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March 9, 2009 | 15 Comments

Relativism: an idea that failed before it started

The Books of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals
William D. Gairdner
McGill-Queen’s University Press
Recommendation: Read

Let’s play spot the flaw. In 1994, professor Mark Glazer said, “Cultural relativism in anthropology is a key methodological concept which is universally accepted within the discipline.” (It’s the very first sentence after the link.)

Don’t have it yet? Then let’s remind ourselves of what cultural relativism means: “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid and that truth itself is relative, depending on the situation, environment, and individual.”

You surely have it by now, so let’s move on to the twelve objections to relativism as outlined by Gairdner in his Book of Absolutes.

Wait…what? You don’t see the flaw? Ah, I guess it’s hard to spot contradictions like this when we’re exposed to them so often that they seem natural.

If it is true that “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid” etc., and that that proposition is “universally accepted”, then we are confronted with something that is true wherever you are. If “relativism” is true, then it is false because anthropologists everywhere believe it, and if they everywhere believe it, it is a universal truth, something that is true without regard to culture.

It gets even more asinine. If “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid” etc., then how valid is the view that “Cultural relativism is false”? I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks.

Cultural relativism is an idea that is immediately seen as not just false but incredibly stupid, so you have to wonder how it originated and why it took such a tight hold on Western academia.

Gairdner relates the history and puts a lot of the blame on German export Franz Boas, an anthropologist who was horrified by World War I, eugenics, and other popular pastimes at the turn of the last century. Boas feared absolutes, such as those preached by the rising Socialist (National) party in Germany, because he felt that they could be used to justify any atrocity. Example: If it is true that Xs are inferior, then it is okay to exterminate them, where X is any group that is on the outs.

Boas was immensely influential, and if the story is right, transformed all of anthropology so that absolutes were seen as verboten. One of his students was Margret Mead, and we know where that story ended.

After going through the book, a good argument can be made for restricting all intellectual output of Germany, re: the romanticism of Nietzsche, its practical implementation under the uber-Nazi Heidegger—and then there’s the deconstructing, post-modernist pair of Foucault and Derrida, who were both French, but who lived so close to the German border that they soaked up too much of what was seeping out. The story of how these men captured the minds of academics is particularly interesting. It has been told before, but Gairdner was an inside witness and his anecdotes are interesting, especially the story of modern Saussarian linguistics and its eventual corruption by the cult of relativism.

There are separate discussions of human biology, language, law, and customs, which all have lists of universals of the constant, conditional and statistical kind. Constant means the trait, such as the taboo against murder, is shared by every culture. Conditional means that if trait A is present then B always is, but that trait A might not be constant. Statistical traits are found in most but not necessarily all cultures (and are thus not universal, but intriguing anyway).

Gairdner attempts a list of physical constants, which is a good enough idea, but times are changing in physics and the “constants” once held dear have become malleable. But never mind. His central idea is still right: there are truths that exist independent of human minds or thought. He also has a go at the stronger Anthropic Principle, but is not convincing. However, I’ve yet to meet with an argument for that Principle that is.

The amazing thing is that universals, or even the possibility of them, were so thoroughly rejected by highly paid, tenure-wielding, peer-reviewed professors. That is, during the twentieth century the intelligentsia gathered as one and said, “There are no universals, there is nothing that is true.”

Now that is a shocking statement. But it came from a consensus of professors, and who are we mere mortals to question a consensus? So it was believed, and from it came things like judicial activism, multiculturalism etc., etc. If there is nothing universally true, academics swooned, then think of the possibilities!

Of course, the flaw in that statement was always obvious, plain, and damning. For we can ask, “Is it true that there is nothing that is universally true?” The post-modernist professor must say yes, but as he does, he makes himself a fool, albeit one with a comfortable “research” budget.

Anyway, here are a few representative examples of relativism culled from Gairdner’s book, all of which share the same self-contradictory logical flaw. You will need some familiarity with the subjects to understand some of the statements (background for each is given in the book). That these blatant flaws were overlooked—usually in the name of “good intentions”—says quite a bit about how the desire for power can so easily blind.

* Dawkins, in his Selfish Genes, says our brains have grown so large that we can rebel “against our own natures.” “We along on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

* Yet another German, influential legal scholar Hans Kelsen, “rejected and derided outright the claims of ‘philosophical absolutism’, which insist there is a foundational reality that exists independent of human knowledge.”

* The post-modern interpretation of literature: “All texts, and the world itself, are nothing more than ‘a galaxy of signifiers.'”

* Nietzsche “protested that all religions and philosophies are but thinly veiled attempts by their to control others by persuading them of the ‘facts’ produced only by the logic of their pet theories.”

* Derrida: “no discourse has the objective capacity to analyze another discourse.”

* Foucault: “interpretation can never be brought to an end…because there is nothing to interpret.”

* Said’s and others’ anti-foundationalism: which argues there can be no foundation in philosophy.

March 7, 2009 | 12 Comments

A subtle difference

These plaques were placed outside the doors of a toilet in a train station on the outskirts of Taipei.

Boy toilet entrance Girl toilet entrance

Even with my lack of Chinese, I managed to go to the right place.

March 6, 2009 | 39 Comments

A new cure for insomnia

Just so you don’t think it’s all work and no play around here, I wanted to show you how we statisticians really unwind and let go. We write papers that as many as ten or even twenty other guys around the whole world will read.

