Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Personals ad: You, in burkha. Me, panting. Let's meet!

Over at Rationally Speaking, they are arguing (in comments on "Between the Scylla of moral absolutism and the Charybdis of moral relativism") about what makes a culture "superior". Dr. Pigliucci's most recent clarification of his metric:
"...the "scale" proposed here is the same that Aristotle had in mind: whatever furthers human flourishing."

Somehow, though, "flourishing" doesn't put us any closer to an answer than "superior". How do you measure "flourish"?

You might find a woman in Saudi Arabia (even one with a PhD?) saying that the burkha promoted "human flourishing" by suppressing the more trivial aspects of being female -- that a society that permits women to be ranked in public by their looks simply devalues women, by forcing them to compete for attention on superficial aspects entirely independent of their worth as individuals. (I should emphasize "public". I once read an account from a westerner invited into the home of a muslim in India. The way his host's wife dressed at home, at least for guests, left him sorely tempted to convert to Islam.) In short: let's hypothesize that public suppression of women's sexuality results in more power for women, all other things being equal.

"Sure," you might reply. "And maybe we'll find an old diary entry of Andrea Dworkin's, conveying some such sentiment, penned at 4am after waking up dyspeptic from eating too much anchovy-pepperoni pizza."

Still, it's not an entirely whacky view even from the point of view of some normal western women. I read an article recently from a woman (an academic, IIRC) who toured some Arab countries, and adopted various modes of coverup as the social situations demanded. When she returned to her native country (Britain IIRC), she was re-exposed to consensus demands about women's appearance that suddenly seemed very uncomfortable.

Now, this isn't to say that one should favor laws requiring women to cover themselves Saudi-style. Still, I look at the French reaction to headscarves on girls in schools, and vaguely recollect a recent proposed law (?) in Britain banning the burkha, and am forced to wonder whether we should adopt any such prohibitionistic approach to whatever problems these dress styles supposedly represent to a secular, liberal, democratic, humanist society.

An anecdote, if you will. Maybe you can make something of it.

My first experience of seeing a woman in the flesh wearing a burkha or anything like it occurred in Berkeley, California, where you'll more likely run into people wearing absolutely nothing. The garb didn't reach all the way down -- she was wearing pants, and I could see that. But from mid-thigh upward, all I could see was her eyes and the skin on her hands. I spotted her half a block away. What to do? Duck into a store? Cross the street? It was distinctly creepy.

"Well," I remember thinking, "Lemme just be cool about this. Yeah, it's weird, but my hometown is weird, that's practically its raison d'etre. She's probably doing this for a term paper in Post-Colonial Comparative Gender Studies or something." So I made only the briefest eye contact with her, from perhaps 10 paces away, then feigned a relaxed stroll, staring off into the middle distance as we passed each other on the sidewalk.

And as we passed each other, she turned to me for just a split second and said, "Hello." Without breaking stride.

And I remember continuing down the street in a slight daze, thinking, "Wow. That was really sexy."

Now: what made it sexy? Whatever your answer -- unless your answer is "Michael Turner clearly needs some professional help" -- I think it goes hand-in-hand with the answer to the question, Why is public nudity (as opposed to glossy pictorials with professional lighting) so NOT sexy?

We tend to think of these dress styles as necessarily sexist. But perhaps that view is simply too (dys-)informed by xenophobia? What makes us prefer to believe that such customs prevail only though reinforcement by women motivated only out of blind allegiance to ideologies of male domination, or simple fear of male retribution (a likely strong component, I'll admit). What about a general recognition that covering up feels like "the great equalizer" of otherwise rather large individual differences in sexual power among women? What if it does favor equality of sexual power for women, and moreover, greater sexual power for women? (In the aggregate, mind you, and on average, if not for the exceptional hot babe, sweating underneath all that cloth.) Might we not consider that more egalitarian, more liberating in some sense, and more likely to promote this Aristotelian ideal of "human flourishing"?

