Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Yeah, so, I'm on the new Blogger. The labels are nice, but the rest is a bit six-and-three-twos. My problems, though, are two, and the new "widget" system is sufficiently techy to have flummoxed me. First, I don't know how to restore my "recommend this post on progressive bloggers" and "see related on canadian blog exchange" links, that used to appear after the Comments links. Second, I don't know how to restore my Bertrand Russell quote to the bottom of the blog such that its style is consistent with the rest of the blog and it's actually centred at the bottom of the blog. Any thoughts/tips from the hivemind would be appreciated.

Intention and the brain.

I'm sure most people have read this story (or some version of it) about how fMRI scans have "detected intentions" in people's brains. I sincerely hope that this conclusion isn't what's published in the actual study, as it doesn't at all follow from the data. I'll prove this by constructing some alternate claims which are equally well-supported by the same data.

(1) Intention type-identity: One pattern of brain activity (call it "stateA") is the intention to add the two numbers, one pattern of brain activity ("stateS) is the intention to subtract the two numbers.

(2) Intention type-identity with contrast: StateA is the intention to add the two numbers rather than subtract them, stateS is the intention to subtract the two numbers rather than add them.

(3) Intention type-identity of contradictories A: StateA is the intention to add the two numbers, stateS is the intention to not add them.

(4) Intention type-identity of contradictories B: StateA is the intention to not subtract the two numbers, stateS is the intention to subtract them.

(5) Purpose type-identity: StateA is the purpose to add the two numbers, stateB is the purpose to subtract them.

(6) through (8): as per (2) through (4), with "purpose" instead of "intention".

(9) through (12): as per (1) through (4), with "plan" instead of "intention".

And so on, and so forth. And, let's not neglect the possibility that there are different ways of constructing the types that are being identified. And the possibility that functionalists are right and the possible identities seen on the brain scans may be explained due to some unobserved similarity between the structures of the brains of those examined. And the possibility that there's really some unobserved intermediary acting between the intention (or other mental state) and the state of the brain. Etc. Etc. Etc.

In short, what we have here is a classic case of (radical) underdetermination of theory by data. What gets the conclusion out -- (1), the type-identity of intentions with patterns of brain activity -- is the data plus a set of contentious philosophical claims in the realms of philosophical psychology and philosophy of mind. It's the contentious claims that are really at stake. The data, although interesting in their own right, won't settle a damn thing. Anyone who thinks different is fooling themselves.

Theory and reality.

I found this rather an annoying argument. Basically, Don Coffin (the blogger) approvingly reports on some comments made by economist David Card on a particular economic theory, which is not well-supported by observation. Coffin's comment (the part I found annoying) is:
The moral for economists is that theory is a useful thing, but the real issue is whether the theory is in agreement with reality. If it isn't, then it's the theory that needs to be revised.
I call bullshit. "Reality" is shaped by theory, as much as theory is shaped by reality. That is, there is no independently-described set of facts which theories can be compared to. Even if there is an objective (in the sense of mind-independent) reality, it does not follow that there is one discrete and finite set of descriptions of this reality. The way reality is described is a theoretical enterprise, thus the comparison of theory to reality is itself theory-driven. From this, it follows that, as I believe Quine once defended, when confronted with a conflict between a theory and an observation, one always has the option to discard the observation.

Now, of course, if I'm right that our understanding of facts -- our conceptual framework, if you like -- is shaped by theory, then what actually happens when we "discard the observation" is that we discard (or revise) one theory rather than another. That is, the theory which leads us to make the observation may have to go instead of the theory which the observation is in conflict with. Given that, it is also possible that the theory which the observation conflicts with may prove to be the weaker contender. The lesson, though, is that Coffin is wrong to think that the comparison of theory to reality straightforwardly favours reality: because reality is shot through with theory, what really happens is we favour the theory for which we have the strongest reasons, and discard (or revise) the theory for which our reasons are weaker.

It's funny how often these kinds of problems come down to reasons.

Random the Sixth.

So, I'm trying to avoid the lengthy posts of short comments. I'll keep these "random" ones to just the very short comments instead. Short comments (and, of course, the mini-essays) will get their own posts.

Hey, everyone knows the meme about how conservatives are better at finance than socialists, right? Turns out, not so much.

Here is an AP article on a study (which I can't seem to find the original of) that claims to have found a correlation between darker skin tone and lessened earnings, but also between being shorted and lessened earnings. Oddly, though, there's nothing in the article about the horrible discrimination faced by the short. So, is it okay to discriminate against people on one irrelevant basis (height) but not another (skin tone)? Just asking.

