The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

A Statement of Principles on Science and Justice

| 73 Comments

Someone recently addressed the following remark to me: ” a straight white male apparently lecturing people who are not straight white males about how they should respond to discrimination is always going to be viewed with scepticism.”

I’m going to repost my reply here, so that it’s right at the top of the page, and no one can be confused about where I stand.

1. I believe that solving problems of oppression and inequality requires, above all, a scientific understanding of the workings of the society that produces oppression and inequality.

2. I believe that someone putting more or less weight on an argument because of the race, sex, or sexual preference of the person making the argument is being unscientific, and is thus interfering with our ability to understand society and, therefore, our ability to change it.

3. I believe that such a person is, in the last analysis, acting in support of oppression and inequality.

4. I oppose those who support oppression and inequality, and I don’t give a shit what the race, sex, or sexual preference of such a person is.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

73 Comments

  1. I’m only guessing here, but I suspect that when Scalzi wrote his essay, he didn’t intend for people to use it as The Ultimate Argument against any straight white male they disagree with.

    Just goes to show that there’s nothing one can write without it being used to defeat its own purpose.

  2. Hear him, hear him!

  3. skzb

    Yeah, I’d say he was making a valid, if limited, point. I don’t think anything I’ve said here contradicts anything he said there.

  4. Well, yes. Scientific understanding is good. But the scientist’s ability to figure things out is only as good as the data he or she has. One of the important points about racism and sexism is that the data you get through living your life is different depending on how you are perceived (as male/female/black/white/etc.) A person from the group discriminated against might very well know things about discrimination that are invisible to members of the privileged group. I can see it might be really grating for someone to have their lived experience contradicted by someone who has worked things out intellectually.
    (I’m not sure what the context was here. I just wandered in from Twitter.)

  5. Oh, certainly not. Scalzi would undoubtedly think the very opposite – namely, that everyone should make an effort to solve social problems; and that as a SWM we have _more_responsibility to do so. That said, hearing people pull out the ‘SWM’ card very much predates Scalzi.

  6. @J’aime You’ve just described one of the many problems with anecdotal evidence, as compared to science. I feel comfortable suggesting that you’re missing Steve’s point by suggesting that that data he’s gotten through living his life is anything like the point.

  7. I would argue only, a bit, with #2. If the argument involves, as a commenter above refers to, the lived experience of a category of people, I generally give more weight to what those people say about their lived experience than what those outside the category say. All other things being equal.

  8. On the one hand, I completely agree with you.

    On the other hand, if I’m interpreting the person’s comment correctly (that is: That because straight white males are on top of the socio-economic latter, they their input on the subject of discrimination, no matter how well meaning, can only miss the point or at least some important aspects of that discrimination.), I can see how that perspective can be valid. You need only look as far as the arguments about “civil union” to see how arguments from someone, who has no real understanding of the discrimination that is happening, can actually be damaging to the cause that is seemingly trying to be beneficial (though the creator of the civil union argument is actually anti-gay, so that isn’t the best example).

    Let’s talk about Affirmative Action. It was developed in the 1960s as a way to level the playing field for minorities. It wasn’t until recently that people started to discuss, seriously, the negative consequences of it. It forces a perception of equality and doesn’t even address the problem of discrimination. Oh, and it is also a policy that was started by a straight white male.

    Switching back to the one hand, single white males discussing discrimination can only be a good thing so long as it is just that, a discussion. If you have a bunch of straight white men, especially those who have the power to make policies that effect millions of people, making policies, without consulting or discussing with those whom they are trying to benefit, then historically, something bad for the cause is likely to come about. That doesn’t mean that straight white males shouldn’t have a voice in the efforts to remove discrimination though.

    Whether you consider it good or bad, straight white men, especially those in power, know what is required to make things happen in politics. They know how negotiations must go in order to gain some ground against those that oppose equality.

  9. @skzb I know. I didn’t mean to sound as if I was disagreeing with you. On the contrary, I was expressing my annoyance at how people use the “straight white male” as the ultimate argument. It’s perfectly valid to point out someone’s straight white male bias, as long as there actually is a bias in play; it stops being valid when no such bias is involved.

    Like @snoopy369 said, the “SWM card” argument predates Scalzi’s essay. I probably jumped to association with his essay because I was defending it in an unrelated argument recently. Sorry for the confusion.

  10. skzb

    Vojislav: You didn’t sound like you were disagreeing, you sounded like you were agreeing with me, which is why I gave a reply to affirm our agreement, which is why we are now going back and forth about how we agree with each other. Ain’t the internet wonderful?

  11. This made me think of something from David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism:

    “Civil rights were an issue, and questions of sexuality and of reproductive rights were very much in play. For almost everyone involved in the movement of ’68, the intrusive state was the enemy and it had to be reformed. And on that, the neoliberals could easily agree. But capitalist corporations, business, and the market system were also seen as primary enemies requiring redress if not revolutionary transformation; hence the threat to capitalist class power. By capturing ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the interventionist and regulatory practices of the state, capitalist class interest could hope to protect and even restore their position. Neoliberalism was well suited to this ideological task. But it had to be backed up by a practical strategy that emphasized the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices. Neoliberalization required both politically and economically the construction of a neoliberal market-based populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism. As such it proved more than a little compatible with that cultural impulse called ‘post-modernism’ which had long been lurking in the wings but could now emerge full-blown as a both a cultural and an intellectual dominant. This was the challenge that corporations and class elites set out to finesse in the 1980s.”

    Our “market-based populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism” may explain things like petitioning companies to blacklist writers.

  12. I am not familiar with Scalzi’s statement, but I will agree wholeheartedly with your statement above, Mr Brust.

  13. “…The data you get through living your life is different depending on how you are perceived (as male/female/black/white/etc.)”

    That’s not data; that’s impressions. The hard part is looking beyond the impressions left by how you are perceived (and how you perceive), and coming as close as you can to the actual facts of the thoughts, actions, historical period, etc.

    This is the data that can provide real understanding, reveal real agreements and disagreements, and move people away from SKZB’s Point 2 and closer to factual truth as a basis for action.

  14. A member of the aristocracy lecturing the proletariat on how they should respond to inequality will always be viewed with skepticism.

  15. Right on the mark. Too bad you’re a straight white male, how could you possibly understand others. Sarcasm intended.

  16. Science is good. Sometimes it just is not in the cards. Psychology and sociology and anthropology are soft sciences. Economics as it is usually done is voodoo witch doctoring.

    We can get some results by trial and error, if we’re observant and lucky.

    People who have a particular background might have useful data and ideas. People with a different background also.

    Maybe it takes somebody who’s gay to understand part of a social problem. Maybe it takes somebody who isn’t gay to understand a different part of the same problem.

    Don’t decide somebody has no contribution until after you have carefully studied their contribution.

  17. Since I was the person who made the observation in question it seems sensible to note that a prediction of the likely response to a particular action does not constitute an assertion that the likely response is, for the want of a better word, right.

    It’s an assertion of fact, and can only be rebutted by adducing evidence that this is, in fact, not the likely response. If anyone wants to adduce such evidence then please go for it.

    In the absence of such evidence I can proffer a real life example, which took place decades ago, this time based on the response to the attempts made by privileged white feminists to lecture our non white sisters on how they should be tackling the patriarchy in their own cultures.

