Put Up Or Shut Up

I will take conservative complaints about Planned Parenthood seriously the moment someone shows me a conservative pro-life organization that does half the work it does to provide birth control, test for STDs, and generally provide for reproductive health.

This should be an easy way for social conservatives to try and seize the high-ground. Undercut Planned Parenthood by taking away its lock on the uncontroversially good things that it does, and see if public opinion prefers an organization just like Planned Parenthood but without abortion.

But as far as I know, there’s no comparable organization. Which tells me that the people complaining about Planned Parenthood are either in the grips of bizzaro-world anti-feminist arguments against birth control, or simply don’t give a damn about people getting sick from STDs.

And for that reason, not just pro-choice people like me, but also pro-life people should see the attacks on Planned Parenthood as cynical and callous.

What You Can Say While Being Objective

What would an objective article on waterboarding have looked like during the Bush administration? A history of the practice would have to state that the US government considered it torture for several decades and that this status was essentially unquestioned until after September 11th. It would also record that the US had hanged Japanese soldiers for waterboarding US POWs, and perhaps that as Governor of Texas, Bush had imprisoned a sheriff for waterboarding a prisoner. It would describe the experience of being waterboarded as essentially like the experience of being drowned, and record that there were often lingering psychological effects. Against that, such an article would have to report that legal memoranda had argued that waterboarding was not torture and was legal. It might also report that some people responded to the September 11th attacks by arguing that even torture should be justified as a response to terrorism.

That article would have been objective in even the restrictive sense that the American media uses. Every claim is not only true, but unambiguous and part of the public record.

And I don’t recall seeing anything like that during the Bush era. Individual claims might appear in an article about the waterboarding debate, but I never remember seeing a single article that would give the  full picture. 

Journalists are sometimes criticized for treating both sides of any disagreement as equally respectable, even if the facts are squarely on one side. But we can see that it’s not just that–the media won’t even collect and report facts that aren’t in dispute, if the net effect would be to undermine the claims of one side.

Ron Paul The Conservative

Will Wilkinson’s article on Ron Paul’s reactionary nationalistic libertarianism is great stuff.  So long as Paul stands no chance of being elected, he’s a welcome piece of resistance to certain evils of the Republican party, but he’s not much of a libertarian and he’d make a terrible president.

How To Talk About Intuitions

In discussions about philosophical method, the word ‘intuition’ is a dangerous thing, because almost no one specifies what they mean by it. The exception is philosophers writing on the nature of intuitions as a specific philosophical problem, but this work does not seem to have much effect on wider discussions.1 The result is confusion. At the extreme, writers will say that a particular argument doesn’t depend on intuition, when all they mean is that it does not rely on a sui generis faculty of rational intuition.

At some level, the issue is terminological. I doubt anything about ordinary language or philosophical use settles a precise definition of “intuition” that would be relevant to metaphilosophical questions. I tend to favor something like Mark Lynch’s definition from “Trusting Intuitions” as the one which best captures the category relevant to philosophical practice and allows us to produce interesting generalizations.2 Still, what’s more important than using a particular conception is being explicit about the conception you’re using and being aware of the various alternatives.

Another problem is widespread denial about how much intuitions are used in a particular subfield. You’ll often hear someone say that their field doesn’t make heavy use of intuitions, but instead either takes ordinary beliefs as “a reasonable though revisable starting place” or tries to say something about the consistency of various claims.

The first defense sometimes comes from philosophers who somehow think that relying on the reliability of ordinary belief on a particular topic isn’t an appeal to intuition (it typically is), which brings us back to the first problem about explicitness.

But the bigger issue is that there’s a peculiar tendency to ignore the role of intuitions unless they’re the sole source of support for a high-profile claim. So the trolley problem literature gets tarred for reliance on intuition because major premises of arguments are defended by direct appeal to intuition. In contrast, if you make sure to argue for each of your premises without ever saying that they’re “intuitive”, you’re ok, never mind how many times those arguments relied on intuition. Call it epistemic money-laundering. So long as the appeal to intuition is small enough that you don’t have to mention it in your paper’s abstract, no one notices the crime.

