Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The purpose of argument.

(Ed note: Last version went screwy with the formatting. Should be fixed now.)

At The Garden of Forking Paths, Manuel Vargas has a -- at this point, rather old -- post on philosophical methodology, i.e., on what is the appropriate measure of success for philosophical argumentation. Given the nature of the blog, he's interested in applying it to free will debates. I'm not -- my interest is in showing how all the models he describes rest on a failed understanding of acting for reasons. Philosophers should, instead, adopt a fourth model, which I will try to sketch in some sparse detail.

Here are the models, as Vargas describes them:
Van Inwagen begins by rejecting a model of philosophical argumentation quite similar to what Robert Nozick has called "coercive philosophy"; on this model, one seeks to provide knockdown arguments from indisputable premises. As regards this sort of model, Van Inwagen points out (p. 36) that Nozick said that when he was young he thought that a philosophical argument is adequate only if anyone who understood the premises but not the conclusion would die! ...

On [the second] ... view, philosophical argumentation can be thought of as a kind of debate between two parties who have opposite views about the issue under consideration, where the goal of each is to convince the other to give up his position and adopt the competing view. (A weaker requirement would be that the other party to the debate switch from accepting the competing view to agnosticism; Van Inwagen doesn't explicitly consider this possibility. An even weaker requirement--or family or requirements--would be that the other party decreases to some degree his confidence in his view.) ...

Van Inwagen prefers a third model, according to which we understand philosophical argumentation as like an idealized debate between proponents of competing positions, where the goal is not to convert the other debater, but to convince an idealized "agnostic"--a person who is "neutral" in the sense that he has no particular antecedent inclination to accept the relevant position. ...

Vargas favours the third model, but I'll start by considering why the first two models go badly wrong, solely from the perspective of philosophy of action. First, it's important to note that coming to form a belief on the basis of some evidence is a perfectly respectable instance of acting on the basis of reasons. Evidence is the theoretical gloss on practical reasons generally; and belief-formation is a mentalized form of action. Although this is not philosophical dogma or accepted wisdom, I have never quite understood why -- it just seems obvious to me.

So, given that, on the first model, argument is supposed to give reasons that are so overwhelming strong that no one can possibly disagree with them or with their conclusions. But there is, in principle, no action which works like this. That is, there is no action the reasons for which cannot be defeated by some, even hypothetical, competing reasons. It is very nearly a conceptual truth that reasons for action are only reasons for doing that action (rather than some other) insofar as the reasons are stronger than the reasons for doing other available possibilities. But, in the actual world, there are always fewer available possibilities than possibilities in general -- the word "available" signals a host of pragmatic considerations which drastically limit the available avenues an agent can pursue. This actually does quite a lot of work in practical reasoning, as it allows an agent to narrow his focus on only a handful of possible actions, and thus a handful of sets of reasons. But, as should be clear, there is a multitude of sets of reasons which are never even considered, because the actions for which they could be reasons are never considered. It is thus possible that the reasons which back up the chosen course of action could be defeated by one of these sets of unconsidered reasons.

To make matters worse, it is again very nearly a conceptual truth that reasons only favour one course of action over another in a continuous way, not in a dichotomous "all or nothing" way. That is, when I choose to phi rather than psi, I do so on the basis that the reasons for phi (call them Rphi) are stronger than the reasons for psi (Rpsi). But this in no way implies either that Rphi annihilates Rpsi such that Rpsi are no longer reasons at all, or that Rphi is such a powerful set of reasons that no other set of reasons could defeat it.

So, applying these considerations to belief-formation on the basis of evidence, it follows that (1) some possible beliefs and their accompanying sets of reasons have not been considered at all; (2) no belief could ever be supported by enough reasons that the reasons for other beliefs are annihilated; and (3) no belief could ever be supported by reasons that would overwhelm any other possible set of reasons. Thus, arguments can never be all or nothing, accept them or face the 'splodey-head consequences, endeavours.

Oddly enough, it is exactly these three problems with the first model of argument which can be deployed to undercut the second model of argument. That is, someone who believes that p (Bp) is arguing with someone who believes that not-p (Bnot-p). Bnot-p can always, however, invoke exactly the above considerations against Bp, i.e., that Bp has failed to consider some other beliefs and their accompanying sets of reasons, that no belief (such as that p) is ever supported by enough reasons to annihilate another set of reasons (such as for the belief that not-p), and that no belief is supported by reasons that would automatically overwhelm any other possible set of reasons. So, without pain of any irrationality, Bnot-p could stick to his guns and refuse to accept any reasons offered by Bp, and not shift his confidence in his opinions one iota.

This brings us to the third model, which Vargas accepts. And the third model falls prey to exactly the same objection as the second: any agnostic, who simply did not believe that p, could give the same response to Bp as Bnot-p.

So, what has gone wrong here? My sense is that the problem is a failure to appreciate that belief-formation is an action, the same as any other, and thus is, in some sense, underdetermined by the available considerations. That is, when faced with a choice between phi and psi, I can, as long as I consider Rphi and Rpsi fairly and equitably, always choose to favour phi or psi without pain of irrationality. (I suppose this makes me some sort of libertarian with respect to free will?) And the reason is, as said, that practical reasons always underdetermine actions. It is choice, stemming from an agent's character, that completes the link from reasons to action.

Now, of course, choice can go wrong and character can be bad. But that's not the issue at stake. The issue at stake is what effect argument can have on a particular kind of action, and the answer is, unfortunately: not much. So, why argue? We need a fourth model to defend the point of argument at all.

This model, as I conceive it, holds that the purpose of offering reasons for a contrary belief or course of action is to get the opponent to take those reasons seriously and consider them. Simultaneously, of course, the purpose is to make clear to oneself the reasons for what one believes or does, a purpose which neither Vargas no Van Inwagen seem to consider. That is, reasons are given in order to engage with the opponent, test his reasons, and also test one's own. Persons of different, but equally good, characters may diverge in what they believe and how they act, but I think this is a consequence that we have to accept, given the underdetermination of actions by reasons.

Therefore, argument is not hopeless, but it is only part of the story. The role played by character highlights the importance of adequate education and intelligence for not only practical rationality but for reaching agreement on appropriate beliefs and choices. As that's a huge project, I'll leave it for another time.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Tuition fees.

Let's talk tuition fees. They've been in the news recently (for a sample: here, here, here, and here). Putting aside any economic considerations, though (I will return to them before I'm done), why, exactly, should anyone pay tuition for post-secondary education? It didn't always used to be the way it is. To be sure, if you go back to the days when scholars were little more than itinerants, supported by the fees of their students, then you can try to build a historical case for tuition. However, during the heyday of the religious universities (or equivalent), tuition was not charged, as instructors were already employed by the relevant church, and the church covered all operating costs.

So, the historical case can go either way (not that the claim that something has been the case in any way underwrites that it should be the case). What arguments, then, could be made to support tuition?

The first argument I will consider is what I'll call the valuing argument. The valuing argument goes like this. In contemporary culture, people value things only if they've had to give something up for them. Usually, this takes the form of money: goods are treated as if they are valuable in proportion to the amount that they cost. Since we want people to value their education, we should charge an amount that is comparable to how much we want them to value it. Thus, we should charge tuition.

Formalizing a bit, we get the following deductively valid chain of reasoning:
(1) People value what they have had to sacrifice for.
(2) Sacrificing for is, usually, payment with money.
(3) People should value education.
(4) Thus, people should sacrifice for education.
(5) Thus, people should, usually, pay with money for education.

In tidying up the argument, it becomes apparent that the original conclusion doesn't strictly follow. What follows is the weaker claim expressed on (5), and (5) leaves open the possibility (because of the "usually" on (2)) that the sacrifice for education could take a form other than paying for it. But, let me put that aside.

(1) is the real linchpin of the argument; if (1) goes, the whole argument goes. And it's pretty easy to pull down (1). Sacrifice is costly, not just in material terms, but also in psychological ones. That is, sacrifice takes its own toll on the person who is sacrificing. Oftentimes, the sacrifice is relatively minor, so the toll is relatively minor. Anyone who has worked a manual labour job knows this; the sacrifice of energy and effort (in order to receive payment, which is valued) results in tiredness and, possibly, ill humour. But these are temporary states of affairs, and the payment is a little more lasting; thus, on the whole, it's a reasonable trade. The problem, though, is when the sacrifice is more significant, such as when a good employment opportunity is given up in order to stay close to one's family. Often, though not always, this will result in a sustained period of bitterness and resentment. That is, the sacrifice is sufficiently valued to the person that having to give it up, even for a goal that is valued equally (or even valued greater), that the loss of the sacrificed thing takes a significant psychological cost -- a cost which then transfers over to the goal achieved.

In short, then, psychology is more complicated than (1) suggests. Valuing doesn't directly follow from sacrificing. When the sacrifice is beyond some threshold of personal value, then the psychological cost of so sacrificing will be that the thing sacrificed for actually loses value. This is a bad result, for two reasons. First, it means that (1) should be hedged as is (2), with a "usually" or even a "sometimes". Second, it means that exacting large costs for education could actually lead to a disvaluing of education, which is contrary to the aim that the valuing argument is trying to underwrite, namely that there is a value to education that must be sustained.

