be able to make use of work done by economists to strengthen the concept of “legitimacy” to which they often appeal.   At The Monkey Cage, I suggested that a survey which appears to show that Americans who support the Republican Party are somewhat likelier than their Democratic compatriots to harbor anti-African American sentiments might, if interpreted more carefully, show that the difference is actually much more dramatic than the raw data shows.  And at Secular Right, I expressed reservations about the idea of awarding $100,000,000 to every woman who carries to term a pregnancy begun in rape.

Do fundamentalist students make life harder for biology teachers than for history teachers?

The comment thread on this recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal closed down before I got around to posting a comment, so I’ll make my remarks on it here:


My first reaction to the punchline was this, which I posted on our Tumblr site: “The punchline to this comic strip doesn’t really work.  There are many parts of the world where history teachers attempting to introduce the Holocaust meet with exactly this kind of resistance, and then some.”

I thought a bit more about it, and decided that comment was a false start.  It would be more interesting to take the comic on its own terms and ask what happens when history teachers come into contact with fundamentalist students, as opposed to what happens when biology teachers come into contact with fundamentalist students.

In most school districts in the USA, every time evolution comes up in biology class the teachers have to brace themselves for a vocal onslaught from students who have been extensively briefed in denialist talking points by highly organized groups.  That’s a challenge history teachers don’t usually face in the USA.  Sometimes a history teacher might have to talk about some topic the students find distressing, and they may respond with anger.  But it is quite rare for those angry students to present their views in a form worked out by the kind of ideological apparatus that Creationists have set up for themselves.  There are countries in the world where other forms of denialism are supported by prestigious institutions that drill a mass audience in their talking points, as acquaintances of mine who have tried to teach 20th century European history in the Gulf states can attest.  In the USA, there are political interest groups that would like to establish a presence as widespread as that of the Creationists; for example, a couple of years ago the corn lobby had some success with efforts to punish academics for saying that cows eat grass.  But those efforts have not (yet!) become a routine factor in classrooms.  So, it is fair to say that in the USA, Creationism stands alone among denialist ideologies as a systematic challenge to classroom teachers.

Still, I would say that it is going too far to claim that “Teaching Intro Biology is harder than teaching Intro History,” even in regard to the narrow question of the challenges fundamentalist students present to their teachers.  Fundamentalist students may not come to history class ready to spout ideological boilerplate every time the teacher gets to something interesting, and so they are not as immediately obnoxious a presence there as they are in biology, geology, or astronomy class.  Indeed, I’ve taught many classes on history, and every class has included several fundamentalists.  I can say that fundamentalists are usually very quiet through such classes.

So when it comes to keeping good order and discipline in the classroom and getting through material, fundamentalist students do not represent a special challenge to history teachers.  But if you actually want to engage them in the subject, that’s a different story.  I’m a classical scholar, so when I teach history it is the history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Many times, I’ve put this question on a test: “How did the religious life of Rome change in the second century BC?”  A significant percentage of the students in every class has responded that the Romans converted to Christianity in the second century BC.  After I’ve graded the tests, I read the question aloud to them, then mention that many of the students said that the Romans converted to Christianity in the second century BC.  It usually takes half a minute or so before everyone realizes what “BC” stands for and starts laughing.  That’s an example of a widespread problem.  Students from fundamentalist backgrounds simply cannot imagine a world in which Christianity is not the only religion worth mentioning, or even a form of Christianity other than the one within which they were raised.

That problem, in turn, is the tip of a much bigger iceberg.  Fundamentalists realize that science is powerful and important; that’s why they package Creationism as “Creation Science.”  They do not have any reason to believe that history is important, however.  Fundamentalists hold that the Bible or Qu’ran or whatever text is sacred to their religion represents an unchanging truth, complete and identical from one age to the next, and that this is the only truth that ultimately matters.  Not only does the text not have a history, but the interpretation of that text does not have a history.  There is only one right way to read the text,  that is the only way that has ever been or will ever be right, and the right way exhausts the meaning of the text completely.  If you believe that, then the record of history is not part of the ongoing engagement between humanity and the world through which communities are formed and humans  come to understanding; understanding has already come to us, complete and error-free, deposited in your hotel room free of charge by the Gideons International, and community is the byproduct of that understanding.  For people who look at it that way, history  is just one damn thing after another, at best an amusing diversion from the serious business of life.

