Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Agnostic scepticism

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Earlier today, I encountered a text by Peter Hitchens, which includes the claims:

Not since the wild frenzy after the death of Princess Diana have I ever met such a wave of ignorant sentiment. Nobody knows anything about Ukraine. Everyone has ferocious opinions about it.

The other night I shocked a distinguished Oxford academic by informing her that the lovely, angelic, saintly, perfect Ukrainians had blocked off the water supply to Crimea in 2014.

She was rightly shocked by this nasty, uncivilised act of spite, but it was far more shocking that this highly educated person did not know this important fact.

This fits well with my own increasing approach of (what I think of as) “agnostic scepticism”—that I (a) avoid taking positions on issues where I am too poorly informed, (b) do not believe claims by others without independent own verification.* (I have often spoken about “not having done the leg-work”.) The recurring reader will, e.g., have seen me complain about the high degree of ignorance and/or deliberate distortion in claims made by politicians, journalists,** and teachers, and about how I am no longer willing to base my opinions on what they claim—not even when the claim is “scientific consensus is X”. Maybe, scientific consensus is X; maybe, it is not. The key issue, that I only have their word for what the scientific consensus might be, remains. (To which must be added that even a genuine scientific consensus often eventually proves wrong in detail, and sometimes even in the big picture.) A mere claim-to-be-taken-entirely-at-trust of “scientific consensus says Martians exist” is no better than the claim-to-be-taken-entirely-at-trust of “Martians exist”. To this might be added some further considerations, like the risk that a correct opinion held for a poor reason can be worse than the wrong opinion held for a good reason—let alone worse than a more agnostic take.***

*Which is not to say that everything must be independently verified. It is perfectly acceptable to mentally file “Hitchens claims X, but I have not verified it”. The problem arises when “X” is filed with neither reservations nor verifications. Given the right circumstances, even a “Mr. Y claims X and, while I have not verified that specific claim, previous exposure makes me consider Mr. Y highly competent and trustworthy on the topic of X.” is acceptable. (But should remain a rare exception. The same confidence should not be extended e.g. because “Mr. Y is my teacher”, “Dr. Y has a Ph.D. in this field”, or “Ms. Y is a famous young singer/actress/model/activist/philanthropist”.)

**I note that I have very long been very sceptical towards journalists and journalism based on the often grotesque incompetence on display. (Journalists should be well-informed, objective, strong critical thinkers, and good writers—and, more often than not, fail on two or more of these counts. If the mode is four failures, I would be unsurprised.) What has changed over the last few years, based on gross misreporting on e.g. PC-issues and, later, COVID, is that I no longer see mere incompetence and mere “unconscious bias” as enough to explain their reality distortions. (My view of teachers have undergone a somewhat similar transformation, if not as strong. That politicians lie borders on a “Duh!”.)

***I am too lazy to search for links to older texts right now, but I have written on similar topics repeatedly in the past.

As a specific case, I have switched my original standpoint on global warming from “does exist and is anthropogenic” to “I do not know,* because I have not done the leg-work”. The original standpoint was caused by a too unquestioning acceptance of what e.g. the papers claimed; my current is much sounder.

*Note the very major difference between “I do not know” and “I disagree”. It is very possible that I will return to my old standpoint at some point in the future—but, if so, for a much better reason.

As another case, I have deliberately chosen not to take sides in the underlying issues of the Russia–Ukraine situation (not limited to the war). In light of the conflicting claims from the two camps (and mutual attempts at censorship), I am not saying that Putin (Zelensky, Biden, …) is or is not to blame, that Russia is losing badly or winning comfortably, etc. For the time being, I take the position that I do not know—and I will revise that position only if and when I gain a better understanding.

But what of all the others, who are so cocksure? Well, for starters, there are plenty of sayings, aphorisms, and famous quotes to the effect that the cocksure tend to be wrong, while those who are right tend to be uncertain. Looking more in detail, the Russia–Ukraine situation, with, as Hitchens complains, “the wholly one-sided nature of public opinion”, seems to be a matter of weak critical thinkers blindly swallowing a certain narrative*—just like many have or still do with regard to global warming, COVID, and various Leftist talking points. (Let us face it: the vast majority of the population has not bothered to actually gain even remotely the level of knowledge and understanding to hold a justifiable opinion on any of these issues, be if pro or contra.)

*And this narrative is (again!) not defended against counter-narratives or criticism by factual arguments—but by attempts to prevent dissenters from being heard. The more-or-less first reaction of the West? Shutdown access to all Russian news-media.

And here I must disagree with Hitchens: It is not “far more shocking” that this woman did not know about a blocked off water supply. Indeed, I did not either—and, for that matter, I will not take his word for it being true. (I would not be the slightest surprised, if he is correct, in light of other readings on the situation, but he too could be wrong or, even, lying.) No, the problem is that she appears* to have expressed a strong and unnuanced opinion while being poorly informed.

*Note that some interpretation of the original text is needed here, that I only have Hitchens’s claim to go by, and that I do not even know that she exists.

Exactly this type of behavior has led to no end of issues, including poor politicians being elected and poor policies followed, organizations favoring (often destructive or dishonest*) causes raking in millions in donations, etc.

*Note e.g. recent renewed controversies around BLM.

In particular, I have repeatedly heard young voters be told that “it does not matter whether you pick the right party, the main thing is that you vote at all (but please vote for us)”; I have many times heard politicians complain about citizens not voting, often framed in terms of “not doing their civic duty” or “being lazy”, with no regard for the possibility that someone might not have a firm opinion or, more importantly, might not find any of the current parties/candidates acceptable; I have on some few occasions heard the claim that the main thing would be to have an opinion, and an opinion about everything, as if agnosticism would be a bad thing.

The saner approach is the exact opposite: Vote only when you are certain that you can justify your vote based on a solid knowledge and understanding.* Form** opinions only when your knowledge and understanding allows it. Etc.

*Which is neither to say that this must amount to support of the one (it might equally be a “lesser evil” choice or opposition to the other), nor that the details of e.g. each and every candidate must be known (a heuristic based on a sound knowledge from a more general case might be enough, e.g. the sound knowledge that Republicans are currently vastly preferable to the Democrats, combined with candidate X being a Republican, candidate X not being a RINO and having no major marks against him, and candidate Y being a Democrat).

**Some degree of opinion formation is automatic and unavoidable. This is acceptable, as long as the opinion is considered tentative, no big decisions or statements are made based on it, and the opinion is revised with an open mind as need arises. Feel free to dislike Putin for the time being and in the privacy of your own head, but do not condemn him in public, donate money to the Ukraine, or urge for a referendum to have your country declare war on Russia—unless you already have done the required research.

Excursion on Michael Crichton and scientific consensus:
Taking a break before proof-reading, I went to another browser tab and found another text with considerable overlap with the above. Among other things, it has a quote by Michael Crichton that is highly relevant to my own statements about scientific consensus above:*

*Or, in the spirit of agnostic scepticism, it claims to quote Michael Crichton. I have no particular reason to doubt the claim, but, no, I have not verified it myself.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

I would not go that far (at least not assuming that we see the same concept behind the word “consensus”), but I agree in as far as the sentiment is e.g. “consensus does not determine what is true, only what is currently thought to be true”, “a claim of consensus must not be invoked to proclaim dissenting positions false”, or “politicians can make laws based on consensus, but physicists have to take the natural laws as they are”. (Indeed, consensus, especially scientific consensus, is often used as the ultimate argument to authority, as a means to end a debate without having to bother with factual arguments, counter-arguments, critique, and pesky facts.)

Excursion on future stringency:
Above, I have pointed out several cases where assumptions about e.g. sources apply. This is for the purpose of illustration and I will be more relaxed in other texts—without implying a lesser degree of scepticism.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 23, 2022 at 2:09 am

Example of misinterpretable scenes / Follow-up: Eriksson’s Razor(s)

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Skimming through a recent text that partially deals with misinterpretation of intent/behavior/whatnot as racist, sexist, or generally “ist”, I recall an excellent example:

When I began the preparations for my second master’s thesis, I was talking for the first* time with the professor who would supervise it. Half-way through, he asked whether I knew what the “Newton” method was. I answered in the negative, and from that point on, like flipping a switch, he seemed to think much less of me—no matter what I said or did later.** Indeed, he seemed to think that someone who did not know the “Newton” method, must have slept his way through college.

*This was at a distance university and direct student–professor interaction was correspondingly rare. I might have taken one of his classes at an earlier junction. If so, there might have been one prior meeting for an oral examination, but I have no recollection of such a meeting (by now).

**Not that we had many interactions after this talk.

Now, what is this “Newton” method? Well, what he patronizingly described to me was something that I immediately recognized—from high school (!), where it had been taught under the name “Newton–Raphson”. Moreover, this name had always been used during my (very math heavy) undergraduate years. (But see excursion.) Indeed, as the topic was theoretical computer science, it is a near given that my background was actually heavier or much heavier in math than most of his other students. Indeed, even the high-school curriculum had involved at least a casual use of e.g. Runge–Kutta.*

*Or “Runge-Karlsson” as my math teacher (jokingly) insisted, “Kutta” being a slang word roughly equivalent to “pussy” in Sweden. This, of course, only made us the more aware of the “Kutta” part.

I immediately tried to explain the misunderstanding, but he would have none of it. Maybe I could have pushed the point further, but I did not want to antagonize him, it seemed like a small issue at the time, just a harmless misunderstanding, and he was quite old and I have had several negative experiences with trying to convince old people of something. So I let it slide—not realizing that this simple misunderstanding would dominate his impression of me and his later interactions with me: I did not know his “Newton” method and, therefore, must be a mathematical novice.

