Archive for the ‘Annoyances’ Category



November 12, 2010

This is so bad, I don’t even know where to begin:

I sometimes joke with my students that they should forget what they know, abandon all pretense to knowledge, and focus, instead, on the problems before them. Usually this is how I try to get them to see the inferential upshot of any given argument. Don’t debate the science. Grapple with the argument.

But this… this ridiculous relativism. Too much.


Lying = Bad

October 25, 2010

Don Brown has “published” another “article” up on his blog. Every time he does this, he announces the post as if it’s a true-to-life article, or a paper, or some such peer-reviewed document. Here’s how he made the announcement on the Climate-L list:

A new article is available that encourages serious reflection on the harm and damage by well-financed scientific disinformation campaigns that goes far beyond reasonable skepticism and spreads utterly false scientific laims such as that the science of climate change has been completely “debunked” or that there is “no evidence”of human causation. This is not skepticism but utter distortion.

The paper argues that those who want to claim no evidence of huge damages from human induced climate change are violating ethical responsibilities and that this is a serious problem calling for further reflection about how to classify such irresponsible behavior. The paper argues that there are ethical responsibilities that climate skeptics must follow. The article asks if this behavior should be classified as a new type of crime against humanity.

I don’t want to pick nits with Don, but really, this is a blog post. It’s not an article. It’s not a paper. It’s not published. It’s posted on a website that he controls. He can write about his infatuation with the sweat glands of badgers and mule deer for all we care, and it will still somehow make it into the public discourse.

And his point in this “article” is one that, I take it, is the obvious underlying normative claim of Merchants of Doubt, which is the book from which he starts his post: lying and fabricating information are unacceptable. Except that, Brown wants to classify this sort of fabrication as a crime against humanity. (No kidding.)

Here’s his conclusion:

The international community does not have a word for this type of crime yet, but the international community should find a way of classifying extraordinarily irresponsible scientific claims that could lead to mass suffering as some type of crime against humanity.

Yeah, so…that’s crazy. But, hell, what’s a little hyperbole and embellishment between friends? As long as we’re criticizing hyperbole and embellishment, might as well have a taste from the punch bowl.


Cucinelli Again

October 5, 2010

Ho boy. What’s with this guy? He’s reissued the same, tired subpoena against Michael Mann. Completely disregarding the issue of climate science, there’s the fine little matter of academic freedom as well. Really, it’s incredible. Deltoid has some commentary.

In his latest political attack on climate science, Cuccinelli demands seven years’ worth of Dr. Mann’s emails, documents and just about every other shred of paper and bytes related to one state grant Mann received during his tenure at UVA. Cuccinelli wants to see every email Mann exchanged with a list of 39 other scientists, as well as Mann’s communications with his secretaries and research associates, related to the state grant. Cuccinelli only stripped his inappropriate request for documents related to federal grants after Judge Peatross smacked down that trolling effort, although he vows to appeal to re-open that garbage can.


Morals and Money

August 6, 2010

Gotta love Stephen J. Dubner. This week he enlightens us with another completely inane blogpost on morals and money. The upshot? Surprise! Governments are more willing to look past alleged vices when times are tough. How funny. Ha ha.

Seriously, why do they print this stuff?


Online Ed

May 27, 2010

GinandTacos, by far one of my favoritest and cleverest writers in the blogoverse, has this interesting screed on Online Education:

When I first read DIY U, with its “Are you shitting me? Jesus, you’re serious, aren’t you?” subtitle Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, I knew nothing of author Anya Kamenetz but I was willing to put my life savings on her being affiliated with either Cato or Fast Company. Sure enough she turned out to be a Fast Company Imagineer or whatever they call their practitioners of this brand of sycophantic free market leg humping:

There’s something about “leg humping” that just starts me giggling, even when it’s my leg under the hump. Tell me honestly that it isn’t just gigglefest hysterical when some rat poodle decides that your ankle makes a fine motel room.

More seriously though, some administrators seem to like the idea of online education. They see it as a panacea. Some are so enamored with it that they’ll cut core departments. (Not sure if that’s actually the reason that the Middlesex philosophy department is under the knife, but you should probably read more about it and head over to this petition if you feel strongly enough.)