Perhaps the thought is that those appeals to intuition, being both offhand and arguments for the subsidiary premises, can just be dispensed with. Philosophers do take a lot of shortcuts and a lot of false assumptions for the sake of simplicity. But as a mere shortcut, intuitions are suspect. No one ever shows how they could be dispensed with, whereas you occasionally see someone come along and explain how an example works if you don’t assume that the world is made up of indivisible atoms.3 There’s a reason for that: without intuitions we would have no idea how to argue for most philosophical claims. Unless every essential part of your argument can be made without appeal to intuition, your entire argument relies on intuitions. If the issue were merely that appeals to intuition were not perfectly reliable, showing that large parts of your argument were free from intuition would help.4 But the issue is that in many areas of philosophy, it is unclear how intuitions could be any kind of tool for discovering the truth, even a fallible one. If that is the case, it’s no better to have rely on one intuition than it is to rely on a thousand. There is no partial credit.

The second defense, that philosophers are just finding inconsistencies, is really a bit silly. Given a large enough body of claims, formalized definitions, etc, you might have logical incompatibilities between them. But that will not be the typical case. In general, when philosophers prove that two claims are incompatible, they do not formalize the derivation of an inconsistency in some innocuous logical system.5 Instead, a philosopher will prove that p and q are inconsistent in virtue of subsidiary assumptions about what would be true given p or q, and how are those assumptions defended? By appeal to intuition. As you get further and further away from the main claims of the paper, the less obvious an appeal to intuition will be flagged as such–perhaps a claim will just be called implausible, without any reason given. Epistemic money laundering appears yet again.

The solutions are obvious, though they require work. First, when you talk about intuitions, specify your understanding of what they are. More importantly, have examples at hand of how various philosophers do or don’t rely on intuitions in their work. This requires looking both at the big picture of how a particular philosophical investigation proceeds, as well as at the arguments of particular papers. Even showing that a particular paper does not make essential use of intuitions would not suffice, unless that paper is self-contained, not relying on assumptions from the literature that are themselves defended via appeal to intuition.

Though getting such a detailed picture of how intuitions appear in philosophy is a major undertaking, I can’t imagine any other way to understand the evidence we rely on in philosophy. And short of getting a grip on that question, I don’t see any way to do philosophy properly.

1 Though I can’t endorse much that he says about the topic, give Tim Williamson credit for being a model of explicitness here.

2 Briefly, I think Bealer’s definition has almost no instances, making it trivial that philosophers don’t rely on them, Sosa’s definition is too general, making it impossible to get any traction on the question of whether philosophical appeals to intuition are reliable. I think Lynch’s definition has just the right level of generality that it could support each of the following claims:

  • philosophers do use intuitions, and this is an important aspect of their practice
  • it’s not a foregone conclusion that all philosophy must rely on intuitions in a bad way
  • you can say that while we’re going to have to rely on some epistemological intuitions, most metaphysical intuitions are bunk, and that their subject matter is an important part of the explanation why

3 Perhaps a bad example. It’s surprising how often it matters that the world isn’t made of atoms. But at least people try in that case! In contrast, no one even tries to make arguments without appeals to intuition.

4 I wonder if this is a bad by-product of experimental philosophy. Because there have been so many papers examining the ways in which intuitions might be biased, subject to order effects, and so on, some philosophers think those are the primary worries about intuitions. Those are serious issues for a well regulated practice of appeal to intuitions. But they’re entirely beside the point if you cannot establish that there is any prima facie reason to believe our intuitive beliefs bear any connection to the truth. Experimental philosophy often seems to show that intuitions are like eye-witness reports. My worry is that they may be like the deliverances of self-titled clairvoyants (since I’m apparently forgetting my philosophical folklore, I don’t mean the accurate clairvoyants you get in thought experiments).