*I do not know how old, but optically he might have been well past seventy. Also note that my sentiment was stronger then than now, while my (already) negative feelings about kids have grow more negative over time. This is another aspect that those who cry “racism” and “sexism” might want to consider both where they, themselves, and their perceived oppressors are concerned.

It is very possible that my being Swedish had something to do with this, e.g. that the typical name simply is different in Sweden and Germany—but it was not a matter of anti-Swedish sentiment or, even, anti-foreigner in general. He arguably behaved poorly through not being open to my explanation, for not considering the possibility of differences in terminology, and for sticking to a first impression, but, again, it is unlikely to have been anything even resembling anti-Swedish or anti-foreigner sentiments or prejudices: “stubborn old man” and “used to students being ignorants” are more likely explanations.* Certainly, there might have been some mistake of my own, e.g. in that he might (or might not!) have turned out to be less stubborn than I thought, had I pushed the issue a little harder, or that my intellectual honesty was misplaced: instead of saying “no” I might have been better off with “of course, but I have not done any math in the last six** years, so refresh my memory, just in case”.

*To which I note that I would, myself, agree with that assessment of a great many students; and that I have, myself, been accused of being stubborn on occasion.

**As a rough approximation of the time between the completion of my first master and this event. I might be off a little. Portions of my pre-thesis studies were also arguably math, but (a) were not formally called math, (b) were a very different type of math (dealing with questions like computability and complexity in the computer-science senses).

Now, take the above situation and replace me with a certain type of woman, e.g. someone who believes what her gender-studies professor and Hillary Clinton have told her: Old White Man who refused to listen to me because I am a woman, just assumed that I know no math because I am a woman, and talked down to me because I am a woman!

Depending on the exact woman, it need not end here and e.g. a “No wonder that there are no women in STEM! We need quotas!” or a “He must be fired for discriminating me!” is possible.

But here is the thing: I am a man and this still happened to me.

Excursion on other cases:
In my early years in Germany, similar misunderstandings were comparatively common and by no means limited to technical terminology.

For instance, a very similar, but more easily resolved, incident involved one of my first interactions as an exchange student. The professor spoke of “CAD”, an abbreviation of “Computer Aided Design” in use both in German and Swedish, as well as the original English. The hitch: Swedes speak it as one word, in the English manner and usually with a roughly English pronunciation; Germans spell out the letters C-A-D in a German pronunciation.* Moreover, he had a fairly guttural pronunciation of “A”, even by German standards, and my not-yet-acclimatized ears heard C-R-D. And, of course, I had no idea what this CRD might be—while CAD was one of the known-even-by-laymen buzzwords of the day.

*Or they did at the time—this was over twenty years ago and I have not paid attention to current use. For that matter, I am uncertain when I last heard it spoken in any language.

For instance, I was once puzzled, while taking a class on environmental topics, by the oddly unambitious discussion of the “three-liter car” (“Drei-Liter-Auto”) as a future vision for fuel consumption. Swedish fuel consumption was (at the time) usually measured per Swedish mile, i.e. 10 kilometers—and three liters per 10 kilometers is not very impressive. However, Germany usually uses fuel consumption per 100 kilometers. Re-think the value in the context of a ten times longer distance, and it makes more sense. (Presumably, “three-liters-per-100-kilometers car” is not catchy enough.)

More generally, such traps can easily cause confusion of various kinds, and might well occur even among native speakers with a sufficiently different cultural background. Sometimes the distinctions can be quite subtle and surprising, e.g. because two scientists working in the same field have slightly different definitions of the same term or use different terms for the same concept. (Also see my last-minute discovery in the following excursion.) Then we have the confusion that can be caused by deliberate misdefinitions, as with e.g. the grossly incompatible-with-established-meaning use of “racism” to indicate something that requires a position of dominance.

Excursion on Newton–Raphson:
I am honestly surprised to see the Wikipedia page on Newton–Raphson method redirect to “Newton’s method”. Ditto that the Swedish page is located under “Newtons metod”. On the upside, the German page on “Newtonverfahren” (and the other two) does mention “Newton-Raphson-Verfahren” in the first sentence, implying that it is not unreasonable to believe that (even) a German professor (of a math-adjacent field) would have known that name too.

A possible explanation is that there is a difference between written material vs. oral conversation or e.g. formal contexts vs. informal ones; another that a certain set of books used by me happened to follow a certain convention; yet another that there has been a drift in use over time. This actually strengthens the example, because we now move from a Swedish–German incompatibility to something that could have happened even to a native Swede in Sweden (man or woman!), or a native X in X-land.

The issue of the correct name for the method has been discussed on (at least) the English talk pages and the page has in the past been found under that name (at least temporarily, going by the discussion). Based on a skimming, the camps seem to be broadly “Newton–Raphson is more accurate” vs. “Just Newton is more common”.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 5, 2020 at 3:14 pm

Eriksson’s Razor(s)

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One of the main cognitive problems among humans is an overly large tendency to assume a conscious driving force of some kind, even when it is not necessary to explain the observed phenomena. For instance, a dominance of Jews in some area does not require a Jewish World Conspiracy—it might just as well be a result of different personal or cultural characteristics (e.g. a higher average IQ to explain success in science) or Jews being directed by outside forces (in the case of medieval banking). Ditto the Feminist paranoia “the Patriarchy”. Ditto the alleged “systemic racism” that makes head-lines in the U.S. at the moment, which, to the degree that it at all exists, is better explained by individual actions than systemic problems, and is largely a misinterpretation or incorrect explanation of observations to begin with—much of it discussed in “The Bell-Curve” decades ago.

Similarly, we do not need to postulate a divine creator or an extraterrestrial intervention to explain life as we know it: known chemical processes followed by Evolution suffices. We certainly need not give Evolution a teleological aspect, as with naive ideas of eyes having evolved for the purpose of seeing or that Evolution would be a continual, automatic process from worse to better. (The latter include such whoppers as ascribing the post-industrial increases in human height or the Flynn effect mostly to Evolution and being blind to the risk of a dysgenic effect from the currently low evolutionary pressure.)

That earth-quake was not caused by the wrath of the gods, but by natural processes in the Earth. That ball did not hit little Billy in the head because it was “stupid” or “mean”, it did so because external influences moved it to do so, including the wind and little Bobby. (Little Bobby, in all fairness, might have deliberately tried to hit little Billy, but there is a fair chance that he was genuinely just trying to score a point.)

I have seen so much absurd behavior from e.g. civil servants and customer service staff that I have often been tempted to assume a conspiracy—but I know that sheer incompetence is a (much, much) more likely explanation. Why would both the German “IRS” and DHL, e.g., be out to get specifically me? They might have an aversion to Swedes*, but shit happens all the time, even when my counter-part has no way of knowing** that I am a Swede. In those cases where I have a legitimate reason to suspect that my being a Swede was an issue, it has usually*** been in an indirect manner, e.g. that I might have had problems getting my first job in Germany because my German was quite poor at the time—or been something going back to the individual at hand, not a massive anti-Swede sentiment or deliberate policies directed at keeping Swedes down. If we look at foreigners in general, the risk of negative sentiments might be considerably larger, but would genuine xenophobes care about the few Swedes (geographical neighbors and members of another Germanic people) when there are Turks and Arabs to worry about? Unlikely, but my negative experiences remain.

*I am a Swede living in Germany.

**Most persons and entities that I casually interact with would not have access to this information through e.g. files, my name could easily be explained by a single Swedish great-grandfather, and many will have no opportunity to deduce otherwise. For instance, the DHL never rings my doorbell and can, therefore, not deduce my status through a Swedish accent. For instance, someone who sees me in the street would have little reason to reflect on the possibility that I am not a born-and-bred German. However, I could easily see how e.g. a Black man with a name like “LeBron Ali” could have drawn the opposite conclusion based on even my set of experiences (if transferred to him).

***One truly glaring exception was my first German bank account, at the now defunct Dresdner Bank. The bank refused to hand out the PIN for my ATM card, claiming something about my youth or my status as a student and explicitly telling me to go to the counter every time I wanted to make a withdrawal. I took this at face value at the time, but was soon told that this was unheard of by other students in the same age bracket and even another branch of the same bank called it an absurdity.

Even in the case of the Left, where there is some reason* to assume deliberate large-scale driving forces, chances are that much what might look like a conspiracy is just coincidence or caused by “natural” forces. For instance, the trigger for this text is a Mike Whitney text on UNZ, which pushes the envelope of a Leftist U.S. Conspiracy beyond the plausible.** For instance, is the DNC an evil force masterminding everything that happens—or is it just driven hither and thither by attempts to use the unstable political winds? For instance, is journalism (ditto, m.m., colleges, and whatnot) dominated by Left-leaning people because of a conspiracy, because people with Leftist opinions coincidentally are more interested in journalism, or because many Left-leaning people have independently (and to a higher degree than “Right”-leaning) had thoughts like “if I become a journalist [professor, whatnot], I have the opportunity to push my political agenda”? Has non-Leftist journalists [professors, whatnot] had a harder time to be accepted or get printed because of a systematic mistreatment by their peers or because the Left has had a majority and contained sufficiently many intolerant and bigoted individual journalists?***

*As with the “long march through the institutions”, the Frankfurt School, and Marcuse. (More on him in a later text.)

**Not to deny that individual portions of his writings might be correct or make sense, but when taken as a whole the result becomes highly dubious. I do not give specific examples, because the text and reasoning is confused, draws strongly on other sources, and it is hard to say for certain what individual speculation is right or wrong.