    We got duffed over good and proper, and after the, perhaps inevitable, initial defensive denials of racism, most of us did some serious soul searching and accepted that our actions had been racist. The sociologists amongst us, me included, accepted also that our actions were class based, but then we were the people who had the scientific tools to arrive at that conclusion.

    So, been there, done that, really don’t want to buy the t-shirt because it’s permanently etched in memory as a horrendous example of what not to do…

  18. “… attempts made by privileged white feminists to lecture our non white sisters on how they should be tackling the patriarchy in their own cultures.”

    OK! That’s different!

    You might have had worthwhile advice about how to persuade the patriarchal US government to withdraw its patriarchal army from their country. You might know something useful about Americans.

    Similarly, heterosexuals might have something useful to say about how gays can get tolerance from the wider consensus culture, and ways to coexist peacefully with homophobes. But they would probably be no good at all at marriage advice.

  19. 1. There are lot of great, well-informed people of color who could comment on practically every subject a white dude can. But because of racism, sexism, etc – they aren’t offered that opportunity nearly as much, or as well-connected socially, etc. So although you might be perfectly qualified to speak on the subject, do you really need to perpetuate the oppressive system in which dominant society’s most respected speakers on a marginalized group belong to dominant society, and not the marginalized group? There’s a lot of value in stepping back from the podium so that someone from a place of marginalization can step up.

    2. Science is not immune from racism, sexism etc. Both the practice of science – people collecting data in ways they don’t realize are racist or sexist, people interpreting that data in ways they don’t realize are racist or sexist, etc – and the politics and culture of various scientific fields. So coming from “science” doesn’t mean you are somehow less oppressive (or more objective). There are certainly ample experiences throughout history of this. Also, people who have experienced discrimination and oppression first-hand tend to be excellently positioned to view and interpret things critically without being racist or sexist about it.

    3. There’s a phrase that has come out of disability activism – “nothing about us without us”. If you want to change society, it takes more than ideas. It takes generating and presenting those ideas in a way that is liberatory. And if you are just talking about marginalized people without using your privilege to empower them with the means to talk about themselves, you are not helping. You are hurting. There have always been scientists speaking for – or more realistically – speaking OVER – marginalized people. But one thing you learn when you’re marginalized is that there’s a lot of power in being about to have some control over how you are represented by Science, because if Science gets it wrong, you’re really screwed. Dominant society will trust a white scientist’s version of your experience more than your own.

    As a woman of color, it’s irritating how white guys jostle to keep their position as “experts” on my existence, and justify it by saying anyone who disagrees is some kind of reverse-racist or reverse-sexist – as though they’re the best arbiters of that.

    It’s why so many people of color are turned off by the politics and subcultures of science and intellectualism; it’s tiring dealing with people who think that they’re too objective or intelligent to be oppressive, or who are willing to “support” you – up until the point that they have to make a sacrifice of some career or personal benefit, and then suddenly they’re aghast.

  20. I think one of the issues I have with the SWM card is that it reduces all questions of oppression and inequality to three dimensions: color, gender, sexual orientation. Heterogeneity in mental health and neurology, various types of disability both mental and physical, etc. are also prominent sources of inequality, and yet don’t even make it into these discussions except in an off-hand way. If you’re a SWM you can’t possibly suffer from injustice, regardless of whether or not you do. It alienates political allies, overlooks salient data, and is just bloody stupid.

  21. The straight white male argument is usually irrelevant, but I think it does carry some weight when making a subjective argument. If the discussion is something like “decency/indecency,” the personal perspective of the speaker becomes valid because the argument by nature is not empirical. One can argue why a certain way of life is “indecent,” or in what ways people deserve to be treated “decently,” but you’ll generally end up with culturally skewed arguments. While I think the cultural perspective holds some weight, ultimately the reasons behind these opinions is the real meat. Sometimes though, it might be important to remind someone when they see the world too myopically.

  22. skzb

    “Sometimes though, it might be important to remind someone when they see the world too myopically.”

    I do not believe I can disagree with you on this. Yes, indeed, at times it is useful to be able to listen–really listen–to experiences that are outside of one’s own. But, as you say (or as I interpret what you say), that does not become the foundation for one’s understanding of the nature of society or how to change it.

  23. skzb

    chopchopchop:
    1.Seriously? Really? That’s what you’re going with? We should refrain from telling the truth because it’s possible someone else with “more right” is going to say the same thing? That’s your play? That’s what you want to stay with?

    2. I don’t think “science” means what you think it means. It does not refer to the academic journal, or the chair at the university, those things can flow from it. Science means using a method that produces understanding that corresponds, as much as possible, to objective processes. If one refuses to do that, one will be unable to comprehend the world, and, in confusion, find one’s self saying that we shouldn’t tell the truth, just in case someone else has that truth too. And while the fact that the most brutal attacks on science are coming from the Christian Right is not conclusive evidence that your position on this issue is reactionary; it ought to make you take a good, hard look at it.

    3.The means of spreading those ideas is less important if they are wrong, and will lead to more oppression rather than less oppression. I don’t care who is saying it, or under what circumstances; a reactionary idea is reactionary, and needs to be exposed as such. Policies that will end in permitting the Right to reverse Roe v. Wade need to be denounced, whatever chromosomes the speaker has.

  24. Yes, most of the time. “Decency” type arguments are key to many interpretations of freedom of speech arguments and often it’s nearly impossible to remove the bias from the conversation. When albums get banned, it is usually a debate about what is culturally “decent” for an area. George Carlin’s routine about “the seven dirty words you can’t say on television” was a joke at the time he performed it, but after it was aired on the radio, the resulting case created a precedent and became the standard in law. That isn’t exactly science at work.

    Muhammad cartoons seem like they should be a really obvious example of something which should be tolerated under the freedom of speech, but anywhere you have a majority of muslims they see it as something clearly hurtful and an obvious punishable offense. The idiot preacher who burned Korans seems also to have be within the grounds of freedom of speech, but on the other hand the reaction to that cost lives. You could argue that it’s worse than yelling fire in a crowded movie theatre, but the reactive element is 100% cultural.

    While this isn’t a legal example, the MPAA rating system contributors come from an extremely narrow demographic, yet their cultural bias of what is decent affect nearly all of the speech from the entire motion picture industry. In this example especially, I don’t think you can argue against this system without examining the culture itself.

    There are similar arguments which occur when talking about what is acceptable in terms of copyright law between industry, end user and artist. The law itself is as vague as voodoo and often everyone can be the subject of a lawsuit.

    I think when the foundations are fluid, culture can be an important part of a discussion. Facts and figures should win out over this, but sometimes they matter very little depending on what you’re talking about.

  25. skzb – I’m not saying you should refrain from telling the truth. Please don’t misconstrue my words. I’m saying that there are lots of marginalized people who would love to stand at the podium and tell the truth – whether that’s a conference, an article, a public speech, whatever – but they aren’t given the chance because it’s going to white guys.

    I’m sure – as someone who believes in the concept of oppression – that you’re aware that oppressed people have a hard time getting visibility for their issues or their right to be heard. So it’s not ideal for that visibility to persistently come in the form of white dudes talking “on their behalf”. They are totally competent at talking for themselves.

