Skip to content
November 13, 2013 | 11 Comments

Briggs Exposes His Better Side

Cool breeze.
Cool breeze.
These are the pants I wore yesterday through airports, airplanes, taxis, and the streets of San Francisco, thus exposing my better side to roughly half the country.

Notice that the tear begins at the belt and continues half way down the thigh.

I got out of the taxi and stood on a corner tucking my receipt away. A gentleman sidled up next to me and gave me the old up-and-down. This had the feeling of a touch (this is, after all, San Francisco), so I curtly nod back and scurry forward. The guy falls in behind me, matching my pace.

We met again at the next corner waiting for the light. Weak smiles exchanged. I pushed forward, he followed. Two blocks later he’s still there. I pass by a bar which is playing, I swear, Glenn Miller’s In the Mood. My kind of place.

I stood to peruse the bill o’ fare thinking of having a cold one and the guy is now forced to walk ahead of me, which he did. But only four or five paces, after which he searched his pockets until he found a piece of paper which so fascinated him he didn’t move. He stole a glance or two back at me.

Ahead, some bus or car honked loudly, and we both looked up. His attention was off me, so I slid around the corner, happy in my ruse. If he followed now, I figured, it would be too obvious.

He didn’t.

It wasn’t until about two hours later when I went to change that I noticed the gaping chasm and realized the gentleman was trying to find a polite way to tell me. What could he say? “Excuse me sir, you have a hole the size of the Grand Canyon on your posterior.”

November 12, 2013 | 12 Comments

Racist Researchers, The Racists, Accuse Gun Owners Of Racism, You Racist

That kick-butt guy in the black wig is me, kung fu-ing the stuffing out of asinine research. Listen to the klaxon clang as evildoers discover we are among them!

Or something.

Don’t know about you guys, but I grow weary of studies like “Racism, Gun Ownership and Gun Control: Biased Attitudes in US Whites May Influence Policy Decisions” by Kerry O’Brien and others. The product of lazy scientists relying on re-re-reanalyzing a set of data.

The set of data arose from a bunch of questions they thought sounded cool—this is how most sociology is conducted—while our crew asked what would happen if they dumped a select few of those questions into a statistical chopper. Wee p-values were ejected. Theories were generated. It’s all so tiring.

In 2008-2009, over four thousand folks were asked if they owned a firearm. 565 said yes, 615 said no; which means three thousand people weren’t asked, or refused to answer, or whatever. Would you tell some white-coated stranger if you had a gun? Depending on the googleyness of his eyes, I might say anything from no to “You better believe it and it’s pointed at you.”

How did our lazy research team account for this kind of measurement answer?

As I like to say, you just wait here for an answer.

Racism dreadfully concerns O’Brien (and most academics): “Blacks are disproportionately represented in US firearm homicides (14.6 per 100,000), and would benefit most from improved gun controls.” A racist statement if there ever was one, and an admission of outright bias.

O’Brien sought to categorize “racism” in two ways. The first was “implicitly”, measured by showing pictures of blacks to whites and asking how the whites felt about it. Since this measure of (almost) real racism didn’t play in their results, we don’t hear much about it their paper.

The second measure was “The Symbolic Racism 2000 Scale” by P. J. Henry and David O. Sears (Political Psychology, 2002, Vol. 23, pp. 253-283). “Symbolic racism (racial resentment) [is] an explicit but subtle form and measure of racism.” They stress this is not “old-fashioned or overt/blatant racism which had seen blacks as amoral and inferior”.

Symbolic “racism”, if it isn’t already obvious, thus means “not racism”. It instead probably means, as you will see, “knowledge of the racial politics.” A screwy thing about the scale is that it is only eight questions, any of which may be used as “the” scale: “the scale could be shortened or lengthened as needed”.

From Henry and Sears, here are four (the final eight were winnowed from many, hence the strange numbering):

2. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same. (1, strongly agree; 2, somewhat agree; 3, somewhat disagree; 4, strongly disagree)…

9. How much of the racial tension that exists in the United States today do you think blacks are responsible for creating? (1, all of it; 2, most; 3, some; 4, not much at all)

11. How much discrimination against blacks do you feel there is in the United States today, limiting their chances to get ahead? (1, a lot; 2, some; 3, just a little; 4, none at all)…

16. Over the past few years, blacks have gotten more economically than they deserve. (1, strongly agree; 2, somewhat agree; 3, somewhat disagree; 4, strongly disagree)

O’Brien said their team used four of the eight questions, but I couldn’t discover which four. That’s science for you. I did double check, though: “Al Sharpton” was not a legitimate response to number 9. Neither was “Affirmative Action” listed for 16.

