Stop respecting emotions so much

I’ve said it before in other venues, but it bears repeating:  as a society, we need to stop giving so much respect and deference to emotions.  I’ve gotten push-back on this idea before, but it’s really not that radical, nor that negative, a proposal.

I’m not recommending that we abandon emotions altogether (if that were even possible), or try to suppress them, a la the Vulcans in Star Trek.  Emotions are a real, and significant, part of the experience of life.  Everyone has them, and they are interesting and important.  I don’t want to deny the validity and reality of any person’s emotional experiences, nor to dismiss the real pain and joy that emotional reactions can entail.  The human experience is an emotional one, and emotional states can be useful in many ways.  Joy over a success can lead one to try to repeat it in the future.  Outrage over injustice can drive a person to act against it.  Fear, as Gavin deBecker has eloquently pointed out, can protect us from real danger, which still exists in the world despite all our advances. Continue reading “Stop respecting emotions so much”

Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us

I don’t know how often most of you notice the occasional noises of Flat-Earthers online, and particularly on social media, but I notice.  Encountering such absurdities can at times lead a reasonably educated person to feel that the world is going mad, that society is collapsing, and that—despite the cornucopia of information available to us—humans are breathtakingly stupid.

However, I’ve recently been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and it gave me a new insight:  The fact the we encounter such vociferous and seemingly ridiculous expressions of contra-factual ideas is a sign of the health and strength of our discourse, rather than its deterioration. Continue reading “Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us”

Treat new laws like experiments

Some years ago, when I first read Carl Sagans’s The Demon-Haunted World, I encountered a notion that stuck in my mind and has grown more prominent as the years have passed.  This is the idea that laws, as made in a democracy, are a form of experiment, but that they are carried out without any of the sensible objective measures and controls that make scientific experiments so useful.  I think this is clearly true, and I think we should all try to petition our legislators to approach laws in this scientific fashion.

Many—perhaps most—new laws are proposed to prevent, or correct, or create some specific situation…presumably altering something that isn’t quite the way we want it to be.  Unfortunately, the way laws are proposed and assessed is through public debate—at best.  As civil and criminal courtrooms demonstrate, when an important matter is addressed mainly through debate, the outcome isn’t necessarily that the best or truest idea is chosen, but that those who are most skilled at rhetoric and manipulation rule the day.  This is not a much more reliable way to make good decisions than by holding a jousting match.  It’s not good in court, and it’s worse in the halls of legislature, where the quality of discourse is often even lower than one often finds among courtroom lawyers (“If the glove does not fit, you must acquit,” is at least mildly clever, as opposed to the appalling spectacle of an elected legislator in the Federal Government bringing a snowball into the Capitol Building as evidence against climate change).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, with every proposed new bill, the proposer had to articulate what problem was to be addressed by the legislation, and what result was being sought.  Then, in the subsequent discussions, legislators could better focus their inquiries, bringing existing information to bear, including the outcomes of prior, similar legislation.  Also—and here is a key point—each bill could contain specific language detailing by what means its relative success of failure would be measured, how that data would be collected, at what frequency it would be evaluated, and at what point—if ever—the measure would have been found to fail.  We know that most measures, if measured, would fail, based on the experience of science, in which the vast majority hypotheses end up disproven, even when proposed by the best and brightest minds in the world.  How much more likely is it that ideas proposed by the likes of our legislators are going to be shown to be ineffective?

Of course, the real world—the laboratory where each new law would be tested—is a messy place, with innumerable confounding variables, correlations which have nothing to do with causation, unreliable data, and so on.  So, we wouldn’t necessarily want to hold legislative outcome checks to quite the same standards of rigor as those to which we hold particle physics.  But simply requiring each new bill to contain a statement of hoped-for outcomes, of measures by which it would be considered to have succeeded or failed, and a required time of review, could produce better laws, influenced from the beginning by more information and logic than rhetoric.  Even if no definitive answer was available at the time of a planned review, that review might still inspire new ideas about how better to measure outcomes, and perhaps even ways to tweak a law to make its outcome more clearly beneficial.  Most importantly, it would be much easier to recognize and discard the failures.