At Colorado, we’ve had a discussion in the philosophy department about our own online offerings, and to my surprise, a substantial number of my colleagues seem to acknowledge that there’s role and a space for online courses. I’ll confess to wildly tempered agreement. My wife, for instance, in prepping to retrain and enter a new grad program, took a few online classes to fulfill some undergraduate prerequisites. She seems to have been a model student. Not to boast, her virtual professors were all glowing about her performance. I think she even learned a fair amount. So I’ve seen online courses work and I believe that, in a few circumstances, they can work relatively well. I do think there’s a role for online education. But I can’t believe, as G&T rightly notes, that it will work very well in most circumstances. It certainly does not provide an education to the student. At best, it only offers the resources for a student to do better by themselves. But these resources have been in our libraries for centuries.

Online courses are, for lack of a better term, shit. No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. When the author of DIY U describes a model of students “cobbling” together a self-guided degree consisting of “course materials readily available online,” I cannot convince myself that the Yale-educated author believes that even as she is paid handsomely to type it. Perhaps 1/10 of a percent of undergraduates are mature and motivated enough to effectively direct their own course of study. What Kamenetz describes feels more like replacing the 12-course tasting menu at El Bulli with a trip to Old Country Buffet and calling it a wash. The idea that anything meeting her description would qualify as an education is prima facie ridiculous and requires no further discussion.

Sounds about right to me.

I haven’t yet peeked at this book by Martha Nussbaum, but it does seem that it may offer a counterbalance to the current absurdity afflicting the humanities.


Golden Egg

May 26, 2010

One of my great bugaboos in ethics is the dogdamned golden rule, and here, to present you with the dogdamned golden rule 2.0, Andrew Revkin offers some interesting snippets from a presentation by Jostein Gaarder. I’ve just returned from a long weekend camping trip, so I’m only barely digging out here, but here’s the speech.

The problem with the golden rule, whether 1.0 or 2.0, is that it encourages reciprocity by asking what we would have others do unto us. Namely, it asks what we want others to do to us. Among several concerns, that’s a problem because what I want isn’t necessarily what you want. I may want my children to be raised in an environment of strict discipline, for instance; where that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Reciprocity is, of course, an important ethical standard, but it’s not appropriately met if it hangs on the desires of any given individual or party of individuals. Better to go with Rawls or Kant for advice on this front. Here’s a list of important philosophical principles, penned over the weekend by Julian Baggani. Notice that the golden rule is nowhere to be found.

Still away from the office. Apologies for the slow posts. I’ll be back in gear next week.


Outstripping Even Itself

May 5, 2010

Boy, the New York Times is outdoing itself today. It has two asinine articles on ethics. Here’s one, by Paul Bloom, on the amazing inclinations toward justice and morality of infant babies. (Yes, you read that correctly.) See? Fuck it. Reflection be damned, even babies are moral!

And here’s another, by Robert Wright, on the amazing application of justice and morality to invading space aliens. (Yes, you read that correctly.) See? Fuck it. Normative ethics be damned, if space aliens figure out how to get here, they will have needed to develop a sufficiently self-preservationist ethic to survive, which will ipso facto translate into respect for humans.

All ethics hacks must know, instinctively, that the end of the semester is upon those of us who are actually serious about ethics — at least, those of us who basically read and study ethics all day long. Exam week is like amnesty for the promulgation of stupid ideas. (What is it about these guys that gives them the impression that they don’t need to know anything about ethics to write about it?)


Let’s take these one at a time, shall we? (Quickly. And then, back to grading and writing.) Bloom first, and our tip to his mistake comes in his opening sentence:

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands.

No. No, they did not watch that, unless you think of justice as the kind of thing captured in a Charles Bronson movie.

But the current work I’m involved in, on baby morality, might seem like a perverse and misguided next step.

Yes. Yes, it is a perverse and misguided step, because babies are not moral agents, unless you don’t take moral guidance and reflection seriously, in which case they’re moral in the same way that my computer is moral.

A reason this view has persisted is that, for many years, scientists weren’t sure how to go about studying the mental life of babies.

No. That’s probably not the reason that this view has persisted. The reason that this view has persisted is because ethical action is generally contrasted with instinctive or brute action, and as any parent will tell you, babies are friggin’ brutes.

Look, that babies may be involved in doing “rudimentary math,” or that they may speak in rudimentary grunts and monosyllabic words, or maybe even that they know that some grown-ups have false beliefs, doesn’t at all suggest that somehow they’re engaged in the moral community, or that, god forbid, they’re morally responsible for their actions. They’re just trying to figure it all out. Aristotle said as much several thousand years ago. It’s interesting, but it’s a misapprehension of the highest order to suggest that somehow this is morality. At the very best, it’s a nascent morality, prone to completely fucking things up.