Anyway, you get the idea in which direction biased, coddled, gun-shy researchers would think answers are “racist”. There is only one politically correct view; everything else is “racist.”

Those who scored ever-so-slightly higher on the politics/”racism” scale were a tiny bit more likely to admit to strangers to owning a gun. This is not the same as saying those who scored higher on the politics/”racism” scale were a tiny bit more likely to own a gun, because gun ownership was never measured. Recall only a fraction of the respondents had anything to say on the subject of gun ownership.

Racism (“implicitly”) was not statistically important. So how do we explain newspaper headlines like this?

White racists more likely to be gun owners: study

And conclusions like this (from the authors)?

Opposition to gun control in US whites is somewhat paradoxical given the statistics on gun-related deaths, and such opposition may be undermining the public health of all US citizens.

Racism has to be the answer.

November 11, 2013 | 11 Comments

A Veteran’s Day Tale

Pretty, no?
From 1986 to 1989, I was stationed at Kadena Air Force Base, smack in the middle of Okinawa. Which wasn’t hard. Being in the middle, I mean. The island is small, about 60 miles long, a long string bean with an outgrowth in the north, the whole floating in the East China Sea.

I was with the 1962nd Communications Group. We fixed telephone lines, teletype machines, and (me) cryptographic whoozits. But since some of those scramblers and descramblers had to go over telephone lines, I had to fix those, too.

We spent endless hours “running lines.” Two guys at one remote location with an “o-scope” and two guys somewhere else shooting a tone down the line. We’d fiddle with some doodads and ensure the impedance of the wire was just so (the crypto stuff was finicky). Mostly it wasn’t. The wires had been run right after World War II in a hurry. The Okinawan telephone company had just begun to replace them.

At least the phone lines were buried, which means they weren’t snapping off in the frequent typhoons the island experienced.1 But since many of them ran shallow, every time it rained, which was always, and the cables were leaky, out we’d go and readjust.

We could only adjust so much, and if this wasn’t enough we’d have to swap out pairs of lines. Meaning we’d have to search the thick trunk (a cable) for unused telephone numbers with our “butt-sets”, a portable part rotary, part DTMF phone with alligator clips which we could use to listen in on calls, or even make them. Sometimes there weren’t any free pairs. Oh well, some colonel’s wife would have to do without a second line.

Sometimes even this wasn’t enough and we’d have to call to the switch, then still mechanical, a building-sized tangle of wires and relays, and have the Japanese phone company swap out the carbon block at a line’s termination. Think of these like charcoal filters which eliminated noise. Since the Japanese didn’t speak English and only Airman Enos (guess what his nickname was) could speak Japanese, things did not always go as planned.

So it was a relief to volunteer for temporary duty as NCOIC of Correctional Custody. Six weeks of guarding mostly minor offenders and a few of those being “PCSed out”, i.e. booted dishonorably. The bulk of inmates committed Article 15 offenses. It sounds grand to call these petty offenders “inmates” since the brig was just another building on base which was less well guarded than my ordinary station

Article 15 covered infractions such as failing to show up to duty, passing bad checks at the BX, insubordination, reckless driving and the like. These were people who were being rehabilitated, i.e. punished, and who would go back to their units after serving their time, usually three to six weeks, and maybe loosing a stripe or two. Those engaged in large-scale blackmarketing—usually buying booze from the Class VI store and reselling it to Okinawans—were kicked out or held waiting their courts martial. Blackmarketing was tempting because, say, a bottle of American whiskey bought on base for a few bucks could fetch ten times that amount off base.

Anyway, the crew had light duties. Marching from paperwork appointment to paperwork appointment or policing the grounds for stray bits of paperwork. I would daily mark down on paperwork that the inmates had completed their paperwork.

There was a TV in the barracks which inmates would be allowed to use for an hour or two at night if they had behaved. People looked forward to this time, but it’s not clear why. We only had AFRTS (pronounced A-farts) which ran ten-year-old sitcoms, some sports, and old movies. Like all TV, the level of programming was aimed at the lowest common denominator, i.e. marines.

One afternoon we couldn’t located Airman Jones. He was supposed to go out with the rest of the crew and march from A to B. The tangle nearby was searched, the toilets were searched, a nearby building was searched. But no Airman Jones. This was bad because if we couldn’t find him we’d have to fill out more paperwork.