***If so, with the implication that the reverse might have happened if the Left had been a small enough minority in the press. (I use “might” as my experience with the Left and the non-Left point to a greater intolerance problem within the Left.)

A conscious driving force, a conspiracy, a deliberate attempt at sabotage, whatnot, might be the explanation in any given case, but it should not be our first assumption. Other explanations must be considered, we must look closer at the evidence and not jump to conclusions, we must consider the relative plausibility of various explanations, etc.

To this end, I suggest “Eriksson’s Razor” (V1.0):

Never explain an observation with a conscious mover, a conspiracy, a systemic problem, or a teleological force when coincidence, individual choices, game theory, natural processes, emergence, or similar, are sufficient.

To this, knowing the Internet, I add “Eriksson’s dumbed-down Razor” (V1.0):

Not a conspiracy, stupid!

Moreover, looking at the current world, I add “Eriksson’s PC Razor” (V1.0):

Never assume racism, sexism, or another “ism”, when the observations can be explained by either individual characteristics/behaviors of the subject(s) or non-“ism” characteristics of the actor(s), like a personal antipathy, selfishness, general misanthropy, a pre-existing bad mood, etc.

Finally, I add “Eriksson’s dumbed-down PC Razor” (V1.0):

Never assume “ism”, when “idiot” will do.

To give examples of the “PC Razor”: If a woman is fired, do not just scream “sexist boss”, but do consider whether she was performing her job well or poorly and whether other reasons might have applied, e.g. that her boss simply (whether for good or bad reasons) did not like her personally.* If Black men appear underrepresented at a college, do not just scream “racist college”, but do investigate whether they are admitted by unfair or fair criteria and might actually be held back by, on average, worse grades and/or SAT scores.** If a White cop kneels on a Black criminals neck, do not just scream “racist cop”, but do investigate whether he used acceptable methods and whether he has a prior history of unacceptable behavior against arrested citizens (and, if so, by all means, whether Black victims were over-represented relative their proportion of arrests and/or criminals).

*As can be seen, a ruling of “not sexism” does not automatically imply that no fault or unfairness of another kind took place.

**Either could, obviously, point to some other problem that might need intervention, e.g. worse schools, but that is not the college’s fault. (And, again, I refer to “The Bell-Curve”, for why differences in cognitive distributions are a likelier explanation.)

Note on “mover”:
The term “mover” is taken to include e.g. the eponymous “Prime Mover”, divine beings, secret governmental agencies, the Illuminati, “mean” balls, and individual humans. This with the reservation that e.g. individual humans will very often not be covered by the Razor as a whole. For instance, an assumed Kennedy shooter could be a conscious mover, but would not be covered by the Razor: Kennedy was shot and any attempt to explain this without a human shooter would be far-fetched. (A dog accidentally triggered a loaded gun that just happened to hit the U.S. President in the head?) In contrast, an unknown mastermind behind the shooting is an example of a conscious mover that probably would be covered by the Razor.

I have considered a switch from “mover” to “agent”, as the original choice of mover was motivated by the exclusion of humans, where I changed my mind during the writing of this text. For the time being, I remain with “mover”.

Note on “conscious”:
This is not an entirely ideal word, as it e.g. can be disputed whether a secret government agency could be described as “conscious”. My very first draft used “deliberate”, but that seemed even worse. I also considered and rejected “sentient”. The point is that there is something more going on than e.g. a wind moving a ship forward. (But not necessarily as much as a fully sentient Boreas deliberately driving the ship of an offending Greek sailor onto a deserted island for the purpose of punishing his hubris.)

Excursion on other Razors:
Compared to the two most famous pre-existing “Razors”, Eriksson’s Razor could* be viewed as a sub-set of Occam’s Razor and as potentially slightly overlapping** with Hanlon’s Razor (which, in turn, could* also be viewed as a sub-set of Occam’s Razor). In addition, both Eriksson’s and Hanlon’s Razors have some overlap with the claim “shit happens”.

*For both Eriksson and Hanlon, they would be sub-sets if we assume that the respective encouraged type of explanation is more economical than the discouraged one. While I believe this to be the case, there is room for discussion and it need not be true generally.

**For instance, if Bobby, above, was covered by Eriksson’s Razor (but I would tend to exclude him), we would have an overlap with Hanlon’s Razor (which prescribes that we assume that Bobby did not intend to hurt Billy, unless more proof to this is present). The “mean” ball would be covered by Eriksson’s Razor, but would probably not be covered by most interpretations of Hanlon’s Razor. The Jewish World Conspiracy would be covered by Eriksson’s Razor, while Hanlon’s Razor has no bearing. The “PC Razor” has larger overlap; the “dumbed-down PC Razor” even more so.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 24, 2020 at 5:29 pm

Some observations after reading up on literary theory

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During some further renovations in my building, I have made two prolonged visits to the city library. Specifically, I have downed about a third of “Literaturtheorie”* by Oliver Jahraus. While some of the contents are very interesting, my overall impression is not that favorable and I (a) see my less than stellar impression of the non-natural sciences re-inforced and (b) have gained a somewhat better understanding of what is going wrong in the academic system.

*Unsurprisingly, “Literary Theory”. I do not know whether an English translation of the actual work exists, or whether any such translation kept a literal version of the title.

Because I do not have a copy at home (and because I read with an intent on learning something about literary theory—not to write a non-literary critique), I must be a bit on the vague side. However:

  1. The text is filled with a type of specious, “non sequitur”-y reasoning that I have repeatedly observed in softer fields (and in e.g. some types of political and religious propaganda): Premises are stated that are not necessarily convincing and/or obviously represent personal opinion and/or only cover a particular perspective; based on these premises, one or several (il)logical jumps are made to reach some type of conclusion; this conclusion is fed into another series of (il)logical jumps; and at the end a thesis is stated as if proved beyond reasonable doubt. To boot, this often involves disputable use of different-concepts-represented-by-the-same-word.* As usual, I have the impression that the respective author has a particular opinion, be it well-founded or not, knows that he lacks strong arguments, and tries to create a chain of somewhat plausible sounding arguments that will give the impression that he has proved his opinion—while in reality the argumentation borders on the nonsensical. Indeed, this type of argumentation is often so weak that it becomes impossible to attack, because there are more holes than substance—launching a counter-argument would be like punching fog.

    *Similar to jokes in the manner of “zero is smaller than one; zero is nothing; ergo, nothing is smaller than one; ergo, minus one is not smaller than one”. (But intended to be taken at face value and more subtle.)

    I do have a suspicion that there is a strong element of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” involved—that many nod in agreement in order to not seem stupid, believing there to be considerable substance in such texts that they simply are unable to see. In reality, the emperor is as naked as he seems.

    My earlier text on “Der Untergang des Abendlandes” mentions some similar problems. I also point to the Sokal hoax.

  2. One of the core ideas of the book seems to be that literary theory is mainly an attempt to answer the question “What is literature?”, which would raise some serious concerns as to whether it is worth bothering with as an academic field. Certainly, the question is a worthy one, and an analogous question is often asked in other fields; however, this question is typically just the first step, something answered to e.g. limit research to a sufficiently well defined or sufficiently small topic, or to ensure that various parties speak of the same thing. If it is allowed to be the dominant question of the entire field, then the field amounts to navel-gazing and self-referential orgies.
  3. At the same time, paradoxically*, he appears to see literary theory (and/or literary science, in general) as the epitome of scientific development, and seems to want to raise it to a model for other fields, including the natural sciences… In this, he deals more with a philosophy of science than with literary science. Not only is this nonsensical and presumptuous—it also amounts to turning a flaw into a virtue…

    *Thinking back, quite a lot of his claims are paradoxical, e.g. on the pattern “X is strong because of X having a weakness”.

    Moreover, the reasoning used was largely based on characteristics of softer fields, which makes a generalization to harder fields inappropriate. This point can be quite important in the larger picture, e.g. with an eye on post-modernism and its often outright misological take on science: What if this is largely simply a matter of inappropriate generalization, possibly through a lack of an understanding of the harder sciences? Notably, the more specific references made to the harder sciences were usually faulty or misleading, including a misrepresentation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.*

    *I do not remember the details, unfortunately, but it might have been a claim about observation of X changing the value of Y, which is not what the uncertainty principle is usually taken to imply. (Which is rather that a more precise determination of the value of X makes the determination and/or value of Y less precise.)

  4. A specific point that annoyed me was a lengthy discussion of “Theorien” (“theories”), where various conclusions were drawn that fall apart on his failure to separate between the concepts of model, theory, and hypothesis, randomly mixing aspects of each under what he referred to as “Theorien”. (I admit that the borders between the three can be both hard to determine and a matter of dispute, but mixing them in a blanket manner is going too far.)
  5. The language pushes the border of the acceptable, leaving me with the impression of someone trying to “sound smart” (not at all unusual in the softer fields). This includes odd choices of words, e.g. the Latin or English loan “evozieren” to imply “evoke”, where standard German would normally call for the more Germanic “hervorrufen”. (As in, hypothetically, “the text evoked strong feelings” and “der Text hat starke Gefühle hervorgerufen” vs. “der Text hat starke Gefühle evoziert”.) It also includes those pointless and pseudo-intellectual hyphenated constructs that are so common in e.g. texts on art or Marxism (see excursion). While the overall sentences used are nowhere near as bad as Spengler’s (cf. link above), there is some similarity e.g. in undue jumps within a sentence and undue complexity (even by my standards); he also tends to throw in words in a manner that can make the one word correctly parsable only when the reader is five words past it (somewhat in the style of a “garden-path sentence”).