No. Of course not. How stupid of me to even suggest such a thing. I don't know what came over me. Sorry. I'll leave you all alone now. Whatever you do, don't think about this. Especially, don't think about websites full of GIFs of women's eyes, framed in black cloth, staring out at you. With delicate eye-shadow and lush lashes. And audio icons that, when clicked, purr soft and friendly greetings. (Websites which I am NOT now googling desperately for, than you for asking.)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Presidential tag clouds: parsing the word salad

You have to pan the stream of blogging about blogging with an eye peeled for the real nuggets -- most of what glitters in the silt turns out to be fool's gold. Marc Cooper blogs about blogging rarely, but does it exceptionally well. In a recent entry, he turned up, immediately hooking me. I was most drawn to its discussion of tag cloud analysis on the speeches of presidential candidates. Brute-force broad-brush text analysis holds little technological fascination for me, since it's as much a source of unintended comedy as illumination. I say: do text analysis either with simple tools, or -- until the day when true Natural Language Understanding arrives -- not at all. Tag clouds (and text clouds) may fit the bill.

In the tag clouds found for Dem candidates at, Obama has the highest total wordcount for statistical purposes, and one of the least issue-specific clouds. Cf. Biden, all over the map on sometimes-obscure issues. Floating around in Obama's mix, you struggle for specificity -- hardly a “frame” in sight. Does “around” connote some political charge these days? Am I missing the dog-whistle note in “going”? Can we be sure that when he says “sure” (as he apparently does quite often) he’s really sure? He uses the word “families” quite frequently, as Bill Clinton did, and as Dubya did until 9/11. (Guess what the big word is *after* 9/11. Hint: it starts with a “t”.) Apart from that -- an apparent nullity from a not-insubstantial speaker. What gives?

Yes, Obama says real things. Obama wonks a lot, a whole lot, but on a lot of different topics, thus cancelling out any particular topic in his tag clouds. Of course, if you go his site, you can see videos of him winning the popularity contest handily. These clips won’t strain your powers of attention, and will only vaguely direct you to one issue focus or another. But you can also find long speeches in which topics like putting the world’s nuclear enrichment programs under an umbrella organization is just one of three parts. He can talk for 20 minutes about nuclear terrorism prevention, seriously wonky stuff, rather than about going mano-a-mano with terrorists, the stuff of sound bites. "Uranium" won’t pop out in his tag clouds because he goes at the problem from an “ounce of prevention” angle, while talking about a lot of other ounces, all over the political map.

In a way almost blatantly at odds with his ostensible strategy of direct popular conversation, Obama’s real audience for all this verbiage looks like the specialized political classes — evangelical leaders on the Dem side of the spectrum, high-level federal bureaucrats, business leaders, opinion-makers on specific policy issues. In these speeches, he greets initial applause with a slightly dour machine-gun spray of “thank you, thank you, thank you”, and almost winces when scattered clapping erupts in mid-sentence. The message in that, clearly: “Shut the fuck up, because what I’m going to say here is about stuff that matters to YOU, the serious student of policy, regardless of how you feel about ME. I’ve got a lot of material to cover. So don’t waste my time.” He subdues his audience every time: Yes, Professor Obama: we're listening. He gives these special audiences a heads-up on what an Obama presidency is going to mean to them in career terms.

Under the apparent vagueness suggested by Obama's tag cloud, you can see what I regard as truly brilliant strategy: for now, let the other candidates hammer away on getting the votes that he can get almost effortlessly with a smile and a wave, with his faintly Lincolnesque persona in formal speeches to open crowds, with his faintly (Bill) Clintonesque persona in the more informal settings. For now -- it's still early -- he concentrates on building up expectations among the people whose work he'll directly affect, day-to-day, if he reaches the Oval Office. The audience is not even particularly partisan. These two terms of Dubya will leave quite a few GOP political appointees in office after 2008, and they will greatly appreciate knowing where Obama is coming from, in various policy arenas.

Cf. Hillary. Hillary has gotten really big on saying “president”. President, president, president — she just loves to say “president”. She doesn’t need to provide detailed career-navigation clues to the political classes, because they already know that her administration will be Billary: The Sequel. The likely collocations: "This president" (note the subtle hiss), and "As president" (softly pointing "Me, me, me: the first woman president. Start believing now, so that by the time you get to the polls, you'll feel like you're re-electing me.")

Edwards is #2 in the upstart-popularity sweepstakes with Obama. When you're #2, you try harder. For him, for now, it's all about votes from the gut, and he knows it. He even has helpful Lakovian Framing happening by accident in his tag cloud, in alphabetical order, stuff you’d have to pay cubic dollars to political consultants to figure out, after they got that nattering George Lakoff guy out of the room:

America - believe
health - important
president - question
states - united

Of course, those happy accidents are almost certainly helped along by cubic money paid to political consultants.