And of course it gets worse.  Demonstrate that the modern age is an extremely peculiar time, that the ideas which fundamentalists take for granted are possible only in an age of mass-produced books, the nation-state, and rationalized bureaucracy, bring home to them the fact that none of these things existed in the first millennium and a half of Christianity, and they go into an intellectual tailspin.  Some of them do become highly defensive; though they are not armed with the prefabricated circular reasoning of the Creationists, they can make a nuisance of themselves in the classroom.

That, of course, is to say nothing of their written work.  When fundamentalists try to stuff their ideology into a scientific report, the result is simply wrong.  A teacher can respond with a low grade and a reference to the standards of scientific writing.  In the humanities, we have to take a wider variety of writing seriously.  That isn’t to deny that there are standards, or that it is possible to structure an assignment so that you avoid wasting a great deal of time following the deadest of ideological dead ends.  Still, you can’t keep a humanistic discussion alive if you set the bounds as narrow as those in scientific writing.

The humanities, like the sciences,  are possible only where people are prepared, not only to challenge each others’ preconceptions, but also to challenge their own preconceptions.  In science, writing is usually the record of observations, experiments,  and analyses that presented the researcher with such challenges.  In the humanities, writing is not the record of these challenges, it is itself the process by which they are presented.  So, if you make it impossible for fundamentalist students to write fundamentalist essays, you make it impossible for them to profit from an exposure to history, literary studies, or any other branch of the humanities.

The Pope’s Hat in Two Recent Web Comics

I understand the appeal of hats and am puzzled by the appeal of popes.  The pope has distinctive headgear for which he is known.  So I sometimes wonder if I can use what I know about hat-fancying to gain some insight into the minds of pope-fanciers.  I haven’t had any success with this effort so far.  Apparently web comic writers also find the pope’s hats to be interesting, as the examples below illustrate:

Zach Weiner, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, #2526, 27 March 2012

Matt Bors, “Arrogance,” 11 April 2011

Justified True Belief

There are a couple of passages where Plato seems to define knowledge as “justified true belief.”  So, if you have enough evidence that you have a right to accept a given proposition as true, if you do in fact exercise this right and accept that proposition as true, and if  it so happens that the proposition is true, then Plato might have said that your belief in that proposition is an example of knowledge.

This definition was occasionally challenged in an oblique sort of way in the first 24 centuries after Plato put it forward, but it was still uncontroversial enough that philosophers could use it matter-of-factly as late as the 1950s.  In 1963, Professor Edmund L. Gettier of Wayne State University wrote a very short, indeed tiny, article in which he gave two counterexamples to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief.  Here is example one:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition:

  1. Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.

Smith’s evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones’s pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails:

  1. The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.

But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith’s pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith’s pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones’s pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job.

Here Smith is justified in believing that “The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket,” and it is in fact true that the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.  However, the same evidence which justifies that true belief also justifies Smith’s false belief that Jones will get the job.  In Smith’s mind, these two beliefs are so intertwined that the true proposition is unlikely to figure in any line of reasoning uncoupled from the false one.  Moreover, since Smith does not realize that he himself has ten coins in his pocket, nor presumably that there is any applicant for the job other than Jones who has ten coins in his pocket, there is no reason to suppose that he would regard such a proposition as anything other than a statement that Jones will get the job.  So, true though the proposition may be, and justified as Smith may be in accepting it as true, his belief in it can lead him to nothing but error.

This counterexample is of course highly contrived, as is Professor Gettier’s second counterexample.  That doesn’t matter.  His only goal was to show that there can be justified true beliefs which we would not call knowledge, not that such beliefs are particularly commonplace.  Having given even one counterexample, Professor Gettier showed that justified true belief is not an adequate definition of knowledge.  Needless to say, Plato himself would probably have been thrilled with these counterexamples.  One can easily imagine him starting from them and proceeding to spin out a whole theory of justification, perhaps based on the idea that what we have a right to believe varies depending on the plane of existence to which our belief pertains, or that justification isn’t really justification unless the subject is approaching the topic in the true character of a philosopher, or some such Platonistic thing.