So, the lessons of the valuing argument are two: first, it doesn't really work (there is ample room, on modified (1), on (2) and on (5) for alternate solutions); and, second, it really doesn't work (the opposite aim may be achieved).

Incidentally, the claim that we value what we sacrifice for can be undercut in another way. It's not just the case that we may devalue what we sacrifice for when the sacrifice is significant, but it's also the case that we may sacrifice for something, and then waste it. Food is a good example of this in our society. We sacrifice, through work, in order to make money such that we can buy food. But, frequently, food, whether in raw form or after significant preparation (think of restaurants), is left unconsumed and simply disposed. How does this make sense? We value food, clearly (if we didn't, we'd die), and we sacrifice in order to be able to afford it. But, even though we sacrifice, and even though we value, we nonetheless waste, which is usually a measure of disvalue. Thus, not only can we get weird feedback between sacrifice and value, but sacrifice looks (in some cases) independent of value.

Moving on to a second argument, which should be highly familiar. This is what I will call the privilege argument and it states, simply, that education is a privilege not a right, and anything that is a privilege can be withheld for failure to pay. So, formalizing a little:

(1) If something is a right, it cannot be withheld for any reason.
(2) If something is a privilege, it can be withheld for any reason.
(3) Everything is either a privilege or a right.
(4) Education is not a right.
(5) Thus, education is a privilege.

This is a notoriously popular argument, but it is very, very poor. The logic is all right, but the claims are all false. First, for a given value of "right", education is a right, contradicting (4). The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 (1): "(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit." Although it is a declaration, and thus has no signatories, the Declaration was supported by the US government of the time, as well as the European Union in the last few years. So, at least as far as these countries are concerned, the Declaration has some legitimacy.

Putting that aside, though, and moving upwards through the argument. (3) is false, on anything other than a very limited reading of "everything". Not all services are rights or privileges (garbage disposal, for example); not everything provided by the state is a right or a privilege (e.g., food safety); and so on. Indeed, except for specifically laundry-listing the items that could fall within the parochial definitions on (1) and (2), there's really no way to cash out what "everything" is supposed to mean here.

(2) is, as said, a parochial understanding of privileges. Literally, "privilege" means "private law" -- the idea being that members of certain classes had "privileges" because ordinary laws didn't apply to them. The idea that remains, though, seems to be that a privilege is something that one earns. So, for example, you can have office privileges in your workplace, or parking privileges, or are privileged to have a generous pension. But these cannot be taken away for just any arbitrary reason; the particular reason needs to be underwritten by something else. So, you could lose your parking privileges if you had agreed to only park during certain hours, and you broke that agreement. The same should apply to education if it is a privilege: it can only be withheld from you for particular reasons relevant to the circumstances in which you earned the privilege. Whether or not ability to pay is one of those reasons is a substantive issue whose solution cannot just be assumed by fiat. Really, it will depend on what kind of story we want to tell about why people deserve education. Note, though, that if this story is just "those who deserve it are those who can pay for it", then the question at stake is flatly begged.

(1) is parochial as well. Rights can be taken away for all kinds of reasons. (1) conflates right with inalienable right, the latter being a special and particularly (even peculiarly) strong class of rights. A right is just a legitimate claim. I have a right to free speech in Canada because the Constitution of Canada says I do. That document legitimizes my claim, thus I have a right. If the Constitution were to change, I would not have that right. If I were to live somewhere else, I may not have that right. So, the persistance of a right, generally, is highly sensitive to the contextual factors that legitimate the rights-claim. Which means that it's relatively easy to take my rights away, or to give me more, or to give me different ones.

So, the privilege argument is an utter failure. I also suspect it is, at heart, a covert classism (which, in many societies, turns into a de facto racism and/or sexism as well). That is, higher education is something that only the wealthy really deserve. This harkens back to the "private law" understanding of "privilege". If there were something genuinely superior about the upper classes, the argument might work; but, since placement in the upper classes is as much a matter of fortune as it is of desert, it follows that there is no such superiority. Thus, they do not deserve to have their own private law.

The third argument is even simpler. I will call it the necessity argument. According to the necessity argument, one could justify a tuition-free post-secondary education if such education were necessary. But it isn't: post-secondary education is an optional extra. Thus, tuition should still be charged.

Formalizing, we get this:

(1) If education is necessary, it should be free.
(2) Education is not necessary.
(3) Therefore, it should not be free.

This is the argument that actually doesn't work. It's a formal fallacy: denying the antecedent. Even if education is not necessary, there could still be other reasons why it should be free, reasons which the argument says absolutely nothing about.

Furthermore, the sense in which education is not "necessary" looks, again, highly parochial. One could, in principle, survive as a single person in a very small apartment, living a very meagre life, on the kind of wages one could reasonably expect to earn without any post-secondary education, for a certain period of time, presuming continued good health and no significant changes in the prices of the staples of life. That is what that "necessary" could mean, reading it in the most charitable way possible. Since there is no good reason to accept that measure, there is no good reason to accept that education is not necessary. So, even if the logic worked, the claim in (2) is false.

Finally, (1) is also false. We have freebies that aren't necessary all over the place. Clean air, for example, is not necessary. You could live, for a time, without it. (After all, humanity survived the Industrial Revolution, and the air was almost unbreathable.) But we aren't charged a fee for having clean air: it is simply given to us by government intervention in the operations of potential polluters. And the reason for this intervention is that, on balance, there is more good done by having clean air than there is bad done by intervening in the market. In short, the action is taken because it improves things. A similar argument is not hard to make for education: if no-tuition post-secondary education would be a better state of affairs than the current one, then no-tuition post-secondary education should exist.

To sum up: the value of education is not well-assured by charging for it, contrary to the valuing argument; education, even if a privilege, cannot obviously be awarded or taken away on the basis of ability to pay, contrary to the privilege argument; and, education, even if not necessary, could still be justifiably offered for no fees, contrary to the necessity argument.

Of course, none of this amounts to an argument that post-secondary education should be free. But, do I really have to offer one? In order to presume that the burden of proof is on the person who looks at elementary and secondary education, and wants to extend the "no fee" model to post-secondary education, we have to presume that tuition fees are somehow a "natural" state of affairs, an obvious starting-point which everyone must either agree with or decisively defeat. But this is not obvious. As I pointed out at the beginning, historically, both models have existed. Furthermore, as my critiques of the arguments against free tuition showed, the case that charging tuition is a groundstate has not been well-made: it rests on dubious assumptions and bad logic.

However, I do have an argument. It will not convince those who believe tuition fees are a groundstate, but I am not interested in persuading those people. Tuition fees are clearly not a natural groundstate; people who refuse to believe that are beyond the reach of reason and argument.

My argument goes like this:

(1) Education is a good.
(2) The more of a good is available, the more good there is.
(3) Therefore, there should be more education available.

This is an argument that can also be made to support public healthcare, public pension schemes, and so on.

To close, I promised a brief discussion of economic issues. Clearly, tuition fees cannot be eliminated tomorrow by government fiat. There is as yet insufficient money to pay for tuition for everyone who wants it; there are also insufficient university (and college, etc.) places for those who would profit from education. So, economically, tuition fees accomplish two things: they cover the gap in government funding, and they act as a throttle on the numbers of students seeking places in various institutions. So, there would need to be a massive tax increase and a program of investment in developing post-secondary institutions in order for a free tuition program to really start doing good. These are not impossible goals, but they are long-term goals. In the short-term, it seems reasonable to me to suggest that we make a start: reduce tuition fees, with an eye towards eliminating them; raise taxes in order to fund a better educated, and thus better (and, for that matter, more profitable) society; and invest in developing university infrastructure.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Random the Fifth.

I just want to have a link to this on Brian Leiter's blog floating around. He comments rather extensively on the nature of persuasion (which, appropriately, I don't find persuasive!), before moving to what I really approve of: the claims that "civility" and a "moderate" tone, while appropriate for academic settings among one's peers, are not appropriate everywhere. Some questions are easy, and people who don't see the answers deserve a sharp slap.

Very interesting set of ideas here about whether philosophical problems are intractable; and, if so, whether they indicate the limits of our understanding. I tend to disagree with the definition of when a problem has been solved, and I also disagree with the (implicit) claim that "being solved" is a dichotomous variable -- that is, something is either solved, or not solved. To my way of thinking, problems can be more or less solved. But, interesting, nonetheless.

Just for fun: The Battle of Helm's Deep in candy.

And (I guess I'm the last person ever to hear about this?), the Fellowship of the Ring, re-told using Peeps.

Also, a list of lame student excuses. These are university students. My favourite: "I'm not interested in the subject of this seminar, and therefore unlikely to answer an essay or exam question on it. I didn't really see the point in bothering to prepare for it."

From the fun to the truly strange: see here and here for the story of a distinguished historian who was arrested by police in Atlanta during a recent American Historical Association meeting -- for jaywalking. No matter what he was doing, since when are people arrested for jaywalking? Cross Atlanta off your travel plans....

I've blogged about copyright before here. Turns out that the situation in Canada may be tending more towards that of the US. According to the CBC, our esteemed government is thinking of passing some industry-friendly legislation that will further limit what you can and can't do with the stuff you buy. My ultimate view, quoting my earlier post:
The point I'm making, ultimately, is that copyright was never supposed to be a license to print money indefinitely. It was supposed to give authors a chance to recoup their costs, and make a little profit, from their work. The balance needs to swing back towards the benefit of society at large, to have these creative works freely available, and away from the benefit of large corporations, to have these creative works controlled in order to make as much money as possible.

