Sunday, March 18, 2012

 

Fish illustrates the Epstein-Sowell-Krauthammer law

In his March 12, New York Times op-ed, literary theorist Stanley Fish offered a very pure example of the Epstein-Sowell-Krauthammer (hereafter, ESK) law. What is the ESK law? Charles Krauthammer summed it up when he wrote in a 2002 column:


Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.
But Richard Epstein saw this much earlier when he wrote in 1985 (and wrote again in his 2003 book Snobbery):
Disagree with someone on the right and he is likely to think you obtuse, wrong, sentimental, foolish, a dope; disagree with someone on the left and he is more likely to think you selfish, coldhearted, a sellout, evil.
Thomas Sowell offered several examples (going back as far as Thomas Malthus and William Godwin) and quoted Epstein in his 1996 book The Vision of the Anointed (p. 4), so I think that he should get some credit for the ESK law as well.
Anyway, onto Fish’s example. Fish wrote an article claiming the Rush Limbaugh should not be treated fairly because he is a bad person. His article is entitled “Two Cheers for Double Standards” and argues that Rush Limbaugh be held to account for using insulting terms about Sandra Fluke while Ed Schulz and Bill Maher should be given a pass for using equally (or more) offensive terms about Laura Ingraham and Sarah Palin, respectively. Fish explains why we should do this:
Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy.
Really? “[E]very nefarious force that threatens our democracy”? Rush Limbaugh is on the side of al Qaeda? Just how has Limbaugh threatened our democracy? It appears to me that Limbaugh is a mainstream American conservative who said something stupid and offensive and then, properly, apologized. Fish seems to be saying that conservatives are so evil that they do not even deserve to be treated fairly. I must say that I feel sorry for Fish, living in a country where about half of the people are so evil. Fortunately, I do not live in such a country.
Fish bases his self-described double-standard on his postmodern rejection of enlightenment liberalism. Of course, the U.S. Constitution is a product of enlightenment liberalism. Fish is essentially calling for an end to the American social contract. To his credit, Fish bites the bullet on this:
[This proposal] substitutes for the [golden] rule “don’t do it to them if you don’t want it done to you” the rule “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.
I would rather not. I, for one, prefer live under the American social contract with the good people that I agree and disagree with. Yes, I believe that even if I find their ideas foolish, most people that I disagree with are good and well-meaning. This is another example of the ESK law.
(I would be grateful if readers could post more examples or counterexamples of the ESK law, and if any readers know its proper term. Hat tip: James Taranto.)

Monday, October 06, 2008

 

If we abolish the Vice-Presidency …

Dear Editor:

Bruce Ackerman makes a compelling case that the Vice-presidency is a “design flaw” in the constitutional order created by our founders. But he neglects what the vice-presidential pick tells us in modern elections.

One of the most important things that a President does is to appoint people. The federal government is far too big for one person to run alone, so (according to the Heritage Foundation) a President must make about 3000 appointments, from his nominations of Supreme Court Justices and Cabinet Secretaries to much lower-level government officials. But the only personnel decision that voters get to see before the election is the vice-presidential pick.

So if the vice-presidency is to be abolished, may I suggest that presidential nominees instead nominate all or part of their Cabinet before the election? This would give voters some idea of whom the President would appoint and how he would make decisions. This would also give voters a better idea of what to expect from a President’s administration than they now have. (A similar proposal, but one including a vice-president, was described by the late M. Scott Peck in The Different Drum as a “community presidency”.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

 

Junk Science in L.A. Times

Dear Editor:

In Lloyd Grove’s article on gossip columns (Oct. 15, 2006, p. M3), he stressed the need to “nail down” a story before publishing. Yet the Times fails to follow this good advice when they publish, on the very same page, Bettina Aptheker’s charge of sexual abuse against her late father, Herbert Aptheker, based only on recovered memory therapy. This discredited technique has also been known to generate memories of alien abductions that seem quite real to those who hold them. (Would the Times have published such accusations against aliens?) She recognizes this problem when she mentions “false memory syndrome”, but fails to respond to this possibility (other than to simply reaffirm her accusation).

Aptheker makes it seem like her father might have confessed. We only have her account of this, but even that is not quite clear. He allegedly asked “Did I ever hurt you…?” as if he might not have remembered doing such a terrible thing himself. And we are not told just what he apologized for.

