URLs du Jour

2019-11-04

[Amazon Link]

  • Scientific American — boy, I don't often link to them, let alone as a lead item — has an interesting question for those of us who like to opine in public: Are You a Moral Grandstander?.

    Do you strongly agree with the following statements?

    • When I share my moral/political beliefs, I do so to show people who disagree with me that I am better than them.
    • I share my moral/political beliefs to make people who disagree with me feel bad.
    • When I share my moral/political beliefs, I do so in the hopes that people different than me will feel ashamed of their beliefs.

    If so, then you may be a card-carrying moral grandstander. Of course it's wonderful to have a social cause that you believe in genuinely, and which you want to share with the world to make it a better place. But moral grandstanding comes from a different place.

    I'd like to think that I'm not a moral grandstander.

    I'd like to think that I'm better than that.

    But (oops) isn't that a bit of moral grandstanding right there?

    Geez, this is tricky.


  • At Skeptic, Steven Pinker explains Why We Are Not Living in a Post‑Truth Era.

    Anyone who urges universities to live up to their mission of promoting knowledge, truth, and reason is bound to be confronted with the objection that these aspirations are just so 20th century. Aren’t we living in a post-truth era? Haven’t cognitive psychologists shown that humans are fundamentally irrational? Mustn’t we acknowledge that the pursuit of disinterested reason and objective truth are Enlightenment anachronisms?

    The answer to all of these questions is “no.”

    First, we are not living in a post-truth era. Why not? Consider the statement “We are living in a post-truth era.” Is it true? If so, it cannot be true.

    Likewise, it is not the case that humans are irrational. Consider the statement, “Humans are irrational.” Is that statement rational? If it is, it cannot be true—at least, if it is uttered and understood by humans. (It would be another thing if it was an observation exchanged among an advanced race of space aliens.) If humans were truly irrational, who specified the benchmark of rationality against which humans don’t measure up? How did they conduct the comparison? Why should we believe them? Indeed, how could we understand them?

    Works for me. But I've made a similar argument about "free will". If you use the tools of reasoned argument attempting to persuade me that it doesn't exist, you are implicitly buying into the notion that I can make a reasoned choice on whether to be persuaded or not.

    Anyway, click on through for Pinker's fine article, make sure you stick around for his discussion of "fake news", and try not to be put off by the lead picture where he appears to have dyed his hair blue. I'm sure that's just a lighting effect. Hope so, anyway.


  • At NR (an NRPLUS article, don't know what that means) Kevin D. Williamson weighs in on the new hot illiberalism popping up in some dark, dank, right-wing haunts. Specifically, Kevin recently appeared … Government Should Secure Our Liberty, Not Engage in Moral Compulsion.

    […] opposite Sohrab Ahmari on a panel hosted by the William F. Buckley Program at Yale. He argued that the main duty of the state is not to protect liberty but to achieve the good, biblically defined. That’s what he said when he showed up, anyway — he was a little bit late owing to the fact that the state he would entrust to do God’s work here on Earth cannot quite manage to make the trains run on time, a fact that you might think would be of some interest to a bantamweight Mussolini.

    Mr. Ahmari, who is the op-ed editor of the New York Post (where I write about twice a month), is a Catholic convert, as am I. (I suppose I identify as “Puritan curious” these days; it must be that book on the Presidents Adams.) I have never met a Catholic convert who is not a fan of A Man for All Seasons, and Mr. Ahmari reminds me a little bit of the young idealist of whom Thomas More says: “We must just pray that when your head is finished turning, your face is to the front again.” National Review is a magazine that in its early days boasted a collection of freshly reformed Trotskyites, doctrinaire libertarians, and militant Catholic anti-liberals, but to my knowledge none of them was all three at the same time, whereas Mr. Ahmari can run through that cycle in a three-day weekend. I will be happy for him when his jackboot phase has ended, but who knows where he will land?

    Conservatism is a famous big tent; Ahmari et. al. seem to be (at best) dedicated to throwing most Americans out of it.

    I'm aware that Kevin sometimes seems that way too.


  • The Washington Post's wonderful Megan McArdle, a lonely voice of sanity and uncommon sense, makes a point about the recent Big Tech controversy: Actually, we don’t want Facebook and Twitter making too many judgment calls.

    To see how difficult this is, let’s go back to Barack Obama’s promises that “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it.” Anyone who knew anything about the health-care system knew that this was untrue the moment Obama uttered the words — and moreover, that the president, or whoever was feeding him talking points, must have known it was untrue. There was simply no way to change the health-care system so extensively without shoving some folks off their old plans. And critics of Obamacare, including me, said as much at the time.

    During the bitter debates that followed, fact checker Politifact jumped in more than once to decide who was right, and it rated Obama’s claim “True” in one instance, “Half True” in others. Yet four years later, when Obamacare was finally implemented in 2013, that promise suddenly became Politifact’s “Lie of the Year.”

    This from a single fact-checking outlet, whose fact checkers had a comparatively easy job. They got to pick and choose which claims to investigate, leaving some aside if they didn’t have the time. They could take as long as they needed to do a thorough job. They still got it badly wrong.

    It's hard for me to resist the cheap shot… so I won't: Politifact considered Obama's lie to be "true" as long as it was politically useful to do so. After it was too late, they decided they could afford to be more reality-based.


  • And <voice imitation="professor_farnsworth">Good news, everyone!</voice> At least to those of you worried about where your ancestors came from: Origin of Modern Humans 'Traced To Botswana'.

    Scientists have pinpointed the homeland of all humans alive today to a region south of the Zambesi River. The area is now dominated by salt pans, but was once home to an enormous lake, which may have been our ancestral heartland 200,000 years ago. Our ancestors settled for 70,000 years, until the local climate changed, researchers have proposed. They began to move on as fertile green corridors opened up, paving the way for future migrations out of Africa. "It has been clear for some time that anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago," said Prof Vanessa Hayes, a geneticist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia. "What has been long debated is the exact location of this emergence and subsequent dispersal of our earliest ancestors." Prof Hayes' conclusions have drawn scepticism from other researchers in the field, however. The area in question is south of the Zambesi basin, in northern Botswana. The researchers think our ancestors settled near Africa's huge lake system, known as Lake Makgadikgadi, which is now an area of sprawling salt flats. "It's an extremely large area, it would have been very wet, it would have been very lush," said Prof Hayes. "And it would have actually provided a suitable habitat for modern humans and wildlife to have lived." After staying there for 70,000 years, people began to move on. Shifts in rainfall across the region led to three waves of migration 130,000 and 110,000 years ago, driven by corridors of green fertile land opening up.

    Others are skeptical, but I like to believe that we're all African-Americans. I plan on answering the 2020 Census that way.


  • And Marginal Revolution has the latest research: The Causal Effect of Cannabis on Cognition. Specifically, the "burning" (heh) question:

    Does smoking lots of pot make you dumb or do dumb people smoke lots of pot?

    No spoilers here, but I wasn't surprised at the answer.