Monday, December 8, 2014

When Someone says Islam *is* based on Tolerance, Charity, ... [the meaning of "is", part II]

If you haven't already, I recommend reading Part 1.

OK, if someone says (as I'm sure some do) that "Islam is based on Tolerance, Charity, ..." -- while on the other hand inciting hatred and violence to Jews, or Americans, or Muslims of another persuasion, then this is something we call lying, and that sort of thing happens a lot, as we all know.

But there is plenty of evidence if you're willing to look, of ordinary Muslims, in America, Britain, Pakistan, or Africa, whose lives are about going to work and raising children who say and sincerely believe such a statement.

It really MIGHT depend on what the meaning of the word "is" is. (Reposted)

Reposted from the Ontological Comedian

If you think every word has a definition, and definitions are how we know what words mean, consider the word "is" -- which is a pivotal part of every definition -- indeed of the very idea of definition. A bear is a large furry mammal that sometimes walks on it hind legs, etc., etc.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Big Lie again: "Holiday Trees" and Steven Levy "commentary"

 The following is going viral again as it apparently has around every Christmas of the past few years

The above sources says it is based partly on a screed by Ben Stein, which is easy to believe considering other things he's written.

Apparently the White House referred to Christmas Trees as Holiday Trees for the first time this year which prompted CBS presenter, Steven Levy, to present this piece which I would like to share with you. I think it applies just as much to many countries as it does to America.

I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat...

What is Science and What Can We Learn From it About Keeping Our Heads on Straight Generally.

Here are three posts trying to make some contribution to philosophy of science and to the public's understanding of it.

The first, What is A Machine? Natural Machines and Origins of Science tries to express something possibly original about the occasions when people have gotten a foothold on the path to a major branch of science.  Before the scientific revolution there were, hidden amidst the blooming buzzing confusion of nature, a few "natural machines".  Unlike the typical object in nature, they behave with predictable simplicity, although this may not be obvious for a long time -- until certain concepts and technologies aid in their analysis.  These include a heavy dense projectile in (parabolic, as it turns out) flight, and the system of the Earth, Sun, moon, and planets (and their moons).  Probably, I should say machines and mechanical processes, but I like the idea of a flying rock or cannonball as an ultra-simple machine.

The next essay, Finding Your Invisible Elephant. A Science Requires, and is Shaped by, a Tractable Subject Matter suggests that "scientific method", or other good epistemic processes such as peer review journals and conventions are not enough.  Once a discipline, through a fruitful set of techniques, is able to repeatedly find its way to make contact with a coherent set of fundamental facts of nature, only then do the practices of academia give rise to a ratcheting mechanism that can make the diverse efforts of many autonomous individuals and groups converge on better and better understanding of some set of phenomena.  This does not work for literary criticism, and its working in many fields of social science, such as sociology of scientific knowledge, is highly dubious.

The third essay, Global Warming and the Controversy: What is Scientific Consensus? Continental Drift as Example focuses on a case study of scientific consensus by a practitioner of the fairly new field of social epistemology, Miriam Solomon in her book Social Empiricism.  It concerns the gelling, over several decades, of recognition of the phenomenon of continental drift, or plate tectonics.  Many very diverse disciplines had to finally agree that they all had data pointing to the same surprising phenomena before it could legitimately be said that there was a scientific consensus.

Now, this falls short of what the title seems to promise, but is part of a project of trying to take small, sometimes painful steps in that direction.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Global Warming and the Controversy: What is Scientific Consensus? Continental Drift as Example.

    One common way of attacking the mainstream of climatology for its "global warming consensus" is to claim that consensus is just that sort of authoritarian "group think" that Galileo confronted in the Inquisition.  A companion claim is that mainstream climatologists have abandoned "the scientific method".  Some of those who say they have a case against AGW are likely to say that they are practicing the true "scientific method" and anyone who doesn't accept their experiment(s) or studies as decisive must be rejecting the scientific method.  They may also delve into the mainstream studies.  Global warming dissidents (who rarely sound to me like true skeptical thinkers) often cite studies by scientists who would be surprised to learn that anyone is saying their study disproved AGW, so it is often not scientists, but "science critics" claiming the scientific method has been abandoned by mainstream climatologists.  One person with whom I recently argued (on Facebook) said "When I went to college and took experimental psychology, the premise of experimentation was to challenge existing theory" and later "There is a scientific experimental process ... propose a postulate, select your population or test material, identify and isolate variables, run your test, draw conclusions, repeat, publish, then stand up to challenge."