According to the Independent, it's happening in the UK now, too. The lobby group that represents the music industry in the UK wants to sue ISPs who "allow" users to trade pirated music. (Seriously, guys, if you want people to buy your product, maybe you shouldn't be suing them?)

Y'know, one tends to think that right-wing lunacy is generally confined to certain parts of the US. Certainly you never think of Washington state as being a hotbed of anti-scientific, irrational nutjobs. But then, there's this:
This week in Federal Way schools, it got a lot more inconvenient to show one of the top-grossing documentaries in U.S. history, the global-warming alert "An Inconvenient Truth."

After a parent who supports the teaching of creationism and opposes sex education complained about the film, the Federal Way School Board on Tuesday placed what it labeled a moratorium on showing the film. The movie consists largely of a computer presentation by former Vice President Al Gore recounting scientists' findings.

And, the next paragraph:
"Condoms don't belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He's not a schoolteacher," said Frosty Hardison, a parent of seven who also said that he believes the Earth is 14,000 years old. "The information that's being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is. ... The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD."
So, the argument is supposed to be:
(1) Only teachers should decide what goes in schools.
(2) Al Gore is not a teacher, so should not be in schools. Even if teachers have decided his film is worth including.
(3) Frosty Hardison (this is a name??) is not a teacher, but can decide that teachers should not show a global warming documentary, nor deny a ridiculous 2000-year-old fairytale.

Too fun.

Further on, of course, we get knee-jerk evolution denialism, "show both sides" bullshit, paranoia about "anti-Americanism", etc, etc. I swear, I don't know how the two reporters who filed this thing kept their heads from exploding.

Why, exactly, does the US Government need to know about everyone's banking and credit records? And when will Americans finally get sick enough of the "well, it's for national security" line to actually stop this?

According to the Globe and Mail, in Manitoba, a woman and her son are filing a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms against a town by-law which imposes a curfew on teenagers. Good for them. Imposing a collective punishment on people who haven't done anything, simply because they're in the "wrong" identifiable group is absurd.

Apparently, a far-right group has just formed in the European Parliament via a coalition of various interests. See here and here. I'm not sure that this portends anything in particular. It seems to me that this group is still sufficiently fringe-y that it can't do much more than embarrass itself by announcing its odious ideas to a larger crowd. According to Wikipedia, they only control 20 seats out of 785. By way of comparison, the Socialists have almost 11 times that number. The tone of the article in the Independent (the second link) thus seems a tish breathless to me, but my barometer may be askew due to prolonged exposure to American right-wing radicals.

This is sort of interesting, but a bit speculative. Basically, a new hominid skull has been discovered in Romania, which seems to have traits of both us (homo sapiens) and Neanderthals. The received wisdom up until this point had been, on balance of probabilities, we plus a warming climate probably exterminated the Neanderthals. Now, it may be that enough stuck around to bear viable offspring with us. Of course, as the article suggests, it could also be that either early humans were more physically diverse than we had thought, or this was just a particularly odd-looking homo sapiens.

This is a little disturbing. AJ in DC at AMERICAblog summarizes a few Arabic articles on what the Middle East really thinks about the US presence. I know that Dubya doesn't actually read anything, but is it really possible that no one in his administration has the brains to pick up a freaking newspaper?

Oh, God. The EU wants to ban violent video games. What is it with this myopia that's afflicing politicians across the world these days? Is it just me, or did it not used to be this bad? Look, violence is a problem in any society. Humans are, at some level, killer apes: we have violent impulses. Some of us aren't so good at controlling them. Looking to restrict violent entertainments gets the causal story completely backwards. The impulse comes first, then consuming violent entertainment. For most of us, that catharsis is sufficient: mowing down desperadoes in GUN (my current outlet) satisfies the violent urges such that the rational mind can fully regain control. And the EU wants to take the outlet away? Do they just not understand people, or are they so focussed on courting the votes of idiots that they don't care?

My sometime-sparring partner at Notes argues here -- well, suggests, really -- that
the root of the education problem is not intelligence. It has to do with overwhelming distraction, poor teachers, poor funding (yes, smaller class sizes do help significantly), and poor nutrition. The solutions are parental involvement (or something equivalent), merit-based teacher pay, smaller class sizes, and better nutrition. Saying that the children are to blame is not only wrong but counter-productive. I've never taken an IQ test, but I know that I'm no genius. My mother is a teacher (focusing on early childhood development) and my father used to debate issues with me at the dinner table.

I think intelligence should be in there somewhere, but he's not far wrong. However, he falls into a trap when he claims that poor teaching can be solved by merit-based pay. That may help, as long as it's done correctly. That is, pay is increased to reward good teachers, it is not taken away from bad teachers; and the standards of achievement are fairly clear and objective (and not based on student evaluations!). But part of the problem is the labour pool. In order to go into teaching, you have to love it, 'cause you're never going to get rich doing it. Furthermore, since the schools are public, they tend to turn into political punching-bags, with teachers taking most of the shots. It's a relatively thankless job. Now, there are many thankless jobs out there, but they usually have some kind of increased compensation package in recognition of that fact. An example is tenure at universities. Universities can't really afford to increase salaries, but they can offer the possibility of unbeatable job security. That's not much, maybe, but it's something: at least there's a recognition that, if you want good people in your institution, you have to bait the hook (so to speak). Unless funding is increased to give teachers a reasonable salary, consonant with the value of the job they do, you're immediately going to start at a disadvantage. Those who need money to be motivated will look elsewhere for career prospects.

Interesting piece here on how religious certitude, and not religion per se, is the real danger (which thus excuses Western Christianity and not Islam). I'm not so sure about that, really. Ignoring the questions about whether these anecdotal observations should really be elevated to the level of data, it seems that there's something special about religious certitude. That is, it's not the case that religion is okay, but religious certitude is bad; it's that certitude is okay, but religious certitude is bad. I don't think, for example, you'll find many logicians who disagree that p -> p is necessarily true. But they aren't going to condemn you or kill you if you disagree with it (they'll probably just give you funny looks and go to the other end of the bar). What is it about religion that makes believers so vicious against non-believers?

This CTV News piece argues, entirely one-sidedly, that generous public pension schemes are bad because (1) private sector workers don't have 'em and (2) public sector schemes are "subsidized" by the private sector. Both claims are made by the leader of one of the most notorious astroturf organizations in Canadian politics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Firstly, if the organization really represents businesses, and their workers are getting the short end of the stick, why don't they just give 'em better pension plans and stop trying to drag other people down into the gutter as well? Second, and more importantly, this "the private sector supports the public sector" thing is bullshit. The public sector schemes are set up such that if there is a shortfall between benefits and payments, then the employer must make up the difference. The employer, in this case, is the government. However, that's a conditional. If the antecedent is false, then the truth-value of the consequent doesn't matter. Or, in non-logical terms, if the payments meet or exceed the benefits paid, then no extra money goes into the system. So, if deductions from public-sector workers are sufficient to cover the projected payments, as they should be if the pensions are well-managed, there is no "supporting" going on here. It's pure guff, a smokescreen to defer attention away from the first point, i.e., that private-sector employers in Canada are screwing over their workers.

Over here, the National Union of Public and General Employees rips the shit out of the CFIB. Fun stuff!

The CBC reports that the US wants Canada to step up refining oil sands, with all sorts of side-stepping of environmental regulations. The money quote:
Paul Michael Weaby, a Washington insider and an expert on the geo-strategic aspect of the oil industry, said Bush is counting on Canada to help wean the United States off Middle Eastern oil — a goal now defined as a national security objective.

"He wanted to have a reduction of 1.5 million barrels a day by 2015 from the Middle East. Although he did not mention Canada, that is in fact where the replacement supply will come from."

So, Dubya didn't really want the US to use less oil, just, y'know, oil that hadn't been touched by them Ay-rabs. And, as an added special super-bonus, Canada gets toxins dumped into its environment. (Extracting oil from oil sands is a notoriously messy business.) This sounds to me like the same sort of reasoning that thought drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was a good idea. After all, as long as the degradation is happening somewhere where most Americans won't see it, it's not really happening -- right?

I basically agree with this opinion piece in the New York Times. It's about the payday loan industry, and argues that the responsibility isn't really with the lenders: they're exploiting a market niche. The problem is with the system that puts people in such a position that payday loans become a necessary option. That seems about right to me. While certainly the payday lenders aren't saints, they're not devils, either. They're just trying to make a buck by selling a needed service. The real culprits are the ones who inculcate the need.

According to the Star, the Ontario version of our national medicare program is forcing a man who underwent a life-saving operation in the UK to pay for his own treatment. Now, I'm sort of sympathetic to the guy. He needed treatment, he got it, and it worked, so if the government were nice guys, they'd just pay the bill. However, looking at the rules, it seems he put himself on the hook for the cost: he was told the treatment he wanted to undergo was considered experimental, he was told that OHIP doesn't fund experimental treatments, and he was told by his own doctors that there was nothing they could do using non-experimental treatments. In essence, then, he was taking a gamble: either the treatment would work, and he'd be paying a big bill, or it wouldn't, and he'd die anyway. So, he took the gamble, and it paid off: he's alive. But, I don't see how he can pretend he didn't know he'd have to pay or that it somehow isn't fair. It's perfectly fair for the government, with limited healthcare resources at its disposal, to say that some treatments are so far outside the mainstream of medicine that they aren't funded. It's not nice, but it's fair.

