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Category: Philosophy

The philosophy of science, empiricism, a priori reasoning, epistemology, and so on.

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 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 3, 2009 | 39 Comments

You have no choice but to read this

Your decisions are not your own

Our gut instinct, our experience, is that we make the decisions to move, to think, to eat, to steal, to lie, to punch and kick. We have constructed the entire edifice of our civilisation on this idea. But science says this free will is a delusion. According to the world’s best neuroscientists, we are brain-machines. Our brains create the sense that somewhere within them is the “you” that makes decisions. But it is an illusion; there is no ghost in the machine. What does this mean for our sense of self? And for our morality – can we prosecute people for acts over which they had no conscious control?

Or so says London Times writer Michael Brooks. Free Will is one of his 13 Unsolved scientific puzzles (linked at the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily).

The most interesting part of this story is that the Times linked back to a previous article on the question, first published in 1877:

That brilliant speaker, Professor Tyndall, lecturing at Birmingham the the other day, adopted frankly the theory of necessity, and in the name of conscience dismissed free-will henceforward from all civilized society. To the obvious remonstrance of the murderer against his punishment, that we hang him for what he could not help, the Professor answers in these words,—“We entertain no malice against you, but simply with a view for our own saftey and purification we are determined that you, and such as you, shall not enjoy liberty of evil action in our midst…You offend, because cannot help offending.

Professor Tyndall was merely stating consequences that follow from the deduction that if all things are material, and we are material, and that since all material effects have causes, all of our actions are thus materially determined. That is, we cannot have free will. We act as we do because we cannot help but act as we do.

Not much has changed since Tyndall held forth. Now we have C. M. Fisher in the journal Medical Hypotheses wondering how free will can be possible since we have neurons, which he has cleverly determined are material, and since they are material etc. He says, “This has implications for voluntary behavior and the doctrine of free will.” Doctrine?

How do neurons cause things to happen without will? A common view is provided by John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. Haynes used a magnetic phrenology machine to show that areas of the brain “light up” before people say they are aware of making a decision. Therefore free will might be an illusion.

Other scientists have also discovered material neurons: for example, Princeton’s Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen (quoted here):

…the law’s intuitive support is ultimately grounded in a metaphysically overambitious, libertarian notion of free will that is threatened by determinism and, more pointedly, by forthcoming cognitive neuroscience…. The net effect of this influx of scientific information will be a rejection of free will as it is ordinarily conceived, with important ramifications for the law…[And on crime] demonstrating that there is a brain basis for adolescents’ misdeeds allows us to blame adolescents’ brains instead of the adolescents themselves.

You get the drift by now: when people do bad things, it’s not their fault. They were made to do evil by their selfish genes (as Dawkins would say) or by their oblivious neurons (as many scientists say).

Thus, when I say C.M. Fisher is a fool, and when I suggest that Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen have unnatural relations with horses, it’s not my fault. I cannot help but write those words, just as Greene and Cohen cannot help hanging around stables.

I couldn’t even stop myself if I wanted to. Worse, there is no “I” to stop. The “I” that is typing is just a mass of tissue following a predetermined path.

Since it is not the perpetrator’s fault for raping your daughter (he had no choice), these Enlightened folks conclude we cannot punish them. It would be the same as punishing a cloud for dropping unwanted rain.

Every modern argument against free will reaches that same “progressive” conclusion: bad people should not be punished. Only our old friend Professor Tyndall was wise enough to see the flaw in that ridiculous argument. The criminal does evil because he cannot help himself, but since there is no free will, “We punish, because we cannot help but punish.” Everybody does what they do because they have no choice.

If there is no free will, we cannot change our behavior to take account of the enlightened non-punishment idea. No one can change their behavior to account for anything. Every action is set. There is no way to stand outside of our genes/neurons to direct them in an enlightened manner to do our bidding. Even college professors, even those at Princeton, are stuck in an eternal rut.

Because we cannot see how there could be free will given the implications of certain theories and beliefs only means that all or some of those theories and beliefs are wrong or incomplete. It does not mean that the observation of free will is in error.

This is not the place to say why free will is possible (please don’t mention the study of movement in discrete units). Free will is obvious. And it is even obvious to those people who say there is no free will.

If you disagree with me, pause for a moment and consider that “I” cannot help saying what I am saying, so there is no use for you to tell me I am wrong.

February 25, 2009 | 30 Comments

Peer review

Here is how peer review roughly works.

An author sends a paper to a journal. An editor nearly always sends the paper on to two or more referees. The referees read the paper with varying degrees of closeness, and then send a written recommendation to the editor saying “publish” or “do not publish.” The editor can either accept or ignore the referees’ recommendations.

The paper is then either published, or sent back to the author for revisions or rejection.

If the paper is rejected, the author will usually submit it to another journal, where the peer review process begins anew. This cycle continues until either the paper is published somewhere (the most typical outcome) or the author tires and quits.

Here are two false statements:

(A) All peer-reviewed, published papers are correct in their findings.

(B) All papers that have been rejected1 by peer review are incorrect in their findings.