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Gerrymandering Viewed as a Nonpartisan (or rather pro-electorate vs the system) Issue

The difficulty we have with gerrymandering is that it will always seem attractive to the party in power.
Common sense reforms should make us all feel we have more of a chance of being represented. Redrawing the map by both sides has one big nonpartisan effect; it is overall very good for incumbents. It tends to make every district a "safe" district for one party or the other. Another effect, sometimes in competition with the first is, due to "safe" districts, primary elections become very important; general elections much less so. During the primaries, candidates must try to "click" with one group riled up enough to turn out for primary elections. So you are far less likely to get people with balanced perspectives.
In this age, balance or moderation tends to be ridiculed by both (or all) sides. But it is the way of getting the best from multiple perspectives. It gives you people able to argue fruitfully, not just posture for the "base". In reality, sometimes the more conservative idea fits the situation best, and sometimes the more visionary idea does. If people can fruitfully argue, we are more likely to get the benefit of that. I believe you are also more likely to see flaws (to missing the mark or just excess complexity) corrected in some legislation with more moderates rather than the attitude extremists often have "We won't cooperate to improve it because we like it being as bad as possible because we want it to fail" (see

What would an alternative to eternal gerrymandering look like? Maybe laws that say a district should have a certain geometric compactness. That is something  where an intuitive concept could be represented by a mathematical formula. We might not understand the formula, but by looking at examples of what conforms to it and what violates it, we could see whether results look intuitively right. Better yet, in my opinion, we might introduce an arbitrariness, according to a mathematical formula. If you had a square state (which we don't of course) it could look like a checker board. Actually this doesn't quite work because it won't give you districts of approx equal population within a state, city, or county to be "districted" More sophisticated mathematics could generalize that formula. Another reason for putting it all in the hands of a mathematical/computer best line-drawing system that we can judge intuitive by the intuitive pleasingness of the results: it eliminates the considerable amount that can be done to create solid incumbancy districts (Dem districts or Repub. districts, or white, black or Latino districts) while the districts still look nice and geometrically compact.

I believe some decades ago, gerrymandering, or rather drawing maps heavily relying on human judgement to attain some electoral tendency, regained some respectability when they were used to increase the chances of certain minorities getting a representative who looked like them. Lani Guinier, a legal scholar nominated by Clinton for Attorney General had some ideas for allowing such possibilities without distorting the electoral map in any way. They involved a sort of one man, N-vote sort of system, which was quickly vilified (as was Guinier) as a violation of the sacred 1-man 1-vote principle; but it did not violate it at all in spirit.

Besides anti-gerrymandering, another common sense reform principle driven by the goal of real representativeness (not favorong one ideology or the other) is to reduce the role money plays. In I proposed a model for this, suitable for growing up from the "grass roots" *if* the idea and trial results can over time persuade enough people.

One example of money in politics that a conservative might be able to relate to is how much of a farce the 2012 Republican presidential primaries were. There were several instances of one candidate being up in one state and another in the next that looked less like the states having different ideological tendencies, and instead seemed explanable by someone having just bought a few million dollars worth of ads through one PAC or another. E.g. Sheldon Adelson bringing Newt Gingrich up from out of nowhere to near the top for a couple of days. Adelson is a casino magnate whose main issue these days is to suppress online gambling.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Finding Your Invisible Elephant. A Science Requires, and is Shaped by, a Tractable Subject Matter

The story of the blind men and the elephant comes from India.  One version, in Wikipedia follows:
Six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant's body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

Some may see it as a parable about the impossibility of knowledge, but the way I look at it, with enough blind men operating under the incentive structure of science, comparing notes, arguing this interpretation and that, they would eventually "get it" perhaps making a clay model of an elephant that one person could get their hands around.  Of course if they are no good a listening to each other, or lack persistence and/or the right sort of discipline this won't happen.

Previously, I wrote about how the few rare "natural machines" like the solar system have been a major factor in bringing sciences into being.  Now I'd like to suggest a different metaphor and try out the notion that the keystone of a science is finding its invisible elephant.  Rather than make all scientists blind, I'd rather make elephants invisible.

