The Greek Pyrrhonians were extreme in their skepticism. Doubt wasn’t enough; to them, knowledge was impossible… “and they’re not even sure about that.” Modern skepticism differs. Although all knowledge is provisional, reasonable people can accept a proposition as true if the convergence of evidence overwhelms all but the most radical doubts.
I’m no Pyrrhonian, but one of their tactics to defuse their dogmatic and credulous opponents delights me. Sarah Bakewell in How To Live or A Life of Montaigne explains:
Pyrrhonians accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as shorthand for this maneuver: in Greek, epokhe. It means “I suspend judgement.” Or, in a different rendition given in French by Montaigne himself, je soutiens: “I hold back.”
Epokhe wonderfully captures how to deal with unsupported claims and arguments. As much as the humble method enchants me… there is a limit.
Recently, I debated one of my political antagonists, Rick, at his blog Let’s Get Political on the evidence for climate change. Rick uncritically cited a Daily Mail article that wrote, “the fact that the world has not warmed for 15 years.” It’s a common talking point among global warming denialists. I pointed out the Earth clearly has warmed over the last 15 years:
In response, he appealed to another graph that seems to show stagnant temperatures or even “cooling.”
Yet that deceit was done by constraining the dates (and not even in the timeframe under discussion): Here’s the same HadCRUT sourced data if you look at the full timespan:
Furthermore, this graph’s data doesn’t even capture all the warming or the full extent of the trend. Follow the link above for a deeper explanation.
Rick then implicitly utilizes epokhe.
[My comments intended] to show how one can pull a graph or a statistic out of thin air to support one’s position either way.
My “official” position is that there are too many conflicting positions and immoral manipulations of mean data to meet predetermined ends
Unfortunately, we see epokhe used as a dodge rather than a reasonable philosophical stance. Notice the game he and others in the anti-science crowd play.
How to Manufacture Global Warming Controversy: or How to Undermine All Knowledge in 3 Easy Steps.
Step 1: Claim the evidence shows global warming isn’t happening.
Step 2: When confronted with data that illustrates the temperature is rising, present a graph that seems to show the opposite.
Step 3: When the anti-global warming graphic is exposed as misleading or dishonest, proclaim that as confirmation that statistics and graphs can be “used to support global warming or to deny it.” No need to show that the evidence demonstrating global warming is wrong!
Moreover, his intellectual nihilism only drains the life from evidence that contradicts his worldview. Rick and other skeptics of convenience don’t ever seem to cast doubt on “evidence” against global warming such as the misleading graph and the Daily Mail assertion.
If you’re interested in reading our whole debate go here.
[update]: In Rick’s last comment in our long back-and-forth he argues he “readily agreed that the temperatures have been rising.” That’s false. He appears to have stopped allowing comments and won’t publish my rebuttal (if I seem a bit exasperated it might make sense in context). I’ll post it here below the fold for interested readers:
Everyone have a fulfilling Thanksgiving? Most people spent the holiday giving thanks, but Pamela Geller of the misleadingly named American Thinker decided to bake paranoia into the right-wing’s psyche. Geller complains that turkey producers like Butterball apparently slaughter their turkeys in accordance with the Islamic ritual halal.
Across this great country, on Thanksgiving tables nationwide, infidel Americans are unwittingly going to be serving halal turkeys to their families this Thursday. Turkeys that are halal certified — who wants that, especially on a day on which we are giving thanks to G-d for our freedom? I wouldn’t knowingly buy a halal turkey — would you? Halal turkey, slaughtered according to the rules of Islamic law, is just the opposite of what Thanksgiving represents: freedom and inclusiveness, neither of which are allowed for under that same Islamic law.
Geller serves her paranoia with lots of trimmings, but most of them merely garnish the bigoted main course. She spends some time disapproving of the unnecessary cruelty of halal slaughter. Of course, Geller doesn’t actually care how animals are treated. Kosher slaughter doesn’t bother Geller even though Kosher butchers never numb their animals (halal butchers often do to some extent). She even puts animal rights in sneer quotes signaling her apparent rejection of the concept. I’ll happily recant this particular criticism if Geller has previously wrote a single word in support of improving the treatment of farmed animals that wasn’t also in the service of criticizing liberals or muslims.