It is tragic that Aptheker has memories of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, without corroborating evidence we cannot know whether these memories are genuine or therapy-induced. Shame on the Times for publishing an accusation against someone who cannot respond based only upon pseudoscientific evidence.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

 

Conspiracy Theorists

I recently had an on-line discussion with a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. This was obviously not a scientific survey of conspiracy believers, but I have no reason to suspect that he was not representative. Nonetheless, I think I can draw some interesting conclusions about these conspiracy theorists (in spite of the extremely limited sample) from our exchange:

1. There is no evidence for the conspiracy theories being offered.
2. Those touted as experts are often making claims far from their fields of expertise.
3. Conspiracy theorists cite a lot of poor quality scholarship. (This is common in pseudo-sciences.)
4. True believers are often unwilling or unable to acknowledge rather simple errors.

And perhaps most disturbingly:

5. There is an element of the extreme left-wing that hates American conservatives more than Arab terrorists so much that they are willing to blame American officials for the 9/11 atrocity in spite of the lack of evidence. Apparently this is also true for an element of the extreme right-wing, but it was clearly a leftist that I was debating.

So in the second letter here, Dr. Sandra Sutphen is mistaken about who the conspiracy theorists are. It's not just rightist kooks who are conspiracy mongering. All such nonsense that I've heard personally has come from leftists (who, incidentally, are not kooky on non-political topics). I realize that my sample is probably biased, but 21st century conspiracy mongering is hardly a phenomenon of the right.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

 

Keeping a crazy idea to itself

Sam Harris wrote a brilliant op-ed piece in last week's L.A. Times, but he engages in a bit of lazy moral equivalence when he writes:

Indeed, it is telling that the people who speak with the greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right, whose infatuation with biblical prophecy is nearly as troubling as the ideology of our enemies.

Troubling? Indeed. But "nearly as troubling"? Hardly. The comedian Bill Maher may have said it best when he said that "their" religious fanatics are scary while "ours" are merely funny. (I'd be grateful if someone knows his precise words, or can link to them, would post this in the comments.)

So why should we find Christian rightists less scary? Besides the obvious, when Christian rightists hold political offices in this country (the U.S.A.), they do not discuss Biblical prophecy in their official capacity. I don't much care what they say in their churches on Sunday, although I'm not aware of anything significant any politician has said there either. One might argue that I should be scared by "the end is near preaching" even if politicians are smart enough not to endorse it in public.

But I'm not scared because Americans (who are hardly unique here) of all kinds of ideologies seem pretty good at compartmentalizing their irrationalities. And this is a good thing! That is, many, if not most of us, have some loopy thing we believe. But we are still able to be competent, intelligent people, because we keep our crazy idea isolated. That is, someone can believe the end is near on Sunday, and then work and save for the future from Monday to Friday.

So it's not mere irrational beliefs that scare me. (I suspect that we all have those.) What scares me is those who fail to contain those beliefs.

Friday, September 22, 2006

 

Hypocrisy, Irony, or Rationality?

Charles Krauthammer today calls attention to the irony of saying "Don't call us violent or we'll attack you." This is truly ironic, for I cannot imagine a surer way to convince someone that they are accurate in their accusation. Thomas Vaughan Church describes this as hypocrisy. In some sense it is, but the intention cannot be to convince. As Krauthammer says, “The point is intimidation.” It seems to work quite well at that, so this ironic behavior is actually quite rational, in that it has the desired effect of silencing some (perhaps many) critics.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

 

Technorati Profile

This post should start a Technorati Profile for this blog.

But also note the following amusing (but meaningless) rating for this blog:

This site is certified 70% GOOD by the Gematriculator

This site is certified 30% EVIL by the Gematriculator

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

 

Conspiracy Theories and Gossip

Phil Molé (writing in eSkeptic) does a very nice job explaining why there is NO evidence supporting the 9/11 conspiracy theories. He then gave a number of reasons why these stories are believed regardless of this. But I think that he missed one important cause, and this has to do with the nature of gossip. Conspiracy theories are a kind of rumor, and like other rumors, one is more likely to believe and pass on one which tend to confirm what you already believe or want to believe. (Thus rumors tend to tell us more about the person who tells them than what the world is like.) But another purpose of gossip is to hurt (or attempt to do so) the person you are gossiping about. You are less likely to pass on a juicy bit of gossip about someone you care about.