If* this type of understanding of the sciences, lines of reasoning, lack of stringency, whatnot, is typical for the softer sciences, we might as well give up on them…

*Chances are that the “if” holds—this is not the first time I have made a similar experience.

Excursion on pseudo-intellectual hyphenated constructs:

Remarks: (1) I am a little uncertain whether these are common in English, but I have often seen them in both Swedish and German. Should they be uncommon, consider combinations like “abstrakt-biomorphe*” (“abstract-biomorph[ic]”?) and “zynisch-satirisch” (“cynical-satirical”?). (Both are taken from a German art catalog.) Note, in contrast, more legitimate examples like “manic-depressive” and “Marxist-Leninist”, where the introduction of a single word is highly sensible, the word is accepted domain terminology, and the word has spread into the general vocabulary. (2) Here, I have used a plain hyphen (“-”), consistent with most of the examples that I have seen. However, an n-dash (“–”) does seem more natural to me in many or most cases. (3) Note that the issue is not one of hyphenation, per se, but of a particular way of merging two (usually) modifiers to form a new unity, despite not naturally belong together (or having connection better expressed in a more conventional manner). In contrast, e.g., my above “different-concepts-represented-by-the-same-word” does not serve to introduce a new and “smart sounding” word but to make clear that these words are tightly bound together, in order to make parsing easier for the reader.

*The use of “biomorph” leaves me skeptical for other reasons, including the low understandability and the failure to use something more naturally German. Going by the components of the word, it likely means something shaped like something living, but that is very vague and almost necessitates the application to something which was not living to begin with (or the “biomorphy” would not be worth mentioning). However, it is possible that the meaning is detectable through context (I have not studied the catalog in detail) or that this is an established word within the art world.

These have puzzled me since my first encounter, almost certainly more than thirty years ago. At that time, I thought they were some type of domain specific terminology with precise technical meanings*—today, I lean towards expressions created to sound smart or a (typically highly misguided) stylistic means of expressing something. For instance, “cynical-satirical” is unlikely to have an established wider meaning, and likely expresses the same thing as “cynical and satirical” or**, on the outside, “satirical in a cynical manner”. With “abstract-biomorph”, I am even puzzled whether this would express something different than “abstract biomorph” (note space), because the most reasonable interpretation is something that is biomorph in an abstract manner (but possibly it is intended to signify something that is simultaneously abstract art and biomorph). In some cases, the construct appears to be just a means to contract two separate or semi-separate thoughts into one word, as with the hypothetical*** “I typed a text while drinking some water” vs. “I drinkingly-typingly produced a text”.

*Note that this is the case with e.g. “manic-depressive”.

**The introduction of an unnecessary ambiguity is a good reason to avoid such constructs. But for that, I might have given the specific special-case of “cynical-satirical” a pass for convenience, and I might very well have used a “cynical/satirical” myself (note the use of a slash, not a hyphen, which avoids the ambiguity).

***I did not find a specific real example on short notice.

Such manipulatively-confounding writings amusingly-annoyingly strike me as tauro-fecal.

Excursion on other visitors, group-study, etc.:
During my first visit, most other visitors (in the area where I read) appeared to be college age and actually appeared to study (and to do so individually). During the second, they seemed a few years younger and spent more time talking, giggling, and even (playfully) hitting each other. While some of the talking did revolve around some school topic (judging by the two sitting nearest to me), it is clear that these sessions were nowhere near as productive as they could have been. This matches my own experiences* well: Group-study is usually unproductive for good heads, nowhere near as helpful for poor heads as educators claim,** and tend to follow a tempo determined by the most bored and/or unfocused individual.*** To boot, these people disturb the more serious visitors.

*Which are limited through this very observation: I turned down requests for group-study as a matter of course, once beyond the age when they could be forced upon me by teachers.

**Because the poor heads would learn from the better heads, which is rarely the case: Having things explained brings less than understanding them on one’s own, and with group study the emphasis is shifted in the wrong direction.

***Similar claims often apply to group-work as well, often deteriorating into one or two persons doing most of both work and thinking, while the rest mostly free-load or even act to the detriment of the project.

Excursion on continued reading:
I have not yet made up my mind on whether to continue with this specific book, should I seek refuge in the library again. On the one hand, my overall impression is of a relatively poor return on the invested time; on the other, the parts that are likely to be most useful to me are still left. (With an eye on my attempts to be an author of fiction, my superficial formal knowledge of literary science, theories, criticism, …, is a potential weakness—albeit not one that is of critical importance.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 12, 2019 at 1:17 am

Conflicting own beliefs and what to do about them

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In the set of beliefs* held by anyone, there will be occasional real or imagined conflicts (consider also e.g. the concepts of “cognitive dissonance” and “doublethink”). People differ mainly in (a) the degree that they are aware of and (b) how they handle these conflicts. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of most or all conflicts that arise, make no attempts at detecting them, and are prone to just explain away the conflicts that are known—even descending to outright doublethink.** A particular issue with awareness is that a too faulty or incomplete understanding can make such conflicts go undetected.***

*I use “belief” as a catch-all that, depending on context, could include any or almost any belief, idea, opinion, whatnot that implies or would imply something about something else. This includes e.g. “cucumbers are green”, “cucumbers are blue”, “God does [not] exist”, and “I [do not] like chocolate”.

**This includes such absurdities as simultaneously professing to believe in Evolution and Gender-Feminism. Indeed, a great deal of my annoyance with politics/ideology (in general) and Feminism/Leftism/PC-ism (in particular) results from the adherents ever recurring faults in similar directions.

***Consider again Evolution vs. Gender-Feminism: It is, for instance, highly unlikely that evolutionary processes would generate physical differences while keeping mental abilities identical—but exactly that is seen as a given by most Gender-Feminists (and a significant portion of the PC crowd, in general). Similarly, it is highly unlikely that the different roles of men and women in most societies over thousands of generations would have left no trace in form of e.g. natural inclinations. A Creationist–Feminist match-up would be less prone to contradictions.

In many cases, these conflicts are sufficiently trivial that they may be neglected.* For instance, that someone has two favorite dishes, music bands, movie stars, …, rarely has major impact on important decisions.** When it comes to topics that can have a greater impact, especially on others, care should be taken, however. Consider e.g. questions like how to vote in an election, what recommendations to make to others, what agendas to push, …—here it is important to have a sufficiently sound view of the topic; and if beliefs conflict, the view is unlikely to be sufficiently sound.

*A resolution can still bring benefit, e.g. through better self-knowledge, and I would not advice against the attempt.

**However, the resolution is often fairly simple, e.g. that none of two is the favorite and that the word “favorite” is best avoided; or that an opinion has changed over time, while still being professed out of habit.

Giving blanket rules for detection is tricky, but actually reading up* on a topic, gaining an own understanding (as opposed to parroting someone else’s), and deliberately trying to see the “bigger picture” and making comparisons between different fields and ideas, can all be helpful. Above all, perhaps, it is helpful to actually think through consequences and predictions that can be made based on various beliefs, and looking at how they stack up against both each other and against observations of reality. In my personal experience, writing about a topic can be an immense help (and this is one of the reasons why I write): Writing tends to lead to a deeper thought, a greater chance of recollection in other contexts, and a thought-process that continues intermittently long after a text has been completed.

*Note especially that information given in news papers, in school, or by politicians tends to be too superficial or even outright faulty. Wikipedia was once a good source, but has deteriorated over the years (at least where many topics are concerned). The “talk” pages can often contain a sufficient multitude of view-points, however.

If a conflict has been detected, it should be investigated with a critical eye in order to find a resolution. Here there are at least* five somewhat overlapping alternatives to consider: (a) One or both beliefs are wrong and should be rejected or modified. (b) Both beliefs have at least some justification and they should be reconciled, possibly with modifications; e.g. because they cover different special cases. (c) The conflict is only apparent, e.g. through a failure to discriminate. (d) One or both beliefs are not truly held and the non-belief should be brought to consciousness; e.g. because profession is made more out of habit than conviction. (e) The support of both** beliefs is approximate or tentative (awaiting further evidence), and (at a minimum) this condition should be kept in mind, with revisions according to the preceding items often being necessary.*** Note that the above need not result in rejection of one belief—it can equally be a matter of modification or refinement (and it can also happen to both beliefs). This is one reason why investigation is so beneficial—it helps to improve one’s own mind, world-view, whatnot.

*A deeper effort might reveal quite a few more alternatives. I write mostly off the top of my head at the moment.

**Here it has to be both: If one belief is taken as true and only one as approximate, then it would follow that the approximate one is outright faulty (at least as far as the points of conflict are concerned), which moves us to the “One” case of (a).

***For instance, if two physical theories are not perfectly compatible, the realization that physical theories are only approximations-for-the-now (eventually to be replaced by something better) gives room for an “approximate belief” in either or both theories. As long as work proceeds with an eye at the used assumptions, with the knowledge that the results might not be definite, and while being very careful in areas of known conflict or with poor experimental verification, this is not a major issue. Indeed, such “approximate belief” is par for the course in the sciences. In contrast, if someone was convinced that both were indisputably true, this would be highly problematic.

Again, giving blanket rules is tricky, especially with the very wide variety of fields/beliefs potentially involved and with the variety of the above cures. However, actually thinking and, should it be needed, gathering more information can be very productive. Having a good ability to discriminate is helpful in general; and with (b) and (c) it can be particularly beneficial to look at differences, e.g. if there is some aspect of a case where one belief is assumed to apply that is not present in a case where the other belief is assumed to apply. With (d), it is usually mostly a matter of introspection. (In addition, the advice for detecting conflicts applies to some parts here and vice versa. Often, the two will even be implicit, hard-to-separate, parts of a single process.)