My friend Russ Zaretzki and I just submitted the paper “Induction and Falsifiability in Statistics” to Bayesian Analysis.

The abstract:

The importance—and rationality—of inductive arguments and their relation to the frequently invoked, but widely and poorly misunderstood, notion of falsifiability are explained in the context of statistical models. We remind readers that no probability model can be falsified. Both frequentists and Bayesians must use inductive arguments. This includes arguments for the use of p-values and those given in model selection and for the creation of goodness of fit measures. Since only Bayesian theory is equipped to put probabilities on the conclusions of inductive arguments, we argue that even frequentists are Bayesians at heart.

Since we’re interested in how peer-review works, I’ll try and keep us posted as this paper makes its way through the process.

A snippet from the Introduction (I’ll leave the bibtex references alone and opaque):

Regardless of the common sense of (2), the early part of the 20th century saw the growth and dispersal of the belief that all inductive arguments are unreasonable. The philosopher most responsible for this view was Karl Popper \citep{ThePsi1987,GroLev1994}. Popper asked, “Are we rationally justified in reasoning from repeated instances of which we have experience [like the hot flames] to instances of which we have had no experience [this flame]?” His answer: “No” \citep{Pop1959}. This extreme skepticism has understandably not been accepted by many philosophers \citep{Car1950,Haa2003,ThePsi1987,Wil1947,Sto1982}, but as we shall see it has been, at least in some form, by statisticians and probabilists.

Popper convinced many that since induction could not and should not be trusted—because it might lead to an invalid conclusion—only deduction should be used in scientific inference. Since it is difficult to prove things deductively, Popper therefore claimed that the mark of a scientific theory is that it can be falsified; theories that could not be were said to be metaphysical or not scientific. Now, the term falsified has a precise, unambiguous, logical meaning: that something was shown to be certainly false. Despite this simple definition, there have developed many odd, and incorrect, interpretations of this word in our community, which we detail below.

First, the falsifiability criterion is obviously useless for theories that are true (such as in math) and therefore cannot be falsified. Falsifiability is also useless with statistical arguments. This is because they use probability statements which cannot be falsified, and therefore are, in Popper’s scheme, metaphysical.

No model or theory that makes a probability statement (between 0 and 1) can be falsified because there can exist no set of observations which are logically inconsistent with any probability statement. An example, “This logistic regression model says the probability of rain tomorrow is 0.9.” Either observation, rain or now, is logically consistent with that statement. It cannot be falsified.

What fun!

March 5, 2009 | 5 Comments

More essential reading

A busy week, with many sending in links and ideas. Thanks everybody!


That’s art, folks. I finally figured out how to get pictures off my crappy phone, so this pic comes late. The “exhibit” is already closed.

What? You don’t see it? That “waterfall” was one of five or six of the same, all placed at the ass end of the East River this past summer. New York City naturally paid millions to an “artist” so he could put up this idiotic leaky erector set.

This sad exhibit became funny when one or two of them had to be shut off because the salt-loaded spray was killing trees in Brooklyn.

Best part was that the city did a “study” proving that the “art” would bring in over $30 million. How? Well, once people heard about the “art”, they would flock to the area hotels and restaurants to be close to it. Statistics in action!

Statistics lecture

My number one son sent a link to this lecture. Peter Donnelly: How juries are fooled by statistics.

His “HTH” and “HTT” examples are similar to the Monty Hall problem which, along with his “99% accurate disease test”, are both detailed in the runaway best seller Breaking the Law of Averages: Real-Life Probability and Statistics in Plain English.

A word of caution before viewing the video: not all statisticians dress that badly. We do, however, all make the same jokes.

Soviet jokes sadly now applicable in the USA

Oleg Atbashian:

Economic justice:

* America is capitalist and greedy — yet half of the population is subsidized.
* Half of the population is subsidized — yet they think they are victims.
* They think they are victims — yet their representatives run the government.
* Their representatives run the government — yet the poor keep getting poorer.
* The poor keep getting poorer — yet they have things that people in other countries only dream about.
* They have things that people in other countries only dream about — yet they want America to be more like those other countries.

UF teachers sues to reduce teaching load

The Big KT sent this link to a story about University of Florida employee Florence Babb, who heads the—yes, this is an actual department—Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research.

Poor Babb teaches a full class every single semester, but the university, socked by the economy and not having enough money to pay for adjuncts to teach, wants her to squeeze in another.

However, poor Babb can’t handle it. So she ran to the union, and together they’re taking on the administration.

You might expect that I would be against poor Babb in this. But you’d be wrong. In fact, I’m writing a letter to UF to ask that Babb’s course load be reduced even more.

This is because I’ve seen her web page: “Her courses include Sex and the Global City, Feminist Ethnography, Gender and Cultural Politics in Latin America, and Sex, Love, and Globalization.”

Clearly, the less time poor Babb spends with students, the better off they will be.

Drink up, ladies

Researchers went from the observation that

all types of cancer studied in its non-drinking subjects was 5.7 per cent compared with 5.3 per cent for those subjects who had at least a drink a day, and up to 14 drinks a week

to the conclusion that there is a “very significant increase in cancer risk” for women who drink. They must have written their paper at the pub.

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily.