Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Easter Bunny

Rabbits don’t lay eggs. Normally there would be no reason to point this out, but today is Easter, and one strand of Easter folklore has it that there’s a close connection between Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny is a rabbit.* Now, it’s not clear whether the Easter Bunny actually produces the eggs itself or just hides them, the way Father Christmas has elves to make his toys while he focuses more on distribution. But even if the Easter Bunny delegates the manufacturing side of the operation, the eggs have to come from somewhere. Where do they come from? Not the Easter Bunny’s reproductive system, that’s for sure.

Many animals do lay eggs, principally birds and reptiles. I guess the reason we’ve settled on a rabbit rather than a bird or reptile is that reptiles aren’t cuddly enough and birds aren’t seen as having enough personality. But there’s one animal that is as cuddly and as spunky as a rabbit and also lays eggs. That animal is the duck-billed platypus.

Too spiky to cuddle? The western long-beaked echidna lays eggs too, but
its spikes make it an unlikely symbol of vernal good cheer.

The only explanation I can think of for our continued belief that Easter eggs come from the Easter Bunny rather than the Easter Platypus is that people have seen the Easter Bunny hiding the eggs, and it definitely wasn’t a platypus. It’s easy to tell them apart, after all, because of the bill. But this doesn’t rule out the hypothesis that the Easter Bunny hides eggs which are produced by a hardworking team of Easter Platypodes. And when you think about it, no other explanation really makes sense.

*Some people will tell you that the Easter Bunny is, or was, a hare. I find this implausible. Like Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny has a lot of work to do, and hares are notoriously lazy. In addition to the fable of the tortoise and the hare, we also have evidence from comparing the living arrangements of rabbits and hares. While rabbits put a lot of work into digging burrows and warrens, hares just find a slightly indented patch of ground and then kind of lounge around on it. They call this non-construction a form, but they’re basically just lying on the ground. Lazy. And hares don’t lay eggs either, so the point is moot to the present discussion anyway.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Bullshit, philosophy and regulatory capture

The Dunning-Kruger effect is great fun, because it gives you scientific respectability when you tell someone they’re so stupid they don’t even know they’re stupid. It’s a brave person who’ll double down in the face of such an accusation. Besides being fun, the effect is probably real, and it’s not really mysterious. The idea is that the ability to do something well often overlaps a lot with the ability to tell whether it’s done well. So people who are very bad at something will also often be bad at telling how good they are, and so will be prone to erroneously believing themselves to be experts. According to Wikipedia the effect was first tested by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999, and as with so many simple ideas one wonders what took us so long. Perhaps skill in coming up with seemingly obvious ideas overlaps with skill in discerning in retrospect how obvious those ideas really were.

The Dunning-Kruger effect doesn’t apply to everything, of course. In some areas, ability to perform well doesn’t overlap much with ability to discern good performance. You don’t have to be able to run fast to use a stopwatch, and (to give a less clear cut example) great football managers were often fairly ordinary players. But one kind of area where the effect is very likely to arise is academia. One area of academia is philosophy. And people with no expertise in philosophy do love trash-talking philosophy. A particularly embarrassing recent case is Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Philosophy is probably a friendlier environment for bullshit than many other areas of academia, because it’s not very testable. Now, some of it is a bit testable. Karl Marx was a philosopher, and it’s probably fair to say that his ideas had undergone a lot more testing by the end of the 20th century than they had at the start, and that the history of the 20th century should inform the discussion of his ideas. Philosophical arguments that human cognitive faculties are located in the heart rather than the brain have been empirically refuted even more decisively. We probably have some empirical evidence that matter is composed of indivisible particles which wasn’t available when the ancient atomists first proposed the idea. But some philosophy seems not to be testable at all. David Chalmers is a philosopher, and he argues that philosophical zombies are possible, which means that there could have been creatures physically identical to humans but lacking any consciousness. How do you test that? Maybe you can. But it’s at least not obvious that we’ve gathered any empirical evidence that bears on the question at all. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that rocket science helped put twelve men on the moon, and you don’t have to be a political philosopher to see that communism didn’t pan out quite the way some people expected. But the only way to assess whether the people talking about philosophical zombies are on to anything is to understand the methodology and the arguments, and once you’re at that point you’re already pretty good at doing philosophy yourself. You can’t tell if philosophy is a problem without becoming part of the problem.