    So if we want to have the kind of world where marginalized people have their fair share of power, a good place to start is by using your influence to get a marginalized person to share their findings, instead of scooting in front of them to present your own. Of course I’m not saying you shouldn’t speak out if you’re the only one – but the reality is that usually there’s an invisible lineup of marginalized people behind you, who won’t get that opportunity because they aren’t popular or well-connected or respected or privileged enough.

    For example, I know some excellent researchers who are disabled, who can rarely present their findings because the conferences they want to attend are so inaccessible to people with disabilities. I know academic conventions with wonderful intentions towards helping impoverished women, but they don’t provide any daycare during lectures, so none of those impoverished woman can attend. I know workshops about rape that can’t be attended by survivors because it didn’t occur to the workshop leader to institute a safety policy and have trauma counselors on standby. And yes, I even know woman of color who feel discouraged from getting involved with scientific and academic communities because it means having to explain shit like this a thousand times to people who claim to be progressive but become hostile and defensive if being progressive means changing the way you look at things or behave.

    The crazy thing is that even in “radical” movements in the US, it’s incredible how many causes have white dude figureheads. It’s not because there aren’t qualified non-white non-dudes. It’s because when you’re a white dude in this society, you tend to be floated up to the top, and unless you actively resist that process, you’re going to inadvertently perpetuate it. Acting on oppression isn’t a one-time realization that sticks with you forever; it’s not the default. Oppression is the default.

    Regarding science, I’m aware of the various ways in which one can define science, thanks. But in a practical sense, you can’t divorce the practice and ideals of science from the society and politics in which those practices function. (When I use an uppercase S – Science – I’m referring to science that includes all that sociopolitical junk, lowercase science is a reference to the fundamental meaning).

    As to your last point, I hope we can agree that one doesn’t have to choose between “right ideas from white guys” and “wrong ideas from women of color”. I am 100% in agreement with you about spreading ideas that are true and valid and insightful and based on ethical and scientifically valid research methods.

    I just think that part of doing anti-oppression work is being aware that the way you do that work matters; and that you’ll be just as privileged and favored as a white guy doing that work as you are in all other realms of life.

  26. skzb

    chopchopchop: First of all, you get props for making a reasonable and thoughtful reply in response to my snarkiness. Second, I disagree, not as much with your particular points as with your method and approach.

    In my opinion, to end oppression requires a socialist reconstruction of society; a revolutionary transformation. Also, in my opinion, this can only be carried out by a united working class. This is a big task, requiring a fight to break the working class from its illusions in the two bourgeois parties, and for a real understanding that there is a socialist alternative.

    In my opinion, without these things, oppression can and will only become worse.

    The fight for clarity on how this can and should happen is the most important task there is for a revolutionist; and the approach must be scientific–ie, correspond as much as possible to actual, objective conditions.

    There is no room for racism, sexism, or homophobia within a vanguard party, and all signs of it ought to be ruthlessly crushed. The reason for this is because all of those things foster divisions *within the working class.* To attempt to fight for equality within the confines of capitalism, instead of as a step toward the independence of the working class, is to give aid and comfort to the very illusions that are keeping us in chains.

    There are some who feel that we should direct our efforts toward seeing to it that, for example, there are more women in upper management positions at Goldman-Sachs. I’m not making that up. There are people who call themselves “Leftists” who actually believe that. As if the very *existence* of Goldman-Sachs wasn’t an obscenity.

    I read your method and approach as being one that not only fails to work to unify the working class, but actually serves to further divide the working class by insisting that such accidental and tertiary divisions as race, sex, and sexual preference are fundamental.

    To put it in the simplest form: If the fight for (to pick one example) racial equality is taking place apart from the fight to unite the working class against oppression, then it is serving the interests of the oppressors.

  27. “I’m saying that there are lots of marginalized people who would love to stand at the podium and tell the truth – whether that’s a conference, an article, a public speech, whatever – but they aren’t given the chance because it’s going to white guys.”

    Well, duh!

    Have you been studying societies? People form in-groups. Within each in-group there are people who have earned the right to speak and be listened to. Scientific groups make some effort to give those privileges to scientists who actually learn something real.

    So for example, there are physicists and then there are physics cranks. Physics cranks typically do not get the academic training that real physicists get. They come up with their own heterodox ideas. Some of those ideas may in fact be worth following up. Physics has tended to follow a consensus route to progress, and sometimes the consensus may have been kind of mistaken. But they will be ignored, because they are not in fact physicists but only cranks.

    So, I imagine a hierarchy of sociologists. Everybody is giving papers trying to improve their standing in that hierarchy. Impress the right people and you get better access to grants, funding, better positions — tenure if you don’t have it. And then somebody instead of presenting his own work, gives his place to somebody who has no formal training who wants to talk about what it’s like being a minority….

    Maybe it would be better if we tore down all the hierarchies. Let everybody speak up wherever they think they can make a contribution. That might be a good thing. Yes.

    Let’s do it in the hierarchy you are competing in *now*, and we’ll do it in my hierarchy later after we better understand the advantages.

  28. “Let’s do it in the hierarchy you are competing in *now*, and we’ll do it in my hierarchy later after we better understand the advantages.”

    Oops! I want to apologize for that. I thought it was funny, but afterward I realized it would come off as a direct attack on your profession. It’s hard for people to enjoy the humor in *that*.

    I intended a sort of good-humored joshing. I was not being sensitive enough to other points of view.

  29. In activist lingo, they call that intersectionality – the need to recognize the reality that oppressions are all fundamentally connected.

    They also use the term “reform” to refer to people who just want to “tweak” the existing hierarchies of power – such as having more women in upper management at Goldman-Sachs. Not all reform work is bad, in the sense that there’s a spectrum of reform work happening and sometimes it does help alleviate immediate conditions of oppression – for example, trying to get some migrant workers minimum wage, as opposed to taking down the entire system that created that situation in the first place. “Radical” work often has more big picture goals in mind – like starting an independent fruit farm with a worker-run collective. And of course there’s plenty of overlap between the two.

    It’s interesting that you mentioned the united working class. A lot of activists have that goal too; getting a huge load of people onto the same bandwagon. I like that idea in theory but I don’t believe in it in practice, because in my personal experience even smaller movements suffer from incredible infighting and immediately start creating or recreating power hierarchies. It’s an interesting question of how to have a mass revolution whose goal is necessarily complicated and not one-size-fits-all.

    This is going to sound pretty flaky, but when it comes to building a world we want to live, I’ve personally seen the best mileage from starting incredibly small – not by trying to organize something big with a bunch of strangers, but figuring out how to do it with your circle of friends and loved ones. Navigating stuff like different sexualities, genders, skin tones, some people being more privileged in some ways or more oppressed in others – figuring out how to treat each other properly, where the stakes are high because you really give a shit about each other. It’s not a political or social exercise, it’s fundamentally figure out how to make the lemonade of liberation out of, uh, oppression-lemons.

    I think we tend to think about oppression as being this big picture thing – politics, economics, whatever – and it totally is, no question. But I’m not sure it’s best addressed on that scale. I think we have to look at how oppression has trickled all the way down into men who beat their wives, people who feel nervous in black neighborhoods, rich people who think poor people are just lazy and lack motivation – and the way we treat the people around us, on the smallest scale possible.

    Otherwise, in my experience, any attempts to organize politically start floundering all over the place because we haven’t gotten the building blocks of basic human respect in order. And I think part of why we have such a hard time getting the respect/compassion thing in order is because oppression fundamentally undermines it in order to pursue its aims.