Molé, reporting on a 911truth.org conference he attended, observes that those conspiracy theorists do not act as if they “believe what they are saying”:

Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present, or would at the very least have conducted behind the scenes arrests and jailed the movement’s leaders. Yet even the most vocal leaders of the 9/11 Truth Movement are still going strong, and no one at the conference seemed very worried about government reprisals. This fact seemingly indicates that at some level, the conspiracy theorists themselves don’t really believe what they are saying.
So why might they say it anyway? For the same reason that you might pass on (or make up) a nasty rumor about someone you dislike: it can damage their reputation. Thus gossip can be seen as indirect way of attacking someone. Unable to successfully attack the Bush administration (e.g. in recent elections), conspiracy theories try instead to spread a nasty rumor. Doing so is bound to be counter-productive, as such poisonous discourse will make many of us likely to regard such people as kooks and dismiss their legitimate criticism out of hand. However, it may be that poisoning the discourse, and thus the body politic, is precisely what is desired (perhaps to make governance more difficult).

So when Sam Harris, in a must-read article from Monday’s L.A. Times, writes:

A nationwide poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that more than a third of Americans suspect that the federal government "assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East;" 16% believe that the twin towers collapsed not because fully-fueled passenger jets smashed into them but because agents of the Bush administration had secretly rigged them to explode.
I don’t believe that these poll respondents are being honest. Instead, I take their answers as a swipe against the Bush administration. Thus the poll is really a measure of hostility rather than belief. And these numbers demonstrate that the conspiracy theorists have been somewhat successful in poisoning the body politic.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

 

Conspiracy Theory Appeal

What is the appeal of conspiracy theories?

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy have several things in common. They were terrible events that remain seared in the memories of all Americans who are old enough to remember them. And they’ve both given rise to numerous conspiracy theories. Because there is no evidence for these conspiracies, mutually contradictory conspiracy theories are advocated, based on the prejudices of the believer. For JFK’s killing, stories about Cubans, the Mafia, and the CIA circulated. Regarding 9/11, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists blame Israel, anti-Americans blame Bush, and pro-lifers blame abortion. Peter Bagge’s cartoon at: http://reason.com/hod/cartoon.pb090602.shtml makes this point much more eloquently than I can. (A picture is indeed worth 1000 words.) It is interesting that there seems to be a positive correlation in believing in conspiracy theories for both these events.

Appeals to ignorance (we don’t know what caused X, so you should accept my far-fetched hypothesis) are a common part of conspiratorial arguments, but I think there is a more fundamental fallacy. It is the expectation that causes should be proportional to effects. (Does anyone know if this fallacy has a proper name?) That is, it should not be so that a loser like Lee Harvey Oswald should be able to bring down the President, so he must not have. The naturalistic fallacy, confusing what is so with what ought to be, is clearly at work here. But I think there is a bit more.

These two events had a big emotional impact on Americans. And the explanations, a lone gunman and a group of foreign terrorists, were emotionally unsatisfying to many, even if they were correct. So the conspiracy theories are believed not based on any evidence for them, but because they are more emotionally satisfying to the believer. Thus, they are a lot like religious beliefs, and seem to be held with the same fervency.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

 

Classic Rock and African-American Artists

I got a lot of feedback on this article. Some readers wrote to complain that I had called the lack of African-American artists on Classic Rock radio "racist" when in fact I had argued the opposite. It seems that the real culprit is a too-narrow idea of what classic rock is (or "format", my third proposed explanation). Two other great artists who get short-shrift from classic rock stations are Elton John and Billy Joel. So it seems that "Classic Rock" is also limited to guitar-based, as opposed to piano-based, rock. But I'm happy to report that locally, Arrow 93.1, which was just another classic rock station, has changed formats to Jack-FM which does not seem to be limited by these old format restrictions.
 

Updated Presidential Rankings

The Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society have updated their presidental rankings to include George W. Bush, who is ranked 19 out of 40. The accompanying article explains that Bush is unsurprisingly controversial, so that his "Average" score is the result of both very high and very low rankings among their board of scholars. Unfortunately, the article does not go into the kind of detailed explanation of their earlier book (which I reviewed for the KUCI website) or show how he ranks as a controversial president. (The higher the standard deviation of the ratings, the more controversial the president.)

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