5 Yes, you do find exceptions. But they’re rare.

The Origins Of Language

I’m surprised I haven’t seen this research appearing with the headline “Humans Running Out Of Sounds, Linguists Report“.

We’ve Already Paid

Older people often say that any changes to Social Security benefits should exempt them from cuts “because they have already paid for their benefits.”  You’ll hear versions of this argument from politicians and pundits but especially from people who are concerned about their own Social Security income. It also just so happens that it’s obviously wrong, for reasons which I’d never noticed until last month.

The idea is that you can’t cut the benefits of someone who is 60 because they have already paid, but since I’m 27 and have only been paying Social Security for less than a decade, you can cut mine.

This doesn’t make a bit of sense, because if you cut my future Social Security benefits, I still go on paying taxes at the same rate for the rest of my working life. Actually, I’ll pay higher taxes because the Social Security tax rates increased sharply throughout the 70s and 80s.  So I will pay for 40 some years of my working life, just like a member of my parents’ generation.1 If all those years of taxes guaranteed them benefits that can’t be cut, why don’t I get the same thing on the basis of the taxes that we all know I’m going to be paying? There’s no conceivable difference.

That said, there is a different reason that if Social Security is cut, it should fall more heavily on people my age (that’s a big if because there are decent arguments that Social Security is the wrong place to make cuts).  If I had to, I could start doubling my cat food purchases and put away enough money to fund all of my retirement without a cent from Social Security.  In contrast, someone who is 60 or 65 has extremely limited flexibility.  If you are a year away from retirement you can’t make major changes to how much you have saved regardless of what you do for that year.  People about to retire have made plans incorporating current Social Security payments, and you can’t fault them for doing that.  So you really can’t make large, disruptive cuts to their payments.  That’s not an absolute ban–responsible retirement planning involves preparing for uncertainty–but it sets pretty substantial limits on what we can do the older generation’s pensions.  It also happens to be entirely separate from the argument set out at the beginning.

1 Who were, admittedly, walking uphill both ways in the snow at the ages when I sat here blogging.  I should’ve ditched the first person and talked about a hypothetical member of my generation who’s had a less cushy life and who has consequently spent more of his teens and twenties paying payroll taxes.  Oh well.

Deep Thoughts About Federal Finances

A constitutional amendment that automatically raised taxes when there was a revenue shortfall would also be a balanced budget amendment.

Disagreement And Williamson On Evidence

For whatever reason, I was reading David Enoch’s draft of “Not Just A Truthometer: Taking Oneself Seriously (but not Too Seriously) in Cases of Peer Disagreement”, when I noticed something that surprised me:

Fifth, and again following the literature here, I will focus on cases where the disagreeing peers share all the relevant evidence, and indeed where this very fact is a matter of common knowledge between them. Typical examples include a simple arithmetical calculation (what evidence could anyone possibly lack here?), philosophical debates where all concerned know of all the relevant arguments, and perhaps also moral debates of a similar nature. 

This is probably pretty obvious, but the stipulation that the two parties to a dispute share all relevant evidence has very strange consequences for anyone who accepts Williamson’s thesis (E=K) that our evidence just consists of all and only those propositions that we know.

Two parties to a disagreement might share all relevant information prior to thinking about the issue, but once they begin thinking about the issue, they’ll make various inferences, and given that they end up disagreeing, they’ll probably infer different things.  If any of those things they inferred count as knowledge, then they no longer share the same evidence.

And so, with a casual stipulation at the beginning of their papers, Enoch and most other writers about disagreement have been brushing aside one of the more prominent theses in contemporary epistemology.

Postscript: I say “brushing aside” because this isn’t strictly an incompatibility.  You can maintain E=K, discuss the topic of disagreement with the stipulation of identical evidence, and then just admit that peer disagreement is not only a little bit uncommon, but incredibly unlikely.  This is not how the discussion proceeds, and there would be reason to carefully scrutinize any paper that did proceed that way.