    Now I’ve digressed so far that I don’t think this has any bearing on what we were originally talking about.

    Anyway, I’m not insisting that gender, race etc are fundamental. But I’m definitely insisting that marginalized voices – of whatever gender, race etc – need to be raised up, because right now non-marginalized voices can too easily trample all over them. It just so happens that marginalized voices are disproportionately women, disabled people, people of color, queer/trans people, etc – when I advocate for them, it’s not because of their race trait or their gender trait or whatever, it’s because of their marginalization trait. Does that make sense?

  30. skzb

    “I think we tend to think about oppression as being this big picture thing – politics, economics, whatever – and it totally is, no question. But I’m not sure it’s best addressed on that scale.”

    This is where we differ. And I think that’s a good place to leave it, because I have this feeling that neither of us is about to convince the other. Thank you for your thoughtful remarks.

  31. Skzb

    I’m not in favour generally of ‘naming and shaming’ tactics but I have never met anyone with a political stance anywhere to the left of Ivan the Terrible who thinks that getting more women into ‘upper management positions’ in Goldman Sachs should be supported.

    Who are these people? And why do they not know that there is no such thing as an ‘upper management position’ in Goldman Sachs?

    Goldman Sachs is a partnership, and all power is exercised by the partners who take all of the profits. I find it remarkable that people could be ignorant of this fact…

  32. skzb: “a scientific understanding of the workings of the society”

    This is tangential to your point, but I’ve never seen anyone really define what a scientific understanding of society is, or how one would go about applying it. Of course, there was Taylorism in the 20’s, but he simply decided all people were cogs in the machine. Can you elaborate on the idea, or have you any pointers to especially good explanations of it?

    “I believe that someone putting more or less weight on an argument because of the race, sex, or sexual preference of the person making the argument is being unscientific…”

    I have to disagree with this. Discussions themselves are not scientific one way or the other, so it’s not appropriate to apply the word “unscientific” in this case. If the person of the “wrong” race, sex or sexual preference can support her opinions adequately, she has debated well, but not scientifically. It’s important to remember that science is not a thing, it’s a whole process – hypothesize, test, theorize, test, predict, examine, repeat.

  33. skzb

    ” I’ve never seen anyone really define what a scientific understanding of society is,”

    “It’s important to remember that science is not a thing, it’s a whole process”

    I most emphatically agree with this last! Our understanding (of natural phenomena, of society) is also a process. To the degree that our understanding corresponds to the objective truth of those phenomena, we are being scientific. To the degree that we present this accurately, our arguments are scientific.

  34. skzb

    Stevie: This is the first one I got to, from the NYT, supposedly the voice of US liberalism: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/16/business/16bias.html?_r=0

  35. And, for a much funnier analysis of why Goldman Sachs does the things it does, I recommend Michael Lewis’s columns on Bloomberg; his piece on the need to remove white males from scouting trips to Princeton is a positive masterpiece.

    I think he was the first person to note the revamping of GS as a listed company as the finest piece of camouflage the partners have ever achieved, but then playing Liar’s Poker may be an essential prerequisite to understanding the mindset…

  36. Skzb

    We cross posted; I thought that you were referring to specific individuals rather than a newspaper, so thank you for the reference.

    I should perhaps explain that I have lived in the City of London – the English equivalent of Wall St – for 30 years, and that whilst all investment banks are loathsome some are more loathsome than others. Goldman Sachs is loathed by everybody, including all the other investment banks, because they are the epitome of amoral selfishness.

    The loan which they set up for Greece, which played a large part in bankrupting the country, is a typical example. They charged a huge price for setting up the loan and simultaneously put out financial instruments designed to force down the value of the loan and thus make huge profits on that as well. Not even the most dedicated of capitalists, outside their ranks, can find any way of justifying that…

  37. Interesting dialog.

    I am a half-breed. This, of course, puts me between cultures and gives me a possibly unique viewpoint. There are LOTS of people on the reservations who KNOW what it is like to be oppressed. We have HUGE suicide rates. We have terrible addiction problems. We have a horrible rate of rape by SWM because it currently isn’t punishable. “Get Away with Rape Free Card.”

    Yet, when we need a spokesperson, we get ourselves a SWM. Why is that?

    *It is because the message is more important than anything else.* We do not live in a perfect world. In a perfect world, oppressed people would not be oppressed. Qualified people would be listened to, no matter what body features they did or did not have.

    However, this is not the world we live in. If we want to make it into that near perfect world, we have to use what is practical, and what works, rather than what we WANT to work. The message is more important than the vehicle used to deliver it.

    It would be really nice if my people could present their problems/needs/message and expect to be listened to as the experts they happen to be. However, if getting a nice, masculine, light-colored face to mouth what we know to be true does the trick and actually causes people to ADDRESS THE ISSUES rather than dismiss them as coming from an inferior, then we’ll take it. That the issues get addressed is far more important than whether or not one of our own is recognized as a person of prominence.

    Will having a SWM present the issues on Tribal Management to the BIA be more likely to cause those worthies to take the issues more seriously than if one of our own, well educated and intelligent, people with a PhD in Tribal Management gave the same presentation? Hmmmm, which possibility will we choose? Would it serve the people better if the SWM, to whom those worthies will listen, steps aside to allow one of our own people to take the limelight, yet whose words are dismissed as unimportant? No, it does not. The people are better served by using what will work.

    It is true that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then all of your problems start to look like nails. However, if the only tool you REALLY have is a hammer, then one needs to learn how to fix problems by whacking at them with it.

    If SWM are what the masses of society will listen to and be swayed by, then we need a bunch of SWM to start talking about oppression, discrimination, inequality, and the ways to fix these issues, *even if they are not as expert as one of the oppressed people they are attempting to help*.

    Here, have a hammer. 🙂

  38. CaliannG, what tribe are you with? I know an awful lot of native folks who speak for themselves. I’m most familiar with the Mishkeegogamang Nation, whose chief is a family friend, but I’m thinking of people like Russell Means and Winona LaDuke, and activists I’ve read about in Arizona and Minnesota especially. I’m not discounting your claim, but I hope it’s a case where what you observe is not the general situation.

  39. Also, apologies if I’m misreading you. Because if you’re saying that native folks tend to be pragmatic, and if that means they’ll hire a white male consultant if he’s the best person for the job, sure, that makes sense. I haven’t paid enough attention to any tribe’s politics to know whether any of them tend to seek white males. But I’m a little skeptical, given the number of tribes whose chiefs are women.

  40. “Our understanding (of natural phenomena, of society) is also a process. To the degree that our understanding corresponds to the objective truth of those phenomena, we are being scientific. To the degree that we present this accurately, our arguments are scientific.”

    I will have to remember that you use these meanings.

    I would say that to the degree our understanding corresponds to objective truth, we are correct.

    I tend to think of ideas as scientific when they are checked with scientific methods. For example, we try to get things that are reproducible.

    But often it turns out that important things are not particularly reproducible. For example, when the society changes as fast as you can measure it, very hard to do science on the parts that change. And yet it might be vitally important to make choices about that. You can use the reproducible relationships and guess at the rest, and if you’re good at that art you may get good results. Maybe you’ll get good results by accident. You might as well do your best with inadequate info because the alternative is to just give up.