These statements are also false if you add “in/by the most prestigious journals” to them. (A) and (B) are false in every field, too, including, of course, climatology.

A climatology activist might argue, “Given what I know about science, this peer-reviewed paper contains correct findings.” This is not a valid argument because (A) is true: the climatology paper might have findings which are false.

If the activist instead argued, “Given what I know, this peer-reviewed paper probably contains correct findings” he will have come to a rational, inductive conclusion.

But a working climatologist (gastroenterologist, chemist, etc., etc.) will most likely argue, “Given my experience, this peer-reviewed paper has a non-zero chance to contain correct findings.” Which is nothing more than a restatement of (A).

The “non-zero chance” will be modified to suit his knowledge of the journal and the authors of the paper. For some papers, the chance of correct findings will be judged high, but for most papers, the chance of correct findings will be judged middling, and for a few it will be judged low as a worm’s belly.

Here is a sampling of evidence for that claim.

(1) Rothwell and Martyn (abstract and paper) examined referees’ reports from a prominent neuroscience journal and found that referee agreement was about 50%. That is, there is no consensus in neurology.

(2) No formal study (that I am aware of) has done the same for climatology, but personal experience suggests it is similar there. That is, there is at least one published paper on which the referees do not agree (at what is considered the best journal, Journal of Climate).

(3) Pharmacologist David Horrobin has written a commentary on peer-review in which he argues that the process has actually slowed down research in some fields. He also agrees with my summary:

Peer review is central to the organization of modern science. The peer-review process for submitted manuscripts is a crucial determinant of what sees the light of day in a particular journal. Fortunately, it is less effective in blocking publication completely; there are so many journals that most even modestly competent studies will be published provided that the authors are determined enough. The publication might not be in a prestigious journal, but at least it will get into print.

(4) I have just received an email “Invitation to a Symposium on Peer Reviewing” which, in part, reads:

Only 8% members of the Scientific Research Society agreed that “peer review works well as it is”. (Chubin and Hackett, 1990; p.192).

“A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and an analysis of the peer review system substantiate complaints about this fundamental aspect of scientific research.” (Horrobin, 2001)

Horrobin concludes that peer review “is a non-validated charade whose processes generate results little better than does chance.” (Horrobin, 2001). This has been statistically proven and reported by an increasing number of journal editors.

But, “Peer Review is one of the sacred pillars of the scientific edifice” (Goodstein, 2000), it is a necessary condition in quality assurance for Scientific/Engineering publications, and “Peer Review is central to the organization of modern science…why not apply scientific [and engineering] methods to the peer review process” (Horrobin, 2001).

This is the purpose of the International Symposium on Peer Reviewing: ISPR ( being organized in the context of The 3rd International Conference on Knowledge Generation, Communication and Management: KGCM 2009 (, which will be held on July 10-13, 2009, in Orlando, Florida, USA.

Be sure to visit the first link for more information.

(5) Then there is the Sokal Hoax, where a physicist sent a paper full of gibberish to a preeminent social science journal to see if it would be published. It was. Sokal was careful to play to the preconceptions of the journals’ editors to gain acceptance. The lesson is the oldest: people—even scientists!—easily believe what they want to.

(5) John Ioannidis and colleagues in their article “Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science.” The authors liken acceptance of papers in journals to winning bids in auctions: sometimes the winner pays too much and the results aren’t worth as much as everybody thinks. A review of the article here.

(7) UPDATE. Then there is, the repository of non-peer-reviewed “preprints” (papers not yet printed in a journal). Arxiv is an acknowledgment by physicists, and lately mathematicians and even climatologists, that it’s better to take your findings directly to your audience and bypass the slow and error-prone refereeing process.

(8) It is easy to get a paper into print when the subject is “hot”, or when you are friends with the editor or he owes you a favor, or your findings shame the editor’s enemies, or through a mistake, or by laziness of the referees, or in a journal with a reputation for sloppiness. In most fields, there are at least 100 monthly/quarterly journals. Thus it is exceedingly rare for a paper not to find a home, no matter how appalling or ridiculous its conclusions.

Update: 4 March; Reader Jack Mosevich reminds us to see this article at Climate Audit. Real-life example of politically correct refereeing.

The listing of these facts is solely to prove that (A) and (B) are false, and that peer review is a crude sifter of truth.

Thus, when an activist or inactivist points to a peer-reviewed paper and says, “See!”, he should not be surprised when his audience is unpersuaded. He should never argue that some finding must be true because it came from a peer-reviewed paper.

This web page has also tracked several peer-reviewed, published papers that are crap. Examples here, here, here, and here (more are coming).


1Incidentally, I have only had one methods paper rejected; all others I wrote were accepted to the first journal I sent them to. Nearly every collaborative paper I co-wrote has also been accepted eventually. I am an Associate editor at Monthly Weather Review, and have been a referee more times than I can remember, both for journals and grants.

I mention these things to show that I am familiar with the process and that I am not a disgruntled author seeking to impugn a system that has treated him unfairly. To the contrary, I have been lucky, and have had a better experience than most.