To be fair, Bloom redeems himself partway through his article. It’s pretty interesting research he’s conducting — it’s just that his conclusions are cockamamie. He’s not actually studying the roots of ethics or morality. He’s just watching what babies do, much like I could watch what grown-ups do. I don’t even think it’s right to refer to it as the “moral life of babies.” That’s like talking about the “aesthetic, the literary, or the mathematical life of babies” and suggesting somehow that babies are aesthetically, literarily, or mathematically plugged in. They’re just not.

Now onto Wright. He has this to say:

A slightly less hopeful argument has been made by — well, by me. In my book “Nonzero” I argue that the moral progress Singer rightly celebrates has been driven less by pure reason than by pragmatic self-interest. Technology has drawn groups of people into more and more far-flung “non-zero-sum” relations — relations of interdependence; increasingly it has been in the interest of one group to acknowledge the humanity of another group, if only so the groups can play win-win games. In this view, the decline of American prejudice toward Japanese after World War II was driven less by purely rational enlightenment than by the Japanese transition from mortal enemies to trade partners and Cold War allies. (In this TED conference talk, Steven Pinker, who is writing a book on the decline of violence, contrasts my view with Singer’s.)

If I’m right, and we generally grant the moral significance of other beings to the extent that it’s in our interest to do so, then whywouldn’t we, in 100 or 200 years, do what Hawking imagines aliens doing — happen upon a planet, extract its resources through whatever brutality is most efficient and then move on to the next target? Absent cause to be nice, why would we be nice?

Wait, you have a book? Is it for sale? Too bad you don’t have a internationally distributed column in which to mention something about it. You might sell a lot of copies.

Okay, first things first: this “slightly less hopeful argument” is made by — well, not just you, but every fracking undergraduate in my introduction to ethics class, most of whom are sophomores. I’ll leave you to find the appropriate adjective to describe your idea.

If you’re right, you may have just tipped your hand that you, too, do not understand the first thing about normative ethics, because as a matter of empirical fact it may be true that — generalizing here — we maybe do extend moral significance to other beings to the extent that it’s in our interest, but the fundamental ethical question isn’t what do we do, it’s what we ought to do. Since you don’t understand that, you fail.

It gets worse:

I argue in the penultimate chapter that if we don’t radically develop our “moral imagination” — get much better at putting ourselves in the shoes of people very different from ourselves, even the shoes of our enemies — then the planet could be in big trouble.

How original. Are you suggesting that we should think about how things ought to be? Curious… because that’s exactly what ethicists do. And we don’t do it by strengthening our “moral imagination” or by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. That kind of thinking died a violent death in the 1700s, if not before that, once we recognized that our imagination is itself shaped by our animalistic predilections toward our own friggin’ self-interests, which can’t be what ethics is based on, despite the facile and confused scribblings of the world’s most unjustifiably renowned Russian emigrant.

Sorry. I’m cranky. I’ve read too many undergraduate exams in the past 72 hours. It pains me to read similar such drivel in the New York Friggin Times.

To put a cap on this, I was talking about these articles with one of my philosophy colleagues today and he said the following:

Just once, I’d like to see one of these articles go: “Can they really tell right from wrong? No. The end.”

Couldn’t’ve put it better myself.


Paine and Pleasure

April 19, 2010

I got a kick out of this post by Prof. Rick Hills regarding the conceptual confusion of the tea party. He argues, basically, that members of the growing conservative backlash need to find the correct historical icons. To wit:

Take, for instance, Glenn Beck’s effort to appropriate Thomas Paine as the inspiration for Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government. I assume that Beck’s beliefs are roughly libertarian, pro-“Christian” in some sense, and generally anti-redistributivist. Paine, by contrast, was (1) a tax-and-spend liberal who (for instance) wrote six pamphlets defending the proposed national 5% impost against its small-government attackers in Rhodes Island; (2) an egalitarian who called for redistribution of land in his pamphlet, Agrarian Justice; (3) a Deist who ridiculed the Bible as a pack of socially destructive lies in The Age of Reason; (4) a self-proclaimed centralizer who teamed up with Pennsylvania Federalists like Robert and Gouvernour Morris to press for a powerful and consolidated national government; and (5) a citizen of the world who participated in the French Revolution and called on America to receive the fugitive from abroad (to the irritation of John Adams who denounced “the disciples of Thomas Paine” to John Marshall as European intellectual riff-raff — “a company of schoolmasters, painters, and poets” — more undesirable as immigrants than Caliban and Ariel “with a troop of spirits the most mischievous from fairy land”).

Yes. Exactly. Thank you.