    How do we find out how well our understanding corresponds to objective truth? A lot of experiments depend heavily on controlled conditions. You make sure that the variables you aren’t interested in, don’t vary. Then you see the relationships among the variables you are interested in. What happens in the real world when the other variables do vary? You don’t know. You haven’t done those experiments yet.

    Lots of the reproducible results aren’t very useful. Like, in the USA if you ask somebody whether they love their mother, sometimes they will say no. They might say everything that’s wrong with them is due to Mama and their psychiatrist agrees. But in the early 1970’s 100% of Japanese who got asked that question said yes. It was completely reproducible. They published that and similar questions at the 0.001% level. This is not an example of Brust’s Law.

    Science is very limited. But when it does get results they have a lot of truth in them, and you can look at how they were found to perhaps separate out some of the assumptions from the parts that are actually true.

    An astrologer can make a true prediction, but to my way of thinking it’s scientific when it uses repeatable methods to get reproducible correct results, and not when it is irreproducibly true.

  41. “But I’m a little skeptical, given the number of tribes whose chiefs are women.”

    Will, I think she’s talking about getting people to get results communicating with the dominant anglo power structure. In many cases a SWM with particular credentials can get more attention from — for example — BIA.

    Doesn’t it make sense? A member of an oppressed group who speaks for herself looks like somebody it is safe to oppress. This is known from experience. A SWM who speaks for the oppressed group might also represent an unknown power block outside that oppressed group. He might be more dangerous. He might have access to the media in ways that could make oppressors look bad. Etc.

    He might not have any of that, but while his status is uncertain he will get more attention.

  42. “Also, apologies if I’m misreading you. Because if you’re saying that native folks tend to be pragmatic, and if that means they’ll hire a white male consultant if he’s the best person for the job, sure, that makes sense.”

    We tend to be pragmatic. ~smiles~ And I am Oglalla Oyate Lakota, if the designation is important to you. It isn’t important to me, as I am a breed, and I am therefore not listened to by anyone, Tribe or White. 🙂

    Mr. Means can be considered an activist, but we also know he has a personal agenda and, at some levels, he seeks power. He is *firmly* Libertarian. If you are familiar with the tribal culture, you will realize that Libertarian ideals and platforms do not mesh well with our cultural values.

    J Thomas had what I was attempting to communicate correct. When necessary, we use the SWM to negotiate with the government, or other powers in white society. Not because we cannot do it for ourselves, or because we are unwilling to do it for ourselves, but because in a lot of circumstances, the situation is so bad that we cannot afford to wait for society to improve to the point that we will be listened to and heeded.

    If you have been on some of the reservations recently, INSIDE them, not at the tourist attractions or casinos, you will know that most that live there enjoy Third World conditions. Our infant mortality rate is phenomenal. Conditions are deplorable.

    We cannot afford to wait until the Socialist Movement gets enough steam up to get a revolution going. We may not exist at that time. Therefore, we have to work within the structure that *is*, and use the best tools that we have available to us.

  43. skzb

    CaliannG: “It is true that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then all of your problems start to look like nails. However, if the only tool you REALLY have is a hammer, then one needs to learn how to fix problems by whacking at them with it.”

    I less than three this. I’m going to steal it and pass it off as my own.

  44. @chopchopchop

    I’m not sure if you’re still following this discussion but I’d just to say I think you’re awesome and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  45. @skzb: “To the degree that our understanding corresponds to the objective truth of those phenomena, we are being scientific. To the degree that we present this accurately, our arguments are scientific.”

    I feel the problem with this statement is the use of the word “objective” when dealing with some as amorphous as society. There are close to 7 billion people in the world, and every one of us is affected by so many influences pertaining to morality, ethics, religion, ideas about economy, home life, diet etc. etc. that it’s necessary to establish what is an objective fact in the first place.

    Once having decided what is an objective fact, it also has to be testable and repeatable. At its base, science is about prediction. Having come up with an idea, whether a random musing or a tested hypothesis, the questions are, Is it repeatable by everyone else who tries it, no matter what they personally believe or where they are? And if so, can it be said with certaininty that given conditions X & Y,will Z always follow? I personally am not aware of any sociological ideas that meet those tests, but I don’t claim to be thoroughly versed in the field.

  46. skzb

    Wow. That is the most sophisticated way of saying, “We can’t understand how society works” I’ve ever heard. Kudos.

  47. If that’s what I had said, I’d be flattered. As it is, I’m saying the word “scientific” is being misused here. You’re using it essentially the same way creation “scientists” use it, to cover any idea they have because they’re not aware of the difference between how the word “theory” is used by scientists and how it’s used by most everyone else.

    That’s a harsher way to put it, but at least my slick sophistication won’t obscure the point. *smile*

  48. skzb

    And in the other place you said, “One of the definitions of a science idea is testability. In that sense it’s not really possible to have a scientific analysis of historical events because they can’t be repeated to check the analysis.”

    So, is it fair to say you are an empiricist? That you believe facts are the only things that are knowable? When you say “testable” I presume you mean “falsifiable,” because otherwise I can’t make sense of it. If that is your stand– that a hypothesis must be falsifiable to be scientific–you are certainly not alone in your thinking. I hope you are aware that there many, many scientists would differ. Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokel, for example, point out that that isn’t how science actually works (Fashionable nonsense, Picador, 1999); Feyerbend argued for epistemological anarchism (I think he’s full of shit, by the way). Many others have argued that the problem with falsifiability is that it cannot be applied to itself, and they–and I–believe any philosophy of science must be able to be applied to itself.

    I’m not sure if Wikapedia is a valid source, but in their article on the history of science, they define science as “a body of empirical, theoretical, and practical knowledge about the natural world, produced by scientists who emphasize the observation, explanation, and prediction of real world phenomena.”

    What exists is matter; the movement of matter is governed by natural law. To deduce the laws of motion of matter from observation is science; to impose laws of motion on matter is schematism. The effort of science is to understand the world as it is; the effort of creationism is to justify the beliefs of certain theists.

    Your identifying my use of the word scientific with that of creationists is entirely valid as an insult, but has nothing in common with science. However, I imagine it is valid pragmatically: that is, it is true for you because it makes you feel better.

  49. “To the degree that our understanding corresponds to the objective truth of those phenomena, we are being scientific. To the degree that we present this accurately, our arguments are scientific.”

    I’m glad someone asked, because I had been wondering about your use of the words “science” and “scientific” too. This is a different and more elevated definition of “scientific” than I would usually associate with the word; the meaning here is something I would usually express as “true, correct, accurate, well-founded”, whereas I usually use “scientific” to mean something more like “rational, skeptical, empirical”.

    I think I agree with L. Raymond–as far as I understand his (?) position–on the subject of a scientific understanding of human societies. Even in mathematics (Goedel’s theorem) and physics (the three-body problem), there is always information “outside the system”–things that you not only don’t know, or can’t include in your system of thought, but things that can’t be known or included.

    On a more pragmatic level, you can get a pretty good bead on next week’s weather, but next year’s is (almost) as unknown as it would have been a thousand years ago. Or, from biology, a guy at Stanford published a computer model capable of making accurate predictions of the simplest known living cell (400-ish genes) last year, which is impressive, but gives some idea of how far we are from understanding single-celled organisms in general. How far are we, then, from being able to describe really complex systems with confidence? Will we find that these are also things that simply can’t be predicted perfectly?