Saint Patrick’s Day

I love Saint Patrick’s day.  Every year, conservatives dutifully stick to their principles and explain that Saint Patrick’s day is un-American because we don’t have hyphenated identities, and everyone just needs to assimilate.  It’s refreshing to note that they don’t just apply these ideas to people with darker skin.

The Mouse Is Not A Finger

I’m just now listening to it, and I still need to finish the last 15 minutes, but I’ll recommend episode 3 of Hypercritical, John Siracusa’s podcast with Dan Benjamin.

In the first half* of the podcast, John explains the vision behind the major UI changes planned for Mac OS X Lion, and really sold me on the vision.  Then in the second half, he explains that about half of it won’t work, and he’s probably right.

* The first portion is actually spillover discussion on backups from episode 2.  So it’s the first half of the main part of the episode.  That’s also a good episode.  Are you doing your backups properly?


No, this post isn’t about epistemology. Cosma Shalizi defends lottery players:

The benefit to playing the lottery comes entirely between buying the ticket, and when the winner is revealed. During this interval, someone who has bought the ticket can entertain the idea that they might win, and pleasantly imagine how much better their life could be with the money, what they would do with it, etc. It’s true that in some sense you always could thinking about “what if I had $280 million?”, but many people find it very hard to get our imaginations going on sheer will-power. A plausible and concrete path to the riches, no matter how low the probability, serves as a hook on which to suspend disbelief. In this regard, indeed, lottery tickets are arguably quite cost-effective. If a $1 lottery ticket licenses even one hour of imagining a different life, I don’t see how people who spend $12 for two or three hours of such imagining at a movie theater, or $25 for ten hours at a bookstore, are in any position to talk.

Despite having held this idea for years, I have never played the lottery, because I couldn’t begin to make myself believe.

This only applies for the largest lotteries. But in North Carolina, people drop a lot of money on smaller games that offer a better chance to win, but no more than a few hundred or a thousand dollars. Maybe the fantasy is still good enough to offset the monetary loss–so long as you’re thinking about the vacation you’ll take and not about having the money for your light bill.

Here’s my own bit of contrarianism: in those smaller lotteries, the expected value of winning may well be negative. On the plus side, there is the money and the enjoyment of winning. On the negative side, winning is positive reinforcement so you play more in the future. Thus, when my mother-in-law put $1 scratch off tickets in my stocking, I spent the next few minutes thinking “don’t win, don’t win”. Anyone who knows my history with video games will understand. Thankfully, while I won seven dollars, I have not been tempted to play in the meantime.

I actually told someone who was addicted to the lottery: “you don’t want to win–it’ll make you keep playing” and he responded “I guess that’s right.” So perhaps the theory is less contrarian than I think it is.

P.S The Slate article that Cosma links to is also a lot of fun.

The American Muslim Success Story

Every couple of weeks since it was published, something has made me wish that everyone in America would read Radley Balko’s article, The American Muslim Success Story. I forget the most recent provocation, but the article continues to be relevant. Everyone should read the article, and if you can twist the arm of one Palinite Republican into reading it, so much the better.

Obama Started Killing Americans, But I Mean…I Had Healthcare

The Obama administration has filed a brief arguing that no one can legally challenge their order for the assassination of Anwar al-Aulaqi because it would compromise “state secrets” (Washington Post, Glenn Greenwald). To review: Anwar al-Aulaqi is an American citizen living in Yemen. While he is suspected of aiding Al-Qaeda, he has never been convicted or even charged with a crime in the US courts. It is probable that he is guilty of crimes, and possible that he could be convicted, but Obama has pre-empted that by ordering his assassination, which can be carried out even if he is located outside of a combat-zone.

Claiming the power to assassinate Americans is odious enough, but the Obama administration has raised the stakes by claiming the courts cannot hear the case. Given the way the state secrets claim is made, does anyone imagine that the administration would ever allow a legal challenge to any assassination without crying about state secrets?