The Grand In-dis-quisition

April 3, 2010

Anne Kornblut apparently has too much high-fructose syrup coursing through her spidery veins, as she couldn’t endure the torture of Obama’s intricate answer to a citizen’s question. Apparently, answers matter not for their accuracy, but for their length. Check out this preposterous column in today’s Washington Post. (Next time Tom Yulsman suggests that the internet is killing journalism, I’ll maybe point him in the direction of this very ridiculous column.)

“We are over-taxed as it is,” Doris said bluntly.

Obama started out feisty. “Well, let’s talk about that, because this is an area where there’s been just a whole lot of misinformation, and I’m going to have to work hard over the next several months to clean up a lot of the misapprehensions that people have,” the president said.

He then spent the next 17 minutes and 12 seconds lulling the crowd into a daze. His discursive answer – more than 2,500 words long — wandered from topic to topic, including commentary on the deficit, pay-as-you-go rules passed by Congress, Congressional Budget Office reports on Medicare waste, COBRA coverage, the Recovery Act and Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (he referred to this last item by its inside-the-Beltway name, “F-Map”). He talked about the notion of eliminating foreign aid (not worth it, he said). He invoked Warren Buffett, earmarks and the payroll tax that funds Medicare (referring to it, in fluent Washington lingo, as “FICA”).

And who says size doesn’t matter? But she goes on, fumbling stupidly to find something to criticize:

Always fond of lists, Obama ticked off his approach to health care — twice. “Number one is that we are the only — we have been, up until last week, the only advanced country that allows 50 million of its citizens to not have any health insurance,” he said.

A few minutes later he got to the next point, which seemed awfully similar to the first. “Number two, you don’t know who might end up being in that situation,” he said, then carried on explaining further still.

My, that second point sure does seem “awfully similar to the first.” In fact, they’re so similar that they’re entirely and obviously distinct. Number one is primarily about the aggregate numbers. Number two is about blind and bad luck.

Kornblut would fail a simple philosophy paper, I’m afraid. I’m not even sure I’d let any of my first-year undergraduates get away pronouncements so stupid.

Alas, the press isn’t in the business of analysis much, so Kornblut retains her column. Schade.


No End to Dumb

April 2, 2010

Comparisons like these, from the blog that is neither freaky nor economicsy (nor even moderately provocative), drive me to the brink of bonkersdom:

I realize you don’t have the data in front of you, but hazard a quick guess. Which has received more media coverage: 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined; or the repeal of the nationwide 55 mph speed limit? You probably guessed the former. But there’s a good case to be made that the answer should be the speed limit. Why?

According to a recent paper by Lee S. Friedman, Donald Hedeker, and Elihu D. Richter, the lifting of the federal 55 mph speed limit in 1995 was responsible for 12,545 deaths between 1995 and 2005. That’s about 45 percent more American fatalities than we have suffered in 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan put together. And all those human tragedies are due not to weighty national security imperatives but to the fact that we all want to go just a little bit faster.

Seriously? That’s the comparison? There are lots and lots of things that cause more deaths than the Iraq war: earthquakes, cancer, malaria, anorexia, suicide, murder, and yes, speed limits. But this comparison is fundamentally mistaken, and we have plenty of ways of expressing this mistake in our moral vocabulary. I shouldn’t need to spell this out, but here, I’ll take a stab.

For one thing, deaths by auto accident are inevitable in a way that wars are not — cutting down the speed limit only decreases the occurrences of this inevitability. For another thing, deaths by auto accident are generally speaking ‘accidents’, which is usually not the case with wars.  Add to that that 9/11 involved a team of nine murderous crazy people flying airplanes into buildings on a sunny Tuesday morning, Afghanistan resulted as an effort to send legions of American soldiers into a dysfunctional Hobbesian nightmare, and Iraq was ultimately authorized by bringing deadly vials of Guernica juice and yellow cake to the international pity party. I could go on, but I won’t. The comparison is too stupid to warrant further discussion.

Here’s what caught my eye. The red is mine:

Is the trade-off of safety for speed worth it? This may be more of a question for a philosophy professor than a transportation scholar. But there is one point I feel strongly about. Even if the effects of the higher speed limits are very small, as skeptics believe, the disappointing thing about this debate is that it is conducted on the pages of a handful of obscure academic journals and the occasional newspaper article on page B12, as opposed to front and center in the public eye.

No, that’s a question for an economics professor, not a philosophy professor. Economics professors ask whether such-and-such an action is worth it, and then they (or, at least, some of them) pretend that they can answer the question about whether we should do such-and-such an action based on whether or not it’s worth it. Philosophers, even utilitarians, generally like to take the wider view. Sure, we ask whether we should take such-and-such an action, but we also ask why.