For you history buffs out there, Chirag Mehta's US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud page is great fun. The biggest word in the presidential terms leading up to the Civil War? “Constitution”. If that one starts popping out again in future presidential-speech tag clouds, you might consider gradually liquidating your assets and moving the cash to off-shore accounts.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Debunking the value of debunking?

Entirely by accident (well, sort of), I recently joined the Tokyo chapter of The Brights. Possibly in response to what might be called my "friendly collision" with this group, its organizer just sent a message about a change of group emphasis. The gist was: was "less debunking, more fun".

It somehow reminded me of an International Herald Tribune Teaching the Controversy". Adding to the brew, in private e-mail to me, the Tokyo Brights organizer pointed out the Tony Kehoe being the person to talk to if you're interested.) Both gave me yet more food for thought.

Debunking might not be such a useful activity for Brights and Skeptics and their ilk. Not to imply that arguments against a silly proposition are simply wrong, of course. Or even that those who wield those arguments are wrong. Rather, debunking for fun (and for the pros, profit) seems to me a case of too little, too late. If we don't treat the source of silly ideas at the root, silly ideas will continue to flower. Hack at the roots? Many mentalities root themselves in the wrong soil, so perhaps even roots don't make for such good targets. Transplantation? Probably a non-starter: Earth has a whole lot of this "soil", and there's no nicely furnished other planet to move to. We should perhaps think "strategic deployment of micro-nutrients" here, if only because of the scale of the problem. And what better "micro-nutrient" than good schooling, early and often, in critical thinking?

Read the above Michael Balter op-ed before you try to absorb the next item here: in public junior high school and high school, I hated science classes almost as much as I hated Catholic school religion classes in primary school. Perhaps things have changed, but at least one evidently intelligent high school student weighs in suggesting otherwise. Make no mistake, I fancy myself a scientific rationalist, and thought so even when young. Nevertheless, after the transition from parochial to public schools, I saw something about the way science was taught that irritated me. We were told some facts, certain ways of computing things, and given some experiments to do. We were treated to a few sidebar glances at great scientists in our textbooks. Basically, though, the treatment seem to consist of, simply, WE Tell YOU How It IS. I'd gotten enough of that in Catholic school to develop an allergy to it in any form.

Think about the real and potential value of teaching science to young people at all. Why do it? Reductively, one might defend the practice by saying that science yields technology which improves quality of life. So even if you start with tens of millions of junior high school kids forced to take science courses (and many, if not most, hating it), and get only a relative handful of productive scientists out the far end of the process (after high school, bachelor's degree programs, graduate programs and post-docs), the investment tends to pay dividends.

But look at that ratio -- tens of millions of students not-so-willingly science-educated, and perhaps only a few thousand top scientists produced in the end. What a vast expense of resources for such a small yield! And perhaps a vaste waste, too.

In one study I read years ago, about what makes for a productive scientist, it was found that about 1/3rd of all scientists deemed most productive by their peers had originally entered a small liberal arts college with no particular ambition of becoming a scientist. Small liberal arts colleges can't represent more than perhaps 3% of the total student body in college education, and yet they apparently outproduce other colleges by a factor of ten, starting with what seems like unlikely material in an unlikely context. It seems the most economical system for producing the scientists would concentrate almost evangelistic science teaching resources on the rare post-secondary student who embodies a nice balance of open-mindedness and critical thinking, and also happens to be possessed of an above-average esthetic sense.

One could argue that what scientists produce, and the technological value those results often have, forms only a small (though undeniably significant) part of the economic story. Pre-college science courses help cultivate the cadres of technologists, and even of "paratechnologists", from nurses to electronics technicians, required to deliver the products and services that science and the resulting technologies make possible. Again, I wonder if the economic argument fails. The best job training takes place ON the job. Secondary education inevitably lags the state of the art in any field.

Let's call in the reinforcements, move to the high ground: what about knowledge for its own sake? Of course knowledge has its own rewards. But you'll seldom find anyone more boring than the the guy (and isn't almost always a guy?) who seems to know everything, yet somehow disgorges that knowledge without much understanding of why things are the way they are. Chocking people's brains with facts isn't really very productive or valuable in itself.