I believe I have some credibility criticizing her because I’ve complained about halal slaughter myself (here & here). Yet in the cornucopia of right-wing paranoia, liberals and animal rights activists would never attack a muslim practice.
Where are the PETA clowns and the ridiculous celebs who pose naked on giant billboards for PETA and “animal rights”? They would rather see people die of cancer or AIDS than see animals used in drug testing, but torturous and painful Islamic slaughter is OK.
Two seconds googling “PETA halal slaughter” turned up dozens of PETA articles protesting against the cruelty of halal. This willful ignorance reminds me of the right’s fantasies about the American Civil Liberties Union. Here’s Radley Balko on the “Where’s the ACLU?’ syndrome”:
In May, Matt Welch noted a storm of criticism from the right toward the ACLU for not defending some kids who were sent home from school for wearing shirts depicting the American flag to a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The problem was that the ACLU had intervened on the kids’ behalf. The conservative critics just didn’t bother to check.
If you care about animal welfare you’re right to object to the unnecessary cruelty of many religious or secular slaughter methods. But if you worry that a particular incantation recited over the butchered animal infringes on your freedom: you’re a sectarian crank.
“Being the president of the United States has to be the hardest job in the world. And the idea that one of us sitting around this table could do it with our own human intellect, our capability, is beyond any of us” – Rick Perry at the Thanksgiving Family Forum.
Looking around that table… I couldn’t agree more:
On a more serious note there was some truly disturbing theocratic rhetoric. Shortly after Perry’s insight, Newt goes on to argue that Americans have “attempted to create a secular country, which I think is frankly a nightmare.”
Cable news is such a farce that it feels almost disreputable arguing over its contents, but I’m compelled to comment on Megyn Kelly and Bill O’Reilly’s conversation about the pepper spraying travesty at UC Davis.
This is how Kelly euphemizes what the police did:
O’Reilly: First of all, pepper spray. That just burns your eyes, right?
Kelly: Right, it’s like a derivative of actual pepper; it’s a food product essentially. But a lot of experts are looking at that and saying, “Is that the real deal? Has it been diluted?
O’Reilly: They should have had more of a reaction than that.
Kelly: Ya. But that’s really beside the point, it was something that was obviously abrasive and intrusive. Several of them went to the hospital.
O’Reilly: They just wanted them to get out of there. Stop blocking what they were blocking – wanted to scatter them.
“It’s like a derivative of actual pepper.” Right, it’s like the cops are doing the kids a favor by teaching them about the financial tools they’re protesting about. I guess the officer just assumed they were all visual learners!
It is technically true that the compounds in pepper spray, the capsaicins, are a derivative of pepper. Although that is by no means a food product anymore than gold is a food product because you can ingest some gold flakes.
By casually comparing it to food peppers – even if true in a technical sense – deceives the audience about the severity of the tactic. Police officers purposefully sprayed a chemical agent into the eyes of peaceful students exercising their first amendment rights.
Notice how Kelly goes on to cite unnamed experts who question the potency of the chemicals. O’Reilly weighs in as if he knows how the kids should act after getting a proper strength dose of capsicum in their eyes. This is on a major news network. Couldn’t they have investigated and reported exactly the pepper spray used by campus police? The company that makes these orange band aerosols aren’t putting out a wimpy product:
The minimum required distance is 6 feet according to the label. Even the lower level commercial pepper sprays are intense. Here’s an overview by Scientific American of how hot and dangerous pepper spray actually can be compared to natural peppers.
As the chart makes clear, commercial grade pepper spray leaves even the most painful of natural peppers (the Himalayan ghost pepper) far behind. It’s listed at between 2 million and 5.3 million Scoville units.
Cable news may be a derivative of actual journalism, but it’s a euphemism to call it that.