Of course, to initiate such a policy of lawmaking would require something even more sweeping than a Constitutional amendment.  It would require that we elect representatives capable of bringing a scientific mindset to matters of fact.  This, in turn, would require a voting population with the ability to judge among and select such individuals, rather than the charlatans and hucksters they tend to elect.  This in turn would require both a change in the educational style of the country and a cultural shift in which we give greater precedence to logic and reason, rather than our usual approaches to life, which are only more sophisticated than those of chimpanzees in that they are more complicated, but which are not necessarily any more rational.*

It’s a tall order, I know.  But the possible improvements in our laws, in the way public policy is carried out, and in the general health and well-being of the nation would be potentially vast.

They would also be much more measurable.

*See last week’s post on teaching probability and statistics, for instance.

One little old mayor

There’s an interesting scene in the movie The Dark Knight in which the Joker confronts Harvey Dent in the hospital, and conveys to him what he sees as the misplaced and irrational prioritization of alarm among human populations.  The scene is wonderful for many reasons—it’s well-written, well-directed, and brilliantly acted—but I think it is also conveys an important point about which many of us don’t think carefully enough.

In the scene, the Joker says that he’s noticed that “nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’.  Even if the plan is horrifying.”  He then adds, “If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blowing up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’.  But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”

This is a deeply important point, because it highlights a profound illogic in our moral prioritization of who is important, who is to be protected, who is an “acceptable loss”, and who is “hands off.”  We become more outraged—or at least more exercised—when one of our “leaders” is threatened or even killed than when soldiers, or even ordinary citizens, are put in jeopardy.  This is not morally defensible. Continue reading “One little old mayor”

In defense of scientism

[Originally posted on on July 20th, 2017]

On this 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I want to talk a little bit about science, and how it, in principle, can apply to nearly every subject in life.

The word science is derived from Latin scientia, and earlier scire, which means “to know.”  I am, as you might have guessed, a huge fan of science, and have in the past even been a practitioner of it.  But science is not just a collection of facts, as many have said before me.  Science is an approach to information, and more generally to reality itself, a blend of rationalism and empiricism that calls on us to apply reason to the phenomena which we find in our world and to understand, with increasing completeness, the rules by which our world operates.  Personally, I think there are few—and possibly no—areas into which the scientific method cannot be applied to give us a greater understanding of, insight into, and control of, our world and our experience. Continue reading “In defense of scientism”

Courage and Liberty

I must admit that I was a troubled upon reading that residents of several states will soon need to bring their passports in addition to their driver’s licenses with them to board domestic flights, starting in 2018.  I was troubled, but I was not surprised.

There was simply no reason to be surprised.  The Real ID act was signed into law more than a decade ago.  It was, apparently, passed in response to the fact that many of the 9/11 hijackers boarded their planes using fake ID’s.  That terrorist event was also the trigger for the creation of our very own KGB…which is more or less the same acronym as the DHS.  (KGB translates roughly as Committee of State Security, in case you didn’t know…a pretty close equivalence to the Department of Homeland Security).  Of course, we’d already long had the NSA, which acronym has a similar meaning, but its efforts and activities have typically been far more clandestine and less overtly intrusive than those of the DHS (though troubling, nonetheless). Continue reading “Courage and Liberty”

Against “cultural appropriation.”

I recently read an article that was written in response to a conflict between two professional athletes about the nature, the problem, and even the hierarchy, of “cultural appropriation.”  My thoughts upon reading about this frankly ludicrous conflict were basically the same as my general reaction to all accusations of “cultural appropriation,” and they are more or less as follows:

“Congratulations!  You are clearly and irrefutably safe.  Indeed, you are clearly and irrefutably among the safest creatures ever to grace the surface of this hazardous planet.  You have adequate, clean water, you have abundant food, you have superb shelter, you have protection from predators, from attackers, and from invasion, and you have a lifestyle that provides you such abundant and luxurious free time that you can invent problems about which to be outraged.” Continue reading “Against “cultural appropriation.””