Bill Nye Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes.jpg

One variant on the age-old “who watches the watchers” problem is called regulatory capture. Part of the problem is that it’s in an industry’s interests to gain control of whatever government body is charged with regulating it. But another part is just that competent regulators will be drawn from the same profession they’re regulating. They know each other, they like each other, they share assumptions, and these conflicts of interest can lead to the regulation not being done properly. It didn’t have to be this way. You could have parallel institutions which train and employ regulators, the way different countries train their armed forces largely independently, and the instituitions and personnel of law enforcement and organized crime are mostly separate. But it’s expensive, and it’s not usually what happens. Regulatory bodies hire people from the industries they regulate. And there just isn’t a group of people who have the expertise to call bullshit on philosophy but aren’t heavily associated with and invested in the discipline. Bill Nye isn’t competent to call out our bullshit, but the people who are competent aren’t impartial enough. The inevitable conclusion is that philosophy is doomed to raise sceptical eyebrows forever. It could all be bullshit and nobody would ever know.

But this conclusion is not inevitable. Philosophy does in fact take very seriously the idea that large parts of itself are bullshit, or meaningless, or obvious, or obviously false, or completely unimportant. One reason it does this is that it’s the sort of issue philosophers are interested in, another is that these kinds of critique sometimes follow from other philosophical positions, and a third plausible reason is that philosophy attracts disingenuously self-deprecating navel-gazers. If the watchers are self-involved enough they will watch each other, especially once they have tenure.

Another aspect of philosophy’s tendency to call bullshit on itself is less inspiring, however. It smacks of tribalism, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and a general Anglo-Saxon distrust of all things French. There’s a tendency for analytic philosophers, at least in English-speaking countries, to think that all that stuff that goes on in continental European philosophy departments is a load of garbage. But we’re not competent to judge. Maybe they hear us calling Derrida a charlatan and think “how do they know?”, but maybe they react to it the way we react to Bill Nye. And I think that if they reacted the second way they’d usually be absolutely right. We don’t know what we’re talking about. But they do, and I hope they’re self-involved enough to take the possibility that their whole field is a load of garbage seriously.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Why Trump's opponents endorse him over Clinton

I’ve been following the US Presidential primaries fairly closely, partly because it’s important and partly because a lot of the coverage comes in the form of comedy monologues from late night shows I can watch on Youtube. I haven’t contributed much to the coverage myself, and up to now it’s been getting by fine without me. But now I think I may have thought of something new to say about it. I've seen some people wondering why Cruz, Kasich and Rubio still say they’ll endorse Trump if he wins the nomination, and I think I know the answer.

Here are four possible explanations which I don't think are right. First, they actually think Trump would be a better President than Hillary Clinton. It’s hard to get into the head of someone who thinks that, but these aren’t especially normal people we’re talking about, so maybe that’s what’s going on. A second possible reason is that they said they would support whoever was nominated. Politicians don’t like to be seen to break their promises, and maybe they don’t want to be seen to break this one, at least not while they’re still running for President. A third alternative is that they respect the democratic processes of their party. Cruz, Kasich and Rubio are all members of the Republican party, and might be presumed to have some party loyalty, and that includes loyalty to the primary voters. If the voters endorse Trump, they’ll endorse Trump out of loyalty to the voters. Fourth, they may be concerned that Republican primary voters think Trump would be a better President than Hillary Clinton. Lots of these people are actually voting for Trump, after all, and they made up their minds a long time ago that Clinton would be a terrible President. Maybe the candidates think that endorsing Clinton over Trump would turn voters off.

I don’t think any of these are especially implausible, but they’re not very clear-cut. You can imagine the candidates or their campaign strategists thinking quite hard about the decision, analysing polls and asking themselves fundamental questions about who they really are as politicians, and they could end up going either way. Three fairly different candidates in fairly different situations have all considered the question and all come up with the same answer: say they’ll endorse Trump if he wins. One exaplanation for the consensus is that the question is in fact a no-brainer. And I think it is.

Trump agreed he would endorse the eventual nominee and not run as a third-party candidate as long as the party was fair to him. Cruz, Kasich and Rubio all just pledged their loyalty without the fairness caveat. If Cruz says that actually he won’t endorse the eventual nominee if it’s Trump, and then Cruz wins the nomination, the agreement with Trump will clearly be broken, and not by Trump. Trump would be free to run as a third-party candidate, and why wouldn’t he? He’s rich, he’s having the time of his life, and he might even think he could win. So Trump runs, he and Cruz split the rightwing vote and Clinton wins in a landslide. In short, Cruz, Kasich and Rubio are sticking to their agreement because not doing so would doom any chance they have of winning the Presidency.

Of course, this reason for endorsing Trump over Clinton disappears when a candidate drops out of the race or if Trump actually wins the nomination. It’s unlikely he’s going to stop giving Republicans pretexts for saying that this time he’s gone too far and even Clinton would be better. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re still endorsing him in November.