For a specific, somewhat complex example, consider questions around what makes a good or poor book, movie, whatnot—especially, the property of being hackneyed: On the one hand, my discussions of various works have often contained a complaint that this-or-that is hackneyed. On the other, it is quite common for works that I enjoy and think highly of (at least on the entertainment level*) to contain elements of the hackneyed—or even be formulaic. Moreover, I rarely have the feel that this enjoyment is despite of something being hackneyed—this weakness, in it self, does not appear to disturb me that strongly.

*Different works serve different purposes and should be measured with an eye on the purpose. When I watch a sit-com, depth of character is far less important than how often and how hard I laugh; the romance in an action movie is a mere bonus (or even a negative, if there is too much); vice versa, an action scene in a rom-com is mere bonus; plot rarely makes sense in non-fiction; etc. For more “serious” works, more serious criteria and higher literary standards apply.

Is my explicit complaint compatible with my implicit acceptance? To some degree, yes; to some degree, no.

On the “no” side: I suspect, after introspection, that I do or do not find a certain work enjoyable, thought-worthy, whatnot, based on criteria that are not explicitly known to me.* If I find enjoyment (etc.), I am less likely to look for faults; if I do not, I am more likely to look for faults—but there is no guarantee that my original impression was actually caused by the faults now found. Some will almost certainly have been involved; others need not have been; and there might have been other faults involved that I never grew explicitly aware of.

*There are many aspects of different works that can individually have a large impact, and the end-impression is some form of aggregation over these aspects. For instance, consider the impact of music on movies like “Star Wars” and “Vertigo” or on TV series like “Twin Peaks”—change the music, and the work is lessened. Notably, the viewer is rarely strongly aware of the impact of the music (even be it hard to miss in the aforementioned cases).

On the “yes” side there are at least three things to consider: Firstly, a work can be hackneyed and have sufficient other strengths to outweigh this. Poor works are rarely poor due to one failure—they are poor because they fail on numerous criteria, e.g. (for a movie) being hackneyed and having a poor cast, wooden dialogue, unimpressive music, … Being hackneyed is, alone, not a knock-out criterion—being original is an opportunity to gain points that a hackneyed work simply has not taken. Secondly, different criteria can apply to different works,* and being hackneyed is not necessarily an obstacle for the one work, even though it is for another. Thirdly, if something is known to work well, it can be worth using even if it is hackneyed—“boy meets girl” has been done over and over and over again, but it still works. (See also an excursion below.)

*Partly, as in a previous footnote; partly, with an eye on the expected level of accomplishment. For instance, my very positive discussion of Black Beauty must be seen as referring to a children’s book—had I found the exact same contents in a work with the reputation and target group of e.g. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (which I have yet to read), I would have been less enthusiastic.

All in all, I do not see a problem with this conflict in principle; however, I do suspect that I would benefit from (and be fairer in detail* by) looking closer at what actually created my impression and less closely on criteria like “original vs. hackneyed”. The latter might well amount to fault finding or rationalization. To boot, I should pay more attention to whether specifically something being hackneyed has a negative effect on me (beyond the mere failure to have a positive effect through originality).

*I doubt that my overall assessment would change very much; however, my understanding and explanation of why I disliked something would be closer to the truth. Of course, it might turn out that being hackneyed was a part of the explanation in a given case; however, then I can give that criticism with a better conscience…

Excursion on expectations:
In a somewhat similar situation, I have sometimes complained about a work having set a certain expectation and then changed course. That is an example of another issue, namely the need to discriminate*. There are setups and course changes that are good, in that they reduce the predictability, increase the excitement, whatnot. This includes well-made “plot twists”. There are, however, other types of expectations and course changes that are highly unfortunate—including those that make the reader (viewer, whatnot) set his mind on a certain genre or a certain general development. A course change here is likely to detract from the experience, because different genres are enjoyed in different manners, and because there is often an element of disappointment** involved. Depending on the change, there can also be a delay and reorientation needed that lessens concentration and enjoyment further. Another negative type of changes is (almost always) those that try to rejuvenate a TV series or franchise by sacrificing what once made the series worth watching, by “jumping the shark”, and similar.

*Yes, discrimination is also a sub-topic above; however, here we have a too blatant case to be truly overlapping: There is no need for me to re-investigate my own beliefs—only to clarify them towards others. (Except in as far as I might have suffered from a similar fault-finding attitude as discussed above, but that attitude is just an independent-of-the-topic aspect of an example.)

**Note that this holds true, even when the expected and the delivered are more-or-less equivalent in net value. (However, when there is a significant improvement, the situation might be different: I recall watching “Grease” for the first time, with only a very vague idea of the contents; seeing the first scene; and fearing that I was caught in the most sugary, teenage-girls-only, over-the-top romance known to man—the rest was a relief.)

Excursion on “boy meets girl”:
An additional, but off-topic, complication when considering the hackneyed, is that there comes a point of repeated use when the hackneyed does not necessarily register as hackneyed and/or is so central to a genre that it is hard to avoid. Consider the typical “boy meets girl” theme. This, in it self, is so common and so basic to movie romance that it rarely registers as hackneyed. In contrast, the rarer “childhood friends fall in love” does*. With “boy meets girl”, the question is less whether the theme lacks originality and more whether the implementation is done with sufficient quality** and whether the details are also lacking in originality (is there, e.g., yet another desperate chase to and through an airport at the end?).

*At least to me, which also shows that there can be a large element of subjectiveness involved.

**Oscar Wilde defended against accusations of plagiarism by pointing to the difference between adding and removing a petal when growing tulips: To repeat in a better manner what someone else has already done, is not necessarily a fault.

Excursion on good fiction:
More generally, I am coming to the conclusion that fiction (and art, music, whatnot) either works or does not work—and if the end result works, an author (movie maker, whatnot) can get away with more-or-less anything along the road. This includes the hackneyed, poor prose, absurd scenes, artistic liberties with science, a disregard for convention and expectation, the tasteless, … (But the question of “because or despite?” can be valuable, especially with an eye at a different reactions among different readers.) The proof of the pudding is in the eating—not in the recipe.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 17, 2018 at 2:53 am

Thoughts after re-watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Earlier today, I re- watched “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, and found myself contemplating and meta-contemplating the Pearls’ change of life, the starting point being a scene where the originally extremely innocent Pearls break through a wall and attack everyone in the room—but do so using non-lethal weapons.

Going by the movie*, the Pearls started with an extremely low-tech, one-with-nature society, giving the impression of a Pearl being somewhere between an idealized Buddhist and a “noble savage”. An external event destroys their home planet and forces a small group of survivors to flight on a crashed foreign space ship (a very low-nature, one-with-technology setting). They spend a prolonged time learning how to handle technologies and develop new technologies with a Pearlish twist. They do not shy away from illegal black-market deals, or from bringing guns to such a deal.** They intrude on the normal functioning of the eponymous city, perpetrate the aforementioned attack, kidnap a military leader*** (Commander Filitt), cause a great deal of property damage, whatnot. This according to the principle “you have what we need”.

*Which need not have shown everything of interest and might e.g. have given a simplistic view of the pre-apocalypse life of the Pearls.

**Admittedly, a very important deal, central to their hopes of restoring their civilization.

***In their defense, Filitt was personally to blame for their apocalypse. On the other hand, I doubt that they knew this at the time, there being no obvious way for them to have such knowledge (I am uncertain whether the movie made some contrary statement, e.g. relating to psychic powers or extensive research); more likely, they were just looking for a bargaining chip, which caused an implausible coincidence.

Even so, they appear to have kept a pacifist core, tried to limit their activities to the necessary minimum, and (likely) saw their actions as a necessary evil.

Here a series of questions arise, the most notable to me being to what degree an individual, a group of people, or a civilization can ever go back to what it was before such a series of events, to what degree central parts of their being have been altered, and whether they are now better or worse than before. I will not attempt to answer these question, considering them more “food for thought” and an opportunity to see new perspectives of the world than something realistically answerable. (With the added complication that the Pearls are not human, implying that the answer for them need not hold for humans and vice versa.) I do point to some sub-aspects, however: (a) Strong parallels to the Garden of Eden and the banishment of Adam and Eve, where I have long tended not to see the banishment as a bad thing (cf. excursion); however, where the circumstances are sufficiently different that what is true for the one need be true for the other.* (b) The question of whether we are better of as children than as adults. (c) The degree to which we can, in a manner of speaking, switch context, personalities, whatnot.** (d) The effects of highly traumatic events and events where we might have to compromise our beliefs, reveal ourselves to be different than we want to be, and similar.***

*This includes the death of millions of Pearls, the actual destruction of the Pearls’ home-world, and the lack of culpability of the Pearls in their “banishment”. (Here other parts of Jewish history or pseudo-history might be more appropriate analogies, but they are less interesting on a metaphorical level. At the same time, it is interesting how this theme of loss, banishment, search for a home land, …, recurs. Following the hypothesis that much of the Tanakh was written during the Babylonian captivity, this might be explained by a focus on a then relevant theme—but the post-temple diaspora happened some six hundreds years after its end… As a clarification to any PC readers: With “pseudo-history”, I refer to parts of the Bible considered ahistorical.)

**Consider e.g. how the same man can be a war criminal and a loving husband and father, or, like Hitler, be a strong opponent of cruelty towards animals. Looking at less extreme examples, it is by no means rare that someone can not only have e.g. a work persona, a family persona, a out-with-the-gang persona, …, but a fully developed “identity” for each, moving well beyond the mask of a persona. Similarly, it is not unusual for someone to adopt different identities over time, with non-trivial effects on thoughts and behavior—another reason why identity politics is dangerous.