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say we can’t know how society works, in a scientific sense, but I would say we don’t know and aren’t close to knowing.

  50. L Raymond

    Your question about whether it is possible to predict outcomes certainly has merit, at least in the view of sociologists; that, after all, is one of the dominant reasons why people choose to study sociology in the first place.

    The answer you will get tends to be correlated with how long people have studied sociology; I devoted the morning of my 21st birthday to my three hour single essay Finals paper entitled ‘Advanced Sociological Theories and Models’.

    Having spent 15 minutes carefully considering the questions, I chose to tackle the one consisting of half a page of German with the single word ‘Discuss’ below it, on the grounds that it was good for at least an hour on the wholly untranslatable nature of several key terms which, in turn, provided the springboard for taking Talcott Parsons apart at the seams, and with him the monolithic structures built upon his incomprehension of what Weber actually thought.

    Of course, I don’t know what Weber actually thought – see above re wholly untranslatable etc. – but I do know that I don’t know what he thought sociology was, and that in turn lets me look at the rest of his work equally carefully. I think I’m a lot closer to understanding it than Talcott Parsons was, because I am a great deal more cautious about ascribing meanings to particular terms, but I may be mistaken.

    People who haven’t studied sociology tend to be baffled by the idea that someone could spend three years of their life studying it in order to arrive at a state of highly informed ignorance extending to what a great sociologist thought sociology is; I usually point out that Richard Feynman’s viva question was ‘Why is the sky blue?’ which is almost as bizarre as the single English word ‘Discuss’.

    Of course, theoretical physicists formulate hypotheses secure in the knowledge that they cannot be tested, which can piss other scientists off, sometimes to the point of denying that theoretical physics is a science at all, but they argue that it’s all based on maths in the end. So do sociologists, since predicting outcomes is equally based on maths in the end, and statistics is the indispensable tool for research.

    You are perfectly entitled to conclude that both theoretical physicists and sociologists are/are not scientists; I’d argue that there are no grounds to exclude one but not the other…

  51. I believe that I would like to expound upon evergreen’s statement and say:

    That we CAN’T know how society works if a false statement, because the speaker CANNOT, at this point in time and with current knowledge and technology, predict the future with any accuracy, no matter how many tarot decks are consulted.

    To say we DON’T know how society works is misleading, and to borrow from earlier posts about the position of creationists, is on the same level as saying we DON’T know how evolution works. It implies that we have NO body of knowledge on the subject, rather than that our body of knowledge on the subject is, at this time, incomplete.

    I must also disagree on the demarcation of hard and soft sciences. Scientific method has been demanded in the so-called “soft” sciences for decades, with Theories accepted only after peer review and repeatable experimentation. I will, however, agree that there is a demarcation of “old” and “young” sciences. The study of mathematics has been going on for thousands of years, and therefore has a large body of proven knowledge to build up that has accumulated through that time.

    Biology has, at least, a few centuries of accumulated, proven data from which to build upon, while the accumulation of proven data from the younger sciences can be measured in decades.

    This does not make such areas of study such as Political Science, Economics, Psychology, or Sociology somehow less “scientific”, or that we know nothing about these areas; it simply means that there is less of a base of accumulated, proven data to build from *at this time*.

  52. CalliannG

    “To say we don’t know how society works is misleading”

    Insofar as I am prepared to sign up to an absolute statement, I would assert that we don’t know how society works, not least because of the multiplicity of societies and the vast differences between those societies; if you would like to point me to a theoretical model which rebuts that then please do.

    Words have meaning; your desire to distinguish between sociology and creationism may be laudable but it’s a reflection of your personal desires, not a conclusion which flows from evidence based reasoning. Creationism is irrelevant to the vast majority of the world’s population; it may be a big deal in the US but the US is not the world…

  53. “Insofar as I am prepared to sign up to an absolute statement, I would assert that we don’t know how society works….”

    I thought her point was that absolutes are not very useful for this sort of thing.We understand some things fairly well, other things less, why make a binary choice?

    “Words have meaning;”

    Every time I have seen that phrase before it was stated by a conservative, often a libertarian or capitalist anarchist. They say Words Have Meaning and then they say what the words mean to them, and then they act like that means they are right by definition. Are you a conservative?

    I usually want to reply:

    Yes, words have many meanings.

    “…your desire to distinguish between sociology and creationism may be laudable but it’s a reflection of your personal desires, not a conclusion which flows from evidence based reasoning.”

    I can see a clear difference. They start from different organizing assumptions, and they reach different conclusions. I have enjoyed some creationist reasoning. Like, there was an idea that the Firmament was a thick layer of ice in the sky which blocked some of the cosmic rays. The Flood was when that melted, and after that human lifespans declined logarithmicly as we adapted to the higher background radiation. I don’t remember why the sea levels went down. An attempt to make logical sense out of the Bible given what we know now. Creationism can in principle be as scientific as anything else, but typically IME creationists have been too focused on debate and not enough on actual data interpretation.

  54. J Thomas

    Well, one of the words which has a meaning is ‘know’, and, as I have already noted, scholarship is the process of achieving informed ignorance. I ‘knew’ a lot more about societies in my first year in the sociology department than when I walked into my final exams, which is just as well because I wouldn’t have got my degrees otherwise.

    Tom Lehrer’s delightful piss-take of the people who thought they could make sociology respectable if they got maths involved has been a constant source of joy to me down the years, though I do have to disclose a interest; he was maths and music and I was sociology and drama and theatre arts. The whole double honours thing makes a difference to the way our minds work.

    I do appreciate that people in the US think creationism is important but I really don’t give a toss what creationists think; I could probably work up some steam about their attempts to export it, in much the same way that I would prefer the Ebola virus not to go walkies, but it’s a parochial concern. The US is not the world.

    The question ‘Are you a conservative’ is a fascinating one, albeit hilariously funny, since it speaks so clearly to the nature of your assumptions, but it would probably help if you bear in mind once again the fact that the US is not the world; in the continuum of political thought stretching from libertarian and capitalist anarchists at one end and Trotsky at the other, I am much, much closer to Trotsky.

    And on that happy note I must get some sleep; it’s late on this side of the pond…

  55. “Well, one of the words which has a meaning is ‘know’, and, as I have already noted, scholarship is the process of achieving informed ignorance.”

    I find I tend to agree with everything you say here, and still I want to point out that “know” is one of the words which has multiple meanings. Many of them noncarnal.

    “I do appreciate that people in the US think creationism is important but I really don’t give a toss what creationists think”

    I may have misunderstood what you were saying, but it looked like you misunderstood what the people you responded about that were saying. Over here, creationists have created “creation science” which attempts to validate christian beliefs by surrounding them with scientific trappings. People use it as the most convenient example to show the difference between science and pseudoscience. But from my point of view, the only thing that keeps them from being science is that they choose their results first and then try to falsify everything else to get those results. If they started with their christian beliefs as organizing principles and did honest research based on that, it would be science. I consider it a ridiculously complicated set of organizing principles, but still….

    “The question ‘Are you a conservative’ is a fascinating one, albeit hilariously funny, since it speaks so clearly to the nature of your assumptions, but it would probably help if you bear in mind once again the fact that the US is not the world; in the continuum of political thought stretching from libertarian and capitalist anarchists at one end and Trotsky at the other, I am much, much closer to Trotsky.”