This misses the point. Recently, a couple of major businesses lost a lot of debit and credit card info. Their security was apparently so shit even they don't know what could have been taken, exactly. The advice in the article is ludicrous: "use cash" and "protect yourself". Why? The issue isn't that consumers weren't protecting themselves; the issue is that these companies were holding data they had no need to hold on to. Hell, the TJX hack took data going back to 2003. Why the bloody hell does TJX need credit card info that's 4 years old?

Caveat emptor only goes so far; it's about time these companies started taking at least some responsibility for putting people at risk.

Just wow. According to this, prisoners of the "war on terror" can now be tried and executed based on hearsay and without anything even approximately an adequate opportunity to defend themselves. Seriously, when do we get to say the American government is fascist? 'Cause I'm having a real hard time seeing it as anything else.

I'd be a hypocrite if I only objected to creeping fascism by the right. According to this, Venezuela's Huge Chavez is trying to get (and succeeding in getting) the power to pass laws by decree. I don't recall him being elected "king", y'know. Look, he's trying to justify this by saying he's going to be doing good. And that would be fine, if Venezuela wasn't a democracy. Which it is. Which means he is supposed to have to convince people, one issue at a time, that his ideas are right. I'm no fan of democracy, but that's how it works. To try to shut down debate and rule by his word, and his word alone, is unquestionably a step towards fascistic government.

Let me end on a high note. According to this article, viewers of The Daily Show are, on average, more educated than viewers of The O'Reilly Factor. I make no judgement as to which is cause and which is effect.

Next week, I promise three things: a post about tuition fees (which was supposed to be this week, but never got written); a post about philosophical methodology (I know, only I care; but I still want to write it); and a post about theory and reality, particularly in economics.

Poverty and flagrant dishonesty.

The worst newspaper in Canada recently published this editorial, "critiquing" the Toronto Star's recent series on poverty in Canada. I felt it deserved to be rather fully picked apart.

Let's begin:
On Saturday, the Toronto Star devoted the whole of its front page to "A State of Constant Dread: Poverty Today," a breathless piece of advocacy that ranks as one of the sloppiest pieces of Canadian journalism we've ever seen.
This from the National Post?
The newspaper's evident goal is to promote a "national strategy" for combating poverty. But if an argument for such a campaign can be cobbled together only by nakedly misrepresenting the available data, as the Star has done, it doesn't say much for the cause. Whatever one's view of poverty in Canada, the Star's journalistic methods are an insult to its readers.
This from the National Post?
The central theme of "Constant dread" is that Canada is suffering a poverty epidemic. According to author David Olive, "one in six Canadians [is] trapped in poverty." Later, he tells us there are "five million Canadians living in poverty, more than one million of them children." Then he serves up the same statistic in a third form, lamenting the "15.5% of us mired in poverty." Having thus established the extraordinary prevalence of poverty in Canada, Mr. Olive proceeds with a stream of leftwing policy recommendations.
And, clearly, if the policy recommendations are leftwing, that's enough to discredit them.
But astute Star readers might have noticed something odd: The statistic at the heart of the article, without which the whole argument falls apart -- the claim that 15.5% of Canadians are "mired in poverty" -- is never sourced. Why?
Well, lessee: population of the country is about 33 million; 5 million divided by 33 million equals about 15.2%. Perhaps Mr. Olive erred in assuming the Post's editors could perform simple arithmetic?
The reason is simple: The statistic is total nonsense. As Statistics Canada itself attests, Canada doesn't have an official poverty rate or an official poverty line -- something Mr. Olive and his editors somehow failed to mention in a lengthy article that purports to comprehensively describe the problem of poverty in this country. And so the number Mr. Olive draws upon might as well have been plucked out of thin air.
There's no official poverty line: well, so what? As long as there's some measure of what counts as "poverty", who cares if it's official? This is basically a covert appeal to authority: unless the stat is an official one, then what it describes does not exist. Pure bullshit.
What, then, is the origin of the 15.5% figure? It has popped up in a number of other media publications, where it typically is sourced to the 2004 value of an official Canadian statistical indicator called the "low-income cut-off" (LICO). But LICO has nothing to do with poverty. Rather, it measures differences in relative wealth among Canadians.
I have to stop and catch my breath at this point. Measuring differences in relative wealth has nothing to do with poverty? What, exactly, does the Post think poverty is if not that some people have less money than others, i.e., they are relatively less wealthy?
To calculate LICO, statisticians measure what proportion of income the average Canadian family spends on food, shelter and clothing. The LICO is pegged at that number, whatever it may be, plus 20 percentage points.
Sounds like a good measure. Take some standard basket of goods, figure out how much most people pay for it, and peg that as the standard amount everyone should be able to obtain.
To understand how baseless it is to rely on LICO as a measure of poverty, consider this: If every single Canadian instantly had his or her income doubled, or tripled ... or multiplied by 100 -- if every one of us became millionaires overnight, and upgraded every aspect of our lifestyles in proportion to our newfound income -- the LICO would remain completely unchanged. (An outdated but widely cited 2000 UNICEF report about child poverty in Canada also yielded a 15.5% statistic -- though it, too, relied on a bogus measure of what its authors call "relative poverty.")
I love how we've gone from "misrepresenting data" to "bogus measures". It's a neat little rhetorical trick which flies under the radar -- unless you're expecting it.

Anyway. I'm not quite sure what the Post believes this little fantasy is proving. It's no big secret that, right now, the worst-off Canadian is better off than the most destitute in another part of the world -- say, Ethiopia -- in the sense that the Canadian has more money than the Ethiopian. So what? That doesn't make the Canadian any less poor, because the Canadian has to live in Canada, and so must deal with Canadian prices for Canadian goods in order to live a Canadian life. Indeed, what the Post's bizarre fairytale (see, now I'm using the same trick they did) omits is that if all Canadians suddenly gained all that wealth, they wouldn't be able to "upgrade" their lifestyles. Seeing as how everyone has so much money now, any merchant with a brain in his or her head would jack up prices proportional to the change in wealth, as would their suppliers, etc. So, all we'd really end up doing is massively debasing the currency. Therefore, the Canadians who are currently below the LICO line would still be below it and would still be poor.
Even if one accepts the false conflation of poverty and LICO,
I really start to wonder what they think poverty is if it's not measured by LICO and it's not relative wealth. We're supposed to believe the conflation is false, but no reason is given whatsoever.
the Star article is still botched. As Statistics Canada reported last year (citing after-tax data), "In 2004 [the last year comprehensively measured], about 3.5-million people were [under the LICO line]. They accounted for 11.2% of all Canadians in 2004, well below the peak of 15.7% in 1996. Among families, the proportion living in low income after taxes declined to 7.8% in 2004 from 8.5% the year before and a high of 12.1% in 1996." In other words, Mr. Olive's own distorted statistical methodology demonstrates that Canada is a country where poverty is a diminishing problem affecting less than 10% of families.
Now who's pulling numbers out of their ass? This "less than 10%" business is completely bogus, given that the Star series talks about people in poverty, not families. A "family" could contain as many people as one likes -- my step-father, for example, is one of seven kids, so his immediate family when he was growing up consisted of nine people. Which is why one should look at the number of people below the LICO line, which is 3.5 million, or 11.2% -- i.e., more than 10%. It's certainly down from 1996, but so what? It's still 3.5 million people, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The Post thinks this is supposed to make us happy? Why? Because in another 8 years it might go down to 9% of the population?

Let's crunch some numbers to show how bad this "trend" really is. According to Wikipedia, in 1996 the population was 29,610,757. 15.7% of that is about 4,648,889. In 2004, the population was 32,299,496. 11.2% of that is about 3,617,544. So, the percentage increase in population is about 0.1%, while the percentage decrease in people below the LICO line is about 0.3%. So, in 8 years, we can expect, all things being equal (which they aren't, but never mind), the population to increase by 0.1% and the poverty-stricken to decrease by 0.3%. Assuming these trends are steady (for all the Post has told us, they are), what does that look like over time? Well, crunching the numbers, Canada's population should hit 101,369,655 by 2100, and the number of people in poverty is 2,510,005. By 2204, the population is up to a whopping 349,955,541, and the poverty-stricken total 1,689,302. You get the idea. Of course, what I'm doing here is pure rhetorical bullshit. These numbers don't really mean anything, but that's exactly the problem with the Post's "argument". The numbers they're using don't mean anything. what is meaningful -- what matters -- is that there are 3.5 million people who cannot afford what the average family spends on a standard bundle of goods: housing, food, clothing, and the like. This is pathetic. And the Post doesn't care.
And what should Ottawa do to redress this imaginary poverty crisis? Why, implement the same laundry list of discredited left-wing policies the Star has been flogging for years, naturally -- including an increased minimum wage, universal day care and expanded welfare programs. None of these policies would do much to alleviate poverty, of course. As Andrew Coyne pointed out on this page last week, increasing the minimum wage -- Mr. Olive's peculiar obsession -- would actually hurt Canada's poorest workers. Any competent economist might have pointed this out to the Star reader -- if Mr. Olive had deigned to quote any. But instead, the Star writer confined his sound-bites to a cabal of hand-wringing anti-poverty activists and shrill leftwing politicians who are on-message with his "anti-poverty" agenda.
"Competent economist"? lol. I like how they don't actually quote one either, while castigating Olive for failing to do so. Economists are, as far as I can tell, actually somewhat divided on this issue. A slight bump in the minimum wage shouldn't do serious harm to the poorest.