This is old, but I laughed. According to the Calgary Herald, here, a prof at UCalgary has concluded that political bloggers are lonely, friendless losers on par with terrorists. That's no the funny part; it's too wrong to be funny. This comment from the prof is the funny part (to get the joke, you have to know that an academic book that sells 400 copies is a bestseller):
"I don't want to be a prophet of gloom, but many are writing a sermon that no one is going to hear."
No shit?

Anyone who doesn't believe that anti-immigrant hysteria that ebbs and flows through the American pundit class isn't, at its base, racist is invited to read here and here about the resurgence of the KKK. Yes, that KKK. Next.

Earlier (second from the bottom), I blogged about the possible encroachment of authoritarianism in Venezuela. This interesting essays suggests that it's a possibility that's not likely to come to fruition. I'm fairly convinced.

I'm not surprised to read here that chimpanzees may have entered a "Stone Age" prior to our own, consisting of the widespread use of stone tools. As the article notes, chimps today use tools for a variety of tasks; that historical chimps used them as well should follow from that observation. Really, the find just confirms what we could have easily expected. Still, it does raise problems for anyone still committed to the idea that humans are inherently and uniquely special.

Just for fun.

This is sort of interesting, if you know anything about philosophy. (If not, move along....) It's a series of photographs of various philosophers, some very well-known, some not so much.

Similarly, if you've ever played AD&D and know something about the academy, this is just great. If only these things really worked. (Or just Cause Participation and Render Legible. I could make do with those.)

This is also fun, containing a YouTube video of an atheist trying to calmly deal with a pair of evangelist twits. I'm with Stardust, though: I would've told them to fuck off after about a minute.

Finally, some quizzes:

Meta-ethical theories:

You scored 65 Objectivism, 31 Naturalism, and 95 Cognitivism!
Many judges and much of the legal system is Intuitionist (as far as it goes, philosophically) in outlook to some degree. "Ethical intuitionism is usually understood as a meta-ethical theory that embraces the following theses: Moral realism, the view that there are objective facts about value, Ethical non-naturalism, the view that these evaluative facts cannot be reduced to natural facts, and The thesis that we sometimes have intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, which forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge."

My test tracked 3 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on Objectivism
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on Naturalism
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on Cognitivism
Link: The Meta-ethical Theories Test written by jacostyle on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test


Your results:
You are Magneto
Dr. Doom
Dark Phoenix
The Joker
Lex Luthor
Mr. Freeze
Poison Ivy
Green Goblin
You fear the persecution of those that are different or underprivileged so much that you are willing to fight and hurt others for your cause.
Click here to take the "Which Super Villain am I?" quiz.

Edit: Sorry, formatting went wonky. I think it's fixed now.

Leaving teachers behind.

Bullshit, bullshit. See here: in their infinite ignorance, the US federal government is going to tie teachers' jobs to students' performance on standardized tests. Tell ya what: when parents' right to keep their children is similarly tied to their performance in the world (and multinational agribusiness for childrens' health, etc, etc) then this is fair. Otherwise, it's nothing more than a politically expedient means of failing to solve a multifactorial problem. Singling out teachers will, at best, discourage qualified educators from bothering to teach in the US.

Money quote:
The school board and superintendent had better come up with the money to get her all the supplies and help she [Zakia Sims, first-grade teacher] needs. And parents had better get their kids to school on time, rested, well dressed and well fed. "All the stakeholders need to be involved," she says. "It can't just be teachers."

Healthcare: yet another post.

Scary stories here about the US health insurance industry revoking policies for truly bizarre reasons. Yet another mark in favour of a government insurance "monopoly".

And, if a reason in favour of expanding government insurance is needed (and isn't it obvious by now?), here the Toronto Star discusses the problems associated with not granting universal access to dental care.

On a funny (funny-odd, not funny-haha) note, though, the CSM is reporting that US businesses want out of the healthcare game. I'm certainly not surprised: employer-based health insurance is, economically, one of the most inefficient schemes ever devised, so a bottom-line mentality should endorse getting out of it ASAP. However, what's disturbing is that there is some sort of push building towards an individually-based insurance scheme, rather than a public scheme. This would be an even worse nightmare, although it would indeed put the corporations' immediate fears to bed, as the insurance industry, by its nature, preys on the vulnerable and offers inadequate (if not offensive) "coverage" to those who are economically less well-off.