    Great! See, in my own provincial experience, that Words Have Meaning line has only been used by provincial US conservatives. A few from Google:

    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/09/new-perry-web-ad-calls-out-romney-words-have-meaning/
    http://princeofpeeps.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/words-have-meaning-except-for-obama-and-liberals/
    http://www.confederatecolonel.com/2012/07/words-have-meaning/
    http://www.military.com/Opinions/0,,FreedomAlliance_062305,00.html
    http://www.dakotavoice.com/2010/07/stating-the-obvious-words-have-meaning/

    So I’m interested to find it used essentially the same way by somebody else. I wonder about the twisted path they might have inherited it….

  56. “I thought her point was that absolutes are not very useful for this sort of thing.We understand some things fairly well, other things less, why make a binary choice?”

    J Thomas, if I ever finish a technical book, I am going to ask you to translate it so that my readers will understand what I am trying to say. In participating in these threads, I have discovered a lack in my ability to communicate my thoughts clearly, it seems. I do thank you for playing interpreter and writing what I mean. 🙂

  57. CaliannG, you have complimented me. That’s a sign I’m probably about to catastrophically misunderstand somebody.

  58. J Thomas

    Well, I’m clueless as to the origins of this language use by provincial conservatives in the US, and I have to say that they are not of any interest to me; why should they be? On the whole they tend not to end up in the City of London, which is about the only way they would have come to my attention.

    I have certainly met a lot of standard issue ‘Greed is Good’ American capitalists, since the City is knee deep in financial institutions, but religion is not a topic of conversation which comes up when people are paying very substantial sums of money to their accountants and their lawyers to argue about how much money either they or their companies owe to the Crown.

    The accountants and lawyers are, of course, keenly aware that words have meaning because legislation consists of words, just as judicial precedent is expressed in words, and the Courts are not enamoured of arguments to the contrary. There are organising principles of the body of legislation but they do not override the meaning of the words themselves; in this area when people start appealing to the substance of the law it means they have no viable legal arguments.

    It does seem to me to be profoundly dangerous to restrict one’s arguments because someone, e.g. Creationists, may seek to use them for a purpose antithetical to one’s beliefs, just as it would be profoundly dangerous if the Crown’s representative failed to point out a viable legal argument which hadn’t occurred to a company’s lawyers; even Big Swinging Dicks are entitled to equality of treatment under the law.

    It can also be dangerous to be overly dogmatic about the distinction between science and pseudoscience; a substantial amount of what we now know to be nonsense was perfectly respectable in its day. Things like eugenics and psychotherapy were regarded as mainstream science; in medicine ‘this does not exist’ has frequently been more popular than ‘we don’t understand this’. For example, I have straightforward allergic asthma, easily demonstrated by standard tests; for many years people with idiopathic asthma were told that they didn’t have asthma, notwithstanding the fact that they were more likely to die of an asthma attack than I was, even with treatment.

    Which brings us back to evidence based reasoning, and the need to understand that Spenser’s ‘creed of science’ can be just as arbitrary as the Creationists’ ‘God did it’. I prefer ‘this is what we think, and this is why we think it’ …

  59. “The accountants and lawyers are, of course, keenly aware that words have meaning because legislation consists of words, just as judicial precedent is expressed in words, and the Courts are not enamoured of arguments to the contrary.”

    Thank you! That’s it! I now notice that three of the four individual bloggers I ran into who did that were in fact lawyers, and the fourth may have been. That’s where they got it.

    And of course law courts enforce specific meanings onto words. Participants spend years learning the special meanings, and seeing them get enforced. A very different situation from natural language in which people change connotation by consensus and random example, where slang becomes established and later trite.

    Outside the rare, rarified environments where meanings are enforced by central authorities with real power, communication becomes an art and a hope. That other people understand the same meanings for words is far too much to hope for. Perhaps with a leap of intuition they may catch your meaning.

    Fo shizzle ma nizzle.

  60. J Thomas

    Well, I’m glad to have thrown some light on this question but you are going beyond the facts somewhat; in English law the rules of construction mandate that we start with the ordinary dictionary definitions of words and go on from there. Of course, in special cases the statute may tell you what meanings are to be ascribed but that is the exception, not the rule.

    I ended up specialising in the law applying to financial institutions and financial instruments in general, and the law of interest in particular; it was fun.

    But a lot of the people who end up litigating in English courts have nothing to do with England; they are there because they entered into a contract which required that they litigate in the English courts. That in turn is because the English courts have been around for a very long time, and thus have a vast body of experience covering most eventualities; the Queen’s willingness to enforce its judgements is not a relevant factor. She isn’t going to dispatch the Household Cavalry to sort out a couple of offshore companies…

  61. “… in English law the rules of construction mandate that we start with the ordinary dictionary definitions of words and go on from there. Of course, in special cases the statute may tell you what meanings are to be ascribed but that is the exception, not the rule.”

    Dictionary writers try to track the shifting meanings of words, and law courts use them as legally binding sources!

    It helps explain the particularly pig-headed libertarian lawyers I ran into. They believed that each word had only one meaning, their meaning, and there could be no room for legitimate disagreement about anything. And probably their professional work encouraged them in that sort of belief.

    “… the Queen’s willingness to enforce its judgements is not a relevant factor. She isn’t going to dispatch the Household Cavalry to sort out a couple of offshore companies…”

    No, but when two different lawyers disagree about the one correct way to use a particular word, her judge is likely to rule that one of them is right and the other is wrong. And their entire performance is intended to convince the judge. There’s no room for “dammit but the judge was wrong” or “let’s agree to disagree”.

    I have very little experience in any legal system, and it seems to me that people who are habituated to thinking with those habits might tend to carry them over into other things. Leading to “I am right by definition. Because Words Have Meanings.”.

  62. J Thomas

    Actually, there’s lots of room for ‘the judge was wrong’; it’s called the appeals procedure and it’s commonplace for judgements to be overturned in the higher courts, just as it’s commonplace to reach negotiated settlements because going to the courts is incredibly expensive.

    Having said that you should bear in mind there is a very big difference between the sort of law I dealt in and the sort of law practised by a provincial blogger in the US with the time and inclination to witter on about Creationism on his/her blog; the City of London is one of the largest centres of the global financial markets. The stakes are vastly higher, and the constant flow of new financial instruments inevitably creates ambiguities.

    Ok, I always liked that but I suspect the bloggers wouldn’t; in the end there are no certainties. Criminal lawyers deal in ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ but for civil law the test is ‘on the balance of probabilities’, which is much more fun for someone who enjoys playing poker.

    Incidentally, when I use ‘words have meanings’ I’m primarily referencing Lewis Carroll…

  63. skzb:

    First, an apology:
    “Your identifying my use of the word scientific with that of creationists is entirely valid as an insult, but has nothing in

    common with science. However, I imagine it is valid pragmatically: that is, it is true for you because it makes you feel

    better.”

    That wasn’t meant as an insult, and I’m truly sorry it came across like that. It’s a well known wrong use of the word

    scientist and it’s always the first example that comes to my mind. I could have refered to the “science of feng shui”, but I

    don’t think that brings to mind the same connotation. I hadn’t meant to say you’re irrational (which I think creationists

    are).

    “So, is it fair to say you are an empiricist? That you believe facts are the only things that are knowable?”