Finally, another sergeant called me to the TV room. There was Airman Jones, crouched behind the TV in corner, holding a pair of rabbit ears above his head hoping we would mistake him for the base of the antenna. He didn’t want to miss his soap opera.


1Most of the island, unlike the P.I., is built in concrete and rebar, so typhoons were only a problem for the water supply. We liked typhoons because all the planes took off for Guam and we got the day off.

November 10, 2013 | 11 Comments

Thomas Aquinas & Philosophical Realism

The Statistician to the Stars, Writer of the Stars, and Rock Star Philosopher.
The Statistician to the Stars, Writer of the Stars, and Rock Star Philosopher.
Dozens of big brains, and one fat head held aloft by Yours Truly, crammed into a small room yesterday to hear all there was to know, more or less, about Thomas Aquinas & Philosophical Realism.

The meta-lesson of the conference was, that each and every day, unlike the mass of unfortunates who switch on the television to learn what to think, you should visit the blogs of Ed Feser, Mike Flynn, and Yours Truly. Immunize yourself against silliness. Spread the words!

Now to the regular lessons. First, realism does not necessarily mean what a civilian means by realism. But that’s the case with many, most, or maybe all philosophical jargon.

A civilian looks out his kitchen window to his car sitting in his driveway and thinks, “I have to replace that wretched muffler.” But an academic philosopher who has set his mind against realism will say, “The muffler, the car, the window, and even this kitchen, is a product of my imagination.” This won’t save the academic from having to visit his mechanic, but it might land him a job at a prestigious university.

But never mind. Thomistic realism is the kind of realism you most likely have in mind when you bother to think about the subject at all. Stuff exists, it’s out there; other people exist; trees make noise if nobody is around to hear them fall, and so on.

James Brent

James Brent, OP.
James Brent, OP.
Leading off was James Brent, O.P. (“Oh, a Priest”), from The Catholic University of America, with his patriotically titled “The Principle of Non-Contradiction Yesterday, Today, and Forever.”

Brent, incidentally, gave his talk in the form of an scholastic argument, which is a clean form for presenting objections and resolutions. See this argument of Thomas for an example.

Can we know any truths? Yes. And if you disagree, you agree. The principal of non-contradiction, so familiar its earned its own acronym, is one of these truths, which comes in three flavors. The one most familiar to readers here is the epistemic version, which is that a proposition cannot be both true and false simultaneously (given the same evidence). The metaphysical flavors are that something cannot be and not-be at the same time, and something cannot exist and not-exist simultaneously.

The PNC is something each of us knows. How do we know it? We don’t know. This knowledge was a gift. We cannot prove the PNC. It is obviously true. Well, the PNC is not the only item we know without proof. This is why we have the word axiom.

One of the better objections to the PNC, and by “better” I do not mean good, is the “So what?” objection. Nothing, the critic ventures, follows from the PNC. The answer to this is, “Oh yeah? So what yourself.”

No, really: that is the answer. Even if nothing follows from it, it doesn’t follow the PNC isn’t true. Nothing follows from Peano’s first axiom, either. We need to add to it a couple of other true-without-proof propositions, and then all of mathematics tumbles out. The PNC, I repeat, is not the only thing we know.

(I pay most attention to Brent and Feser’s talks because they cover ground well trodden by regular readers.)

Candace Vogler

Candace Vogler.
Candace Vogler.
Speaker two was Candace Vogler, University of Chicago with “Nature, Human Good, and Culture in Aquinas”.

As far as I understand it (which isn’t very far), there has been a creeping, cautious return to teleology in metaphysics. Directedness, powers, and all that is what frightened the Enlightened into Hume’s curious views of causation, created the so-called “mind-problem” problem, and so forth. See, if there is a direction, if actualities and potencies and all that are the right way to think of things, then this implies there might be somebody in charge of traffic flow. And that somebody is somebody we moderns are anxious not to know.

But there just isn’t any way to expunge teleological talk in many areas of science, particularly biology. “What’s the heart for?” “It’s not for anything! Everything is random meaninglessness.” People say that sort of thing, but nobody believes it. But they do say these things, which we must understand as their blustery strategy of keeping teleology at bay.

Vogler gave an interesting summary of how certain philosophers are reconsidering the old ways. They speak in new words. This has two advantages: it keeps civilians baffled, and it proves what many philosophers are ever anxious to prove, that they are independent of all those other philosophers. (That’s my view, not Vogler’s, who is vastly politer than I.)