That's not a euphemism for the poor, incidentally. Anyone but the richest of the rich is exploited by the insurance industry: the difference is whether the insurers ask nicely before screwing you.

Torture: maybe it'll just go away.

I haven't seen this Thomas Walkom piece in the Star widely-cited around the blogs, but it should be. Walkom heavily criticizes the way the Canadian government has been walking on eggshells around the US, and other states who torture (or support the torture of) Canadian citizens accused of "terrorism" and other pseudocrimes. (Meaning not that terrorism is not a crime, but that "terrorism" is not a crime.) I basically agree with everything he says: the primary obligation of the Canadian government is to ensure the welfare of Canadians. It's really quite frightening to know that Arar was deported to the US, and thence to Syria for a year of hell, and the government of the day did absolutely nothing. The Harper government is doing a little more, but I still haven't heard anything about significant pressure being placed on the US for their continued refusal to even apologize for the way they treated him. I don't think, then, the Harper government passes Judith Thomson's "Minimally Decent Samaritan" threshold, let alone the Good or Splendid Samaritan. Pathetic.

And, of course, as is pointed out here, we can't forget that when Arar was deported to the US, Harper et al -- then the Canadian Alliance -- were perfectly content to let him rot. Deathbed conversions are nice and all, but it's a little juvenile to pretend that they make up for a history of wrong-doing.

Fascism in Europe and dictatorship in Canada.

Here and here are two interesting pieces in the CSM on the rise of the "far-right" in Europe. Honestly, the rhetoric is a bit overheated -- it's hard to tell whether the increased interest is a statistical aberration or a genuine trend. Certainly, fascists (a term that's generally more accurate than "far-right") have some support, but it is massively dwarfed by the support enjoyed by socialists, social democrats, and moderate conservatives. It's something to keep an eye on, though. Given the US' current flirtation with fascism, it's certainly not impossible that it may be reviving worldwide.

On a related note, here is a story that seems to have died down recently -- for some reason. The Harper government threatened to ignore a House vote (which is basically a declaration of dictatorial power, as far as I can tell). Since then, bupkis. Does that mean they backed off? Or they're just biding their time? According to the article, the vote in question is scheduled for today, so we'll see....

So-called ''piracy'' in Canada.

Michael Geist in the Star is often a good read, even though I don't usually agree with him. This time, it's different: he picks apart (refutation in the weak sense) the claims of the Canadian and US movie industries on whether Canada is really a "haven" for movie piracy. Shockingly, we aren't. See here.

Then, see here. Some random coalition of corporate interests in the US wants Canada to be added to a "priority watch list" of copyright "threats". I swear, I can barely type this without giggling. Read the Geist piece, then read the Globe & Mail piece, and you'll see why: these threats, as with most rhetoric emanating from the US these days, are entirely without substance and constructed on little more than (hot) air. It would be nice to think that Harper and the Cons will just tell them to fuck off, but it's more likely that Parliament will have to, through stalemate, do what the government, through action, will not.

Ontario school board takeover

This is bullshit. There's a law in Ontario, a carryover from the Mike Harris Tory days, if memory serves, that allows the province to appoint an overseer to run any schoolboard in the province, if the trustees don't adhere to Queen's Park's funding formulae. The formulae are broken, though, and have been for some time, so some trustees are digging in their heels and refusing to go along with the province's dictates. Recently, the province announced it is taking over the Peel Catholic school board due to their failure to "balance the budget" -- meaning, hack programs to the bone in order to comply with the province's grotesque underfunding.

It's, first, antidemocratic for the province to be able to appoint whoever they want to supplant the duly-elected board members. But, second, and worse, it ignores the real problem: namely, that schools need more money in order to actually produce well-educated people. Appointing an overseer and forcing the board into compliance just misses the point completely. Here's the reductions that the appointee is going to phase in:
Instead, proposed reductions to busing, high school teachers, special education, literacy supports, caretakers and secretaries would be phased in over the next two school years.

Environmental contrasts.

This is an interesting study in constrasts. On the one hand, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases its report, detailing the possible outcome of global warming (see here). On the other hand, Canada's Environment Minister John Baird doesn't really see what the problem is: he's okay with allowing total industrial emissions to go up (see here). I'm not even remotely surprised any more.

On a more sinister note, this article in the Guardian reports on a US lobby group with ties to both the oil industry and the Bush administration is trying to bribe scientists and economists (economists? Huh?) to critique the IPCC study. Do I need to explain why this is a bad thing? I sincerely hope not.