***For instance, when someone actively fights in a war.

Other questions include e.g. what might have happened, had events not resolved themselves, and whether the Pearls might have moved on to “harder” violence; to what degree a person/people can truly be pacifist* and whatnot, when later shown to be able to move even to actions like those of the Pearls; and how large the difference in principle between Filitt and the post-apocalyptic Pearls actually was (see excursion; but, to avoid misunderstandings, the Pearls are far more to my taste).

*I am not certain to what degree the original Pearl society should be seen as consciously pacifist (“we abhor violence”) and to what degree as innocent/naive (“what is violence?” or “what would be the point of violence?”). This can make a large difference when we look at this specific case, but does not affect the abstract question.

From a more “meta” perspective, I see an ever recurring observation repeated: It matters far less what one reads, watches, whatnot, than what is done with what was read, etc. Some material, undoubtedly, contains more “food for thought” than other, but this is of little import when someone does not think—and a good thinker can find interesting ideas even in apparently superficial material. Many of my own early (often superficial and undeveloped, yet valuable as stepping stones) insights into human nature came from watching “Friends”… This is also a major reason why the connection between being “well read” and being intellectually well developed is comparatively weak—having just read a large number of “great books” does fairly little for the intellect. Thinking about the books on the other hand… As corollaries, quality reading is better than quantity reading and quality reading than reading of quality books, and it is a bad idea to read a book just because it is considered “intellectual”. I read e.g. “Crime and Punishment” when I was around twelve—and it did nothing to enhance my intellect, because I did not have the tools and the understanding to do more than just read it.* I read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” at an even younger age—and based my then** strongly negative opinion on the lack of a happy ending… The sad truth is that some adults that pride themselves on intellectual reading have not progressed that much farther.

*Nor am I certain that I had any type of intellectual aspiration at the time: I just loved to read and one of the teachers at school handed me a copy.

**Today, I consider it a strong candidate for the most important book of the 20th century, and one of the few books that might actually deserve the label “mandatory reading”.

Of course, the reverse of this is that far from every insight found in a particular work was actually deliberately planted there. Consider the works of Shakespeare: Their great standing in terms of e.g. insight into human psychology is to a considerable degree rooted in the fact that so many minds have spent so much time searching for meaning. He might or might not have been superior to his contemporaries, but chances are that some of them would have an at least similar reputation, had they been exposed to the same scrutiny. Similar points apply to e.g. the Bible. (This is also a reason why I consider the naive search for symbolism in books dangerous—that the reader finds it does not mean that the author actually intended it to be there… Some books have it and an understanding the symbolism might be needed to truly understand the book; however, too many readers are under the misapprehension that symbolism is the A and O of reading and writing alike.)

Excursion on Eden etc.:
The traditional narrative is basically an ideal life, a crime/violation of trust/act of disobedience, and a resulting banishment into a worse life. I see several possible, partially overlapping, interpretations of the events as more reasonable/plausible, especially when we allow for an imperfect transcription of the actual* events, including e.g. the events being more of a young bird or young adult** (human) being kicked out to begin a separate life after having reached a certain degree of maturity; the eating from the tree inducing a change between two comparable states, one allowing a stay in Eden and the another requiring a move; and a less than exemplary God, who rejected Adam and Eve after they moved past the developmental stage that he had intended. To boot, there is always the interpretation of Eden as more of a state of mind than as a physical place.

*Under the arguendo assumption that the Bible is even approximately historically correct in this regard—I do not believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, and I suspect that the Pope does not believe it either, at this stage of Biblical criticism.

**I note the strong similarities with a child–parent relationship, the potential of a teenage rebellion, the obvious potential sexual interpretation of both snake and fruit, and the potential division into an innocent and non-innocent stage of development.

Excursion on Filitt and the Pearls in comparison:
Looking at actual damage done, the comparison is bordering on the ridiculous; and Filitt is far more ruthless than the Pearls. However, looking more at motives and principles, they shared a willingness to commit acts that others might consider wrongful in order to further the cause of their respective peoples, and both almost certainly considered themselves the Good Guys and fighting for a Greater Good*. We also do not know with certainty how they would have acted in transposed situations; especially when applying the psychological principle that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic, and when considering how different the respective stakes and means were.** By the same token, I cannot reliably predict how I would have acted if actually in the Pearls’ shoes, but from an “ivory tower” perspective I would have started with an entirely non-violent diplomatic approach with regard to the searched for artifacts, an attempt to get the legal authorities on Filitt’s trail,*** and/or an appeal to public opinion. If such approaches were tried by the Pearls, it is not clear from the film.

*A good example of why appeals to the Greater Good are dangerous and should be used only with great caution and great respect for the rights and interests of others.

**At least when we look at Filitt and the original apocalypse. The later events in the “city” are hard to see as more than self-preservation without a genuinely proposed Greater Good.

***Assuming that his culpability was known to them; otherwise, a more general target.

Excursion on reading material for precocious children:
The problems with reading “too adult” books too young are not limited to a mere lack of appreciation and benefit—it can also include exposure to material of a potentially harmful character: The too scary, too violent, too sexualized, … This only partly because of the risk of a direct negative influence*, but also because of the incomprehensibility of too many events that are easily understood by someone older. I can e.g. recall my first contact, at a very young age, with the word “condom” (resp. the Swedish “kondom”): A teenage couple was talking to each other, the boy pulled a carton (“kartong”)** of condoms out of his jacket, and the girl expressed a considerable reluctance—teenage stereotypes 101. I was so ignorant of related matters that I focused on “carton”, pictured the thing I associated most strongly with this word, a carton of corn flakes, and was highly confused—starting with the question how he had managed to carry it in his jacket… Such lack of comprehension can, in it self, cause a feeling similar to some night-mares when prolonged.

*Which I recognize, but where I do not want to call for a moral panic: Being too strict is just as bad as being too lax.

**Note that in an English text the words used or associations present might be different.

On the other hand, material that is “age appropriate” is also usually so much shorter, using so much simpler language, whatnot, that a precocious reader risks being severely understimulated. To boot, a parental ban on certain books will likely do more to increase interest than prevent reading…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 27, 2018 at 6:36 pm

Follow-up: A few thoughts on what constitutes science

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As a follow-up to a previous text on science (and falsification):

Reading a discussion on due-process problems at Brown University, I see at least one special case where falsifiability can be a very good way of identifying non-science: When the system is rigged so that what a reasonable observer would see as falsification is turned into non-falsification—or even confirmation.

In this specific case, a college-internal sexual-assault proceeding was perverted by “training” given to the panelists, effecting exactly that:*

*Quoted from the linked-to page with changes only to formatting. Bracketed text is by the original author. Smith is a real judge presiding over a subsequent real trial.

After the incident, the accuser told a roommate what a great time she had with the student she’d eventually accuse; post-incident text messages sent by the accuser likewise indicated her having consented to sex. But one of the panelists, Besenia Rodriguez, said she didn’t consider the post-incident texts or conversations because her interpretation of Brown’s “training” suggested that sexual assault survivors behave in “counter-intuitive” ways. Therefore, she reasoned, “it was beyond my degree of expertise to assess [the accuser]’s post-encounter conduct . . . because of a possibility that it was a response to trauma.”

Rodriguez’s contention that her university-provided training shows that essentially any behavior—intuitive or counter-intuitive—proves sexual assault “clearly comes close to the line” of arbitrary and capricious conduct, Smith noted. Yet the training Rodriguez received, and the mindset she reflects appears to be commonplace in campus sexual assault matters.

In effect: How the alleged victim behaves after the alleged assault can incriminate the alleged perpetrator—but can never acquit.

This is the more problematic, because many of the accounts I have read over the years follow a pattern of: Boy and girl have a sexual, romantic, and/or flirting relationship of some duration. An event* takes places. Boy and girl continue their sexual, romantic, and/or flirting relationship. At a later time, sometimes months after the event, boy leaves girl, is caught with another girl, or shows interest in others. Girl immediately goes to college officials and declares the event to have been a rape or a sexual assault…

*I am deliberately vague, because (a) these are typically word-against-word situations, which make it hard to “find the facts”, (b) “finding the (college) law” is often done in a matter that goes well beyond what the regular law, established norms, common sense, whatnot would consider reasonable, e.g. in that even sex with mutual consent is considered a crime when the consent was not explicitly spoken or that of two equally drunk consenting partners, one was considered capable of consent and the other not. Worse examples exists—including here, claims the discussion, “[…]Brown’s current policy, which defines sexual assault as including such behavior as a male student giving a female student flowers, or flattering her, in hopes of getting her to agree to sex.”, which would make any type of courtship a potential sexual assault…

Similar cases (regarding falsification) include claims by self-proclaimed psychics that the presence of skeptics blocks their powers (i.e. “that I failed is not proof that I am wrong—it is proof that there is a skeptic present”); and feminists interpreting evidence in counter-intuitive or implausible ways to fit their preconceived ideas, notably in that signs of sex differences in behavior even in very young children are not seen as a falsification of their “tabula rasa” ideas, instead being proof that the “Patriarchy”, “gender stereotyping”, “structures”, whatnot are even stronger and earlier in their effects.

However, this does not alter the conclusions of my earlier text: The above is normally* not a matter of whether a certain claim/theory/model/whatnot is falsifiable (by a reasonable standard). The problem lies in one party (deliberately/dishonestly or through lack of reason) finding excuses to deny the falsification (by applying an unreasonable standard).