What does it look like when we are failing to find our elephant?  Maybe one man really is grasping a pillar, another a tree trunk, or hand fan, and another pushing on a wall.  No wonder their observations don't add up.  Suppose they insist on their observations adding up to something - then they may produce a forced "body of knowledge", something like astrology.

So what does a science finding its elephant look like?  There should be some convergence of observations when the blind men work together effectively, like more than once a man grasps something like a pillar.  Attempts to find relationships between observations.  Maybe 4 men are saying "this is like a pillar", and they can tell by listening they are close to each other, and they reach out until they grasp each others' hands, and get a sense of where each man is, and maybe all link hands to discover that the pillars are in a rough square.  Someone again says it's like a rope, and they wave their hands around until the one with the "rope" finds he's roughly equidistant from two of the "pillar" men.  And on and on.  Someone says "this is like a creek", but his voice is too far away, so the others say "That's something else, come back to where we are."  And as long as they stay close together, maybe holding hands, circling the object together, certain observations occur repetitively, and all the relations between the observations begin to add up to something.  Maybe someone bounces a basketball their way, one grasps it and says "something new!" but they soon realize it isn't part of the thing they're trying to understand.  It is "irrelevant data", or "noise" as in Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - but Some Don't.

When observations add up and complement each other, and it becomes more and more clear which observations belong to the newly emerging object of study, and which do not, we can say there is a tractable domain.   Tractability is not absolute.  Until the 20th century, medicine was largely intractable.  We had only glimmerings of understanding here and there that could not be worked into any sort of whole.  Failure to admit this -- wishful thinking -- led to systems like that based on the "humours" (or 5 basic fluids supposed to account for the body's workings) which lead to inappropriate bleeding and purging, and sometimes even preventing elimination, all on the theory that too much or too little of some "humour" caused a given syndrome.

A tractable domain means one has a good sense of the thing that is under study - and this leads to techniques of study specific to the domain or object of study, unlikely to make sense in any other domain.   It might be invisible elephants, or equally invisible atoms, whose properties can only be known via more complex and roundabout ways than merely looking.  The idea that all scientific methodology can be summarized by one "method" is more often heard in disciplines that are trying hard to be scientific than in those which have gotten very clear about, and been shaped by, their subject matter.

Consensus that we are talking about the same thing (from different angles) is the sign that you may have found your elephant. In 17th century physics it was the large objects of the universe going around and around in patterns that Galileo, Kepler, and Newton finally made sense of and it lead to powerful general principals.  In the 18th century, various manifestations of electricity presented a mystery to be solved, once some of the phenomena proved to relate to others in certain patterns.  Lightning in the sky may somewhat resemble the sparks that jump from the glass globe that has been rubbed in a certain way, but are they really alike?  Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have answered this. In late 19th/early 20th century physics it was the structure of the atom (you can tell by now that a field might have more than one elephant, but it needs at least one).

Maybe it's just because of an argument I had a while back over global warming with a guy claiming methods cited to support it were not "the scientific method", and he described "the scientific method" as he learned it from his psychology professor some decades back ... but I really suspect it is a sign that a science has not yet gotten much traction when you hear so much about a (one size fits all) "scientific method".

Sometimes mistaken "knowledge" plagues humanity, and a radical new vision is required to prove tradition must be broken, and that a better understanding can be gained.  But the image of Galileo or Columbus or Pasteur standing alone is a kind of story that has itself become too much of a tradition - a story that our minds love to hear -- we are fooled into thinking that practically everything good had to come from such a stand.  We have an addiction to the idea of the individual rebel that is so prevalent that groups with quite opposite tendencies, such as Hollywood liberals and those who loathe such liberal politics are alike sunk in it up to their eyeballs.  We celebrate Steve Jobs and forget about Xerox PARC, a collaboration which generated the fundamental concepts behind the Apple computing model.  "Liberal" Hollywood gives us Dirty Harry, Jack Bauer, and dozens of other action heroes who act on their own, as well as heroic victims and lone whistle blowers by themselves against shadowy forces, and artists despised in their own lifetimes.

There really are many occasions for honoring such individuals, but our popular art and literature hardly recognizes anything else, and we tend to exaggerate their aloneness. Like Newton, had to stand on the shoulders of many others (not all giants).