Her best quip, in answer to a question about modern physics: “I have yet to meet the analytic philosopher who is troubled by physics.”

Again, we must keep in mind the differences between metaphysical explanations of causality and the epistemological implications of this. We don’t, it is obvious, always recall the distinction.

Ed Feser

Batting third was Ed Feser (whose picture at the podium I neglected to take; but see above), Pasadena College with his “An Aristotelian Argument for the Existence of God”. Regular readers know it (see the extended review of his book The Last Superstition). Feser had a handout which delineated the argument in a way that would make any mathematician smile, complete with diagrams. Luckily it was already given in another paper (or I would have been far too lazy to type it out):

  1. That the actualization of potency is a real feature of the world follows from the occurrence of the events we know via sensory experience.
  2. The occurrence of any event E presupposes the operation of a substance.
  3. The existence of any natural substance S at any given moment presupposes the concurrent actualization of a potency.
  4. No mere potency can actualize a potency: only something actual can do so.
  5. So any actualizer A of S‘s current existence must itself be actual.
  6. A‘s own existence at the moment it actualizes S itself presupposes either (a) the concurrent acutalization of a further potency or (b) A‘s being purely actual.
  7. If A‘s existence at the moment it actualizes S presupposes the concurrent actualization of a further potency, then there exists a regress of concurrent actualizers that is either infinite or terminates in a purely actual actualizer.
  8. But such a regress of concurrent actualizers would constitute a causal series ordered per se, and such a series cannot regress infinitely.
  9. So either A itself is purely actual or there is a purely actual actualizer which terminates the regress of concurrent actualizers.
  10. So the occurrence of E and thus the existence of S at any given moment presupposes the existence of a purely actual actualizer.

Feser very carefully—one could almost say painstakingly—one will—and painstakingly differentiated two kinds of series, accidentally and essentially ordered. Accidental series are those like “for the want of a nail a kingdom was lost.” These do not form the basis of his proof. Essentially ordered series do. The old saw of stick-pushes-rock modified is the saw is cutting the wood, the arm is pushing the saw, the muscle is pushing the arm, the cells are releasing proteins, the atom are wiggling this way, the quarks that way, and so on down to the foundation, which initiates the process, which is operating now; all members in the series are changing now, in this simultaneous moment, all pushed along by the foundational unchanging and unchangeable cause.

There must be a foundation to any such essentially ordered series: it cannot infinitely regress like an accidental series or nothing could ever change. That foundation, it turns out, has to have certain properties, all of which may be summarized with the word God. Yeah, that guy.

After Feser’s talk, a line of his numerous fans started forming at the podium. Mike Flynn, the Incomparable Marge, the Number One son, and I tried to walk to the back of it. But the line was so long it led out the door, down the sidewalk, and ended in front of a pub—where we repaired and drank pints of Guinness to wait out the storm and to sing sad songs about nobody buying our books.

John Haldane

John Haldane.
John Haldane.
Cleanup was John Haldane, St. Andrew’s University and “Aquinas and Realism”. Turns out there are several things that can be meant by “realism”: hard versus moderate versus anti, metaphysical versus epistemological, and so on. Thomas is what people usually call a “moderate” realist, the version of realism most closely akin to commonsense.

Among other things, Haldane built a circumstantial case that a well known (to other philosophers, anyway) philosopher named Étienne Gilson came to his view of Thomas’s realism because G.K. Chesterton had the same view. Or, no, wait: it’s the other way around. Anyway, the Guinness and the massive plate of eggs (topped by, I kid you not, what was billed as “angry” Hollandaise sauce) I mistakenly ate had its effects and I admit that what was left of my powers of concentration were bent on finding a corner into which I could squeeze myself into and doze.

I did hear the terms “avowers and deniers”: I liked “avowers.” Something about knowing things as they are in themselves. And that put my mind back to David Stove’s contest to discover the Worst Argument in the World.

I’ll say this for Haldane (to whom I apologize for my not paying attention): he was only one of three people in the room to wear a pocket square. Curiously, his respondent, a professor my son knew from Fordham, was the second. You know who the third was.

The brings us to our second meta-lesson. Stay away from pubs before lectures.

Infinite loop update Click on this link, then click on the appropriate link on the link. Repeat.

Hyperdrive update The OFloinn himself weighs in here.

Hammertime update Jerry Pournelle plugs the post here.