*In theory, it would likely be possible to construct, in advance, a more complex system that would be unfalsifiable for similar reasons—and, if so, the lack of falsifiability could be a strong argument against the status as science. However, even then, I strongly suspect that there would be other avenues to discredit the system, e.g. by pointing to tautologies or to insist upon an investigation of individual claims using system-external methods. (It could even be argued that no system, short of an “explanation of everything”, that alleges complete self-sufficiency could ever be trusted as a model of the real world.) To boot, the instances that I have seen to date have always struck me as fairly obvious “excuse making”, likely also having arisen after a first encounter with a falsification. (This includes all three examples mentioned above.)

Excursion on colleges and quasi-judicial proceedings:
Considering both the extreme problems with due process (and competence, and consistency, and fairness, …) that exist today and the lack of obvious justification for this type of parallel justice system, I strongly recommend that colleges be prevented, if need be by real laws, to hold such quasi-judicial proceedings. Either a crime is alleged (and then the real police/DA/courts/… should handle the issue) or it is not (and then the college has no legitimate reason to call for punishment).* If and when a real conviction follows, the college might** be entitled to apply additional consequences; if it does not follow, the college should let things be. Even when a real conviction does follow, the college must respect the presumption of innocence in the time leading up to said conviction.

*With reservations for matters relating directly to the academic aspects (e.g. cheating on tests), where any other organization would be expected to act (e.g. gross disturbance of the peace), and when an any organization might legitimately suggest a mutual solution without law involvement. However, even here the student (like with conflicts with other organizations) should always have the choice to clarify the issue by criminal or civil law. College-dictated constraints on how students should interact sexually or romantically with each other are certainly not covered by these exceptions—and should not be allowed in the first place.

**Depending on the severity of the crime, potentially negative effects of the punishment or lack there of on the involved parties, etc. I note, however, that e.g. suspending or expelling someone for a parking ticket would be over-kill, while doing the same to someone who is about to go to jail for ten years will usually be redundant. Obviously, a college should not be allowed to e.g. expel someone and keep the full semester fees…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 10, 2018 at 5:31 pm

A few thoughts on what constitutes science

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I have long been annoyed by some general takes on science, especially with too great a focus on e.g. falsifiability, specific methods, and even, to some part, stringency.

To avoid misunderstandings, I consider these to all be important for science as a whole; however, they are not necessarily that important when we look at whether any given individual theory, hypothesis, experiment, model …, should be considered “scientific” at any given time. Ditto when it comes to the person behind them.

I tend to view science (in very abstract terms) as a combination of two antagonistic/interacting/complementary/whatnot aspects*: The addition of suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation; and the removal of such suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation**. In this manner, we have a gradually changing set of suggested knowledge, where the certainty*** ranges from next to nothing to very high, depending on factors like how long a certain item has remained unremoved, how much additional**** evidence has turned up, whether it is compatible with other suggested items, …

*Quite similar to how Evolution can, with some oversimplification, be viewed as the result of the combination of natural variation and natural selection. (I almost wrote “mutation”, but this would have been misleading, seeing that variation also occurs e.g. through genetic mixture in offspring, and at least some degree of Evolution would take place even absent mutation, or possibly further mutation. Instead, I opted for an ad hoc “natural variation”,)

**I am not entirely convinced that the inclusion of “speculation” is warranted in the second list. This could depend on perspective, the details of the matter, and how legitimate the filtering is. I choose to include it for reasons of symmetry, and lacking the reverse conviction that it must be excluded.

***This word should be taken with a grain of salt, as even long accepted “knowledge” can be modified or, rarely, rejected outright. If nothing else, it often turns out that e.g. a certain theory or model only is valid within certain contexts, e.g. sufficiently weak gravitational fields. The above process will (with some reservations for mathematics, formal logic, and similar) never create something true beyond the possibility of change—there is no certainty: What we have is more like a series of (ideally: improving) approximations of the true this-and-that.

****Which I have so far informally considered a part of the “addition” aspect; however, which might be better off in an aspect of its own. (As occurs to me during writing. Note that I am not trying to describe a formal and detailed philosophy of science, but merely my own intuitive and previously unwritten take.)

Consider e.g. the observation that the single apple hanging from a specific tree fell to the ground at sun-rise. We can now make, for instance, the two suggestions that if an apple falls, it will fall towards the ground; and that any apple will always fall at or around sun-rise. This is the addition aspect. To apply the removal aspect, we find another apple tree and watch it for some time. We might now find that no apple fell at or around sun-rise, and we can remove the second suggestion. At the same time, we might have observed that four apples fell at other times, and that these apples did fall towards the ground, thereby strengthening that suggestion. This remains the state of knowledge, well-supported by great amounts of additional observation, for quite some time—then someone brings an apple to a space-station… Observations on the space-station could then invalidate the “apples fall to the ground” hypothesis, but also add sufficient information to suggest a new and better hypothesis. (As can be seen, these two aspects are not necessarily separate phases or otherwise separate—quite often, they go hand in hand. However, the time between them can be long for any given suggestion.)

If we now consider the specific topic of falsification and science, the above did contain falsification—and, indeed, the removal aspect could to some degree be approximated by a pure falsification aspect. However, falsification is, then, at most half of science. Should someone who made the first observation and speculation be considered a non-scientist merely for not having himself performed further observation and experimentation, e.g. leaving it to someone who had a greater interest in the matter? No!* Should a hypothesis that is not falsifiable be considered “unscientific”, solely on the immediate** grounds of not being falsifiable? No—being or not being falsifiable does not alter the potential truth of a claim. We should, obviously, be aware and signal that what we see at an early stage might yet be highly speculative, lacking in independent verification, be poorly tested, …—but that does not automatically make it unscientific.***

*However, if he failed to appreciate the possibility that he was wrong, cf. below, the situation could be very different.

**But see below for why falsifiability is a hard-to-avoid criterion, even when its absence is allowed.

***In contrast, a refusal to consider evidence to the contrary, experimentation that is obviously flawed, conclusions that manifestly do not follow from the given set of observations, an overstatement of certainty, and outright cheating are all examples of things that can earn the label “unscientific” (or e.g. “pseudo-scientific”).

Indeed, to me, the core of being a scientist is simply this: Having a great wish to find out the truth—even should that truth be contrary to one’s own current beliefs, the scientific consensus, the public opinion, the claims of a powerful religion or the government, whatnot. This not necessarily to say that everyone having that core is automatically a scientist*; however, anyone who lacks it does not deserve the title. (In other words, the claim of being a scientist has been falsified for those who demonstrate the absence…) Similarly, the application of that attitude is the sine qua non for calling an activity “science” or “scientific”.

*Defining what makes a scientist, apart from the core, goes well beyond the area where I have a fix opinion. However, I do reject the notions that anyone with a Ph.D., or other specific degree, automatically is a scientist and that anyone without one automatically is not. (I also note that the word “scientist” could, depending on context, be used in a wider or narrower meaning, e.g. in that retirees or non-natural scientists are in- or excluded, or that someone with a certain qualification containing “scientist” or “science” is sloppily included in a blanket manner. These uses do not affect the more abstract concept discussed by me, however.)

Looking at falsification more in detail, there are (at least) two arguments for resp. against it. For it: Firstly, that anything really worth* knowing will have effects and that these effects can be tested against reality**, which opens a door for falsification. Secondly, that many hypotheses can by their nature not be positively proved (even should they be true!), while having a “co-hypothesis” that can be*** (which amounts to falsification of the hypothesis). Against it: Firstly, that falsifiability can usually (cf. the footnote***) only be used in one direction, making it a weak tool that needs other tools to help it. (Or, from another perspective: It only covers one of the two main aspects, cf. above). Secondly, that it often lacks the ability to consider anything but absolute existence/non-existence or another absolute.****

*Whether e.g. the Earth is orbited by a tea-pot is only interesting, beyond sheer curiosity, if its presence or absence has effects. Would it, e.g., double the tidal waves in size? If so, we can use mathematical modeling to to predict what the tidal waves should be with and without its presence. If the waves are not of the height predicted by the model, we can tentatively consider its existence falsified. (This cannot be done with certainty, e.g. because there might be other unknown influences or a modeling error.) On the other hand, if there are no suggested effects, be they tidal or other, it really does not matter whether the tea-pot exists. (As an aside, a reason why non-falsifiable hypotheses have a bad reputation is that exactly the absence of testable effects are used by charlatans to ensure that their claims cannot be repudiated. However, abusus non tollit usum.)

**In principle: It can well be that a practical test is only possible at some future time, e.g. due to restrictions in current technology. (Say, that current telescopes are not strong enough to spot a tea-pot in space.) Another reason could be that the effects that could be tested would only manifest at some point in the future, say that the tea-pot will only turn on its tidal magic ten years into the future (such complications are comparatively rare in e.g. physics, but could be of great interest if we look at e.g. economics).

***Consider again the tea-pot in space (with no “special powers”): In due time, its existence could be proved e.g. by observation from a space-ship, but its non-existence could never be, because we might simply have missed the right part of (enormously large) space: If we see it, we know that its there; if we do not see it, we do not know that it is not there. (This is, obviously, the traditional “black swan” example in a different guise.) In the same way, very many hypotheses are only open to one of proof and disproof—and those open to proof are often so only through the disproof of the co-hypothesis that the original hypothesis is false. Correspondingly, either we try to falsify the hypothesis it self (for a disproof), or we turn the hypothesis around and try to falsify the co-hypothesis (for a proof). (Fellow computer scientists should recognize the same principle in concepts like recursive and co-recursive enumerability; and see the similarity to the logical rules that A -> B and not-B implies not-A, while A -> B and B does not imply A.)