Notice, however, the Post's new rhetorical trick here: they cite three policies, but only "criticize" one. The conclusion they want to force into the reader's mind, of course, is that the other two are just as bad. But universal daycare and expanded welfare are much harder ideas to knock down, and are controversial to a greater extent than minimum wage increases. So, the Post sets up a strawman, knocks it down, and claims to have taken care of a platoon. Absurd.
Interestingly, the piggyback editorial appearing on the Star's Saturday opinion pages makes no mention of the front page story's one-in-six hoax, but rather forthrightly declares that the objective of the newspaper's campaign (of which this is apparently the opening salvo) is to reduce "the gap between richest and poorest."
And this is bad because?
This formulation at least has the benefit of honesty: What bothers Canadian socialists about our prosperous knowledge economy isn't so much absolute poverty, but the broader phenomenon of income stratification, by which hard-working, well-educated, entrepreneurial Canadians exhibit that nasty habit of generating wealth and raising their lot above the national average.
Since the Post likes to sling partisan mud, here's some in their eye: the idea that everyone who has money is hard-working, well-educated and entrepreneurial is dubious, but within the bounds of possibility; the idea that everyone who is hard-working, well-educated and entrepreneurial has money is an absolute farce. It's another tired right-wing cliche that self-improvement will miraculously be rewarded by the wonders of the free market. (I wonder: do the Post's editors know anything about how markets really work?)

There's more than a hint of a drive-by smearing in this passage, as the Post fails to actually consider whether what "socialists" object to is not some people working hard and improving their lives, but people being unjustly rewarded, unfairly punished, and increasing their lot too far. In other words, there should be boundaries in order to make the system fair. "Fair" being a dirty word in the standard right-wing polemicist's vocabulary, there is, of course, no mention of it in this editorial.
The only antidote to such an evil, the Star and others have concluded, is socialism, which reduces income disparities by impoverishing everyone.
More right-wing bullshit. Don't they ever get tired of beating the corpse of the Soviet Union? (Which was not necessarily socialist, nor necessarily doing better now than under socialism. But the facts never stopped the Post from rambling on about nothing, now did they?)
The Star is free to champion a program of national economic suicide -- it's a free country, after all. But we'd appreciate it if they didn't pretend that this campaign was about "poverty."
I suspect the Star's editors, writers and readers would appreciate if the Post didn't pretend that they cared about the poor, while trashing any attempt to improve their situation. I mean, seriously, what's wrong with these people? While it's a nice dream, I suppose, to think that hard work and education will get everyone to succeed, the fact is that it doesn't work that way, and probably never has. The Star draws attention to people who are suffering and, rather than offering a simply critique of the policies, the Post has to go on and on about socialists and economic suicide and the same tired old talking-points everyone has read a thousand times before. Do they just not care? Or are they actually evil?
More importantly, we suspect their readers would appreciate if the Star's editors and authors didn't mangle the evidence to suit their dated, socialist agenda.

It's more than just bad journalism: It's dishonest.


"Hey, pot. It's the kettle. Man, I got somethin' to tell you..."

Immigration in Canada.

As promised last week, I've looked over this report on Canada and the experiences of immigrants, in some detail. As I probably should have guessed, part of the problem I had with it was the idiot headline-writers who decided that this report showed there was something wrong with Canada's multiculturalism policy. The real objections, raised near the end of the report, are that Canada's multiculturalism policy doesn't go far enough, not that it's no good.

I'll start with a quick summary. The report opens with a brief discussion of immigrants and economic success, measured basically by income. The authors allow that there are a lot of potential explanations for the data that suggest immigrants fare worse than native-born Canadians, and so move on to a more central point they want to make, namely that immigrants, even into the second generation, experience discrimination that negatively impacts on Canadian society. This is really a three-stage argument. First, the authors try to establish that immigrants perceive that they are discriminated against. Second, they suggest that these perceptions may be supported by more direct measures of racism. Third, they argue that this negatively impacts on something important: namely, social cohesion. Finally, the authors conclude with some discussion of potential policies that could be enacted or improved upon in order to better the situation.

It's pretty evident to me that the second stage of the main argument outlined above is weak. There's a lot of ways to explain away perceptions of racism -- or, indeed, perceptions of anything -- and, to their credit, the authors gesture towards at least one of them at a couple of points, i.e., that there may be different expectations on the part of immigrants with regard to appropriate treatment. In other words, what's good for the goose may not be good for the gander: treatment that a native-born Canadian might shrug off, an immigrant might take to heart. We could also explain away perceptions on the basis of genuine misunderstanding, and this is particularly prevalent when it comes to racial issues. One has to choose one's words (and deeds) with extreme care, else will cause inadvertent offense.

Of course, this doesn't mean that the conclusions drawn by the authors are false, only that they aren't well-supported. Again, to their credit, they do recognize that the second claim is the weak one, and that work needs to be done in this area. I would suggest, though, that the problem is worse than it appears. I see at least two serious problems in trying to nail down features that track genuine racial prejudice and discrimination. The first is a conceptual problem regarding race itself. The second is a problem of model-building.

The conceptual problem is this. It's pretty much agreed at this point that race is a social construct. There are certain broad, coarse-grained physical differences between people, but they don't fall into neat categories. Where the lines are drawn between the categories is pretty arbitrary, and which of a given person's features are prominent enough to count them as one race rather than another is also somewhat arbitrary. Compare this to, say, classifying minerals.

The fact that race is a social construct doesn't mean that it's impossible to track, of course. The greatest (for a given value of "great") social construct is money, and we track that all the time. But money is an odd case: it obeys rules that are basically dictated from "on high". There is no parallel relation between race and something as there is between money and economic policy/institutions. So, the construction of race is a matter of social practice, not social rules, and therein lies the problem. Social rules fix conceptual boundaries: the reason that shells don't count as money (they very well could, after all) is that we have a clearly-defined rule that says what counts as money and what does not. But what, exactly, is the rule for counting someone as, say, black? We certainly have a grab-bag of judgemental dispositions and rules of thumb that we can use to categorize people, but they're relatively easy to flummox. Tiger Woods, for example, has many physical features that I associate with the category "black"; however, I also know that his father has, in addition to black ancestry, also Chinese and Native American, and his mother has a mix of Thai, Chinese, and Dutch (so, white) ancestry. So, which is Tiger Woods: black, white, Asian, Native American, some combination? My rules don't really help me here; the initial judgement based on his appearance conflicts with a series of judgements based on his genetic heritage, and I find myself with no clear answer.

Thus, if we're facing the problem of trying to track race, we are, in a very real sense, trying to hit a target obscured with fog -- a target which, to make matters worse, doesn't actually have any distinct and clear boundaries. I suppose that makes it rather like trying to hit the fog itself, rather than something in fog. So, because of the nature of the concept of race, we're going to have to allow for a certain amount of fuzziness to the variable we're tracking. Moreover, it seems almost inevitable that this fuzziness will be inherited by any results we draw from our tracking, should it be successful. That is, if we can successful model race somehow, we're going to have to allow that this model will support only loose generalizations, and not any particularly strong claims. If the model of race is supposed to support policy decisions, then these decisions will have to be themselves fairly loose and open to interpretation.

Moving now to the second problem. My understanding of the social sciences suggests that anything that can't be measured directly should be measured indirectly, by means of a model. That is, take, say, the effects of globalization. There is no such thing as a globalization thermometer which can be gently applied to people in order to determine exactly globalization's effects upon them. The very idea is nonsense. So, we have to look for something that we can measure which would be affected by globalization: economic prosperity, for example, or level of international trade.

So, suspending the conceptual worries about race itself, let us suppose we can come up with some rough-and-ready working definition of race and thus racism. What could we use to track racism? On the face of it, we have a huge methodology problem: unlike economic features, which are relatively objective and measureable, anything we could use as a proxy for racism is itself fraught with conceptual or logical difficulties. We could ask people if they had experienced racism, but, as said earlier, the perceptions of racism are highly sensitive to factors other than racism itself; so, we'd run a serious risk of measuring something other than what we're trying to. It's possible to control for this with carefully constructed questioning on parallel to the malingering measures that exist in psychological test batteries. That is, anyone who is faking psychological symptoms will answer questions in certain abnormal patterns, e.g., describing themselves as more disabled than all but 1% of the population, giving inconsistent answers to highly similar questions, etc.