    With all respect, I can’t imagine something that’s knowable without being a fact, so this would be a yes.

    “When you say ‘testable’ I presume you mean ‘falsifiable,’ because otherwise I can’t make sense of it.”

    No. I said elsewhere I’ve never really gotten the whole falsifiable thing, but having read a few university lectures and

    analyses on it this afternoon, I can’t say I agree a theory has to be falsifiable. How would you falsify the creation of the

    light bulb? You build it, and it works or it doesn’t. If the theory behind it is sound, eventually the light bulb is built.

    There’s no question Edison was a scientist, a very pragmatic one. He thought about how to make use of electricity and sat

    down and experimented.

  64. skzb

    “With all respect, I can’t imagine something that’s knowable without being a fact, so this would be a yes.”

    There are many, many things that are true, and knowable, and not facts. A “fact” is a first-order abstraction from reality. If I have 20 marbles in a vase, the number of marbles in the vase is a fact. If I pour those marbles into a second vase and the last 3 fall out of the top because they don’t fit, then it is a *fact* that they fell out. The second vase holds 17 marbles. That is a conclusion drawn from facts. It is true, and it is knowable, but it is not a fact. Certainly, you can TREAT it as a fact for purposes of drawing further conclusions, but it remains a conclusion.

    An empiricist would admit that every time so far that we poured twenty marbles into the vase, the last three fell out; but would say that is all we can know; we cannot know how many marbles the second vase holds. (A pragmatist would say that if it seems to work for you to put 17 marbles in the vase, then that is how many it holds for you.)

    Falsifiable means it is possible to construct a test that would prove a hypothesis wrong. Many, many believe that if no such test can be constructed, the hypothesis is not science. As I disagree with this definition of science, I can hardly object if you do, as well.

  65. “If I have 20 marbles in a vase, the number of marbles in the vase is a fact. If I pour those marbles into a second vase and the last 3 fall out of the top because they don’t fit, then it is a *fact* that they fell out. The second vase holds 17 marbles. That is a conclusion drawn from facts. It is true, and it is knowable, but it is not a fact.”

    So, like, you know there are 20 marbles in the 1st vase because you counted them, and you made sure none got out and no more got in. That makes it a fact.

    You pour the marbles into the second vase and you count the ones that don’t go in. You had 20, and 3 didn’t go in, so you infer that there are 17 marbles in the 2nd vase. But you didn’t count them.

    Say there’s a little tiny arcwelder inside the 2nd vase. Maybe there are no marbles in there now, just a puddle of glass (and an arcwelder). You didn’t count, you assumed that marbles are conserved. It makes sense to me that if you’re sure all but 3 of the marbles went in, and there were 20 to start, that *is* counting 17 marbles while they go into the vase. But it’s different from counting to make sure there are still 17 marbles there.

    If you want to know how many marbles the vase can hold, that’s a different and tougher problem. The maximum number of spheres you can pack into some arbitrary shaped volume is a mathematical question. But any particular time you pack spheres there, you can’t guarantee you’ll get the closest packing. If you tap on the vase they might settle into a tighter fit, but often not the best one. It’s a fact that a vase which held 17 marbles once before, can hold at least 17, unless it changes shape or volume.

    You make a distinction between things we measure directly, versus things we reason out from measurements. I think that’s a useful distinction, and sometimes there are gray areas. So it’s usually practical to make that distinction, but to use it for something philosophical it’s better to get the gray areas clear.

  66. I don’t think the marble analogy holds up. If I know beyond a doubt I had 20 and that I put all but three into an otherwise empty container, then I also know beyond a doubt there are 17 marbles in the container. That’s not a conclusion because it simply can’t be any other way.

    I’ve got the idea of falsifiable, and I think it’s silly. Maybe in certain purely theoretical branches of knowledge such an idea could have merit, but I think applying it to a practical branch of science is simply ridiculous.

  67. “I’ve got the idea of falsifiable, and I think it’s silly. Maybe in certain purely theoretical branches of knowledge such an idea could have merit, but I think applying it to a practical branch of science is simply ridiculous.”

    I guess it’s right to say that it’s ridiculous for any practical branch of science. However this is an idea which can be useful in every area of science, though it can also be misapplied.

    Proper uses include:

    There has been a longstanding argument between supporters of Theory A and Theory B. Experiments designed by Theory B supporters have now definitively shown that Theory A is wrong. They celebrate. “Theory B is true!” No, they haven’t shown that. They have only shown that Theory A is false. It’s time to look for Theory C.

    A doctrinaire follower of some ideology takes up an academic scientific discipline. He tells his fellow students “I intend to prove that X is right” where X is some tenet of his ideology. But science is not about proving that things are right.

    The ideologist then argues from experiment. “This experiment can have two valid outcomes. If the outcome is A, that proves my conclusion is right. But if instead the outcome is B, that also proves my conclusion is right.” Without going into the details of his reasoning, if before the experiment is done we can look at the possible outcomes and none of them reject the hypothesis, then this experiment does not test the hypothesis.

    Improper uses:

    A particular branch of science includes a collection of muddled ideas which can be used, and do give correct results. Someone figures out a way to clean them up. The new approach is easier to understand, faster to teach, and less prone to misapplication. It gives the same results as the traditional methods. Traditionalists argue that it is not scientific because it is not falsifiable. The old way is true, therefore any scientific alternative can be proven false. The new approach gives no new result and makes no new predictions, so it should be discarded.

    None of this matters to practical people. If Theory B works, and nobody important is arguing for Theory C, then of course Theory B is true. And of course ideologists are going to come up with bullshit science and claim that science supports them. It doesn’t matter unless they claim to have discovered something of practical importance. And if there’s an easier way to get results, practical people will just use it.

    When you do practical science it doesn’t matter what’s true, it only matters what you can use. But in all areas of science where it’s important to discard error, the falsifiability idea can help people handle some kinds of error.

  68. skzb

    L. Raymond: Am I being muddled, or are you being obtuse? That there are 17 marbles in vase 2 is a fact; that vase 2 can only hold 17 marbles is a conclusion. I don’t think I can make it any clearer than that.

  69. I took you to mean while pouring the marbles from v1 to v2, three fell out accidently. I did in fact miss the bit that v2 was topped off at 17 and the last three rolled off because they wouldn’t fit.

    I know better than to ever be online after 9p since I’m a morning person and start to fade about then. Perhaps I should whip up a computer lock that won’t let me log on that late so I can quit making silly errors.

  70. “Am I being muddled, or are you being obtuse? That there are 17 marbles in vase 2 is a fact; that vase 2 can only hold 17 marbles is a conclusion.”

    You were originally being muddled. I worked out what you probably meant by looking at what you said, and thinking about what conclusion you would want to reach, and ways to get that conclusion, and imagining ways for your marbles and vases to fit that.

    Depending on the vase’s shape, it might hold different numbers of marbles different tries. The marbles could get locked into a loose fill that will never let them reach 19 but only 17. But next time if the first few marbles get arranged just right then maybe it can hold 19.

    If the vase is a tall cylinder a little wider than one marble and 17 marbles high, then it will hold the same number ever time. If it’s some other shape, maybe not.

    So how many tries should it take before you think you know the largest number of marbles it can hold?

    I thought your example was nicer and subtler than it looked at first glance.

  71. I believe that if we are not careful, we might be in danger of losing our marbles.

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