Still, that last suggests convergence on a possible answer: perhaps science teaching should concern itself with Stories of the Pleasure (OK, maybe the agony, too) of Finding Things Out, imparting thinking skills that you can apply to almost any question in life. (While studying the lives of great physicists, I was amused to discover that memorizing formulae was far less prized as a skill than being able to rapidly re-derive formulae.) Newton approached the problem of gravity by Finding Out, incidentally co-inventing calculus (though the underpinnings of his math stretch back to the ancient Greeks.) We don't celebrate what he "knew" about theology and alchemy, those grab-bags of "facts" with little basis in reality and little coherent theory from which to derive anything new. We celebrate what he figured out.

More concretely, I suggest studying science as history, along with history. Teach it as the history of some conversations, with ever-better ways to argue about the natural world emerging slowly, not just as a series of "debunking" experiments. Teach biographies of great minds who still had their faults and foibles and fixed ideas, as we all do. But avoid hagiography - rather, focus on how few of them were lone wolves, on the value of a scientific community, even with all its squabbles and jagged personalities. Don't give the human sciences short shrift in this, but perhaps even emphasize them -- after all, if we want teaching the scientific way of thinking to almost everyone has any possible meaning for almost everyone, it should be in making people better participants in democracies. And that amounts to making them better thinkers about how people behave. All the hard-science reasoning skills in the world won't help you in the world unless you can transfer those reasoning skills to other, more humanistic, domains.

In this view of the matter, Teach the Controversy looks like precisely the right approach, even if the results are likely to backfire on its original ID organizers. (Perhaps, if the study Balter points to turns out to be indicative, ID will be force to repackage and "rebrand"?) Students should not absorb the theory of evolution as a regurgitable dogma, but as the result of many good -- even great -- minds (all initially Creationist) being changed not just by Darwin's individual process of trying to discern the truth of the origin of species, but also by Darwin's social process of putting that truth across convincingly to his peers.

In the controversy we've seen so far about Creationism, Evolution and ID, much has been made of the point that evolution can be a fact even if it's not a complete theory (which it isn't, even now), and that there's nothing wrong with students being told that it's not complete. Let's extend that to how we teach the human sciences. It's in the nature of reasoning about very complex phenomena that completion often remains elusive. Among the complex phenomena students could be taught to reason about (through the examples of successes and failures of reasoning in history) is political processes, especially if they are understood through what's now known in sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics and even the branch of linguistiscs called "sociolinguistics."

So how does all this tie into my subject line? To repeat, debunking is usually too little, too late. The weeds are already too deep and thick by the time debunking seems called for, and you'll never find a weedwhacker for neurons. Inculcating a cultural pattern that favors reason has been, to steal from Richard Dawkins' title, a process of Climbing Mount Improbable, and the rigors of the routes still leave too few clustered at the peaks. Perhaps, as Daniel Dennett claims, Freedom Evolves. However, if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that dramatic reversals happen; better to guard against them proactively. Chance favors the prepared mind, but we see too few prepared minds -- or rather, too many minds prepared to accept various chance, silly ideas without question. To what extent does accepting ideas without much question -- whether simply because they are novel, or simply because they are established -- still primarily stem from how our educational system prepares young minds, no matter how true (in some narrow, purely factual, sense) its teachings may be?

Teaching science -- all sciences, including the human sciences -- as flexible processes of questioning and narrowing down possibilities, rather than as fixed systems of answer-generators, should help everyone meet the challenges of citizenship in a democracy better prepared. Good democracies depend on good citizens, and good government makes life better for almost everyone. Nobody loses, really. Debunking doesn't really reach far enough, soon enough, to have much to offer in reaching this desirable outcome. At best, it's reactive, it provides ammunition for rear-guard defense. But a defensive posture alone seldom suffices to survive and thrive. Providing educational resources for a few ardent defenders won't get us very far up this particular peak of Mount Improbable.

Any realistic solution may require a change (even if only a subtle change) in the very nature of institutionalized education. To shift the metaphor from "soil micro-nutrients" to something more like "genetic engineering of soil bacteria", one can see a kind of meme-design challenge : how to implant self-propagating thoughts about education that favor a culture of critical discourse, even for the average citizen. If teaching science as the history of fallible human beings, seeking truth in fallible (but ever-better) ways, is a key strategy, perhaps an EQ ("Emotional Intelligence") strategic element must trump pure IQ tactics: it's very much about how you leave your opponent feeling, and less about wether you "won -- on points." That's something we might learn from Darwin himself.