Superheroes. which have gone from comic books for nerds to a main staple of Hollywood, seem to be the purest embodiment of our fascination with one great soul having to save the world with no help from anyone, and, of course they are the least realistic embodiment.  The right leaning press gives us  the lone gunslinger (in the supermarket yet) and heroic billionaires at risk of being tied up and paralyzed by the system.

Science still on occasion needs the unique visionary who find a new elephant, or find out that everybody else had the elephant upside down.  Sometimes they can't make themselves understood, and suffer frustration, but, at least in the hard sciences, it still takes a unique vision to win the greatest rewards, such as the the Nobel Prizes.  Scientific culture is such that if nearly everyone is mistaken, and one person can demonstrate this, they may be controversial for a while, but the best proof or demonstration tends to win in time -- due to a culture founded on the idea that the truth is the most important thing

But the majority of scientists are trying to get more and more detail on the same elephant, like the astronomers who spent their lives even before telescopes plotting where the star or planet is in the sky at such and such a longitude and latitude at a certain moment, who gave Kepler and Newton the masses of data they required.  Without them, most great leaps could not have happened.

Scientific consensus has been confused with group-think, which is far more likely to come from think tanks set up to serve a particular political agenda, or scientists who cater to tobacco or oil companies.  True scientific consensus comes from many scientists putting maps, table, graphs, observations and experiments together and after much wrangling coming to approximate agreement about what they add up to.  It is often something that just one of the scientists cannot confidently pronounce without the others, all looking at the problem from different angles.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

What is A Machine? Natural Machines and Origins of Science

(Note: This essay is likely to evolve, but started as "What is a Machine?" on the "Ontological Comedian" blog)

The concept of machine pervades our culture, and has occupied an important place in philosophical debates for at least the last two or three centuries.

For example, it is often argued that living organisms, or the human mind, are "ultimately just machines". I.e. underlying all the organic, often amorphous complexity of the world we perceive, is a level at which ultra-miniscule machines function predictably. Electrons spinning around nuclei at an exact, measurable speed; light photons traveling always at a particular speed. At the heart of biological processes are DNA molecules whose properties can in theory be exactly deduced from the sequence of molecules of which they consist.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Possible Approach to "Tune Out" or Neutralize Money in Politics? A Small Experiment.

I'd like to throw this out as a test project, in case there are any takers, or rather for now, mostly throw it out for comment and criticism to see if it can be taken any further.  The general idea is that voters really assume the attitude that we are the hirers of our public servants, and taking the stand that, yes, they are our public servants.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What did Saul Alinsky Really Say?

"I’ve never joined any organization — not even the ones I’ve organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it’s Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide."

This is one little quote from the guy who, according to the mythical
"8 Principles of Control" or How to create a social state wanted to make the world a totalitarian zombie factory.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

From Natural (or Naturalized) to Social Epistemology

I've been reading an anthology called Naturalizing Epistemology (1986) edited by Hilary Kornblith.

   "Naturalizing" epistemology has been heavily identified with W.V.O. Quine (author of the 2 first articles in Naturalizing Epistemology).

   Others draw parallels between naturalized epistemology and the much earlier philosophy of pragmatism, or John Dewey in particular, as in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society Vol. 32, No. 4, Fall, 1996, "Dewey, Quine, and Pragmatic Naturalized Epistemology".  Or see Stich 1993 "Naturalizing Epistemology: Quine, Simon and the Prospects for Pragmatism".  The title alludes to Herb Simon, the Nobel Laureate (Economics), Turing Prize winner, cognitive psychologist, AI pioneer, etc.

Naturalized epistemology, like many other intellectual approaches has a strong and a weak program, or position.  The strong might be represented by Quine's "Why not settle for psychology".

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A modest search engine proposal

How much AI technique could it possibly take for google (or something better) to do a decent job with
speechby:obama   attitude:positive   "Saul Alinsky".
I.e. "speechby:" and "attitude:" don't exist, but could, I believe be implemented pretty accurately, to see in this case if we can find any instances of Obama praising Saul Alinsky.
claims such quotes exist, but their one attempt to demonstrate it is laughable -- something vaguely like a paraphrase of an Alinsky statement, but which has, in fact the reverse sense of what the supposed "original" meant.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Obama Confession" by Andrew Hodges

I just have to give an example of the strange places some Americans have gone fishing for the truth.  Psycho-history once had its day, but that day is long past, except in right wing daemonizations of Obama which are big sellers.