In effect, the administration is trying to lay the groundwork for a right to kill Americans that is not subject to real judicial oversight. So long as the legislature is cowed, the constraints on the President would be extremely weak. I suppose it’s nice to think that Obama isn’t the type to abuse this–though I hope you’re asking yourself what kind of man asserts this power–but does that change all that much? What matters are the powers themselves, not the man holding them.  Obama is not a tyrant, but he is repeatedly demanding tyrannical powers.  Not only may future Presidents be less trustworthy, the powers themselves are abhorrent.

I would not want to slander the majority of Democrats by saying that they’ll support this decision just because it’s Obama. That would be unfair, as most Democrats have the good sense to say that this kind of decision is really just awful, before pivoting and talking about healthcare. With this unpleasant business forgotten, they can get on to explaining how the “professional left” is full of people who “need to be drug tested”, see the glass as “half full”, and act petulant when the President doesn’t give us “world peace.”

There’s too many accomplices out there.

We’ll Enforce The Law, But We Don’t Know What It Is

This is an a noteworthy story about a man who refused to answer the Border patrol agents’ questions about the details of his overseas trip, and was held for 90 minutes as he spoke to various officials. His refusal to answer questions is perfectly legal–absent reason to arrest or otherwise interrogate him in relation to some crime, a US Citizen has an unconditional right to reenter the US. Note that he did make an adequate customs declaration, without false statements, and allowed them to perform all searches they asked to do.

There’s a lot of points that can be said, but one lesson fits with what we already know–an enormous number of law enforcement officers do not know what they need to about citizens’ rights. This is amply demonstrated every time a citizen or journalist is arrested for exercising their right to record the police.* While I vacillate on whether Lucaks’ action was worthwhile, that it pressures law-enforcement to learn about their legal responsibilities can only be a good thing. It is simply unacceptable for law-enforcement officers to be ignorant in this fashion.

* Just in case you want legal advice, there is a patchwork of local and state laws. In some places, many forms of recording may be illegal. But in a majority of places, it is legal and there are hundreds, if not-thousands of arrests for citizens exercising their rights to record police in jurisdictions that allow them to do so.

False Confessions In The NYT

A New York Times article discusses the phenomenon of innocent suspects confessing to crimes. In some ways, I don’t think the article is that good. While it describes a few false confessions and notes how police may feed information to the suspect to make a confession look accurate, what’s needed is the kind of vivid description that will make people understand how someone could feel hopeless enough to confess to a crime they didn’t commit.

The upshot, which is mentioned in the article, is that recording police interrogations is essential. Even with recorded interrogations, defense lawyers would face a huge task in defending an innocent client who’d confessed, but without them, it would be almost impossible, even where there’s a great deal of other evidence at hand. Sadly, I think no amount of reporting will change that dynamic.

By Definition, Schmibertarians Aren’t Libertarians

Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey, two notable “liberaltarian” voices, have just left the Cato Institute.  John Quiggin responds, saying it means that Cato will lose any independence from the Republican party.  I’m not comfortable to judge that particular claim about Cato, though I’ll note that the two names I’m most familiar with don’t fit the picture: Gene Healy and Julian Sanchez.  Of course there’s a selection bias there: the Cato figures I’m most likely to know about are the ones who spend the most time making trenchant critiques of Republicans or the Tea Party.

The point I’d like to make is that there is no logical reason why an ideological shift to doctrinaire libertarianism should move Cato towards the Republican party.  Someone like Brink Lindsey reaches out to liberals and thinks that libertarians should focus more on economic freedom than small government.  But even a libertarian who has no time for liberals can be a fervent critic of the Republican party.

All it takes is a bit of honesty.  Take Radley Balko for instance.  When it comes to economic matters, he’s a pure libertarian, complete with constant snark about liberals and the left.  Frankly, I find too many of his economic posts to be … But it doesn’t matter, because he’s a libertarian, and so has had ample grounds to criticize Republicans for a decade or more.  It helps that Radley’s focus is on civil liberties, police misconduct and human rights, but any honest libertarian naturally have huge problems with the Republican party.