****In the original tea-pot example we have such an absolute—but what if the hypothesis was that tea-pots in space (not just Earth-orbit) are rare? Suddenly, finding that one tea-pot does not falsify the hypothesis. Even finding many millions of tea-pots would not necessarily help, unless they were distributed so that we could speculate (without a “true” falsification) that the density of of tea-pots in space is above some threshold. However, seeing that tea-pots have a connection to Earth, their presence near-by would not necessarily be even a rough indication when we move away from Earth. In contrast, (still non-falsifyingly), we could find that there are no or only very few (relative volume of space) tea-pots close to Earth, then that there are no or only very few tea-pots in increasingly greater and greater areas of space, after which the inductive claim could be made that tea-pots in space are in all likelihood rare, giving support to the hypothesis. If we had insisted on falsification, we could make no claim, not even of likelihood, in either direction; dropping falsification, we at least have something.

Excursion on myself:
Do I consider myself a scientist? Mostly, “no”; for the simple reason that my active* pursuit of truth and knowledge is usually related to areas outside of science. I do pride myself on having the above core, however; and I do have reasonable formal qualifications in form of two master degrees, should someone still use degrees as the main criterion. (I have a semi-finished text on “labels” where I will explore such topics a little further.)

*As in e.g. trying to come up with something on my own, and as opposed to e.g. reading and contemplating someone elses ideas. Cf. the difference between the first two items of an older list/discussion.

Excursion on pseudo-science:
A related problem is the application of “pseudo-science” based on e.g. the contents of what is researched. For instance, if a crypto-zoologist searches in good faith* for a rumored animal for which there are no strong scientific contraindications and whose existence is not obviously unlikely, it is wrong to automatically consider him (or his field) pseudo-science. Indeed, the undue tendency to do so has given crypto-zoologists a good excuse towards much of the (even rightfully) levied criticism of their work—on rare occasions, something new and spectacular has shown up (e.g. the mountain gorilla).** Instead, we should look at how scientific or unscientific his attitude and his methods are.

*As opposed e.g. a search for a hypothesized animal that not even he believes in, with the intent to give him publicity and to increase his book sales.

**And less spectacular new species are discovered quite often.

Similarly, older and now debunked theories, e.g. concerning the aether, phlogiston, or even phrenology, should not be condemned as pseudo-science after the fact. If someone today supports phrenology, that is quite likely to be pseudo-science, because the support will almost certainly require ignoring scientific developments that had not taken place when phrenology thrived. On the other hand, whether phrenology was a pseudo-science should be judged by the attitude and methods of the original proponents.* An area of science does not magically turn into pseudo-science when its ideas turn out to be wrong—it turns into outdated science. A good contrast is homeopathy: Today’s homeopathy is pseudo-science and/or quackery, because it has been continued against all reason; however, the original incarnation need not have been.

*Whether phrenologists (or the earliest homeopaths) would have passed the test, I honestly do not know. However, e.g. aether theories were a part of main-stream science for at least several decades, possibly considerably longer.

Of course, under no circumstances is it allowed to use “pseudo-science” based merely on disagreement with the conclusions or e.g. concerns of political correctness. Consider the common, usually grossly unfair, accusations raised by political activists against e.g. intelligence research as a racist or sexist pseudo-science—which is it self a thoroughly unscientific stance. (The reader might have seen me referring to e.g. gender studies as a pseudo-science. Based on what I have seen so far of attitude and methods, I stand by that assessment.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 1, 2018 at 12:22 am

Other aspects of opinion than right and wrong

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I have long been convinced that being right is not the only aspect of opinion that matters: We also have to consider factors like why a certain opinion is held, whether it is “epistemologically sound”, and how willing someone is to reevaluate and (potentially) change it.* For instance, I have repeatedly observed that it is more rewarding to discuss something with someone who has the wrong opinion for a good reason, than with someone who has the right opinion for a poor reason. For instance, the main difference between a good scientist and a poor or non-scientist is not the level of education and experience, but how well they respectively fare in these regards.

*However, people who do poorly in these regards are disproportionately likely to also be (and remain) wrong.

In this, I have largely been driven by my observations of many PC and/or Leftist debaters, takes on religion, various superstitions, etc. People in the relevant groups often score very low on all these criteria: They do not only believe in something which is dubious or even outright and provably wrong—they also hold their beliefs for poor reasons, ignore evidence to the contrary, and refuse to change their opinions no matter what. However, I can also see strong parallels with how my own approach has changed as I went from child to teenager to adult, as well as how my recollections of other children and teenagers stack up to (at least some) adults.*

*Unfortunately, these comparisons usually involve different individuals as representatives for different ages, rather than a longitudinal comparison of the same individuals as they grow older.

Contrast e.g. someone who believes that Evolution is true based on an understanding of the proposed mechanisms, an exposure to fossil records, some knowledge of cladistics, … with someone who believes it “because my school book said so”. Or contrast this again with something truly mindless: “many Republicans are Creationists; I am a Democrat; ergo, I must believe in Evolution”. (This attitude, sadly, does not seem to be as rare as one would hope.) They all have an opinion considered correct by the overwhelming majority of scientists (and me)—but they do so for so different reasons that the one version of the same opinion cannot be considered equal to the other. Notably, it would take a very major change of influence to corrupt the opinion of the first; while the second could be turned merely by having had another book in the curriculum.

If we look at the “why”, which is my main target for this post, I have observed at least four main* categories over the years. In order of descending worthiness**:

*Subdividing these further is possible, but not worthwhile for my current purposes.

**Note that e.g. the question whether an opinion is correct lies in another dimension. It is quite possible to score low here and still have the (factually) right opinion; it is quite possible to score high and still have the wrong opinion.

  1. Opinions that are formed based on own thinking, analysis, observation, experimentation, …

    This typically includes e.g. the activities of many* scientists and philosophers, both professional and amateur.

    *There is no automatism, however: A good scientist should deal with this or the following item, depending on the details of the situation. Regrettably, not all scientists are good; regrettably, a disturbing portion of social scientists fall into the two last categories…

  2. Opinions that are formed through applying critical thinking to claims and reasoning by others.

    (In reality, there will almost always be some overlap with the first item. However, the first item is more likely to deal with using the ideas of others as input for own thoughts; the second with adopting (or not) the ideas of others, after own verification. The first, obviously, contains other aspects with no relation to the second.)

  3. Opinions that are uncritically taken over from a source of authority.

    Such authorities include parents, teachers, celebrities, (real or supposed) experts, books, …

    Note that the difference to the preceding item does not stem from the source (although some sources are better than others)—the main difference is the degree of own thinking and whatnot that is put into the process.

  4. Opinions that are held for reasons like peer pressure, loyalty, a wish to fit in, …

    This includes variations like “I must have the same opinions as my spouse”, “my class-mates all listen to band X; I must do so too”, “I must keep my opinions in line with my party/church/Oprah/…”, and “I must keep my opinions PC”.

    (A related case is those who merely pretend to have a certain opinions, be it for the above reasons or for fear of repercussions, e.g. being sent to a Soviet work-camp or being ostracized. However, this discussion deals with the circumstances around the actual opinions.)

In terms of “epistemological soundness”, in turn, we have to look at questions like whether plausible and logically correct reasoning has been used, whether the conclusions match the known or believed* facts, etc. Cf. the typical differentiation between “knowing” something and merely being “right”.** (I refrain from making a more explicit list, because this area is much more of a continuum.)

*There is no shame in drawing reasonable-but-not-matching-reality conclusions from incorrect premises, if those premises are correspondingly plausible. For instance, Newtonian mechanics is flawed, due to not considering relativistic effects—but it would have been unreasonable to require Newton to address this issue, considering the state of knowledge and the experimental verifiability, within what was measurable at the time, of his mechanics.

**An interesting example in my own history is my first watching of “The Phantom Menace”: I knew that princess Leia was (to be) the daughter of Anakin, I knew that Padme claimed to be sent by queen Amidala, and I just heard the very young Anakin inquire whether Padme was an angel. Factoring in the recurring theme of a prince/princess/king/whatnot pretending to be a commoner, I immediately predicted that a) Padme was actually Amidala, herself, b) she was Leia’s mother. I was highly self-congratulatory as both predictions turned out to be true—and highly annoyed to, later on, find that my reasoning still flew apart on a faulty premise: Leia was not a princess due to her mother’s title, but due to her later adopted parents’.

The willingness to change an opinion, finally, is largely another continuum between those who are willing to make constant adjustments* and those who refuse to change an opinion, no matter what. An additional complication is that a deeply ingrained opinion can take years to change, and that a willingness to be open to changes can need a long cultivation. (I have a longer, half-finished post on related topics that has been lying around a few months. I will try to complete it soon.) The issue can be generalized to how dissenting opinions are treated: Not everyone is content with merely having an opinion set in stone—many go further and actively attack/censor/slander/… those who do not agree with that opinion.

*Strictly speaking, a further division might be needed into why an opinion is changed, and my first draft actually spoke of “in light of new evidence and arguments”. At a later stage, I removed this, seeing that there can be people who are willing to change their opinions, but do so for poor reasons. Whether the openness to change and any given realized change is a good thing, well, that depends on the other points of discussion above. (For instance, in the Evolution example above, switching opinion due to a new school book claiming something different from the old is a poor reason; doing so because it also provides a better analysis or more evidence than the first book is a better reason; doing so after considerable own analysis of known facts and pro and contra arguments is a good reason.)

As an aside, there are other aspects than can be interesting in other contexts, e.g. the degree to which someone actually understands the implications of a given fact (as opposed to merely being aware of the fact it self).

Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2018 at 9:38 pm