(hat tip: Chris Caesar)
From time to time I like to do a feature here called “Graphs that Subvert Conventional Wisdom.” It’s always worthwhile to challenge popular notions about the world that happen to be wrong. But it’s also worth reminding people that sometimes obviously true things are actually true.
A lot of right-wing commentators like to pretend that tax cuts actually increase revenue or that tax revenue can’t rise above some magical boundary despite evidence from the US and nations all over the world. Despite the evidence that tax cuts reduce revenue except in extreme circumstances, supply-siders like to pretend that controversy exists about the facts. It seems creationists, global warming deniers, and supply-siders all have something in common. Of course, it’s likely they’re a lot of the same people.
Thanks to the IGM poll of economic experts from a wide range of political attitudes, we can see that there is virtually no disagreement. Here are the results of a politically relevant question as Congress debates whether or not we should raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans: (I’ve added a helpful red circle for those extra dedicated to ignoring the obvious)
After Spain won the World Cup last year, I used the opportunity to mediate on the nexus between nationalism and the morality of the Iraq war.
For the United States, it seems an unqualified failure and mistake. This brings me back to my original point; should I be looking at this as an American as opposed to the perspective of, say, a Kurd who’s family was gassed by Saddam or a Shi’ite who would have been tortured and killed if Saddam remained in power? Nonetheless, if someone forced me to say if we should have gone into Iraq knowing what I know now, I’d have to say, ‘”no.”
Anytime someone points to the number of dead Americans or cost to American taxpayers, I wholeheartedly empathize but the provincialism registers with me. I’m not discounting it or faulting it. I think those statistics are important, valuable, and persuasive measures for the ethical case against intervention. But if we were Iraqis fighting for our own home, would 4000+ dead servicemen and a multi-trillion dollar price tag be not worth the cost for the overthrow of a brutal dictator and the promise of self-determination?
Those thoughts stuck out when I read David Frum’s answer to a question about the Iraq war. Remember, Frum was one of the central proponents of the American-led overthrow of Saddam. Notice our mirrored evaluation.
9. Iraq: Knowing everything you know now, if you had been in Congress in 2002, would you have voted to authorize force against Saddam Hussein, yes or no?
No. For an Iraqi, there was no price too high to pay to rid the country of Saddam Hussein. For Americans, the issue was not Saddam’s badness, but his nuclear weapons program. Knowing that the nuclear program was not a real threat, the invasion was too large a commitment. The world is a better place without Saddam, but as with everything, the question is one of costs and benefits. The costs to the U.S. were too high, the benefits to the U.S. too few.
Frum and I both feel the heat of this moral dilemma forged in nationalism. We both seem to accept the comforts allowed by the fabrication of the state.
In a recent debate Glenn Greenwald had with former drug czar John Walters on drug prohibition, Walters claimed the US should be proud for helping bring democracy to Egypt. Greenwald was visibly disgusted by such a suggestion. But I had no way of knowing, objectively, who was right about the Arab Spring uprising. Amazingly, I found this graph that answers just that question. Below the fold:
As someone that believes that true free will is an illusion, I’m often asked how I can object to coercion if we ultimately have no liberty anyway. I think this question conflates two separate types of coercion. Just because I’m constrained by the laws of physics and have no moral responsibility for my genetics or for the circumstances of my birth doesn’t mean that self-determination and slavery are the same thing. Even though at a fundamental level you can’t decide what reasons and emotions are persuasive in deciding one’s own actions, at the proximate level of the brain your own reasons and emotions are still the fuel of your decisions. It certainly feels different and your conscious perception isn’t trivial. You might say it’s the only thing that matters. If you can’t appreciate the difference between autonomy and bondage , you’re probably trying your best to misunderstand me.
With that out of the way, I turn to this recent article from the New Scientist titled: ‘Nudge’ policies are another name for coercion.
All this suggests democratic arrangements, which foster diversity, are better at solving problems than technocratic ones. Libertarian paternalism is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business. Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them. It is also, obviously, better at defending those interests when bureaucrats do not mean well.