Of course, some people will claim the mantle of libertarianism while turning a blind eye to everything the Republicans do so long as they lower taxes.  Perhaps that’s what the Koch brothers are pushing Cato to do (I genuinely don’t know).  But that has less to do with ideology, and more to do with powerful people trying to serve their own interests.

Go Playing Programs For The iPhone

For any beginners interested in a few quick games of Go on their iPhone, there’s a free program called Igowin tutor, that plays against you on a 9×9 board.  I would not wholly recommend it, but the app comes with an introduction to the game.

There’s a $2.99 version of the same app that will play you with a smaller handicap so that it’s more challenging, and a $4.99 version that runs the same engine (I think) and plays 19×19 games.

There’s at least one other go playing program for the iPhone, SmartGo, made by folks who’ve done other good Go software.

None of the software here comes with a serious recommendation, other than that it’s risk free to try a few free games.

Too Broken To Fix

Jay Rosen, an NYU professor and source of many great insights about the nature of the press, has several obversations worth reading about the wikileaks dump of Afghanistan documents.  The one that most resonated with me concerns the likely effect of the leak:

8. I’ve been trying to write about this observation for a while, but haven’t found the means to express it. So I am just going to state it, in what I admit is speculative form. Here’s what I said on Twitter Sunday: “We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.” My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect— not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget.

Last week, it was the Washington Post’s big series, Top Secret America, two years in the making. It reported on the massive security shadowland that has arisen since 09/11. The Post basically showed that there is no accountability, no knowledge at the center of what the system as a whole is doing, and too much “product” to make intelligent use of. We’re wasting billions upon billions of dollars on an intelligence system that does not work. It’s an explosive finding but the explosive reactions haven’t followed, not because the series didn’t do its job, but rather: the job of fixing what is broken would break the system responsible for such fixes.

The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works… and often fails to work?

Smoking Regulations Or A Smoking Ban?

One thing I’ve yet to see from someone supporting bar and club smoking bans is a serious attempt to justify a ban as such. Even assuming that you’ve established that there’s a public interest in, say, protecting waiters from smoke, and that this interest justifies regulations, you still have to show that you can’t achieve your goal with something weaker than a ban. If incentives or regulatory “nudges” do roughly the same work, then they’re to be preferred.

In the case of smoking bans, there are a lot of replacement options, and it’s a heavy burden to argue that they wouldn’t suffice. Here are a few ideas I’ve brainstormed–someone more familiar with restaurant or OSHA regulations could surely find more:

  1. Require expensive licenses for bars that allow smoking
  2. Auction a limited number of smoking permits
  3. Mandate a wage-supplement for servers and bartenders in smoking restaurants (perhaps this wouldn’t work because it couldn’t apply to cooks, etc).

Bear in mind that roughly a third of the American public smokes, and food service workers are presumably no exception. There’s little reason to worry about them being exposed to second-hand smoke, so even a regulatory regime that leaves a substantial fraction of bars might be compatible with protection for workers.

There’s a lot of variance in state and local smoking bans, so this challenge applies quite differenly to them. Pennsylvania, for instance, allows smoking in any establishment that makes more than a certain percent (80% maybe?) of its income from alcohol sales. Such laws are much more forgiving, and I legitimately can’t be too bothered by them. That said, I think that they could still be better. Once you’ve admitted that some bars can have smoking, why is the relevant feature the percentage of income coming from booze?

They’re Spending Eleventy-Billion Dollars To Promote The Singularity, But They Can’t Afford A Damn Designer

Jason Bobe, who works on the Personal Genome Project, an effort backed by the Harvard Medical School to establish a huge database of genetic information, points to forecasts that a million people will have their genomes decoded by 2014.

“The machines for doing this will be in your kitchen next to the toaster,” Mr. Bobe says.

Really, your kitchen? Who wants that?