We could maybe define a series of acts as inherently racist, but this has even more problems. First, we could inject our own perceptual biases into the equation, just as would be present if we simply quizzed people. Second, we have a grain problem: that is, we have to be able to specify acts (and observe them in order to check if they meet the specification) with sufficient detail that we ommitted innocent cases -- for example, a white man is hired rather than a black man because the black man failed to pass a necessary security check -- but caught non-innocent ones -- a white man is hired rather than a black man because the black man failed to pass a necessary security check, and the white man was never tested. Third, if we're looking for general trends, the more specific we get -- in order to solve the grain problem -- the less able we are to observe any overall pattern to how particular groups of people are treated.

In principle, it seems, any potential model for racism is rife with difficulties. So, in addition to the fuzziness that attaches to the concept itself, any conclusions drawn from this model will also probably inherit uncertainies due to the uncertainties and hedging present within the model.

This seems to spell disaster for policy recommendations. Either we end up where we currently are, with a vaguely-worded Act that declares multiculturalism policy without any specific mechanisms or goals, or we end up with only cosmetic changes. Nothing significant can be done without a stable concept of race and a good means of tracking racial discrimination.

Unless, of course, we're willing to just chuck the whole enterprise and try to solve problems for everyone. Let me explain. The conclusion this study reaches is that something special needs to be done for immigrants. I've been trying to make trouble for the justification of the claim that immigrants are obviously less well-off than native-born Canadians. However, if policy were shaped to provide blanket benefits for everyone, then my objections would be defeated. That is, there are basically three things we could do, given the report and my critique.

(1) Do nothing, keep the status quo. This runs the risk of being branded the racist solution. There is very probably some racial problem in Canada, even though, for technical reasons, we're going to have a very hard time telling what it is and how bad it is.

(2) Give immigrant groups special resources, the favoured solution of the report. The problem with this, however, is that it assumes the report's results are well-founded and sound, and this is far from obviously true. If we can't justify the claim that immigrants are particularly badly-off for reasons not of their own devising, then we can't justify diverting some portion of society's resources for their particular benefit.

(3) Give everyone more. This avoids the problem of being a racist solution, as the aim is to give every person, regardless of race, an equal set of resources or opportunities to gain resources. This also avoids the problem of the questionable nature of the particular results, for everyone is benefitting. No one is being singled out for special treatment, so there is no special consideration that stands in need of justification. Furthermore, if there really is a significant racial inequality, then persons who are at a significant disadvantage would be more likely to use more of these extra resources than those who are already advantaged, and thus don't need them. Thus, even if we can't measure the disadvantage, we can still correct it.

Finally, (3) also helps solve the cohesion problem, although not in a way the authors of this report likely saw. Their claim is that society needs to be cohesive -- that is, needs to have some sense of "common bonds" -- in order to enact important collective projects and, indeed, to continue to hang together as a society. This is probably true (but it could use some rigorizing). Their solution is targetted welfare or redistribution of resources, a solution which, as I have said several times now, is not sufficiently justified. However, untargetted welfare or redistribution would also solve the cohesion problem. In order for any system of this kind to work, there have to be common bonds among persons. For if there are not, then there will not be sufficient resources available to redistribute widely, and there will not be sufficient will on the part of individuals to take advantage of collective resources when they are required. In other words, everyone has to put something into the pot when they can, in order for everyone to be able to take something out when they need to. This is a collective goal, and a goal which could, as far as I can tell, very easily pull a society together and develop the cohesion that the report's authors consider important.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Random the Fourth.

I love this brief snippet about eating cloned meat. Here's why: we start with this claim from the US FDA:
"Edible products from healthy clones that meet existing requirements for meat and milk in commerce pose no increased food consumption risk(s) relative to comparable products from sexually-derived [conventional] animals."
We then immediately afterwards get this:
However, agricultural groups have said that consumers are reluctant to buy products sourced from the offspring of cloned animals.
That is, the FDA claims that cloned meat and milk are no less safe than the currently-available versions. The supposed counter-point to this is that consumers are uneasy about eating and drinking them. So, the first claim is they are safe, and the second claim is they are unwanted. A better example of two people talking past each other I could not invent if I tried.

According to The Guardian here, Peter Jackson probably won't be making a movie based on The Hobbit because New Line Cinema, the studio that funded the 3 Rings movies, is embroiled in a legal dispute with him and are thus blacklisting him. Well, fine, that's their business. I'm not sure it's much of a tragedy, though. As King Kong aptly demonstrated, Jackson's forte is making big, big, big movies that cost lots of money but look really, really good. (That King Kong barely broke even domestically (see here) is probably not his fault. The cast was absurdly weak, and I can't recall a worse advertising campaign for a summer blockbuster.) The Hobbit, however, is a very small story. It doesn't have the scope or the sweeping vision of The Lord of the Rings; it's really more of a traditional (Grimm-styled) fairytale. So, another director is probably a wise move. Perhaps Alfonso Cuarón is available?

Apparently, not using technology is now a cultural statement. Who knew? I didn't have a cellphone until a few years ago, when I got one for work. I then bought my own because my wife and I work sufficiently far away from each other that we occasionally have to call in order to arrange where we're meeting for whatever. I don't have nor want a Blackberry, iPod, pager, Facebook or MySpace page, etc. I'm happy with my bare-bones academic webpage, my several years old PC, and this here blog. Although, I would like an mp3 player, because the portable CD player I have skips if you look at it harshly. Still: this now seems to make me a cultural iconoclast. Perhaps I should get T-shirts printed...?

Alberta's government is giving up on privatizing healthcare. Not because they necessarily think it's a bad idea, but because it doesn't address the real problems facing the healthcare system. And like that, Alberta goes from foaming-at-the-mouth crazy to insightful and prudent. I never thought I'd see the day.

I have no comment on this post at Crooked Timber dismantling some academic arguments against same-sex marriage, except to say that it's not good for a social "movement" that their brightest academic lights can't marshall any decent arguments for the view. (IDiots, take note.)

Now, I like Pharyngula a lot. PZ Myers is appropriately feisty, intellectually aggressive, and teaches me the kind of biology I wish I'd had in high school (for then I might have seen the point of taking it in undergrad). I have to say, though, he's got a really bad ear for ethical issues. Here, PZ takes on an undeniably tragic case of a US sailor's wife who was pregnant with an anencephalic child. The child would not have survived very long after birth, so the mother had an abortion. After some court battles, the agency that insures military families paid, even though the mother's life was not at stake. The Justice Department appealed this decision, after the procedure was performed, and won. So, they have to pay the money back.

PZ seems to be arguing a pretty standard consequentialist line: that this magnifies the pain and suffering of the family, that it doesn't produce noticeable good in the world, etc, hence it is "evil" (his term). Problematically, the "except to save the mother's life" line is a non-consequentialist reason: it's deontological. That is, it's not focused on the consequences of an action in order to judge whether it is right or wrong; instead, the criterion focuses on particular qualities of the case at hand in order to determine whether it is right or wrong. We can effectively argue against it by pointing out that "saving the mother's life" cases are an unacceptably narrow range of cases (relevantly for this instance, what about the state of the fetus? if it's non-viable, isn't abortion the best option? what if the mother would be severely injured by bringing the child to term, but not killed? etc.), but what we can't do, at the risk of talking past the opposition, is just start appealing to consequences as being the only morally relevant features.

Harry Frankfurt has been on The Daily Show before, promoting the book version of his old essay On Bullshit. Here is the clip of his second appearance, promoting his follow-up, On Truth. I'm starting to read some Frankfurt, vis-a-vis the issue of whether being able to do otherwise is a necessary condition for moral responsibility (he says it isn't, but I don't buy the argument). It's also just generally interesting to see a philosopher entirely out of his element, and yet apparently enjoying himself tremendously.

Another Scienceblogs link. Here, Dr. Charles criticizes John Edwards for opposing specialized healthcare courts. He's apparently been taking some flak from Daily Kos diarists over it. Frankly, I don't think Dr. Charles goes far enough. Not only are regular civil courts unable to handle medical cases, but they're generally unable to handle anything beyond judging the rhetorical merits of the opposing lawyer's presentations. That is, the judges, in my experience, seem to see their job to be evaluating the worth of a performance rather than weighing the evidence and reasoning. I've worked enough in medicolegal to have seen carefully-constructed, well-researched reports tossed aside by judges who decided, apparently on a whim (if no reason is given, what other conclusion can one draw?), that they were "not credible". This may in part be a function of judges' training as lawyers: if one is used to being evaluated on a certain basis, when one takes on the role of the evaluator, it's understandable that one would implement standards similar to those one was used to. But the fact that it's understandable doesn't justify it. This is particularly crucial in medical cases, where it really matters whether judges understand the evidence that the medical experts are presenting to them. If the issue is whether or not Mr. Smith has a permanent disability, judging on the basis of the character of the lawyers is obviously entirely inadequate.

Our beloved Prime Minister Stevie seems to think that two recent defections from the Liberals to his clan of Canada-hating misanthropes means that the Conservatives are "appealing". Mebbe. But it's at least as plausible that the real reason people are defecting from the Libs to the Cons (and, for that matter, the Cons to the Libs) is that even the members of the parties can't tell the difference.

This is just pure fun. Someone highly anal-retentive with a serious mad-on against the federal Conservatives has gone through and analyzed their policies to determine which are moving Canada closer to and further away from the US. While there's no discussion of methodology (which would have been fun in its own right), the analysis speaks for itself. By far, the Cons are trying to make Canada like the US.