As it happens, Professor Gettier’s article was followed by a great many publications giving “Gettier-style” counterexamples, including many that are far more natural and straightforward than his original two.  Evidently all that needed to be done was to give some counterexamples, and the floodgates of creativity came open.  Professor Gettier himself did not write any of these articles, or indeed any articles at all after his 1963 paper.

Once you’ve read the 1963 paper, you may begin to notice naturally-occurring Gettier-style counterexamples.  The first novel I read after I was introduced to this topic about 20 years ago was Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds.  Trollope is not often called a philosophical novelist.  However, a Gettier-style counterexample lies at the heart of this novel.  Lizzie Eustace is the childless widow of Sir Florian Eustace.  Among Sir Florian’s possessions had been a diamond necklace valued at £ 10,000.  Lady Eustace claimed that Sir Florian wanted her to have the necklace, and so insisted on treating it as her own; however, the Eustace family lawyer claimed that it was a family heirloom, entailed to Sir Florian’s blood relations, and so that it should revert to the family in event of his death without issue.   While this dispute was moving towards the courts, a person or persons unknown broke into a safe where Lady Eustace was known to keep the necklace.  The burglary was discovered; the necklace was not there.  Lady Eustace did not tell the police what was in fact true, that she had taken the necklace from the safe before the burglary and still had it in her possession.  The leader of the police investigation is Inspector Gage, a wily and experienced detective who quickly arrives at the conclusion that Lady Eustace has stolen the necklace herself, likely in conjunction with her lover, Lord George de Bruce Carruthers.

In fact, Inspector Gage is mistaken not only about Lady Lizzie’s complicity in the burglary, but also about the nature of her relationship with Lord George and about Lord George’s character.  For all that they seem like lovers, and for all that Lady Eustace would like to become Lord George’s lover, they never quite come together.  And for all that Lord George’s sources of income are shrouded in mystery, he proves in the end to be thoroughly law-abiding.  However, the collection of evidence on which the inspector bases his theory is so impressive that if it did not justify him believing it, one can hardly imagine how anyone could be justified in believing anything.  So those three propositions could be classified as justified false beliefs.  At the nub of them all, however, is a justified true belief: that the necklace is in the possession of Lady Eustace.  Surrounded as it is by these false beliefs, false beliefs which would prevent the inspector from forming a true theory of the case, he cannot be said to know even this.

Cartoonist Zach Weiner devoted a recent installment of his Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal to laying out some thoughts about Gettier-style counterexamples:

 

I want to make a few remarks about this strip.  First, it doesn’t seem right to say that Professor Gettier proposed a “philosophical problem.”  To the extent that there is a “Gettier problem,” it is a problem with Plato’s proposed definition of knowledge.  By finding a weakness in that definition, Professor Gettier may have reopened philosophical problems that some had hoped to use the definition to mark as solved, but his article does not in itself suggest any new problems.  To jump directly from Professor Gettier’s challenge to Plato’s definition to a statement that “humans find the order of events to be cute” is to introduce quite an unnecessarily grandiose generalization.

Second, it’s clever that the irate child denounces “the Gettier ‘problem'” with a claim that “Maybe all the ‘problems’ of philosophy are just emergent properties that disappear when you simplify.”   Professor Gettier’s 1963 paper includes just three footnotes.  One refers to the two passages where Plato floats the definition of knowledge as justified true belief (“Plato seems to be considering some such definition at Theaetetus 201, and perhaps accepting one at Meno 98.”)  The other two cite uses of the definition by Roderick Chisholm and Alfred Ayer, two very eminent philosophers working in the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy (“Roderick M. Chisholm, Perceiving: A Philosophical Study (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1957), p. 16,” and “A. J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 34.”)  Much of the analytic tradition stems from the suspicion that “all the ‘problems’ of philosophy are just emergent properties that disappear when you simplify,” and Ayer and Chisholm both had interesting things to say about this suspicion.

