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Category: Book review

Please email me at matt@wmbriggs.com before sending books to be reviewed.

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 5, 2009 | 5 Comments

More essential reading

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

Art
Art

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.

February 23, 2009 | 25 Comments

What appeal to authority means and what it doesn’t

This article is meant to be the first is a small series of demonstrations of how not and how to argue for or against climate activism. The level of argumentation on the web has long passed subbasement (people have been calling each other “Hitler” for over two years), but worse are the misuses and misunderstandings of logic. People throw around terms like ad hominem and appeal to authority constantly, without understanding what they are saying.

My hope is that when you see an abuse of the type outlined, you simply cut and paste the link to these pages. This will save us all a lot of time and unnecessary typing. I hope.

1.

A prominent climate inactivist forwarded me a document in which he argued against some of the more catastrophic claims said to be due to global warming.

At the beginning of his piece he implied that James Hansen, who is the best known climate activist, should not be trusted because Hansen only had training as an astrophysicist and not as a climatologist.

This is a poor argument because the author of the piece was not himself a climatologist. If you must be an official climatologist before being allowed to comment on climatology—a position that is logically valid given that you can satisfactorily define “climatologist”—then just about everybody, activist and inactivist, must shut up. Including the author of that piece—and almost certainly, including you.

2.

Mr Activist: this means that you would not be allowed to say anything whatsoever about global warming except to repeat what you have been told by an official climatologist. You would be allowed to say “Mr Climatologist says B” and nothing else.

(“B” can be any statement or proposition about climatology only—it cannot be about politics or health or biology or anything else.)

Mr Activist would not be allowed to say “Mr Climatologist says B, and you’re a fool not to believe it.” Pause and understand this. The reason is that he is not qualified to say what and what is not foolish because he is not a climatologist.

If an official climatologist says “B, and people would be fools not to believe it,” then you can repeat that statement. But you cannot adorn it, nor comment further, nor say anything else. You can repeat what you are told by your betters and then you must keep quiet.

The only exception to this logical rule is that if everybody, activist and inactivist, agreed on the additional premise, “People that do not believe what official climatologists say are fools.” Then you can logically say, “Mr Climatologist says B, and you’re a fool not to believe it.”

But almost certainly, everybody would not agree on that premise. Let’s see why.

3.

The prominent inactivist made a logical mistake by arguing “Because Hansen is not a climatologist, his statements on climatology are false.” This is only valid if only climatologists make true statements about climatology and if non-climatologists always make false statements about climatology. Is that true?

Obviously not. Plenty of climatologists have made statements about climatology that turned out false in fact and in theory. And plenty of non-climatologists have made statements about climatology that turned out true in fact and in theory.

Because of this, it necessarily means that anybody is allowed to say anything they want about statements of fact or theory about climatology. This includes both activists and inactivists. We can now see that neither side can accuse the other of making a logical mistake by talking about climatology.

So stop arguing about this point!

4.

Suppose Hansen is an official climatologist and he makes the statement, H = “The global average temperature in 2010 will be at least half a degree hotter than in 2009.” (Whenever we see ‘H’, we must remember that it stands for “The global average…”)

If an activist then says, “Hansen, an expert, says H. Therefore, because Hansen is an expert, H is true.” This argument is invalid; the activist has made a mistake. H cannot be true because Hansen said so. The logical error made is called “appealing to authority.”

Most know of this mistake and avoid obvious instances of it. But see 5.

Suppose a second activist said, “Hansen, an expert, says H. Therefore, because Hansen is an expert, H is likely to be true.” This is not a mistake and is a rational thing to say. This is because experts making statements like H are often, but not always, right. Therefore it is rational to suppose that the expert is likely to be right again.

The statement made by the second activist is an appeal to authority, too, but a sound, inductive one.

Mr Inactivist: it does you no credit to accuse non-climatologists of being irrational if they are making arguments of the second type. It is often wise to appeal to authority like this, and is what we all do when we enter an aircraft, trusting the pilot to get us safely to our destination.

5.

Most will agree that Hansen meets the definition of climatologist, but then so does your author, and so do several people (like Dr Lindzen) who do not always agree with what Hansen says.

Now we have trouble. For if only official climatologists can make true statements about climatology, and if two (or more) official climatologists make contradictory statements about climatology, then we have a logical contradiction if the premise “Only climatologists make true statements about climatology” is true. We have already seen it is false, so we are safe.

But suppose Mr Activist says, “Most climatologists say B. Therefore B is true.” This is the same logical error: appeal to authority in the deductive sense.

Let the second activist say “Most climatologists say B. Therefore B is likely to be true.” This is a perfectly rational thing to say.

Even more, the first premise appears to be true in fact: Most climatologists do agree on most statements B about climatology. Therefore, it is rational for people, and their close cousins politicians, to say to themselves “B is likely to be true.”

Mr Inactivist: your only appeal, if you believe B to be false, is to marshal arguments against B. You must not call B a “hoax” or use other disparaging terms as you risk being guilty of appealing strictly to your own authorities (however, there is more to say here, but we’ll save this for another time).

Mr Activist: Because you have reasoned B is more likely to be true, you cannot say “Therefore, everybody must believe B.” To do so is to make the same appeal-to-authority logical error. You must also not express amazement that anybody dare disagree with B for the same reason, and because you must remember that the inactivist has consulted his own authority or set of facts and is arguing inductively just as you are.

6.

Mr Activist, you must not say that Mr Inactivist’s authorities are ineligible because they do not agree with your authorities. This is the same logical error: appeal to authority once more.

And it is a foolish thing to say because you risk defining “expert” solely as “somebody who agrees with what I want.” That is not a logical error, but it is asinine.

7.

Finally, Mr Activist, you must understand Mr Inactivist is making an inductive, and therefore rational, appeal to authority, when he argues “Yes, most climatologists say B, but I believe they are mistaken because these other climatologists claim to have shown where the first are in error.”

Thus, if Mr Inactivist says, “Therefore, B is likely to be false”, then he has said a rational thing. But if he has said, “Therefore, B is certainly false”, then he has made the same error and you can call him on it.

8.

Update: I want to leave as an exercise about how arguments about “peer review” and “consensus” fit into the appeal to authority arguments. After you have said something about “peer review”, then read this article.

December 2, 2008 | 6 Comments

Breaking the Law of Averages on Amazon

Breaking the Law of Averages

The book is now fully available at Amazon, and should be available in other outlets already or soon.

It goes without saying that the book is the perfect Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid-Al-Adha, New Year’s, Oshogatsu, Holi, Bodhi Day, Birthday, or Anniversary gift. But I’ll say it anyway: your loved-ones will despise you if you don’t buy them a copy.

Now, many people are busy this time of year, but will certainly want to include a review of the book on Amazon’s review page. With that in mind, and me being the helpful and generous soul that I am, I have included a couple of reviews that you can cut and paste right into the form, thus saving you scads of time.

A book so unbelievably beautiful that I wept when I first beheld it.

The word genius is certainly overused, so I see no harm in using it once again for this marvelous book

It would be a complete and utter moral failure not to own a copy of this lasting work.

If there is anybody left who wants a signed copy, there are two ways to get one: (1) Send an email with SIGNED COPY as a subject heading to matt@wmbriggs.com (cost is US$32); (2) Buy a copy on, say, Amazon, and bring it to Manhattan for me to sign. I am easy to find; I wear a brown fedora (in the fall/winter), am tall, and have a distinct statistical presence. You can’t miss me.