While it's possible, as is suggested in the comments to that post, that the Cons are just being conservative and, since the US tends to be more conservative, this means that "being more like the US" is actually not the Cons' aim, I find that could only be plausible if the Cons were unaware that the US shares the same "values" or whatever that they do. That is, it's only true that the Cons are accidentally making Canada more like the US, while intending to make Canada more conservative, if they don't know about the connection between conservatism and the US. Since they presumably do know about the connection, it follows that, by intending to make Canada more conservative, they are also intending to make Canada more like the US.

Too funny. I blogged earlier about the vile things being said on air by a couple of hosts on an ABC Radio-owned station in the US. Here is a follow-up. Apparently, the hosts are trying to be "silenced", and their "free speech rights" are threatened, and they're targets of "frightening fringe-left groups". Etc. I don't think these people really know what the fuck they're talking about, and so are excused for saying stupid things on the grounds of colossal ignorance. However, on the off-chance that they are simply lying, here's what's wrong with what they're saying.

(1) Standardly, free speech rights in the Western world are interpreted as negative freedoms. That is, one is free from being constrained such that one cannot express one's views. However, the freedom is not considered as a positive freedom. That is, one is not entiteld to resources in order to promulgate one's views. Right or wrong, this is the way the right is interpreted. So, by asking these hosts be dismissed, no one is actually infringing on their free speech rights. They aren't being told to stop saying things they believe. They are, however, being told not to say these things in public places. That is, they are being deprived of a resource; they are not being subject to a constraint.

(2) It is, in their eyes, a "frightening fringe-left" claim to say that one should not promote vicious stereotypes of Muslims and use racial epithets on the public airwaves. (Note that: public airwaves. These people aren't talking in the privacy of their own homes; it's equivalent to sitting on a bus next to a loudmouthed homophobe.) Equal concern and respect is "frightening" and "fringe-left". I wonder, on this spectrum, what counts as "fringe-right"?

There's also some BSing about being "deprived of a livelihood", but that's just more obvious nonsense. I'm sure the hosts in question are perfectly capable of and qualified to serve hamburgers at McDonald's or even Burger King. So, how are they being deprived of a livelihood?

This is also funny. The US House have passed a measure that would require federally-managed negotiations with big pharma in order to bring down drug costs under Medicare. Looks like a good conservative thing, right, spend less government money? Well, not really:
Both the Congressional Budget Office and actuaries working for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services concluded it's unlikely government negotiating authority would produce significant savings.
So, okay. There looks to be a good basis for opposing the plan: it won't work the way it's supposed to. So, what opposition is actually voiced in the article?
"The change we're debating is the major debate about the future of health care in the coming decades," said Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. "Do we believe government should make the decisions about your health or do we believe these decisions are so fundamentally personal they can only best be made by the individual?"
As I said: funny stuff. The real choice is between the government running interference for individuals and trying to get the drug prices down, and big pharmaceutical companies charging whatever the hell they want, regardless of what individuals can pay. The idea that this has anything to do with individuals making "personal" choices is so absurd it's almost farcical. To make matters worse, of course, it's a given in circles of sane people that healthcare decisions are paradigms of public decisions. Every health-related choice that a person makes has effects, often significant ones, on those around them. Thus, the way those decisions are made is of unquestionably public significance.

US "conservatives" are always good for a laugh, eh?

Here is a Globe and Mail article on how "new" immigrants to Canada may not be "integrating" in ways consistent with official multiculturalism policy. I've found the actual study (here) and will be reading it over the weekend. I hope to have a detailed critique of it available on Monday. My sense is that there's going to be some serious argumentative holes; while the data may be somewhat suggestive, the conclusions as described in the G&M are far too strong.

I'll also have something on this issue, namely college tuition, how it affects society in a broad sense, and what policies might be enacted in order to improve things.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Moral objections to animal-human hybrids.

Here we find an Independent article on animal-human hybrid embryos, production of which is apparently are going to be re-considered in the UK. The reasons for and against are summarized in the article at the bottom:
Are 'hybrid' human-animal embryos a good idea?


* They allow scientists to produce embryonic stem cells for research purposes

* Animal eggs are in plentiful supply and hybrid embryos overcome the shortage of human eggs

* No one will allow them to develop beyond 14 days and the stem cells will not be used in medicine


* It is immoral to mix animal and human stem cells, and is demeaning to life

* Stem cells can be extracted from adult humans, so there is no need to create embryos that are then destroyed

* Allowing such research is the slippery slope to the day when someone clones a hybrid embryo and implants it into a womb

I'm not going to commit myself one way or the other on the value of the research, but I want to take a quick look at the moral ideas implied by the first "no" point and the third. I tend to think that the third makes no sense unless it is coupled with the first, because of the following. It is supposed to be an objection to the creation of hybrid embryos that one might be implanted in a human womb at some point in the future. But, unless there's something special about a "pure" human, then it's hard to see why this would be a bad thing. Thus, the idea that there's something centrally important about human life must be driving the third point; and this is the idea expressed by the first.

The first actually contains two seperate ideas. Idea #1 is that the mix of animal and human is immoral. Idea #2 is that human life can be demeaned. Neither one makes much sense, really.

Idea #1 presumes a pretty hard distinction between human and animal. That is, we are supposed to be able to point out clear paradigm cases of human and animal life, and draw nice boxes around them. In some cases, this is easy. I'm human. My cat is not. But what this ignores is the fact that current biological humans developed from other creatures. I am, in some sense, in a direct genetic line with Australopithecus. Is Australopithecus human or animal? What about homo habilis? Or Neanderthals? The point I'm arguing is not that because we came from creatures that could, arguably, be called "animals" we ourselves must be animals. That's nothing more than a genetic fallacy. What I'm arguing is a little more subtle than that: in order to divide the world neatly into humans and animals, there must be something unique and special that humans have and animals don't. When looking for this, though, we must accept that, at a certain point in our historical development, this special thing must have appeared. This is because, at some point, everyone will freely admit that our genetic ancestors were animals and not humans. So, we don't just have some sort of silly demarcation problem -- i.e., where do we draw the line? -- but a much more fundamental worry: on what basis, in principle, could we draw a line? Intelligence? Neanderthals were intelligent, and, for that matter, so are chimpanzees and bonobos. Indeed, many of the characteristics we might consider "specially human" are shared between us and other contemporary and historical apes.

One way to solve the problem, of course, it to claim that what we really want to do is seperate apes (not humans) off from animals. But the problem is just going to repeat itself. At some point in their historical development, apes must have acquired this special property. Where? We would very likely be able to see antecedents of it in other mammals; so, should we try to seperate mammals from other animals?

In short, Idea #1 presumes that nature admits of dichotomies rather than continua. That is, Idea #1 presumes that the world comes to us in neat little boxes with clear and defined edges, when it actually comes to us as a big smooshing rush of creatures and things that are not clearly and distinctly different from each other.

To make matters even worse, not only does Idea #1 make an error of fact, it makes an error of morality. That is, it presumes that because there is a natural difference, then there must also be a moral difference. But, there are natural differences between humans of different races and sexes. Do these also make moral differences? If the speciesist argument against mixing animal and human cells is supposed to be a moral argument that must be taken seriously, then the logic underlying racist and sexist arguments must also be taken seriously, naturalistic fallacy be damned. (This is, famously, Peter Singer's view.)

So, Idea #1 is full of holes. What about Idea #2? According to Idea #2, there's something valuable in human life that can be demeaned. By this I presume it is meant that the value of human life can be reduced in some central or fundamental way. Now, it doesn't follow from my critiques of Idea #1 that there's no value to human life; the only point there is that you can't justify saying that there's a unique and special value to human life qua human life. So, human life could still be valuable, and this value could somehow be reducible. But what is this value supposed to consist in? Presumably, a human life is valuable insofar as it instantiates whatever actually is valuable -- or, as a sop to the moral anti-realists in the audience, whatever is taken to be valuable by society, or whatever my emotional reactions point to as being valuable, etc, etc. So, a human life is valuable insofar as it is a life of friendship, justice, courage, charity, fidelity, and so on. This value can be demeaned, I suppose, if one fails to instantiate these values, or, perhaps, if one instantiates them at one point, but then ceases to do so. Perhaps also the value of a life can be demeaned if it instantiates the wrong values or bad values or insincere/inauthentic values. But, notice what has happened here: in trying to explain how life can be valuable, I have slipped into talking about what makes a life valuable. That is, what makes a particular life valuable, not life in general. And that seems a necessary move, for there are far too many possible paths a human life may follow for one to say, with any hope of being even close to right, that there just is value to life qua life.

Given that, then Idea #2, as presented, rests on a mistake. But, it could be easily repaired by stating that the value of any life would be demeaned if animal-human hybrids were allowed. This, however, points right back to the objections made against Idea #1: namely, this only makes sense on the presumption that a life is only valuable if it is a life of a human rather than the life of something with another genetic structure, like a Neanderthal, a chimpanzee, or a cat (or, for that matter, the life of a Martian or of a god). As said, though, this is badly flawed: there are no clear boundaries to pick out what is valuable about a specifically human life; and there is something deeply wrong with the logic that picks on a natural difference in order to justify a different in moral treatment.