If you're tempted to buy this, let me suggest looking at this review of another book by the author called A Mother Gone Bad: The Hidden Confession of JonBenet's Killer

Here is one excerpt from the review "he concludes that the misspelled word "bussiness" all by itself indicates that a woman did it because of several random words that he himself, out of the blue, associates with that word. Yes, it really is that bad!"

Monday, July 14, 2014

Applied Memetics, Godwin's Law, Leo Strauss and Reduction ad Hitlerum

According to Wikipedia, Godwin's law (or Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies) is an Internet adage asserting that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1".

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Myths About Saul Alinsky (and Obama)

  [NOTE: Current latest tRTP posting:]
Lately, right wing sources have been circulating a fictitious set of 8 "levels of control"  or "How to create a social state" that Saul Alinsky was supposed to have written, which led off with
  1) Healthcare – Control healthcare and you control the people

This myth is so thoroughly digested and accepted that will spit it out as the answer to "What are the 8 levels of control as outlined by Saul Alinsky?" (last time checked: 2014-08-18).
Yet is very easily shown to be a total fiction.

Alinsky has been dead for over 40 years, yet the phoney connection between Alinsky and his supposed "How to create a social state" only appears on web pages from 2013 on, which probably means it is scuttlebutt generated for the post-election renewal of the war on Obama.

If you Google { alinsky "Control healthcare and you control the people" }
with a custom date range 1/1/2000-1/1/2013 you get 9 hits which all seem to not really be that old; but an unrestricted search gives 85,600 results (note that Google gives different results for different people based on their records of what you've shown interest in -- so your mileage may vary)

So, apparently nobody ever heard of Alinsky saying  "Control healthcare and you control the people" before 2013, though he's been dead since 1972.

2014 "Planning" for 65,000 unaccompanied minor aliens - though it would be the first year more than 5,000 appeared

How to create an illusion of proper sourcing:
A widespread story has appeared that the U.S. was looking for one or more contractors to help deal with an estimated 65,000 unaccompanied minor illegal immigrants for 2014 when up to now, no more than 5,000 unaccompanied minor illegal immigrants a year have been seen.

It looks like the story originated with "Conservative Treehouse".  They provided a link to the original solicitation for services on a legitimate government site.  Yes, it sure enough says "There will be approximately 65,000 UAC (Unaccompanied Alien Children)  in total".  So, impressive sourcing, straight to the government document. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Is this a Real Project? Or What?

Whenever someone charges at the world waving the flag of truth, they almost never mean truth in and of itself; they mean some particular claim that for them burns so bright as to blot out everything else. 
Trying to get a handle on truth in and of itself seems to me a lot like wrestling Proteus, or the "Old Man of the Sea", as described by Menelaus in the Odyssey. The Old Man can answer any questions if captured, but capturing him means holding on as he changes shapes from a horse to a serpent to water to fire to whatever until he is worn out if one has the strength to wear him out.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

On Asking "What if Race is more than a social construct?"

A friend recently sent me to an article "What if Race is more than a social construct?" by Margaret Wente in the (Toronto) Globe and Mail more or less a review of

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History
The title of Wente's article: It takes aim at a troublesome postmodern-ish tendency of the last decade or so of calling race a "social construct".  One of its major themes is a favorite meme of the right: "Why can't liberals be rational about race?" Why all these taboos on what words are proper?  Why can't we just follow science wherever it leads (supposedly)?
   I can sympathize with one reaction to the "social construction" construct.  Aren't there really a lot of differences in skin color, hair, shape of facial features which we did not strictly speaking imagine?

Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci

I just finished listening to the edition of
 Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk The book does quite a thorough job of covering the many ways facts and science lose out in the popularity wars.  Also, it mentioned many issues and people I've thought about over the years, and made strong connections to my most recent thinking.

So I went to look at the author's blog, only to find he ended it 3 months ago (in March 2014).

Kornblith (ed) Naturalizing Epistemology, and Stich: "Naturalizing Epistemology: Quine, Simon and the Prospects for Pragmatism"

I've been dabbling more and more in academic philosophy, specifically epistemology, some of which seems like it might have some use to the world.  In my 62 years, I've never been much drawn to people calling themselves philosophers, but one day many years ago, it occurred to me that, in what I was calling a "Truth Project", I was trying to do "practical epistemology" (for some idea of "Impractical epistemology" see NOTE 1 below).