Third, by what criterion can brain cells be regarded as “small stuff” and consciousness as “big stuff”? I’d say the only person to whom that idea makes sense is one who has heard straightforward explanations of the basics of brain anatomy and woolly explanations of the metaphysics of consciousness.  Everyone who is likely to read this strip either is, or has at some time been, awake.  Consciousness is thus familiar to all of them, an everyday thing, the very smallest of the “small stuff.” Conversely, brain cells are knowable only to people who have access to a microscope or to findings arrived at by use of a microscope.  They are, therefore, a relatively recherche topic, and most definitely “big stuff” to any truly naive subject.  To connect the phenomena of consciousness with brain cells, or with brain anatomy, is not only an even more sophisticated topic, but is at present wildly speculative.

Fourth, it’s clever to have the irate child find that “the small stuff” is no easier to understand than “the big stuff.”  I think Plato would have liked the strip, not for its defense of his definition, but for its illustration of the difficulty of separating “the small stuff” from “the big stuff.”  After all, probability wobbles and the rest of quantum theory are, so far as we are concerned, highly abstract.  We may use various images to make physics intelligible, but the deeper we enter into the subject the more thoroughly mathematical it becomes.  As the final nose-flicking indicates, our experience of “facts” and “brain cells” and “stuff that happens” are also theory-laden, so that it is an empty boast to claim that one regards them as real and the ideas behind them as unreal.

The contextualization fairy

Recently, John Holbo posted two items (here and here) on Crooked Timber about something odd in American politics.  Right-wing politicians in the USA quite often make public statements that would, if taken at face value, suggest that they are far more extreme in their views than they in fact are.  So, Professor Holbo finds remarks from Texas governor Rick Perry which, taken literally, would imply that Mr Perry thought that Texas should secede from the USA, that all federal programs established since 1900 should be abolished, indeed that there should be no government at all.  Mr Perry obviously does not believe any of those things, so obviously that only his committed opponents try to take him to task for making such extreme remarks.  This is not unique to Mr Perry, but is a usual pattern for right-wing US politicians.

What makes this so odd is that, while it is common for right-wing American politicians to exaggerate the radicalism of their views and for the public to realize that this is what they are doing, Professor Holbo can find no examples of their left-leaning counterparts doing the same thing.  A Democratic or leftist candidate who makes a radical-sounding statement likely means that statement to be taken at face value, and it certainly will be taken at face value by most observers.

Many commentators on American politics explain the right-wingers’ habit of making extreme sounding statements for which they do not expect to be held responsible as an effort to move the “Overton Window.”  The Overton Window, named for the late Joseph P. Overton, is the range of ideas that the people who hold sway in a given political culture hold to be acceptable at a particular time.  Only ideas within the window are likely to be put into effect.  The window shifts back and forth, as some ideas that had once seemed outlandish begin to seem mainstream, while other ideas that had once seemed mainstream begin to seem outlandish.

Key to the Overton Window is the idea of contextualization.  The idea of devolving Medicare, the program that ensures that most Americans over the age of 65 will be able to pay for health care, to the states may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared to the idea of large states seceding from the Union it is quite moderate.  The idea of shifting the revenues of Social Security, the program that provides a guaranteed income to  most Americans over the age of 65, from current benefits to private savings accounts may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared with the idea of abolishing the entire welfare state it is quite moderate.  Other policies favored by powerful interests on the right end of the political spectrum may also seem outlandish, but compared with anarchism they too are quite moderate.  So, within the context of the extreme remarks for which they are not called to account, rightists can gain a hearing for policies which they do seriously advocate.

(more…)

Sign Language in Comic Strips

Here’s an old Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  Notice the speech balloon rising from the signing fingers:

smbcspeechballoon

In this comic, a thought balloon rises from signing fingers:

thought balloon

I suppose a cartoonist could also gloss sign language with a note in the caption space, but my lunch break wasn’t long enough to find an example of that approach.