While democratic institutions need reform to build in dialogue between citizens and experts, they should not be bypassed. By cutting dialogue and diversity for concealed and unaccountable decision-making, “nudge” politics attacks democracy’s core.
It’s widespread in American politics to treat democracy as a good in itself. Anything anti-democratic, therefore, is ipso facto bad. Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi, the authors of the piece, don’t seem to notice that democracy itself is a form or coercion – at least for the people in the voting minority. It feels like heresy to say, but the justification for democratic governance does not spring from some intrinsic property of casting a ballot or some numerological virtue of percentages higher than 50.
We agree to democratic coercion because giving political power to the people being governed is generally a reliable safeguard against flagrantly nefarious policies. In other words, people tend to appreciate their own experiences better than a tyrant might. But it’s not a perfect safeguard. We all still understand that certain individual rights are necessary to protect us from our domineering neighbors. Democratic politics doesn’t ensure maximally beneficial policies. There is good reason to believe that democracies often choose suboptimal and outright harmful policies. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan wrote a whole book on the topic. Can anyone living in America right now really believe that democracies always choose the best policies?
Yet we accept the compulsion of voters. Coercion falls on a gradient of typical consequences. Slavery isn’t simply bad because of coercion, per se, but because that type of coercion invariably leads to undesirable consequences and suffering for the individual being violently controlled. The problem of a benevolent dictator is that even a dictator with good intentions will predictably cause worse problems than an individual acting in his own self-interest. At some level individuals resist any type of direct coercion by another because total servility just doesn’t feel right. Democratic coercion is acceptable to most people because the consequences aren’t as uniformly bad as under serfdom or authoritarianism. Also, by allotting citizens a division in the power structure – even if one’s vote isn’t decisive and can be trumped – coercion by a democratic government feels less forced. Perception is one of the pillars of democracy’s acceptability but is criticized as a defect in “nudging.”
Much criticism of this approach comes, in fact, from libertarians, who see little difference between guiding a person’s choices and eliminating them. A nudge is like a shove, they argue, only more disreputable because it pretends otherwise.
As a classical liberal I believe that liberty should always be the presumptive policy unless we collectively (or through our representatives) decide that we have sufficient evidence that the negative externalities of an activity outweigh the benefits. Policymakers should ask, “do we have strong reasons to suspect that the consequences of an alternative policy will lead to better outcomes?” In many cases, we do. Think of many environmental regulation like the Clean Air Act or financial regulations that stabilize our markets.
Do we always know a priori that setting up a nudge, regulation, or law that blunts liberty will be successful? No, but that shouldn’t lead us to the technocratic fatalism that many extreme libertarians embrace. Any political coercion needn’t be permanent. If the evidence accumulates that a specific nudge’s harms outweigh its benefits regulatory agencies, democratic representatives, and voters are free to act to change the policy.
Here’s a cool visual breakdown of the probability of your individual existence.
It certainly is amazing and humbling to consider the odds against your particular genetic arrangement occurring, but this perspective fails to appreciate how our solipsism distorts our perception of probability. This chart is essentially mapping the genetic lottery where you are the winner. But think of a real lottery with 18 million players. Sure, the odds that your individual ticket being picked is incredibly low: 1 in 18,000,000. Yet, the lottery must pick someone to win. The odds of someone winning are 100%. It’s hardly a miracle every time someone wins a game that there is 100% chance that someone will win the game.
Our impulse to feel special sometimes sets us up for scam artists. Here’s a fun clip from mentalist Derren Brown’s TV show that illustrates the nature of probability.
Just as the odds that Khadisha, specifically, wins all the racing bets are astonishingly small we know that someone has to win. It just happens, by chance, to be Khadisha. The odds of you, specifically, winning the genetic lottery seem miraculously tiny, but as long as people are reproducing new genetic combinations will be formed. If you hadn’t been born and someone else “won” they’d be looking at the staggering odds thinking they were just as improbable. As long as it’s not impossible, even the vanishingly improbable will happen if given enough chances.