So, if there is something wrong with animal-human hybrids, it's going to have to have something to do with the second point, namely their efficacy as research tools. Since this is an exclusively scientific question, and the body considering the issue is a scientific one, it is this question that they should be considering in detail.

Random the Third.

This column at Media Matters is one of the saddest expose's I've read in a while. Eric Boehlert argues that right-wing bloggers ("warbloggers" is his term) have shot their credibility to hell repeatedly by refusing to take responsibility for what they "report" while simultaneously castigating the slightest error made by their opponents.

It's not that I care about right-wing bloggers, but that I care about the societies we live in. The fact that there are people like this, who won't retract an obvious error -- or at least try to patch over the hole -- and that there are hundreds if not thousands teeming about does not say anything good about the society that has been built around us (that creates and sustains them) nor about its future. Progressives shouldn't glory in this kind of stupidity, for it's not about "winning" or "losing" some "culture war". It's about getting back (if we ever really had it) to civil and respectful debate about important issues. That's impossible in the climate created by these kinds of right-wing blogs.

The Huffington Post is very often crap. This, however, is not. David Roberts argues (rants, really, as he admits) that a fundamental problem with US political discourse is its insane hatred for genuinely leftist views -- and, indeed, for anything less than the most extreme right-wing positions. It's probably an exaggeration, but it's got enough truth to be very uncomfortable.

At Newshounds, we see the US right going even further down the rabbit-hole (and this is the mainstream right, not just bloggers). On Fox and Friends, apparently, there was a lengthy segment devoted to why the owner of a Texas pizza chain should not accept pesos instead of dollars as payments, because (wait for it) it's unAmerican. See here for the whole thing. What I don't understand, though, is how those idiots at Fox could sit there and blame the guy, with straight faces, when (as mentioned in the article) (1) Mexican border businesses will take US dollars and (not mentioned in the article) (2) American/Canadian border business will also gladly take the other country's currency. (Indeed, I've even paid tolls on New York freeways with Canadian change.)

Could Ludwig Wittgenstein have gotten employed in the academy today? I don't know who wants to know, but, if you do, see here.

The UK security agency, MI5, is now offering an email alert service for citizens about the latest "terror level", as well as offering more information on its website. See here. Call me crazy, but I think there's a slight problem involved in emulating the US' "war on terror" model. Honestly, I don't see any value to distributing this kind of information. What are people supposed to do, carry shotguns and shoot any vaguely Arabic-looking person they see? All this can hope to accomplish is scaring the shit out of people...

...oh, I get it. Of course. Then the Labour Party can campaign on being able to save Britons from the evil terrorists. After all, what else is national security for but exploitation for electoral gain?

The funniest part of the article is this:
Britain's terrorism alert status has been at the second-highest level since its inception, except for the three days after the disclosure Aug. 10 that police had broken up a plot to blow up jets headed to the USA from London's Heathrow Airport. The level was then raised to "critical," the highest on the scale.
In other words, the distinctions between the various threat levels don't map on to any real threats whatsoever.

"Although it may ratchet up the anxiety level, it increases the public's awareness," Aukstakalnis says. "All of a sudden, you have millions of people who are hypersensitive to anything that doesn't look right. And they are more inclined to report things."
Indeed. As suggested, they'd be more likely to report anyone who was guilty of looking Arabic -- which is, after all, a hideous crime.

Speaking of scaring the shit out of people for no good reason, according to this, Medicare/Medicaid will be offering an online comparison of hospitals across the US with regard to their mortality rates for heart patients. One immediate problem is noted by an administrator:
"It clearly needs to be done, but I'm not sure 30-day mortality is the right measure," says Gary Noskin of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "A patient could have a heart attack (and be treated successfully) and get hit by a bus after he leaves the hospital."
This concern is immediately dismissed (but not refuted):
Medicare officials counter that the statistical methods used in the analyses highlight patterns of care, good or bad, not individual cases. The approach was approved by the National Quality Forum, a consortium of professional organizations, businesses, consumer groups, hospital chains and health plans.
Which means, approximately, nothing. Would it kill them to respond to the actual criticism? One wonders.

In addition, of course, the measures are going to be biased in favour of hospitals that don't see many serious cardiac patients. If the problems are relatively minor, and the patient base relatively low, then the mortality rates are going to be better than those in a busy hospital that sees many very serious cases. Context always matters; these sorts of coarse measures really don't communicate any useful information.

Except, I suppose, they could be used as an excuse to reduce public funding of procedures in certain parts of the country. Nice.

Here is yet another article on minimum wage. It seems pretty fair to me: basically, minimum wage increases create some modest gains, but also some minor costs. What always troubles me, though, is that there's never discussion of a maximum wage law. That is, beyond a certain point, you just can't earn any more money. The most obvious objection I can think of is that companies should be able to pay sufficiently to attract the best and brightest. There are (at least) two problems with this. The first is that the genuinely best and brightest probably aren't all that concerned about making another million, but about facing a new and interesting challenge. The second is that compensation packages can include more than just wages (a company car, a pension, vacation time, etc.), so there needs to be more reason to increase the dollar value given than just "well, we have to be able to reward the people we want!". The reason to institute a maximum wage law should be obvious, but oddly isn't: there's only a certain amount of money/wealth to go around, and concentrating it at the top means that it has been removed from those at the bottom (and probably a little in the middle, too). So, capping the amount that those at the top can earn should free up more that could make its way back down the scale. (Didn't some old economist guy talk about an unseen foot or something that sounded a little like this?) Where it would, incidentally, do more to stimulate economic growth than keeping it all in the hands of a few (as those with less will spend more of an increase in consumption than those who already have more).

Governor Arnie's universal healthcare plan is drawing the predictable reactions from everyone else in the state government. Some amusing excerpts from this:
“Health coverage for illegal aliens is a nonstarter for us,” said Robert Huff, chairman of the Assembly’s Republican caucus. “It creates a magnet for them coming here rather than staying there.”
Really? Gee, I suppose that must be why you can only get public health insurance in Canada with proof of immigration status. Honestly, why are Republicans so stupid?

Then there is the financing, which among other things would require doctors and hospitals to pay 2 percent and 4 percent of their revenue, respectively, into a fund to cover the poor and uninsured. Mr. Schwarzenegger calls those payments a “fee,” but other Republicans said that was just another word for “tax.”
Don't conservatives always play the "tax"/"user fee" semantic game -- as if it actually makes a difference? What matters is that money has to come from somewhere to fund beneficial social programs. You can call it a "user fee" -- tuition, transit fare, parks fee -- or a "tax" -- roads, education, healthcare -- but it doesn't change the basic structure of the problem. Do Californian Republicans have nothing better to do than play word-games? Is there anything substantive to their concerns? Not as far as I can see from this piece...

(Incidentally, I did see the quote which claimed that there is a legal distinction in California between how a fee can be passed and a tax can be passed, with taxes being harder to pass than fees. But that just looks like a semantic quibble enshrined into law. Why hasn't some smart governor just called everything a fee and been done with it?)

But, not to be left out, California doctors are getting in on the act:
The California Medical Association, which represents more than 34,000 doctors in the state, gave the proposed overhaul mixed reviews. Though the association praised the idea of universal coverage, the fee on doctors could be a deal breaker.

“We feel it’s a regressive tax,” said Dr. Anmol Singh Mahal, the group’s president.
Would they prefer that everyone pay a healthcare premium as part of their income tax? (That's the way it's done in Ontario.)

Seriously, though. If the only thing they have to actually complain about is that someone would have to pay for this, they really need to shut up. Someone has to pay for healthcare costs anyway. That's always the point. Someone pays, whether it's the patient who coughs up thousands for a hospital bill, or a private insurer (who then raises premiums), or the taxpayers, or the employer whose workers take lots of time off for illness, etc, etc, someone always pays. The only question is who should. Since a healthy populace is a good thing for society, it seems obvious to me that it should be society at large who pays.

It must be strawman day or something. According to the Independent, the UK government is thinking of lifting the protection of the identities of rape accusers when those they accuse turn out to be innocent (see here). Hard to think how anyone could object to that, right? Wrong:
Lisa Longstaff, of Women Against Rape, said such a proposal would serve only to discourage women from coming forward to make complaints in the first place and urged ministers to think again. "In the context of rape conviction rates being no more than 5 per cent it is outrageous for the Government even to contemplate relaxing the protection. We are pushing for a tightening of the law and have written to the Attorney General to voice our concerns."

What Ms. Longstaff is, probably deliberately, overlooking is that the government is not, according to this, contemplating lifting the anonymity generally, nor even in cases of failed conviction. The issue, as the context of the article makes clear, is the complainants who use their legal protection as a means to harrass and attack other people. I mean, really, let's just switch the crime around and see if it makes any more sense: if someone habitually accuses others of murder, shouldn't that person lose any legal right to having their identity protected?

Here's another strawman from her:
Ms Longstaff said that parliamentary privilege should not be used in such a way. "The other side of the coin is that women are now being sent to prison for false rapes while men accused of rape are going unprosecuted."

Who said anything about imprisoning liars? (I mean, seriously, prisons are full enough as it is; if we start putting every liar away... well, come to think of it, it certainly would make the commute to campus a hell of a lot quicker. Maybe it's not such a bad idea?)

Anybody want to buy an autonomous island? If not, can you lend me enough to get it?